On my daily commute, I pass by Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on New York Avenue in the District. One morning, from my comfortable car as I sipped my coffee, I saw in the church doorway a rough-looking homeless man who had obviously spent the night there. And to my shame, I have to confess that my first thought was: “Thank God I don’t have to deal with that.”
Today’s gospel reminds me, as it reminds all of us, that we do have to deal with that- or with “them,” to be more precise. As we heard, Christ our King calls us to serve him by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, and welcoming the stranger. Our tradition refers to these as the “Corporal Acts of Mercy.”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught that there can be no real relationship with him if we neglect the poor and ignore the needy. Unfortunately, we don’t always take our Lord’s words seriously enough. As Fr. Benedict Groeschel once wrote: “I am astonished when I see so many sincere Christians afraid or disinclined to find (Jesus) where he teaches he can be found, namely, among the poor.”
If we don’t avoid the poor and needy outright, we can sometimes avoid our responsibility to help them by “spiritualizing” our response. What I mean by this is expressed by a well-known anonymous passage. It says, “I was hungry, and you formed a humanities groups to discuss my hunger. I was imprisoned, and you crept off quietly to your chapel and prayed for my release. I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless, and you spoke to me of the spiritual shelter of God’s love. I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me. You seem so holy, so close to God. But I am still very hungry and lonely and cold.”
We hear things like this, and we probably feel a little bit guilty. We think of all the people we aren’t helping, and we feel frustrated. The needs are so great, and we don’t even know these people. Just what does Jesus expect us to do?
Jesus invites us to begin at home. You and I learn to love one another and to meet each other’s needs from our families. The expression “Charity begins at home” has a great deal of truth to it. We’ll likely not have the compassion and generosity we need to serve the poor and the needy unless we first learn and practice those virtues in the community of our relatives and friends.
Possibly we grew up in families in which members served one another and the community. Hopefully, we have learned to be servants from them. However, it is very possible that we did not, especially since we live in such a selfish culture. The first sentence of a very popular Christian book is: “It’s not about you.” The author says this because our culture so often tells us: It is about you! Our culture breeds selfishness. And selfish people aren’t inclined to serve the needs of others.
This selfishness can be reinforced by some of the choices families make today. Because their kids are so over-scheduled with sports, clubs, and other activities, their parents feel guilty about giving them chores. The effect of this, however, is that kids don’t learn to serve the needs of the family by helping around the house. All of their activities are about their development, their advancement, and their amusement, and not about the common good. And they become selfish. So if you have children at home, I strongly encourage you to give them age-appropriate chores.
Another simple thing families can do to teach and create an atmosphere of service can be done around the dinner table. Each family member, one at a time, thanks the other family members for the ways they had served them or met their needs that day. For example: “I’m grateful to Charlie for helping me pick up my toys. I’m grateful to Mommy for helping me with my homework. I’m grateful to Dad for taking me to Cub Scouts. I’m grateful to Winnie for having been so cooperative when it was time to leave the playground.” Doing this reinforces the idea that family members should cooperate with each other, help each other, and serve one another. We did this in my family after having been introduced to it at a family retreat, and it was a real blessing to us.
I would encourage you to think today about your families and friends in light of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. Hopefully they’re adequately fed and clothed. If they are, then those needs have been met. But there are so many other needs. Needs that maybe we don’t recognize. Needs that maybe we’ve been ignoring. For instance: Do they need to be nourished by our presence? Are they starving for our affection? Do they hunger for our forgiveness? Have we stripped them naked by our insults and negativity? Do they need to be clothed with our encouragement and affirmation? Have they become strangers to us? Do we need to welcome them back into our lives? Do they feel imprisoned by dehumanizing jobs or the overwhelming demands of family life? Do we need to visit them with our help, understanding, and compassion? And when they’re sick, how do we respond? Is it an inconvenience to us? Do we get annoyed? Or do we heal them with our attention and loving care?
These are just some of the needs of those we love. And when we learn to serve them by meeting these needs, we’ll come to find ourselves far more willing and open to serve the needs of others, as Christ has commanded us to do. Instead of saying, “Thank God I don’t have to deal with that” maybe we’ll say “Thank God I can!”