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It’s autumn in America and in the Church calendar, too. Time for one last lesson in this liturgical year, and the best one too — the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.
Matthew’s Last Judgment is a moment of unveiling in which we see Jesus, and each other, as we truly are.
Jesus’ other stories about the judgment, start out, “the Kingdom of heaven is like …” In this one, he says: “When the son of man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne and all the nations will be assembled before him.”
So the veil is gone. This is not like the kingdom; this is the king coming in splendor. And Jesus here is not the newborn king who is so helpless he has to flee from the petty tyrant Herod. Here he is the King on his throne before whom the nations must gather at the culmination of time.
Then a veil is taken away from how we see each other, too.
Jesus says to the blessed: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. … ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Before this moment, for most of us there will be only two others who fully recognize our true beauty and worth. One is God himself. As Paul tells the Ephesians: He chose us for heaven before the foundation of the world, destined us to be adopted children of God, lavished us with his grace, became man and died for us, forgave our sins, and revealed the truth to us, giving us his Gospel and his Holy Spirit, destining us for glory.
God sees us as we are, and he loves us as he loves himself, giving us everything he can, as he would for a member of the Trinity.
The only other person who sees our real value is a spouse, the one who sees our true beauty and interior greatness and says, “You are not just worth everything I have; I will give you that, plus everything I ever get. You are worth not just all I have prepared my whole life to be — but all I will ever become, until death do us part.”
We also see our spouse as infinitely lovable, and realize that there is nothing we could do for them that would be too much. We are right. They are worth more than we can give.
At the Last Judgment God lowers the veil and reveals that everyone we ever met is also worth everything we can possibly give them.
That makes sense of the great blessing he gives to those who serve the “least” ones — and the terrible fate of those who don’t.
Imagine you are waiting to be interviewed for a new job, and because of pandemic rules, the secretary asks you to wait on the bench under the tree outside, where another candidate is waiting. A strange child comes and starts talking to you in a loud overly-familiar way, rudely demanding that you move. When you don’t, he pushes you aside and stands on the bench where you were sitting, and climbs into the tree. You curse him and when he falls out of the tree and starts crying, you feel he got what he deserved.
Exasperated, you head back inside to avoid the whole situation, noticing that the other candidate is rushing to the side of the fallen obnoxious child. Inside, you find your potential boss standing by the secretary.
“Your interview is cancelled,” says the boss. “I’m going to hire the other candidate — the one caring for my autistic child, not the one who swore at him and left him lying on the sidewalk, injured.”
We are waiting for that interview with the king of the world right now, and the result will be the same. Jesus cannot be fooled or flattered. He sees right through you. He isn’t impressed with your style, your expertise, or your worldview. The rationalizations you have worked out in your mind mean nothing to him.
When you refuse to serve them, he recognizes the spirit of the devil who rejected human worth from the beginning. When Satan saw the image of a woman and realized that serving God meant treating human beings as his betters, he refused. He was cast out of heaven and now spends his time trying to implicate others in his predicament to justify his ego.
Ever since, when we scorn our fellow human beings, God says:
“Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.”
With that much at stake, we need to get this right.
First, we have to recognize Christ in the poor. The more we know Jesus, especially in the Eucharist, the easier this is. “The Holy Hour before the Eucharist should lead us to a ‘holy hour’ with the poor,” said Mother Teresa. Christ is present in both and one leads to the other.
Second, we have to stop spending our money and time on our own comfort, entertainment and status as if we were the center of the universe. We aren’t. Jesus is, in the poor. It is no good saying that our credit card and mortgage bills are too high to spare the money and our schedules too busy to spare the time. The one who famously invited certain followers to “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor” at least wants us to “Go, stop buying what you don’t need, and give that to the poor.”
Third, we have to lead others to do the same. That means, first of all, our family. We should be the one who starts the tradition of doing something significant for those in need every Thanksgiving and Christmas — and making the spiritual and corporal works of mercy part of each week’s routine.
In this Gospel, Jesus the King compares himself to the Old Testament image of a a shepherd.
“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want,” says the Psalm, and God tells the prophet Ezekiel in the First Reading, “I myself will look after and tend my sheep. … The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.”
Why destroy the sleek and strong? For the same reason Jesus separates the sheep and goats.
“The wicked are called goats, because they climb rough and rugged rocks, and walk in dangerous places,” wrote Origen of Alexandria. “They that are saved are called sheep by reason of that mildness, which they have learnt of him who said, ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly,’ and because they are ready to go even to death in imitation of Christ who ‘was led Is a sheep to the slaughter.’
This is the situation St. Paul describes in his take on the Final Judgment: “In Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.”
As autumn ends one season and brings on another, it is time to decide who will be king in the life that stretches out before us — and then serve him where he lives, right next door.