The Face of Christ Hidden in the Poor22 Dec

Fr. Ron Ketteler

by Rev. Ronald M. Ketteler

“When ‘the poor have the good news preached to them’ (Mt 11:5), it is the sign of Christ’s presence.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church n. 183)

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, 1965) of the Second Vatican Council entered into dialogue with humanity concerning the urgent problems of the world at mid-20th century.  It proclaimed   the saving message of the Gospel to illumine the great spiritual and moral challenges of the times, issues ranging from the development of culture to the moral demands of political and economic life, including justice and peace.

In the Catholic moral tradition, the sacred and social nature of the human person is the bedrock of all morality, personal and social.

Reverence for the dignity of the human person, then, grounds a moral imperative that “everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary to living with dignity, so as not to imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus (Lk 16: 18-31).” (GS n. 27)

In the 21st century, the globalization of the social question has opened up new horizons for Christian responsibility on behalf of the impoverished, the abandoned elderly, the migrant or the hungry.  In reality, that obligation which binds one as neighbor of “absolutely every person” and calls for an active response to their need has intensified exponentially.

In this regard, the Pastoral Constitution cites the traditional universalistic application of the Last Judgment scene narrated in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 25: 31-46).
Through the lens of the love-command, the Pastoral Constitution enjoins Christians to recall “the voice of the Lord: ‘As long as you did it for the least of my brethren, you did it for me’ (Mt 25:40).
At its conclusion, Gaudium et Spes states that the Christian task of serving humankind by the pursuit of justice must be inspired by awareness that Christians “must give a reckoning to Him who will judge every man on the last day.” (GS n. 93)

Moreover, the obligation to respond to the hidden presence of Christ carried by those in need resonates with the Jesus’ warning about the divorce of words from deeds: “Not everyone who cries ‘Lord. Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the Father’s will and take a strong grip on the work at hand.” (Mt 7: 21-23)

According to the Pastoral Constitution, the Father’s will is accomplished when “in all men we recognize Christ our brother and love Him effectively in word and deed.” In such a “doing of the truth” Christians give witness to the reality that “we will share with others the mystery of the heavenly Father’s love.”

Two decades later, Economic Justice for All discussed the concept of “The Reign of God and Justice” in the spirit of Gaudium et Spes. (EJ nn. 41-44)

In an overview of biblical perspectives on justice, that 1986 pastoral letter issued by the US Catholic Conference of Bishops presents an incisive synopsis of the dramatic scene of the Last Judgment in Matthew (Mt 25: 31-46).
Within Matthew’s apocalyptic vision of the end-time, the parable of the sheep and the goats unveils the single criterion of the final judgment upon the assembled nations of the world. That criterion creates surprise and shock both to the just and the unjust: “The blessed are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned; the cursed are those who neglected these works of mercy and love.” (EJ n. 44)

The shock of those who have either cared for or neglected the needy is triggered by the discovery that Jesus was identified with the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized.  The acceptance or rejection of Jesus “hidden in those most in need” reflects the Emmanuel theme (“God-with-us”) found in Matthew. That theme arises in the infancy narrative (Mt 1:23) at the beginning of the Gospel and at the end in the assurance of the Lord’s faithful and ongoing presence with his disciples “until the end of the age (Mt 28:20).”

The apocalyptic vision in Matthew 25 confirms that the poor, the needy, the outcast, and the suffering carry the hidden presence of Jesus, Shepherd, Lord, and Judge. In particular, this pericope serves as a specific foundational biblical text for the Church’s moral tradition for the “works of mercy.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church incorporates the moral doctrine of the “works of mercy” under the heading of “Justice and Solidarity among Nations.” In the global context of the contemporary world, works on behalf of the poor constitute the criterion by which “Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones.” The preaching of the glad tidings to the poor is “the sign of Christ’s presence (Mt 11: 5)” (CCC n 2443)

Furthermore, these works of mercy and love include the traditional “corporal works of mercy” as also enumerated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (CCC n. 2447) After a précis of the “corporal works of mercy” in Mt 25: 31-46, the Catechism notes that “giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.” (Jas 2: 15-16; cf. 1 Jn 3: 17)

Again, in its exposition of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer — “Give us this day our daily bread” — the Catechism calls attention to a dimension of meaning encountered in “the presence of those who hunger because they lack bread …” Dehumanizing endemic hunger unfolds a drama that must summon “Christians who pray sincerely to exercise responsibility toward their brethren, both in their personal behavior and in their solidarity with the human family.” Praying for “Our bread’ cannot be authentic if the petition is unlinked from the parables of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16: 19-31) and of the Last Judgment (Mt 25: 31-46). (CCC n. 2831)

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church repeatedly weaves that tapestry of the final judgment in Matthew 25 throughout its comprehensive summa of Catholic social teaching.

One key section on the thesis, “The universal destination of goods and the preferential option of the poor,” opens by stating: “The principle of the universal destination of goods requires that the poor, the marginalized, and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern.” (CSDC n. 182)

The preferential option for the poor is rooted in Jesus’ compassion towards human misery where the Lord identified “himself with the ‘least’ among men (cf. Mt 25: 40, 45)” Here the Compendium quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church cited above: “When ‘the poor have the good news preached to them’ (Mt 11:5), it is the sign of Christ’s presence (CCC n. 2443).” (CSDC n. 183)

Until the end-time, the Compendium asserts that the care for the poor is a “responsibility upon which we will be judged at the end of time (cf. Mt 25: 31-46): ‘Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren (CCC n. 1033).”

“God’s plan of love for humanity,” the first chapter of the Compendium, closes with the assurance of the biblical hope for  “New heavens and a new earth.” The text paints a poignant vision of the Christian “called to grace and all the fullness of the mystery in which he has become a sharer in Jesus Christ.” It points out: “Being conformed to Christ and contemplating his face instill in Christians an irrepressible longing for a foretaste in this world, and in the context of human relationships, of what will be a reality in the definitive world to come; thus Christians strive to give food, drink, clothing, shelter care, a welcome and company to the Lord who knocks at the door (cf. Mt 25: 35-37).” (CSDC n. 58)

“Contemplating the face of Christ” refers back to Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (“At the Beginning of a New Millennium,” 2001) and the evangelical invitation to “Stake Everything on Charity” (NMI n. 49).

At the advent of a new millennium the late Holy Father highlighted a renewed call to “practical and concrete love for every human being.” Charity towards the poor will emanate “anew from the contemplation of Christ” from whom “we must learn to see him especially in the faces with whom he wished to be identified: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food …’ (Mt 25: 35-37).”
Blessed John Paul II regarded the final judgment text in Matthew 25 as “a page of Christology which sheds a ray of light on the mystery of Christ.”

Rev. Ronald M. Ketteler, a priest of the Diocese of Covington, is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Theology at St. Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Ky. He is also a member of the Ecumenical, Health Care, and Prolife Committees of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. His columns originally appeared in The Messenger.

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