“The Least of These”
November 26, 2023
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
About a dozen years ago a bronze sculpture depicting Jesus as a homeless person sleeping on a park bench was unveiled in Toronto. The sculpture is designed in such a way that Jesus is huddled beneath a blanket, his face and hands obscured. Only his feet with the wounds of crucifixion reveal his identity.
Timothy Schmalz is the sculptor and he calls his artwork a “visual translation” of the Gospel reading for today, in which Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, after which he tells his followers: “Whatever you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Schmalz adds: “The sculpture reminds people that “our spiritual duty is to help the poor and see God within those poor.”
Public reaction to the sculpture has been wide. Some people find it offensive. Others adore it. Pope Francis blessed it. People sit and pray beside it. In one city, a woman called the police within minutes of the sculpture’s installation, assuming that the figure beneath the blanket was a real homeless person.
Today, the Church celebrates Christ the King. This day calls us to reflect on what it means that Jesus is king and ask questions like “What kind of king is he? And what does that mean for us?
The portrait of Christ as King on the throne of heaven is a fearsome one. The reading tells us a future day when all the nations of the world have gathered and from the throne, the king uses his authority to separate the people. To illustrate the separation of one individual from another, Jesus likens himself to a shepherd who separates his flock of sheep from the goats who are grazing in the same pasture. The sheep receive the place of honor and inherit God’s kingdom (25:34).
Notice the criteria Jesus will use is not our confessions of faith. Not our beliefs, not particular doctrine, not our purity, not our “personal relationships” with Jesus. The criteria will be compassion and love for the least of these.
Jesus makes it clear: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.”
There is no uncertainty about what kind of king Jesus is. He is the self-emptying king. The hungry Jesus. The thirsty Jesus. The naked Jesus. The sick Jesus. The imprisoned Jesus. This is divine royalty — Christ the King who stoops and bends and touches those on the margins of society.
“Christ the King” festival is a recent addition to the lineup of festivals we know more widely, like Christmas and Easter. Its origins go back only 98 years, just shortly after World War I. Pope Pius XI instituted this day with the hope that a world ravaged by war might find Jesus’ humble kingship an alternative to discord among people & nations.
Does it seem like the Pope’s vision has yet to be realized? Today, the world is at war again. Discord continues to displace and destroy people.
Ø Nearly 15,000 innocent civilians in Israel and Gaza have died in recent weeks. (UN News Global Perspectives October 2023 and UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission)
Ø Nearly 6 million Ukrainian are refugees spread across Europe. (from UN Refugee Agency)
Ø As many as 828 million people — or 10 percent of the world’s population — go to bed hungry each night, 46 million more than the previous year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Jesus’ humble kingship and his call for compassion to the poor, defeated, and marginalized is needed in large ways still today.
But does it seem to you that we often forget that the only power Jesus’ wielded on earth was by giving himself away?
Many Christians long to “see Jesus” We pray for an experience of Jesus’s presence. We yearn to feel him close. We worship, read devotions, attend Bible studies — all in the hope of seeing and knowing Jesus in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Matthew makes it clear we do not have to ask, “Where is Jesus?” He is in the least and the lost, the broken and the wounded. Jesus is in the un-pretty places of this world.
Some years ago I was in Haiti — the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Haiti has been besieged for generations by corruption and failed governments.
Before the trip, I knew was jumping into an eye-opening experience. When the ticket agent at the Miami airport asked: “Why ever are you going to Haiti?” (she herself was Haitian) I almost asked her to switch my ticket to Minneapolis. Not long after arriving in Haiti, I realized I was not prepared to be in the midst of such overwhelming poverty and chaos. Each day my senses were seized by the squalor and decay. Yet, everywhere I went in Haiti I met the most beautiful people.
One afternoon I volunteered in a hospital run by the Catholic church that cared for homeless men dying of AIDS. There were about 30 patients in this ward, lined up on small cots, dressed only in the greying sheets that draped their fading bodies. Most of the men were young, likely infected through using contaminated needles. As I scanned the room, it struck me that all of these men lived with a death sentence that would be realized within a few months.
My task that afternoon was to simply be with them — offering lotion as they desired.
As I sat with one young man, his eyes were fixed on me. A language barrier separated us but did not prevent him from asking me to put lotion on his cracked and calloused hands and feet. As I did a faint smile drew across his face.
A moment later, a young man carrying a bible, and wearing a cross walked over. He knew some English and he told me he was in training to be a priest. He was there to minister to these dying men. I asked him: “What happens to these men when death comes?” He explained that people from the Church tend to the body. They have a funeral and burial. But he added, “These men have no family. They have been abandoned. We are here to be their family and entrust them to God’s care.”
He moved on to do his work. Then something amazing happened. It was the voice of the young priest to be, praying aloud while holding a cross in the center of all these homeless, forgotten men. I looked down at the young patient I had been sitting with, his big, deep set eyes turning to see the voice of prayer. I stood so I could see every face in the room. Here in this sad space where the air hung hot and heavy — came Jesus — the sick and homeless Jesus.
Within seconds, this small mass of dying humanity was a heavenly chorus of voices praying together — in a language I did not understand — but in a spirit that was Christ the King, the one who stoops and bends, who is compassion for the least of these. For a moment, there was no cloud of death blowing through the grey and pallid room. There was the life of Jesus come for the sick, imprisoned, naked and dying.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
On Christ the King Sunday we are asked to see Jesus in places we would rather not look. This is a day to be reminded that every opportunity for compassion toward our fellow human beings is an opportunity to see Jesus and be Jesus to the least of these.
 Timothy Schmalz. Regis College, University of Toronto