The Least of These
“‘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.’”(Mt 25:44-5)
If you are a Christian, you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to discern the many lessons of Jesus Christ concerning the way his followers – Christians – are to care for others, especially the poorest and neediest. Jesus is pretty clear on this. In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, for example, he uses the parable of the sheep and the goats to spell out the merciful works to which we are called: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner. We Catholics call these deeds the corporal works of mercy. Sometimes we act as though they are optional. They are not.
But even the earliest disciples of Jesus failed to get the point of universal kinship. “And who is my neighbor?” they asked Jesus (Lk 10:29), who responded with the famous tale of a decent Samaritan, a man from a group universally loathed by his Jewish audience. The Samaritan does the right thing? For a stranger? Trust Jesus to use the outlandish to make a point. And trust his most fervent followers not to get it.
Nothing has changed. The ‘Good Samaritan’ is an image even non-believers use as a cultural reference and as a legal term, and we still don’t get it. According to a Pew Research poll from 2018, barely 50 percent of American Catholics believe we should receive and aid refugees fleeing to our country. This stark statistic means that half of us live in direct contradiction to the teaching of Pope Francis. Of course, 50 percent beats the meager 25 percent of white evangelical Christians who advocate welcoming the stranger, according to Pew Research, meaning that their majority position directly contradicts the teaching of the Christian Lord and Redeemer with whom evangelical Christians claim a personal relationship. How’s that for cognitive dissonance?
Here is a story of how far the U.S. government, in our names, has fallen from caring for the least among us: A Good Samaritan in Arizona named David Warren was recently put on trial for giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, the recipients in this case being undocumented migrants in an unforgiving area of the desert where several thousand people have perished in the last 15 years. Warren’s works of pure, bottom-line mercy somehow translated into a criminal indictment, with a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The fact that the jury was hung gives me hope for humanity, but how is it that the jury of his peers did not unanimously find him not guilty? The federal authorities plan to retry him for this felony. Those who cry out for religious freedom might want to look more closely at an administration that prosecutes acts of faith.
And to those who argue that Warren broke the law: If you’ve ever wondered whether you would have been brave enough to harbor Anne Frank or provide a safe station on the Underground Railroad or face the lions in the Coliseum, now you have your answer.
How have we gotten here? How have we failed to learn from our history? Oppressed people have long fled to this land for the promises of freedom and justice, safety and prosperity, all the way back to the Mayflower. The United States is a proud collection of immigrants. Our Statue of Liberty offers the lofty poetry of hope, although the reality is often that the latest group of arrivals gets treated terribly by those who immigrated earlier. In a perverse American custom, we seem to have to vilify each other before we can be neighbors. Meanwhile, we prosecute the merciful. Meanwhile, the vice president is unmoved by the undignified plight of other men crammed together in a cage. Meanwhile, government officials deny basic hygiene to refugees. Meanwhile, well-fed Americans gleefully chant against welcoming the stranger.
Maybe God’s grace will only flood through us when we admit that we need help in getting over our prejudices, our cruelty, our lack of Gospel charity to ‘these least ones’. Maybe only grace can turn faux Christians into the real deal that Jesus expects us to be. Without that grace to grab our hearts, we supposedly faithful people will ultimately have some explaining to do.
Originally appeared in the Bakersfield Californian July 27, 2019