What we do to these, we do to Jesus
November 24, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 34 Matthew 25:31-46
As we honour today the lives lost in the Erebus plane disaster, the question which arises again is 'Where is God in tragedy?' 'Where is the Face of Christ in the midst of suffering? I want to explore that question in the light of today's gospel text.
On plain reading, it is a text that calls us to compassion. Leaving aside the sheep and goats analogy, it is a text which suggests that to show kindness to the one in need is to display the universal love of God and to reveal the face of Christ. Yet there is a detail here which needs to be emphasised. The acts of kindness are to be expressed especially for the least in society. What do we make of this detail?
In my previous parish in inner Sydney one of the more useful activities of the church was a Sunday morning breakfast for local homeless people. There were hundreds who came in and many significant connections were made over baked beans and toast. It was a program I inherited when I arrived, and I enjoyed it greatly. I also inherited the awful pattern of beginning the breakfast with prayers and ending with a voluntary church service. I tried as hard to avoid this as many of the homeless people did.
It often struck me that the face of Christ in this place was seen more in the food shared, lives lived alongside than in the prayers and Bible readings. It seemed to me that the meal was far more sacred than the church service. As it turned out in that parish, my suspicions became a reality. I was only ever treated with respect by people on the street, and with contempt by some of the religious. It confirmed for me what I had read in Liberation Theology; that poor people often have greater spiritual insight than religious people.
In a sermon on Christmas Eve 1979 in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero said: "We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed tonight with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways."
Three months later, Romero was assassinated by a death squad while celebrating mass in the chapel of the Divina Providencia. He was considered a threat to the new order of capitalism as he dared to advocate on behalf of the poor.
In November 1989, six Jesuit priests were murdered by the Salvadoran military on the campus of the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador. Their housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celia Marisela Ramos, were murdered there as well. The Jesuits were labelled subversives by the Salvadoran Government for speaking out against the oppressive socioeconomic structure of Salvadoran society. The Jesuits were six of over 70,000 victims who died in El Salvador's civil war, which raged in the 1980's and early 1990's. The vast majority of these victims were civilians killed by El Salvador's armed forces and paramilitary death squads.
The events in El Salvador were mirrored in other places, especially Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The church's public role and theology were shaped by international social and political changes. As populist governments in these places sought industrial development, it was the middle class that benefited while the peasantry delved into a deep spiral of poverty. This led to popular uprisings, which in turn led to military dictatorships. The violence, poverty, corruption and in some cases civil war were the spark for the theology which became known as liberationism.
Whether we consider local or global matters, the gospel challenge is to find the heart of Jesus for the oppressed person or group.
Immigration is a current hot issue. Last year, it was Australia under the spotlight for its lack of compassion towards refugees. Now, in this country, there are suggestions of tighter regulations and restrictions. Of course it is complex, and there need to be limits. Yet as a nation, are we acting with compassion? As followers of the God who has special concern for immigrants, minorities and poor people are we advocating as we should be?
When an infamous weekly columnist in our national newspaper peddles hatred and racism (and so often in the name of the Christian God) the words of Matthew 25 need to be heard. When we welcome new arrivals to our country and when our national policies on immigration are compassionate and balanced, we reflect the face of Jesus.
We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him in the faces of those who struggle, those with broken English and unfamiliar customs, those who have left home and family for a new land.
What we do to these we do to Jesus.
When we fail these we fail Jesus.
Ian Lawton Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City