The 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is one of the few biblical citations I know by heart: We Catholics are not big on memorizing chapter and verse. Matthew 25 offers the blueprint for the work of Catholic social justice, which Jesus lays out clearly in the parable of the sheep and the goats meeting their king.
The sheep, we learn, are bound for heaven, the goats not so much. The sheep are happy to hear this good news about their fate, but they have questions. "'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (Matthew 25:37-40) That explains it.
The goats have their own set of queries: "'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.'" (Matthew 25:44-5) Ah. A less gratifying explanation.
I feel a little sorry for those old goats, who apparently did not know the rules for behaving in a decent and righteous manner. They didn't understand that the sins of omission matter as much as the sins of commission. Over 2,000 years into the practice of Christianity, however, we do.
Catholics take the mandate of social justice seriously. We teach our children about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and we are supposed to perform them in real life.
As we read in Matthew 25 and elsewhere in the Gospels, we are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, house the homeless, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. We may not do all of these things — some of us actually devote most of our efforts to just one of these things — but we are called to do something to alleviate the suffering of our brothers and sisters.
Matthew 25 is not a suggestion. It is part of our religious practice as Catholics. It is part of our spiritual growth.
In pious circles, a small fire of controversy smolders around our current president's Catholicism. Joseph Biden is only the second Catholic president in American history, the first being John F. Kennedy. In 1960, some voters worried that JFK's professed faith would impel him to take direct orders from the pope.
Sixty years later, in 2020, some voters worried that Joe Biden would not take direct orders from the pope. Many so-called "traditional" Catholics aver that the president is not Catholic enough for them, going so far as to demand that his bishop deny him reception of the Eucharist because he does not plan to outlaw abortion.
But I believe we have, at long last, elected a president whose personal and political values are in line with Matthew 25. Furthermore, I believe that Matthew 25 coexists with the foundational American principle that we are all created equal. No one among us is more or less deserving of nutrition or housing or basic care than anyone else. No one among us is a more or less beloved child of God. We hold that these truths are self-evident, do we not?
According to our faith, we are our brother's (and sister's) keeper. Matthew 25 is a religious expression of the state's ethical obligation to the common good. By electing government officials who will pass legislation in keeping with these ideals, we are living our beliefs.
When we vote for representatives who will carry out the compassionate directives of Matthew 25, we give witness to the old song: "They'll know we are Christians by our love." You know: We're the folks who are supposed to be something different. Maybe even, with God's grace, Christ-like.