Then they too will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and did not attend to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Amen, I tell you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these my brothers, neither did you do it to me. And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age.”Matthew 25: 44-46
It is clear in the familiar passage from Matthew 25 that the difference between the blessed and the chastened is a matter of awareness. The awareness that distinguishes them is not an awareness of the Lord’s presence, for neither group was aware of on the one hand serving the Lord and on the other failing to serve the Lord. Rather the differing awareness was that of recognizing and responding to the need of other human persons. To read today’s passage in the context of the entirety of Matthew 25 is to recognize that the whole chapter is a reflection on the need to remain aware and awake.
The chapter begins with Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins who go out to meet the bridegroom but only five of them take enough oil to last them throughout the unexpectedly long wait. In fact, it takes the bridegroom so long that they become drowsy and fall asleep. Thus, when the bridegroom finally comes, five are ready for him, while the other five have had to go off to the merchants to buy more oil. When they later attempt to enter the celebration, the bridegroom tells them that he does not know them. This story is followed by the parable of the talents. Here, as we recall, it is the slaves who risk their talents to earn more whom the master welcomes, and it is the one who buries his talent for fear of the master who is cast out.
A common theme of each of these stories is generosity. It is fear of scarcity and so possessiveness, in one way or another, that leads the five unwise virgins to skimp on the oil they bring for their lamps, that leads the slave to bury his talent, and that leads the unjust to fail to see and respond to the needs of their brothers and sisters. In the early days of lent, we are asked to ponder what is the measure of our generosity, and what are our unique obstacles to living more lovingly and open-handedly.
The great Christian mystic Teresa of Avila often spoke of her awareness of her own “meanness,” that is her surprise and alarm at how she, who received so much from our munificent God, could be so parsimonious in her response. She came to realize that the reason so few persons realize the great love that God has for them and for the world through them is that we are very measured in what we are willing to give of ourselves to God in return for all God gives to us. One of our former General Superiors would challenge us with the words of verse 12 of Psalm 116: “How shall I repay the Lord for all God’s goodness to me?” Whenever I fail to recognize and respond to the needs of others, it is almost always because I don’t want to pay, at every level, what it will cost me.
I have a very good friend who over the years of our friendship never ceases to teach me about generous awareness. When we would have visitors come, he would inevitably remember something that they very much liked and would insist that we have it there for them. Even today, when someone he is teaching mentions to him a certain author or subject that they like, he will often seek out for them a book by that author or on that subject. Over the years, I have learned much, by comparison to him, of how mindless I can be of the needs of others. I see so often that others experience being truly cared for in his thoughtfulness and generosity. And I realize that perhaps while not harming others that often, I often fail to make a return to them of the care I know God has for me.
The answer to why my friend is so aware of the desires and needs of others and why I am not to the same degree can seem somewhat mysterious. Yet, what I have slowly learned over the years is that generous awareness comes only with hard work and practice. What St. Teresa would call “meanness” is a disposition whose effects on my actions I experience at every turn. I am possessive of my time and space. I can claim to myself it is my need for solitude, and yet, I can waste so much of the solitary time afforded to me by listening to music or podcasts or watching television or films. Yet, when another asks to spend time with me, I can far too often do so grudgingly and resentfully. Like the unwise virgins who don’t bring enough oil, I give my visitors far less attention and presence than I could because my selfish resentments and grudgingness have taken up the space in me for generous hospitality.
We fear what would become of our lives and our own possessiveness if we allowed ourselves to become more aware of the needs of our brothers and sisters. In today’s story from Matthew, those on Jesus’ left make clear that if they’d known it was Jesus, they would have responded. Yet, with so many mere humans in need, they were hesitant to spend what they took to be their own limited personal resources. Recently I heard a discussion involving two university professors who spoke of the unique situation faced by their current students. For the first time in the experience of these teachers, their students face the probability of a less prosperous and even less healthy life than their parents. Not only do the students face less economic possibilities but they are acutely aware that they have also inherited a planet facing a cataclysmic catastrophe. As these teachers put it, their students cannot comprehend how their parents’ generation and the generations preceding could have lived and acted in so mindless a way that failed to take them and their children into account. What a horror that we elders who have lived in the developed and affluent countries of the north and west have manifested in our ways of living such little awareness of and generosity toward our children and our children’s children.
As a religious community that is dying in the west but growing in Africa, we continue to experience this same tension. Our African brothers keep asserting that they want to be in relationship to their brothers in the north. They desire that they be, in some way, an intimate part of our remaining history, even if it be the last stages of the community’s life here, and that we, thus, be a more intimate part of their lives and developing history. And we find ourselves conflicted by this request. They are aware of their financial dependence on us, but they also seem to intuit the possibility of their making a contribution to us. Although they lack monetary resources, at least many of them would like to spend their talents in brotherhood and collaboration with us, and perhaps even for us. We, for our part, are more than generously willing to help them financially, but we are not quite sure, at this late stage of life, about investing relationally in them. As in my frequent lack of hospitality when I am asked to share my time and space, I fear that we who are now past our working years for the most part but who are adequately funded for a comfortable retirement have not brought enough oil for the last part of the watch. As on a global scale, have we not taken into account the desires and needs of our children as we lived out and are living out our lives: not merely their financial needs but their desire and need to share our common calling as a single band of brothers?
Those of us who have been formed in a capitalist form tradition are always struggling with a tendency to make relationship, love, and affection transactional. A great part of our suffering is that it is difficult for us to be aware that responsibility, in its deepest sense, is not a matter of mere exchange but rather of love and affection. Of course the other who is hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison is asking us for the necessities which they lack. But they are also asking for a love and companionship that will help them to realize the depth of their own call and life direction. That appeal for our care and our presence will always cost us something, however. It will require our giving up our own self-determination. It will require our risking the talents that we have and so will evoke in us the fear of losing the security we crave as our aging brings a growing sense of insecurity.
In John 21:18, Jesus says to Peter, “Amen, amen, I tell you, when you were younger you tied your clothes about yourself and went walking about wherever you wished; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie your clothes about you and will take you where you do not wish.” For all of us, the time will come when we are no longer self-reliant and will be taken where we do not wish. It is up to us whether we experience love in that moment of being dressed and led by another, or whether we do so protesting our illusions of independence. By being generously aware of the call to relationship in our lives and responding to the appeal of the other to be with us, as we with them, we give over our demand for autonomy and self-sufficiency. We give what we have, not only materially, but emotionally and spiritually trusting that so much more will be returned to us.
The other day I was thinking about what it is I so crave when the presence and needs of others interrupt my life. I was reflecting on the experience I have once the “visitors” have left. The words that came to me were, “Now I can do what I want. I have my own life back.” But, of course, this is the great lie. My life is not my own. My life is a call. It is only in relationship and in the giving over of myself that life together requires that I truly begin to live.
As difficult as the truth of the dying of our congregation in the United States is, we take consolation in our having our own agency in how that comes about. We want to have the security in that self-agency that led the last slave to bury his one talent. But, as late and as unexpectedly as the return of the bridegroom, there is now a knock at the door. We experience those guests as both welcome and unwelcome. We feel comfortable and so we welcome them insofar as we can offer them whatever financial resources we are able to afford. But we are not so sure that we welcome the offer of relationship that they bring. If we bring them into our space, we are no longer going to be able to do what we want and to have our own life. If, as Jesus suggests, it is he who appeals to us for a deeper relationship through them, then we keep at a distance at our own peril.
To receive Jesus in the lives of others requires that we give up our desire to be self-sufficient, and that we abandon the illusion that we control our own lives, even unto death. Those at Jesus’ right hand did not recognize him in those to whom they gave over their own time, and space, and autonomy. They allowed the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the ill, and the imprisoned to impinge upon “their own” lives. Love and affection cannot be reduced to an exchange. For as relationship, they require of both parties the willingness to give and receive, to offer form and to be formed by each other, to become what we can only become in common with our brothers and sisters. Those on Jesus’ right are there because they were generously aware of their relationship to others. Those on the left, who seemed ready to give if they’d seen it was Jesus, were unable to see that the appeal of the others was, in fact, an appeal to the realization of their own greater and true life. As much as refusing to give to the others, they refused to receive from them. We refuse this because at first what the others would give us looks more like a bother and irritation than a gift. It asks us to step out of ourselves and release our hold on what we take to be our own time and space. Yet, when we do, we discover that this “imposition” of the other is really the offer of life, and no less than the presence of Jesus.