One Good Friday Father Murphy was furious to find that the local pub was full of patrons. He stormed in and marched the entire group over to the Church. They he proceeded to rip into them about the meaning of their faith. He culminated by challenging the group. “If you want to go to heaven, please stand up.” Everyone stood up – except O’Toole. O’Toole stubbornly stayed seated in his pew. The priest left the pulpit and got right in his face, “What’s wrong with you. You mean to tell me that when you die you don’t want to go to Heaven?” O’Toole said, “Oh, when I die, yes. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now.”
Today we remember that we are going somewhere, we are aiming toward heaven. We might feel in the time of pandemic that we are on a treadmill getting nowhere fast, but the Bible teaches us otherwise. History is leading us to judgment — with Christ the King separating the sheep from the goats, the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy. The fact that there is a judgment tells us that everything does not go, that “you do your thing and I do my thing” is not the way God works, that right and wrong do exist. Justice will prevail, judgment is the moment of truth. The Gospel of Matthew places this parable as the last message of Jesus before his death. It serves as something of a last will and testament, the hand on the door knob statement that you remember more than what went before. Pay attention, this will be on the test.
Let’s think about the test, the final exam, the basis on which the judgment is made. On the one hand the exam question is surprising, at least for church-going people. It would be easy to suppose that the final exam would be about faith – did you believe the right things? Or maybe the final exam would be about the commandments – did you follow all ten or fudge a bit? Or maybe the final exam is about our practice – did you go to church and say your prayers? Those are the kinds of things that religious people talk about, right? But none of those was on the final exam explicitly. They serve more as study guides, focus groups, crib sheets to help in preparing for the final exam.
On the other hand, the final exam question is not that surprising when you see it in the context of those commandments that Jesus thought were the most important – love God and love your neighbor. But notice, the final exam is not “do you love God?” After all that is easy to say: “Sure I love God. Close personal friend of mine. We’re FaceBook buddies.” But as St. John tells us, anyone who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar. “For anyone who does not love his brother or sister, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). The final exam, therefore, is making concrete what the words of Jesus ask of us. The one question on the final exam: How did you respond to human need? That’s it. That’s the final exam. That’s the question. And if we know what the question on the final exam is going to be, we’d better cram now so we can answer it correctly when the time comes.
There is one curious aspect of the question on the final exam. The people who got the answer right did not even know it. “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger or a prisoner?” they asked. Getting the answer right was not a matter of your intention, your reason, your motivation. It was about your actions. A few years ago – well, fifty years ago – Mother Teresa gave a talk at THE Catholic University of America, my alma mater. She said something like this: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.” I remember thinking at the time that was the key. If I could only be like Mother Teresa and see Jesus in others I would do the right thing. But according to the parable as Jesus told it, that isn’t necessary at all. What is necessary to pass the final exam is simply recognizing that someone who is suffering has a claim on you. You pass the final exam by caring. You don’t go by on the other side of the road but reach out and respond to that human need.
In the world of charitable giving they tell you that the correct approach is not to present a prospective donor with your need. “I have this need. You have the money. Give me your money to fulfill my need.” That approach does not work because is a zero sum game that creates winners and losers. No, successful fundraising happens when you show to the donors what they get out of it. “Because of you, a family was able to eat today. Because of your generosity, people who were cold now have winter coats. Because of your involvement, health care will be available in this community.” That produces in the benefactor a sense of their value and importance. It generates a feeling of genuine community and belonging. Your aim is to create a culture of giving with a win-win scenario – those who are giving and those who are receiving both benefit from the exchange. That ultimately is what the final exam is all about. What did you do to respond to human need, the king will ask? The sheep will answer, I saw a brother or sister who was hurting. Their pain pained me so I did what I could, even if it was only a little bit, to help. That’s how you ace the final exam. That’s how you get to inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. That’s how you get into heaven.