Monday, February 15, 2016

The Day I Chose a Cardinal Over Jesus

Anyone who has spent much time around a Catholic parish would know that you get a lot of people who stop by looking for money. You would also know that a lot of the requests are scams. I've had men come in and cry telling me that there nine year old son just died and they don't have money to get to the funeral. I've had a woman come at 2am telling me that she was fleeing her abusive husband and needed money for gas. I've had a guy looking to buy a wheelchair for his disabled son.  In each of these instances, after just a little investigation, it became clear that the stories were all untrue. Some people have a knack for showing up just at the moment when you are most vulnerable. You're standing outside of church getting ready to get in the hearse to go to a grave. You don't have time to verify the rather desperate story that is always time sensitive.  Quite honestly, in my experience, these types of experiences have had an effect upon the way I view people. The second someone says, "Father, can I talk to you," I find my antennae going up. "Is this a scam? When are they going to ask me for money?"

Today's gospel comes from the 25th Chapter of Matthew's gospel. It concerns the final judgment when Jesus will condemn those who did not give him food, water, or clothing, or visit him when he was ill or in prison and he will welcome to eternal life all those who did. If there is any gospel passage that makes me nervous, it's this one. "As often as you did not do it for one of these least ones, you did not do it for me."  When I meditate upon this gospel, it is always the same scene that comes to my mind.

A few years ago, while I was a pastor, the cardinal came to offer Mass at my parish. It was one of those big occasions when a parish tries to put its best foot forward. As soon as the Mass ended, we were trying to get the cardinal from the upstairs church to the hall downstairs for a celebratory party. As we were coming out of the sacristy, a kind of disheveled looking man appeared. He said, "Father, can I ask you a favor?"  My antennae immediately went up and I put this guy in the category of someone who was looking for money at the very worst possible moment.  My job was to get the cardinal downstairs, not to deal with this guy.  Then came his next line which went something like this: "I lost my cell phone and I just bought a new one. But, I don't know how to read so I can't read the instructions. So I thought, 'Who would help me to read the instructions? And I thought, 'I know, I will find a priest because priests are smart and nice and a priest will help me."  He might as well have taken out a sword and cut me in two.

Maybe it is from growing up as the son of a cop, but I can usually tell a scammer from a mile away. But, Jesus doesn't say in the gospel that our judgment will be based upon our ability to detect scammers from a mile away. He says that it will be based upon what we do or don't do for the people right in front of us. Throughout the gospels, people failed to recognize Jesus. His hometown people drove him away because they failed to recognize him. St. John tells us that he came to his own and his own knew him not. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us how to recognize him. He is to be found in those who are the least. 

One of the graces that Lent can bring us is to sharpen our spiritual antennae, making us better able to know ourselves, our weaknesses, the graces that God has given to us etc. But it can also make us better able to recognize Christ in the needs of others. As we grow in our discipleship, we become more familiar with the Lord and are able to recognize him when he appears before us. The Lenten discipline of almsgiving helps to free us from the cynical and worldly antennae that can often dominate us. Almsgiving frees us from our blindness to Christ's presence.  He is present in those who need food, clothing, water, a listening ear, a friend.

The man whom I encountered some years ago was unable to read. I won't be able to use that excuse on the day of my judgment. I can read Matthew 25. There is nothing unclear about it. If we find ourselves thinking, "I wish I could see more evidence of God," perhaps the reason we don't see him is because we are blinded by our possessions.  This Lent, let's become more generous and really learn how to give to those in need.  Jesus is very near to us. If we can't see him, it's not his fault. Perhaps we are blinded by our selfishness. The cure for this blindness is to become generous and give alms. There's a judgment coming.

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