Love of the Poor: The Criteria for Our Final Judgment
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
Let me begin my reflection with a story by the Greek novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis:
In the remote mountains of Northern Greece, there once lived a monk who had desired all his life to make a pilgrimage to the [Church of the] Holy Sepulchre [in Jerusalem]- to walk three times around it, to kneel and to return home a new person. Gradually through the years he had saved enough money he could, begging in the village nearby, and finally, near the end of his life., had enough set aside to begin his trip. He opened the gates of the monastery and, staff in hand, set out with great anticipation on his way to Jerusalem.
But no sooner had he left the cloister than he encountered a man in rags, sad and bent to the ground, picking herbs. “Where are you going, Father?” the man asked. “To the Holy Sepulchre, brother. By God’s grace I shall walk three times around it, kneel, and return home a different man from what I am.”
“How much money to do that do you have, Father?” inquired the man. “Thirty pounds,” the monk answered. “Give me the thirty pounds,” said the beggar. “I have a wife and hungry children. Give me the money, walk three times around me, then kneel and go back to the monastery.”
The monk thought for a moment, scratching the ground with his staff, then took the thirty pounds from his sack, gave the whole of it to the poor man, walked three times around him, knelt, and went back through the gates of the monastery.
He returned home a new person, of course, having recognized the beggar was Christ himself- not in some magical place far away, but right outside his monastery door, mysteriously close. In abandoning his quest for the remote, the special, the somehow “magical,” the monk discovered a meaning far more profound in the ordinary experience close to home. All that he had given up came suddenly rushing back to him with a joy unforeseen.
To be surprised by grace is a gift still to be prized. (1)
Like the monk in the story, we are all looking to experience God, we are all looking for an encounter with Jesus. Yet, as Kazantzakis and the Gospel reading -Matthew 25:31-46, today tell us, we encounter God, we meet Jesus not in some remote, special, magical place far away from where we live, but we find Christ just right in our frontsteps or backyard, we do not meet God in the guise of the wealthy and the powerful but we encounter God, in the person of the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable. God is to be experienced, God is to be served not so much in our prayers and meditation, however sublime, not mostly in the beauty and holiness of our worship, but in the service of suffering humanity. In the Gospel today, Jesus identifies himself with those in need: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… just as you did it to one of the least of these who is a member of my family, you did it to me.” The Gospel could not be more crystal clear: If you want to serve Christ, you serve him in the person of those who are struggling in life. We cannot serve God, we cannot serve Christ without serving them. And the Gospel says that our lives, all of us will be judged ultimately according to our willingness to meet the material, spiritual and social needs of those who come to us in need.
Yet I am the first admit that there is nothing easy about this for there is nothing glamorous about poverty, hunger, loneliness, sickness, or homelessness. It could be depressing. Seeing Jesus in the face of our vulnerable brothers and sisters is not always easy. My spiritual director, Brother Randy, a hermit, who runs a halfway house for people living with drug addiction, mental illness and HIV/AIDS, in Yonkers told me this story: One day, he and another brother were saying Evening Prayer in the chapel and they both heard a loud thud. They stopped praying and rushed upstairs and saw a resident in the throes of a drug overdose. Brother Randy then told me, “Believe you and me, Jesus is not always pretty to look at.”
Above my desk hang these words by Saint Vincent de Paul, the patron saint of social workers, to remind me that the work of mercy and love is never an easy one. I found these words helpful especially when doubts creep into my work, when I often begin to fantasize about what it would be like to abandon my work for a more lucrative job or ministry. Vincent says, “You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor... They are your masters, and the more difficult they will be, the unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.” Vincent says a few things worth remembering: First, works of mercy and love are not always easy to carry out, but they must be carried out in obedience to the Gospel despite the difficulties because the poor are the sacramental presence of Jesus in our midst. Secondly, we are not in it for some reward- to be appreciated or to thanked for, or even to feel good about ourselves. This past week, when the temperatures dropped below freezing, our homeless outreach team tried to save a life of a homeless person who might freeze to death but our efforts were met with no appreciation and a great deal of cynicism. You’re in this solely in obedience to the Gospel. And, whoever says obedience and love would always feel nice? Love will often be experienced as Law, a command, a responsibility, not as some fuzzy warm feeling or inspiration. A contemporary religious author, Carolyn Humphreys, once remarked God and love are neither sweet nor nice. If we want a God who would shelter us from the pain and the suffering around us, Jesus is not that kind of a God for he prods his disciples to go to places of suffering and alienation. Love will not always feel sweet and nice because to enter into and share in the lives of our suffering brothers and sisters, we will have our hearts broken. And that is Vincent’s last point. It is possible to give “charity” without our core being touched by the suffering of others. It is possible to give “charity” only to assuage our guilty consciences or to make ourselves look or feel good without a deeper consideration for the pain of those to whom “charity” is given without primarily working for their upliftment and without working for the transformation of situations giving rise to injustice and suffering. That form of charity is dehumanizing, and those who you seek to help will hate you, so says Vincent. True Christian charity, on the other hand, allows us to be touched by the pain of others, and from that, we make a commitment to enter into solidarity with them, and we journey with them towards healing, wholeness and justice. Only then, Vincent says, “It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread [the charity] you give them.”
Let me conclude with this story from the Muslim tradition:
the seeker, as he prayed came the crippled, and the beggar and the beaten.
And seeing them, the holy one went down into deep prayer and cried, “Great
God, how is it that the loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing
And out of the long silence, God said, “I did do something about them. I made you.”2
1,2 Stories quoted from Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection (NY: Bantam Books), 1992.
© 2010 Noel E. Bordador
The Reverend Noel E. Bordador is a queer Filipino Episcopal worker-priest in the Diocese of New York.
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