There are people who separate the world into two parts and those who do not. It’s common in political life to separate “us” from “them”, but politicians aren’t the only people who divide the world into parts: we have the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate; the blacks and the whites; the religious and the secular, the good and the bad. We distinguish between young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Jew; Jew and Muslim, and so on.
When we conceive of God’s world as separate, competing parts, this has negative consequences for our actions, because, of course, thoughts held in mind produce after their own kind. If we see separation and division, we create separation and division. God created only one world and one people; there is a divinely intended unity that we, in our arrogance, attempt to undermine by dichotomizing our reality. This is how we actively resist the will of God, and it’s sinful.
It’s easy to read our Gospel today as a judgment against some people, maybe even a judgment against ourselves, but I think the reason Jesus tells this story is to encourage a real conversion of heart in each of us, a challenge to see things and people from God’s perspective. It’s a matter of discovering new eyes that allow us to see the unity of all, to see how each of us reflects some aspect of God. This parable is an invitation to open our eyes and see what we might otherwise miss.
Years ago I read an article by a man who had gone to eastern Europe, Lithuania I think, to do mission work. He recounted how, one snowy day, he was driving a poor family home from the hospital– a mother and her two young sons. He offered to take them to the new McDonald’s, someplace they had never been able to afford themselves. The mother explained her lack of funds, and the man reiterated his intent to pay for the meal. They ordered burgers, fries and sodas and as the man began eating, he noticed the mother and the boys praying fervently, thanking God for the gift of “beef steaks and potatoes”. As the man finished his hamburger, he noticed that no one else had eaten anything but the fries and the mother asked if it was alright if they took the burgers home with them, to share with the other siblings in the house. Then the family wiped out the soda cups, refolded the napkins and placemats and took all of this with them back to the car. As the boys passed the plastic figure of Ronald McDonald, they shook his hand and thanked him for the good potatoes. Riding back home, the mother said, “God has given us a great day!”
It really is about having new eyes to see the amazing things God is doing all around us, all the time. Honestly, I can’t think of a time when I have given thanks for the “beef steak” at McDonald’s. I don’t often think of fries as potatoes, and I tend to eat at McDonald’s as a last resort, when a “real meal” has, for whatever reason, become impractical. I can’t think of a single time when I have seen my God as doing great things for me by allowing me to eat at McDonald’s. I don’t have the eyes to see, so I miss the wonder of God’s blessings; I don’t have the eyes of a child in Lithuania, so I don’t see the beef steak at McDonald’s. And, all too often, I don’t have the eyes to see Christ, either.
I’m often too busy unconsciously sorting people into groups: the good from the bad; the worthy from the unworthy; the loveable from the unlovable.
In the many centuries of our Catholic tradition, there have often been communities that are wholeheartedly dedicated to the practice of hospitality. One of the better known is the Benedictines, those who follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. These people welcome guests as if they are literally Christ in person. One night, a Benedictine monk was awakened by the sound of someone knocking. When he opened the door, he saw a man whom he had served dozens of times before. Each time the man came and asked for a meal and a place to sleep, and every time the monk offered hospitality, serving him a bowl of soup and showing him where to find a bed. As he realized who the man was on this particular night, the monk said, “Jesus Christ, not you again!”
I tell this little story because sometimes it is challenging to help people who, for whatever reason, cannot find the way to help themselves. I once worked in an inner city parish doing maintenance work and I was often accosted by drug addicts and alcoholics and crack whores looking to score their next hit. They always asked for money, saying either that they had “babies” to feed or that they themselves hadn’t eaten in three days. Note that they never say “two days” or “four days”, it’s always three days. Initially, I gave them whatever money I had on me, but then I started to think that maybe I wasn’t really helping them at all. So I began leaving all my money locked inside my truck so I could honestly tell them, “Sorry, I don’t have any money.” The full truth was that money probably wouldn’t help these people, and I didn’t want to be part of the problem when there are solutions available to anyone who wants them. I made a judgment and stuck to it.
Once, when John Wesley was walking down a street, he encountered a beggar, who asked for his spare change. Wesley gave him all he had, at which point the friend who was with him asked him if he thought the money was really going to help the beggar. “No, replied Wesley, “but it helps me to give.”
His point was that when we are no longer concerned about who deserves help and who doesn’t, when we no longer divide the world into the good and the bad, the sober and the addicted, we begin to serve the one true God who created all of us. Only then do we begin to see the world as God sees it. Only then do we find ourselves meeting Christ in the face of the hungry child or the lonely prisoner. And when we see Christ in the faces of the homeless or the drug addict or the crack whore, we begin to respond to their needs differently.
But first we must learn to see. We must train our eyes to see Christ and to see the bounty that God continually provides for us. And when that happens, we understand that prosperity surrounds us and we have more reasons than ever to give thanks with a humble and grateful heart. Personally, I don’t believe in coincidences, and as I have reflected on my interactions with desperate people over the years I am beginning to suspect that their standard line about going without food for three days maybe isn’t a coincidence either. We believe in a Redeemer who lay three days in the tomb before rising to new life. Perhaps this is God’s way of reminding me that I have the power to bring new life to others who are, literally and figuratively, in the tomb of despair and death.