“Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.”
Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. You must accept that you will not attain perfection. You must embrace the insecurity of the unknown. You must further understand that when you get that smug feeling of devout holiness, you are assuredly on the wrong track. You must develop a taste for humble pie. You must also be accountable, as we Catholics say at the Penitential Rite during Mass, “for what I have done and for what I have failed to do.” Following Jesus almost always means that there is something you have failed to do.
What we are called to do by Jesus is social justice, for which Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel is the blueprint. Specifically, in verses 31-46, Jesus tells the story of the king separating the sheep from the goats. (If you are a fan of the band Cake, you will remember that “sheep go to heaven; goats go to hell.”) Jesus lists the criteria to be welcomed into eternal life with God: “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.” (Matthew 25:35-36) The sheep, faithful servants, have done these good deeds, but the goats don’t recall seeing Jesus around town. The goats want to know: When exactly did they neglect him? Jesus answers 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.” (Matthew 25:45).
These principles of social justice are not suggestions. On the contrary, they are the requirements of faith. Jesus’s message is blunt: We are, quite literally, to care for each other. We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper, even in our modern world, thousands of years removed from a time when the comparison of sheep and goats had any practical application. Jesus describes simple tasks, but not ones that we are comfortable doing. These are not things that we feel like doing, or paying for, or even arranging for others to do. We’d like to be left alone, frankly, to deal with our own families and our own problems within the clearly delineated boundaries of our own worlds. Lord knows that’s what I’d like. We fall for the American temptations of independence and isolationism. We vote for the politics of social injustice.
Politics? Yes, following Jesus is political when it means we must stand up for those who are defenseless, who are victimized by economics or racism or mental illness or just plain bad luck, who suffer from the lack of food or housing or health care. Following Jesus means that we must protest health care laws and policies that leave out the most vulnerable among us. We must be willing, if we have been blessed with opportunities and resources, to give to those on the margins, to pay higher taxes, and to support compassionate public policies. We don’t get to turn our backs on the folks we don’t know, the folks who can’t afford to live in our communities, the folks who must rely on our collective generosity, the folks we do not get to judge. Does all of this sound unfair? It probably is. But following Jesus has little to do with fairness, and everything to do with love. The love we are called to put out into the world is selfless and awkward and itchy and too much work. Like I said, not for the faint of heart.
Following Jesus means your heart must grow bigger than your brain or your self-righteousness or your pride. Today’s lesson: Trumpcare is from the goats, in all they have failed to do. Universal health care sure looks like the work of those faithful, ever-loving sheep.