The Gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King sets the standard by which our souls are measured for eternity. Heaven requires faith, mercy, and a little humility.
It was never intended this way, but the Solemnity of Christ the King occurs on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in the United States. And it’s the Sunday before Advent begins so there are many other distractions. In a world in constant crisis, we cling to the celebration of family and tradition that Thanksgiving has become.
Some time ago, I wrote an account of what really happened in the Plymouth Colony of 1620. It became one of the most widely read posts on These Stone Walls and ended up being cited in the footnotes of a couple of history books. “The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims and the Pope,” tells the story of Squanto whose odyssey left him alienated and homeless. But without him, our Thanksgiving could not have taken place.
Reading that story might be good spiritual preparation, not only for Thanksgiving but for the Solemnity of Christ the King. It embodies what the Gospel proclamation calls for at Mass on that day. It’s a familiar passage, but like much of the Gospel, it has some deeper meaning to uncover. The Gospel for Christ the King, from Matthew 25:31-46, is called “The Judgment of the Nations.”
Why this is such a beloved passage seems a mystery to me. For some, it should also be one of the most conscience-shaking. It lists in the most direct terms the requirements of discipleship and what failure to observe them will mean. The words of the Messiah in the passage end with a dismal foreboding:
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)
THE BLESSING OR THE CURSE
All four Gospels focus more attention on the final days of Jesus than on his earthly ministry. The Gospel for Christ the King enters those final days by delivering the key to heaven that the mission of Christ imparts to us. The passage for Christ the King is followed immediately in Matthew by the conspiracy to kill Jesus, then the Passion Narrative commences with the betrayal by Judas, the arrest, the denial of Peter, the Way of the Cross, the Resurrection.
You may have read recently about the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther’s “99 Theses” affixed to the Wittenberg Cathedral sparking the Protestant Reformation in 1517. One of the theological sticking points it launched was a debate over whether we are saved by faith alone or by faith that is manifested in action.
There can be no debate when you consider what Jesus imparted to us in the Gospel for Christ the King. The passage opens with a declaration of the establishment of His Kingship and our fate:
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.” (Matthew 25: 31-32)
This Gospel passage forms the basis for the Corporal Works of Mercy, our encounter with the world’s poor and alienated. In his book ‘You Did It to Me’ (Marian Press, 2014) Father Michael Gaitley opens with the mandate this Gospel presents:
“You did it to me… You did not do it to me.” One day, one great and terrible day, one of these two sentences will be for each of us heaven or hell. They will ring in our ears for eternity either as a blessing or a curse. They will lead us either to praise, glory, and honor or to horror, regret, and everlasting despair.” (‘You Did It to Me,’ p. 15)
Father Gaitley’s book is about getting the blessing and avoiding the curse. The course of action it prescribes is not so very difficult, and if you are reading this post you are already accomplishing one of the requirements for the blessing. I am, after all, in prison, and you are here at this moment with me. In fact, we are a part of this book. A photo of our friend, Pornchai Moontri, appears halfway through it.
It’s fascinating that this passage about mercy in action is the Gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King. The judgment of the nations – the judgment of all peoples – is not in the category of a parable, but rather an apocalyptic revelation. It presents our moral responsibility and the fact that God takes note of it. The big test of this life is not justification by faith alone, but our capacity for mercy and the humility to fulfill it.
“Humility” might seem a strange word in this context, but it fits, and I’ll explain why in a moment. I encountered its challenge even while writing this post. But first, some of the deeper background in this Gospel passage.
What is the “It” referred to in ‘You Did It to Me’? The Gospel breaks it down to simple statements about the requirements of discipleship and salvation:
“I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick and you comforted me. I was in prison, and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
This Gospel passage illuminates justification, the King’s discernment of the righteous from the unrighteous. “When did we see you in prison, Lord?” His answer identifies service to those in need with the love of Christ.: “Whenever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
The meaning of “the least of these” has long been debated since the Protestant Reformation. Our mandate for mercy has at times been wrongly seen as referring only to members of the Christian community. In that interpretation, the mandate to service excludes everyone else. The “least of these” is also sometimes translated as “brethren,” lending itself to an exclusionary meaning.
However, the original Greek of the Gospel for this phrase is “adelphos” which has a broader sense that includes any person in need. This is reflected in Saint Paul’s theology as well:
“In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male
or female, for all of you are one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28)
The sin of exclusion is also expressed in another post of mine, “On the Road to Jericho: A Parable for the Year of Mercy.” It’s the familiar parable of “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10: 25-37) with a surprising outcome. The one who attains justification in the parable is not the religious “insider” concerned only for the rituals of faith, but the “outsider” who tends to the needs of a wounded man.
The tenets, “I was sick and you comforted me,” and “I was in prison and you came to me” are also weak translations. The original Greek translated as “comforted,” and sometimes “visited,” or “came to,” is “episkeptomai.” Its fuller meaning is to “look after” or “tend to.”
This is what justifies the Samaritan in the Parable of Saint Luke’s Gospel cited above. He does not just comfort the wounded man on the Road to Jericho, but tends to his needs and looks after him.
The last tenet on the list of requirements – “When I was in prison, you came to me” – should be easy for someone like me. I am already in prison. Coming to others in prison should not be such a challenge, but, to be honest, the need for humility has been a stumbling block.
THE PRODIGAL SON AND THE PRODIGAL PRIEST
One of the more difficult tenets of the Gospel is perhaps a greater challenge in prison than it is anywhere else: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Strangers come to prison every day. There is probably no one more in need of welcome and inclusion than someone arriving here for the first time in his life. But what actually happens is often the opposite.
When a new prisoner shows up where I live, he is a stranger and an alien in the strangest of lands. Other prisoners typically distrust and shun “new guys,” and the unspoken peer pressure to avoid them is like another prison wall. Getting over it takes autonomy, courage, and humility. Why humility? The story of my friend, Jeff, will make it clearer.
You might remember a post I wrote as 2017 began: “Hebrews 13:3: Writing Just this Side of the Gates of Hell.” It turned out to be one of our most popular posts because it was carried at, of all places, SpiritDaily.com where readers came to it by the thousands.
But it is also gruesome reading. It presents a vivid snapshot of what day to day life in prison can be like. It describes the drug traffic, the violence, the cruel exploitation, the distrust and the overcrowded chaos into which we had been thrown for a year.
One young man who also lived in that awful place was Jeff, a 21 year-old in his first year in prison. I did not know Jeff very well then, and to be honest with you, I accepted without question the judgments of others and avoided him.
Jeff was drawn deeply into the prison drug culture, and all that it entails. Then he became associated with an exploitive sociopath whom, from all appearances, Jeff chose to follow.
The drug culture, combined with that man’s history of exploiting vulnerable people, drew Jeff into the darker realities of prison. While using drugs, Jeff was amassing debts that he could not pay. So he ended up paying in ways that only further demeaned himself. Then Jeff descended to the lowest depths of the bizarre social strata of prison. He had to be placed in protective custody.
Now, it’s easy to say that 21-year-old Jeff is an adult who should be held responsible for his choices, and that would be the truth. But truth stripped of all context often ends up not being the truth at all. The story of Jeff seen in context left me concerned, not only for him but for my attitude toward him.
When Jeff emerged from protective custody, he was sent to the place in which I now live. However, the reputation he amassed also followed him here. Many prisoners shunned him, and some of those who didn’t were men who would continue the same pattern of manipulation and exploitation that had already been Jeff’s ruin. He was on a path from which he could not escape on his own.
One night in October 2017, Jeff was standing alone in the dark on the top floor walkway near the place where I live. I had stepped outside to descend down to the lower area to walk. As I passed, Jeff said, “Can I talk to you?” I stopped. “I heard you’re a priest,” said Jeff. “I was Catholic for a while.”
Jeff was nervous, fearing rejection, and my spontaneous instinct was to close my mind and not let him in. My heart, however, just can’t be that jaded. I gave Jeff a chance, and that’s when I learned that humility is needed for the Corporal Works of Mercy. After my first conversation with Jeff, some of my friends protested. “Why would you even talk to that loser?”
The easiest path would have been to abandon Jeff to their harsh and unmoving judgments. But on the next night, Jeff was there again, and we spoke for several hours. A story emerged that became the missing context for a man I judged wrongly. I challenged him to trust me, and he did. All of what had been his undoing was laid bare before me, and left me feeling ashamed for my failure to be who I am for this broken and alienated man.
Jeff grew up with an alcoholic father and drug-addicted mother. They were never married, and Jeff was shuffled between the two for much of his childhood. As a teen, he moved in with his grandfather who was a devout Catholic. For a short time, Jeff was drawn into the life of the Church, but his loneliness and emotional isolation went largely unaddressed.
At age 17, Jeff had a brief relationship which resulted in his fathering a child. In response, his grandfather withdrew his support of Jeff and their relationship evaporated. Jeff was the Gospel’s prodigal son. On his own at 17, he left school and tried to work to support his own son. But having never had a father, Jeff was without a compass for how to be one.
He became alienated from his child’s mother and lost contact with his son who is now five years old. Jeff descended down a long descent that would lead to prison. He medicated his sorrow in drugs, first Percocet, then methamphetamine, then heroin.
Addicted, Jeff submerged fully into the drug culture of the streets. He could have easily ended up on the prison “Wall of Death” that I described recently in “Cry Freedom! A Prisoner Unlocks Doors from the Inside.”
Jeff could not support his growing addiction any more than he could support his son. He was recruited to sell drugs on one occasion at age 19 but was caught, charged, and sentenced to prison. Jeff saw this as his wake-up call. He entered rehab and emerged clean and sober to begin to pay his debt to society.
Like many of the isolated young men who land in prison, Jeff was vulnerable to the nefarious agendas that are rampant here. This is what happens when the right people treat strangers and aliens as strangers and aliens. They fall prey to the wrong people. With no one to protect him, Jeff was targeted by a sociopath who rekindled his addiction, drew him into debt, and exploited him.
This was the state Jeff was in when I first met him – when I accepted without question the judgments of others that Jeff did all this to himself. I could have tried to get him away from the man who enslaved him, but my failure was based on one factor: “What will others think of me if I stand with a leper?”
It was not easy getting the context for this story out of Jeff. He learned the hard way not to trust anyone in prison, and he took a risk to trust me. The night we first spoke, after seeing more clearly the weight of Jeff’s loneliness and despair, I knew that I must also try to liberate him from his life as a social pariah that broke his heart and silenced his spirit.
One October night as we spoke – when Jeff’s slow release from the inner prison of sin was exhausted – he suddenly pointed to the horizon. “What’s that?” he asked. From the top floor walkway where we stood, there appeared a strange glow beyond the distant hills. The glow became an arc of bright light, and then I realized what it was.
We watched, mesmerized, as a full harvest moon rose before our eyes to pierce the darkness. Magnified by the heat released from the Earth, it seemed huge and magical as we stared in long silence. It was, for Jeff, the illumination of his dark night of the soul, but it illuminated something for me as well. After a time I put my hand on Jeff’s shoulder and said, “We’ll talk more tomorrow.” The smile that returned was that of Christ.
My friends talk to Jeff now. They do it because I do it. And because we gave him the gift of inclusion, the serpents that whispered to him have moved on. Jeff just tested “clean” for his fifth consecutive weekly drug test. His prison debts – which were mostly just a manipulative con game – have vanished. Under that harvest moon, Jeff took the first step into the light on a road to freedom.
But this is not Jeff’s confession. It is mine. I’m sorry I was late. “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post. If you like it then please read & share these others in a spirit of Thanksgiving:
- Giving Thanks in the Time of Christ the King
- The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims and the Pope
- Pope Francis has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother
- I’ve Seen the Fall of Man: Advent East of Eden