What Does Jesus Mean When He Says to Some, “I Never Knew You”?

Every now and then someone will come to me and request parish services of some sort. Maybe it’s to plan a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral; maybe it’s to ask for money! Then I look at him or her and say, “Who are you?” (since I don’t recognize the person). “Oh, you may not know me but my mother and grandparents go here; this is our family church.” “I see, but where do you go to Mass?” I usually ask. The response is typically something like this: “Well, you know how it is, Father. I don’t get to Mass too often … but my mother comes every week!”

Well, I’ve got news for you: your Mama’s faith isn’t going to save you. You gotta have your own faith. You have to know Jesus for yourself. There are some things you just can’t borrow. Once, you depended on your mother and ultimately the Church to announce the True Faith to you; at some point, though, you have to be able to claim the True Faith as your own. Your mother can’t go to Mass for you and she can’t believe for you.

A few years ago a man came up to me in the grocery store parking lot and began to talk to me as if we were old friends. Perhaps he noticed the puzzled look on my face as I awkwardly wondered if I had ever met him. He seemed mildly offended and said, “Don’t you know who I am?” With some embarrassment, I admitted that I did not. He went on to explain that his family had been one the “pillar” families who had helped build the church and that I really ought to know who he was.

“Do you come to Mass often?” I asked. “No, but I was at my grandmother’s funeral, whom you buried. Perhaps you know who I am now!” I responded, “No. I certainly knew your grandmother, but I can’t say that I know you.” “That really hurts, Father, because if it hadn’t been for my family the church wouldn’t be there.”

Eventually I got the man to admit that he hadn’t been going to Mass for over twenty years, pretty much since he’d graduated from the parish school; his only attendance had been for the occasional funeral or wedding. “Consider this a dress rehearsal,” I told him humorously, but with ironic seriousness. “You may be angry and disappointed that I don’t know you, but it’ll be a lot worse to hear Jesus say ‘I don’t know you.’”

Indeed, one of the judgment scenarios has Jesus declare that he does not “know” some of those who seek entrance to Heaven:

  • Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:22-23)
  • Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers! (Lk 13:23-27)
  • Later the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, Lord, open up for us.” But he answered, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.”  Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour (Mat 25:12-13).

We may wonder how it is that the Lord does not “know” someone. Isn’t He omniscient?

Here it helps to understand that the “knowing” referred to in Scripture does not have the modern Western notion of simple intellectual knowing. To “know” in biblical terms, describes knowing through personal experience. Hence knowing someone implies an intimacy, a personal experience with another person, thing, or event. Sometimes the Scriptures use “knowing” to refer to sexual intercourse (e.g., Gen 4:17,25; Lk 1:34).

Hence the Lord, who does not force us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, is indicating in verses like these that some of the people seeking entry to Heaven (probably more for its pleasures than for its supreme purpose as a marital union with God) have refused His invitation to intimacy. He does not “know” them because they never wanted to be known by Him in any intimate way. They may have known of Him. They may even have spoken and taught of Him; but they did not want Him. They may have used Him for their own purposes, but they did not want Him. Jesus stands at the door and knocks; He does not barge in and force Himself on anyone.   

Therefore, we must each personally and individually accept the Lord’s invitation to enter our lives and transform our hearts. We cannot simply say, “My family built this church,” or “I went to Catholic school,” or “My mother goes here.”

Remember the story of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13)? They were waiting for the groom (in those days you waited for the groom; nowadays we wait for the bride) to show up for the wedding. Five were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps while five were foolish and did not. The groom’s arrival was delayed so the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” The wise ones responded that they could not do this because there was not enough oil for all ten of them.

You see, there are some things you just can’t borrow and some things you just can’t lend. You can’t lend your readiness to meet God to someone else. You can’t borrow someone else’s intimacy with God.

You know what happened in the story: The foolish bridesmaids went off to buy more oil and missed the groom’s arrival; when they returned they were not permitted to enter the wedding feast. In those days, when a wedding feast began the doors were locked and no one else could enter. When the foolish virgins arrived back, the groom said that he did not know them.

The bottom line is that you have to know Jesus for yourself. You can’t borrow your mother’s intimacy, relationship, or readiness. You have to have your own. No one can go to Mass for you. You can’t borrow someone else’s holiness.

There is an old gospel hymn that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” It’s not enough to quote the pastor; it’s not enough to parrot what your mother said. You have to know Him yourself.

Do you know Him? I didn’t ask, “Do you know about Him.” This is more than intellectual knowing; this is the deep, biblical, experiential knowing. Do you know the Lord Jesus? Have you experienced that He has ministered to you in the sacraments? Have you heard His voice resounding from the pulpit and in others you meet? Do you know Him? Don’t be satisfied that your mother or grandmother knew Him. You are called to know Him for your very self.

Below are a couple of renditions of the gospel classic I mentioned. The first is performed by the St. James Mass Choir; the second, by a choir from girls’ school in Poland! Watch the first and then enjoy a very different version as the song leaps across the Atlantic to Eastern Europe. What a wonderful world it is! Despite crossing and cultures and a vast ocean, the message remains the same: Yes, I know Jesus for myself.

6 Replies to “What Does Jesus Mean When He Says to Some, “I Never Knew You”?”

  1. In thinking about this scripture,and the one that says many will say: “Lord, Lord.” I see a connection when the good thief hanging on a Cross next to Jesus said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

    The good thief asks Jesus to “remember,” him. That is what all of us should desire. We should desire Heaven and Eternal Life as our happiness. In other words, that God know us and remember us so that, the good Lord willing, we don’t hear those other words.

  2. To know Jesus means to live a Christian life. Jesus knowing one means He abides in one’s soul via Sanctifying Grace in Christian life. In other words, it’s nupital language. We know Jesus as His wives and He knows us as our Bridegroom.

  3. Msgr – Thank you for clarifying these bible verses plus the story of the ten virgins. I’ve never been really sure (until now) what Jesus meant by “knowing”.

    I always learn something whenever I read your blog. With this one, you’ve truly set my mind at ease. Thank you for all you do!

  4. Msgr. –

    I am wondering which version of the Bible you quote from? I have looked at the Douay-Rheims, NAB-RE, RSV-CE and NRSV-CE and the phrasing of the quoted verses is slightly different in each, and slightly different from that in your quotations. Thanks.

    Also, I must say, the verses cited always make me ponder the idea of self-exclusion from heaven. Some people claim that only those who definitively choose against Christ at judgment go to hell. But these verses clearly indicate that there will be people who realize at the moment of judgment that they have made a grave mistake, and will want in, but will be turned away because it is too late.

  5. First thing to notice is this is about Jesus knowing you, not you knowing Jesus. For Jesus to know you, He must be intimate with you. The only way that happens is for you to be in His presence. To be in His presence, we must pray and worship Him. Scripture also says when we obey Him and worship Him, we will be written in the Book of Remembrance. If we are to “commune” with Him, we must take “Communion”. The foolish virgins were Christians, as virgins in Scripture are believers. They were not living their life for Christ however and were worldly, so they were left behind to buy and sell with the Antichrist. many church members will believe they are going to the wedding feast, but will be left when the time comes. You can know about Jesus, yet you are not living for Him. Many would like to believe they are Christians, but live for the world, so Jesus never gets to be intimate with them.

  6. This is similar to a sermon given by St. Jean Vianney, who said you should not “force” someone to come to mass with you, that you do more harm to their soul than help. I believe this would be sort of the opposite end of the spectrum, as you cannot borrow someone else’s faith, you cannot project your faith on to others (like grown children). Obviously, as a parent, you should bring your young children to mass (regardless of the protests that may happen), but when your child is able to live on his/her own, you have to give them to the Lord and let Him continue to reach out, having faith that you have done enough to help them hear Him.

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