A few years ago, I had the privilege of going to Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri to spend some time learning what it means to be a monk. One of the moments that really impressed me was dinner. In the refectory, the monks sit quietly while one monk reads part of a book to them. They read the same book for several weeks at a time in order to read its entirety, although you’d be surprised at how many pages you make it through in the course of a half-hour meal. There is no talking during the meal but there is plenty of communication. In fact, the challenge I found was to eat, listen to what was being read, and pay attention to the needs of the monks surrounding you. You see, on each table there was the typical one salt shaker, one pepper shaker, one sugar bowl, and a container of sugar substitutes as well as one pitcher of water. These were to be shared with everyone sitting at the table but we had to do so without talking. So, the monks developed a series of hand signals to ask for the particular accessory to their meal. In a sense it was an ingenious way to get around the lack of verbal communication. But, it demanded that each person pay attention to the people around them and not simply put their face in their plate and ignore the other forty men sitting in that room.
The gospel today is one of the most challenging gospel passages we Americans hear. This gospel holds that, in the end, we will not be judged by what we acquire or how good shape we are in. It says that we will be judged by how well we have taken care of the least in this world. The first reading was a little more indirect about the message, in a sense, by stating that, when God comes to judge us, he will take care of the people who are the weakest. He will be like a shepherd who sees his flock and immediately goes to the injured and sick to take care of them. It reminded me of a mother who comes home from a hard day at work to a sick child. She loves all her children equally, but is probably going to go directly to the sick kid’s room to find out how bad her child feels. This makes perfect sense to me. What didn’t make sense to me was a verse towards the end of the reading. After this long passage in which the Lord is gathering the lost sheep, caring for the sick, and finding us food, it says, “…but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.” What? At the judgment, God is going to destroy those who are sleek and strong? I’m may be in trouble! I need to go on a diet! I need to get sick! There was part of me that wondered if the prophet had taken the analogy a little too far. I mean, who gets slaughtered on a farm: the sickly runts of the litter or the fat, mature animals? But that doesn’t entirely help us understand what God is trying to get across to us in this passage. For that explanation, you have to turn to the gospel.
In it, we hear about the sheep and the goats. The sheep were the ones who cared for the little ones while the goats are the ones who only cared for themselves. It seems like the “sleek and strong” got so at the expense of the weakest among them. The goats took advantage of situations and were well provided for while the poor sheep were not at all taken care of. I think of this as we begin the Advent season and our country begins Christmas shopping season. I ran across a website the other day called advent conspiracy dot org. If you go to that website, you’ll come across the staggering figure that Jesus statement about people being thirsty and needing water is still true in several countries of this world. It would cost 10 billion dollars to fix, a figure that seems astronomical, until you think that Americans have spent, on average, 450 billion dollars for Christmas gifts in the past and we have given over 700 billion to different business in this country in order to bail them our of fiscal difficulties. Imagine the outrage that we, Americans, would feel if it was announced that we were going to use 10 billion dollars to go overseas and build wells for communities so they will have clean, drinkable water and train people locally how to do that as well. How do you think people would respond?
And, yet, we don’t have to look to other countries to find the marginalized of society. I have a feeling that we can find them right here in our midst. That’s partially why we will be celebrating the anointing of the sick in a few moments. This sacrament is one of two that is entirely for those who aren’t sleek or strong, along with the sacrament of reconciliation. Fr. Pat and I will soon invite those of you who are sick, those who will soon be receiving surgery, and those of a certain age to come forward and receive this sacrament. By doing this in this liturgy, we hope that you will feel the support of the entire body of Christ and know his healing. I encourage each of you not receiving this sacrament, to take time after mass to reach out in support of these people who need our love and support.
In the end, we will be judged on how we treated each other, Have we actually lived out the faith we profess or simply used it on Sunday and not carried it with us when we live our daily lives. Or, to put it another way, do we ever look around and see the people who are hurting or are we too busy focusing on our own plate, on the task at hand, to even care about the people around us?