The list of commandments in Leviticus 19 expands beyond the other versions of the Ten Commandments. This list makes it perfectly clear that God is a God of justice, right order. Loyalty to God demands that we structure our lives around these life-giving principles. We are not to steal, lie, swear falsely, or profane God’s name. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Note this is in the Old Testament); therefore, we do not rob or defraud our neighbor. We do not withhold the wages of day laborers. We are not to curse the deaf even though they never hear what we are saying. How cruel it would be to place stumbling blocks before the blind. We are to render just judgment and treat all people evenhandedly. Think of how peaceful the world would be if we stopped spreading slander. We are not to stand by idly when our neighbor is in dire peril. Finally, we are not to take revenge or cherish grudges. A tall moral order indeed; however, these are the rules that help us build our first half of life containers.
With these structures firmly in place, we are ready for the letting go expansiveness of the second half of life. We can move more easily into loving God and our neighbor and ourselves. Unhinged from a focus on rules and structures because they are now firmly in place, we can surrender without fear. We have learned to let go and let be. We are well prepared to accept and fully understand Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25.
I first grasped the importance of Matthew 25 years ago when Ferdinand Mahfood, founder of Food for the Poor, invited us to a presentation in Atlanta. We were astounded when, after having made a few small contributions to Food for the Poor, we are called to the head table and presented with a wooden chalice and plate made by the people in Haiti. We were both humbled and grateful. The scripture reading for that occasion, Matthew 25, made a real impact.
Later, we accompanied Ferdinand and Patty on a mission trip to Haiti where we saw third world poverty in the raw. The scenes are still vivid in my mind. A young man cradling the head of his mother as she lay dying in a hospice for the victims of TB and AIDs run by Mother Teresa’s nuns. A Sister of Charity lovingly cradling a terminally ill infant in her loving arms. Losing our son, John, in a leprosarium only to find him sitting and talking with a young man with leprosy. People in one of Food for the Poor facilities making holy cards with bamboo symbols. After this visit, we understood the full import of Matthew 25. Ferdy treated us well. Each afternoon we returned to our hotel, the one which was destroyed in the big earthquake, and entered as a group into centering prayer followed by the delightful rum punches Ferdy had ordered for us.
Later there were two mission trips to our church’s sister community in Somotillo, Nicaragua where two schools we were helping to support were teaching the poorest of the poor. These children were on the streets early in the morning selling the tortillas their mothers had made during the night or shining shoes. They could not get to the public schools on time and they could not afford the uniforms and fees. The two boys in the picture roamed about the school yard just waiting for someone to give them a little food. As in Haiti, we saw signs of deep faith among people who had almost nothing. I will never forget the colorful Tap Tap bus coming across the bridge on the main road. The sign on the front proclaimed “Jesus es senor in Nicaragua” (Jesus is Lord in Nicaragua!). Standing in front of a very simple “house” with hammocks for sleeping suspended from the rafters, I saw a cross by a tree. I asked our interpreter to ask the man who bore the wounds of the revolution in his side what the cross was doing there. I understand very little Spanish but I understood when he said, “Why we just celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross!” It was a why don’t you know response.
Dean Brackley, Jesuit who moved to El Salvador after the massacre to work for justice, wrote that you have to be with the poor to understand the plight of the poor. These trips taught us about Matthew 25 and the common good. Contrary to Randian individualism, we are our brothers and sisters keepers. All we have is gift and we are to share what we have to alleviate human misery.
We are ONE with all these people. God created each and every one of us in God’s image and likeness. Our purpose in life is not to amass untold treasure in silos but rather to alleviate human misery.
Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 rounds out the commandments in Leviticus:
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘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.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”
Alleviating human misery is the fast most acceptable to God.