The Cross of Christ Teaches Us. . . to Live the Gospel
For it is not hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they. . . show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. ROMANS 2:13–16
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O Blessed of 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, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” MATTHEW 25:34–36
One day my mother came back from a day of shopping very upset. As she walked past a vagrant on her way into a store, the man had called out to her, “I’ll bet you would take more time to notice a dog.” My mother was saddened and shamed by the man’s accusation. In a way, he was right; she hadn’t even acknowledged the man’s existence. It was one short encounter in her busy life. Even so, I have never forgotten it, and neither has she.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spoke about the last judgment of the nations, and in particular the judgment of “nonbelievers,” which is how the Jewish people referred to the Gentile nations. When, in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul indicated how those who do not know Christ will be judged, referring to the “gospel,” very likely, he was referring to this passage from Matthew 25.
Those of us who know Christ have little excuse if we do not recognize him in the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, or in prison. We have the good news of the gospel preached to us; we have heard it and are required to put it into practice.
Seeing the Hidden Christ
The people who experienced Jesus in the flesh, we know, all experienced him in exactly the ways that he describes in Matthew 25, and part of understanding that is a lesson for all of us. We do not know when Our Lord might appear to us under the guise of the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, or prisoner.
I was hungry. . . Because he was fully human as well as fully God, Jesus had the same bodily needs we do. After fasting in the desert for forty days and nights, he was hungry. Several of the resurrection appearances have Jesus asking the disciples if they have anything to eat before they recognize who it is asking for relief from his hunger.
I was thirsty. . . “Give me a drink,” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, just before telling her of the living water. From the cross he cried out “I thirst,” and was given vinegar to drink.
I was a stranger. . . After his resurrection, Jesus was often not recognized, even by his own disciples. Mary Magdalene mistook him for a gardener. The disciples en route to Emmaus thought he was a stranger until he broke bread in their midst. The disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee did not at first recognize the man on the shore, cooking fish and bread over a charcoal fire.
I was naked. . . At the beginning of his life, Christ came forth naked from his Virgin Mother, who wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. At the end, his executioners stripped him naked before nailing him to the cross. His burial shroud, donated by Joseph of Arimathea, was left behind at the Resurrection.
I was sick. . . Suffering from the soldier’s maltreatment, he burned with fever on the cross. Meanwhile, his enemies taunted him. “You healed so many others. . . now heal yourself!”
I was in prison. . . Imprisoned after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, he went from the Sanhedrin, to Pilate to Herod and to Pilate again. At the hands of cruel Roman soldiers he was mocked and scourged. How many times have we missed an encounter with Jesus? How often do we walk past the destitute residing on the street or in prisons, nursing homes, and hospitals, not realizing that we are passing by the Son of God? “
Be not hearers, but doers. . .” St. Paul told the Romans.
Do we act any differently when someone is watching us? We slow down on the road if we spot a police officer coming in the other direction. We work a little harder if our boss is nearby. Yet when isn’t God in our presence?
The Passion of Jesus reveals that God is present even when he seems farthest away. We might even be tempted to think that God has abandoned those we choose to pass by. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth: “. . .as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Almsgiving has always been a Christian penitential practice. It is one of the ways that we become more like Christ and take up our cross to follow him daily. Jesus gave to everyone who approached him; we, empowered by him, are called to share what he gives us with all whom we meet—and even those we must seek out.
The Power of the Cross is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.