Sunday reflection: Matthew 25:31–46

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 25:31–46: 

Jesus said to his disciples:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by 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, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“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 the least of these, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Normally, the lectionary has a particular set of readings to offer each day, and the same readings will be heard in Catholic parishes all over the world. Today, however, on All Souls Day, the lectionary gives us a dozen different Gospel readings, all different, and as many choices of epistles as well. Even in the Old Testament readings, we have two choices from Wisdom and another from Isaiah. We have a cornucopia of options, and in this case, all good choices.

Yesterday, we celebrated All Saints Day, the feast day from which Hallowe’en developed. In our parishes, this Mass becomes a memorial for all of those who departed from us over the past year. As readers may recall, we lost my wife’s sister almost a year ago after a relatively short bout of cancer. Mary had been diagnosed the previous Christmas and her prognosis at the time was being measured in weeks and days, but she bounced back and had a very good year with her husband, friends, and family. She declined rapidly after Thanksgiving, and passed before we could get out and say goodbye.

We went to the Mass yesterday, and I’d almost forgotten about the procession for family members. We carried candles for our loved ones and placed them on the altar in their memory as Mass began. Mary has never been far from our thoughts over the past year anyway, and this gave us a chance to pray for her and recall her life, her struggles, and the gift she gave us in that final year.

Like all of us, Mary didn’t always make the best choices in life, and her illness came in part from those poor choices. Some of those choices made us angry, saddened us, and worried us. But Mary also made choices to love with her whole heart, to embrace people without fear and without self-regard, sometimes worryingly so. She was funny, smarter than she credited herself with being, and was at the core one of the most loving people I have ever known. She didn’t always make the wisest choices, but she loved the Lord, and she loved everyone she could. The last year of her life, in which she managed to reconnect with people who loved her back, was in many ways a victory lap for the real Mary.

With Mary in mind, I focused on this reading from Matthew, because it’s about choice itself. The scene recounted by Jesus shows us the consequence of choice and free will. Free will, to have any meaning at all, has to include the poor choices, the selfish choices, and the mean choices. We are given that gift, because God wants us to choose whether to conform ourselves to Him or to our own appetites. He does not want a house of slaves who have no choice but to be bound to His labor, but a house of sons and daughters who joyfully take up His yoke (another of the reading choice today) in service to others so that they can also find His way.

Is this not what Jesus himself instructs? What exactly does He tell His disciples in this passage? The difference between salvation and damnation is the choice to act outside of ourselves, to have the caritas to put others ahead of ourselves. Rather than get lost in our own appetites and refuse to see the struggles of others, we are called to live in the love of God by emulating it by active love and service to others. And not just those who we already know and love, but strangers and even enemies, Jesus says.

The eternal life is living within that kind of love. Jesus emptied himself for the salvation of all who conform to this sacrificial love. We are called to form ourselves to live within that, not as robots but as our own free-will choice. And when we see the eternal life within that context, we understand why God can’t just force us and everyone else to make only the one choice in life. His self-sacrifice is the antithesis of force and slavery. That is why, in the end, it is not God who condemns the “goats,” but the goats who condemn themselves through their own self-slavery to their own desires and appetites above the pain and suffering of others. The justice of God merely points us in the direction in which our choices had us going all along, because those choices make the difference of whether we are formed to live in His eternal love or not.

This does not mean that we will always make the right choices. Sainthood isn’t a lifetime of perfection, as the lives of the saints themselves will attest. It is a lifetime of proceeding toward perfection, which we only attain through His grace. Jesus came to give us forgiveness for our sins, for our poor choices and our addiction to worldly appetites. The choice to love others more than ourselves takes His grace and His forgiveness, which are available to all who seek it.

Mary would have laughed out loud to be called a saint, and not for no reason. But on All Souls Day, I trust in the Lord to see Mary as she loved others and not just for some of the choices she made in life. To love is the greatest choice, and it is the closest we come to the eternal life on this side of the Kingdom.