Monday the First Week of Lent: Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18, Matthew 25:31-46.
Today presents a good old fire-and-brimstone set of readings. Leviticus gives us the Word of God from the mouth of Moses, laying out a further explanation of the commandments. He elaborates on the law, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus takes up the thread in the reading from Matthew and explains that Jesus the King will separate the lambs from the goats, sending the evil people to hell and taking the good to heaven. This judgment will be based on whether we adhere to God’s law as laid out in the scriptures. Heed well, O Christians: there will be a second coming and judgment!
As we dwell on these readings, let us not forget this terrible and great day of judgment that is promised, but let us also glean what is hopeful, for we know that our God is the God of Life.
What strikes me about the reading from Leviticus is the last line of each paragraph (or stanza, as it were): “I am the LORD.” Four times it is repeated, and this is no accident. God wants to impress upon his people that these instructions for life come from a place of ultimate authority. But let’s consider what type of authority that is. He is the perfection of love, truth, and goodness; the giver of light and life. Imagine that phrase at the end of each paragraph: “I am the perfection of love, truth, goodness; the giver of light and life.” The sense of oppressiveness is lifted; we now cling to these words as veritable gifts bestowed on us to help us in our poor, imperfect state.
God clearly cares that we try our best to be like Him. The first words he instructs Moses to share are “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” He wants us to share in his perfection. What a loving, caring God! At the same time, we must carry in our hearts the humility to know that humanity is imperfect and in need of redemption, that we aren’t God. His words, “but you shall fear your God,” must be indelibly carved in our spirits.
This co-existence of a holy, reverent “fear” of the Lord and the knowledge of an all-good and loving Lord is no more evident than it is in the reading from Matthew. On the one hand, Jesus at the Second Coming jubilantly welcomes those who have acted righteously: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” God prepared for us a kingdom from the foundation of the world! Yet on the other hand, Jesus the King curses those who have not obeyed God’s commandments: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” Terrible judgment, indeed. God renders both of these because truth and divine justice are not just cotton candy and puppy dogs.
(As a side note, given yesterday’s post Getting to Know the Tempter, I find it fascinating to hear that the eternal fire is “prepared for the Devil and his angels.” We think of the Devil as reigning in Hell, but here it seems that he is burning in Hell with the rest of the damned. Indeed, he is Prince of this World, but when the world comes to an end and all are judged, it seems that he is cast into Hell to succumb to eternal fire just as the damned are. Not so much a monarch of Hell as a fellow sufferer…)
In this judgment scene, we hear the oft-repeated phrase “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Growing up in a rather liberal post-Vatican II family and church, this was the folk-mass standard lingo for a type of social justice and care of the homeless and poor. And I don’t think that’s far off — certainly, it’s consistent with the Beatitudes and Jesus’s other teachings. But if we singlemindedly focus on works of kindness towards others, especially the less fortunate, it may devolve into simple “good society building” or “personal virtue building.” We must dig deeper into what Jesus is saying.
We must cultivate in ourselves the best reason to treat others with charity: that we fundamentally and desperately love God and all his creation.
First, we know one thing is for sure: His message is not a self-improvement plan or an instruction book for how to build a just society here on earth. We must resist all statements about our faith that simplify his message to these banal ends.
What Jesus says is “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink …” He is the one to whom we are ministering. Importantly, neither the good people nor the bad people understand what he means — they both ask for clarification. The good people follow God’s commandments, not even necessarily understanding the full import of their works. Great reminder! We don’t know God’s full plan, nor are we meant to. Trust in his Word and faith in the mystery are the challenging yet most important aspects of our mission.
Jesus emphasizes that we are acting upon God when we act in the world. How is this possible? We must come to realize that God loves us so much that he shares Himself with each of us. Our spirit is the organ for communion with Him and the vessel to receive his Spirit. He has fused Himself with us, his creation, and greatly cares that we return again to Him in the Kingdom. This fusion is no more evident than in the person of Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God.
So, yes, it is a common refrain to “see God in others” as a way to respect and care for other people. But sometimes this feels a bit like tricking our minds to “look past” that person’s flaws and things we dislike to “imagine God” in his or her face. Let’s take this deeper. We must love God so much that we don’t just follow His commandments out of fear or out of duty. We must love Him so much that we start to see how He has fused himself with all of humanity (each of us included). We must love Him so much that we realize we offend the Spirit of God in us when we act in sin. Finally, we must love Him so much that we love his creation, we love Him in his creation, and here is where our charity towards others finds its inexhaustible spring. We love others, warts and all, not looking past them or through them, but directly at them because they are God’s creation and fused with God like we are, and we love all of God and what he has created.
No easy feat. But let’s not simplify Jesus’s message. We are called to communion with something amazing, namely “the perfection of love, truth, goodness; the giver of light and life.” This is mystical, it is known by the spirit and through faith.
Christians are not simply social workers, but members of a family that is not of this world.