Recently I listened to an interview with Richard Flannagan, the celebrated Australian novelist from Tasmania. In the interview, Richard told of his encounter with a Japanese man who was a medical orderly during World War Two. During the course of the war, this man came to a Prisoner of War Camp set up on the Burma Railway where Richard’s father was a captive. “He walked in at night,” Richard said, “and there was this ochre glow coming through the trees. And he looked in and saw there were these great pyres on which corpses were being burnt, and these corpses were moving. They were the cholera victims that were being burnt. In front of them there were these skeletons that were crawling through the mud, and they were the Australian Prisoners of War. And he said that it was like a Buddhist vision of hell. I asked him, ‘Did he feel, as a medical man, that he should help these people?’ And he said, ‘No, he didn’t. You have to understand: We didn’t see them as human beings’.”

This shocking story reminded me of Jesus’ parable of The Rich Man in Luke’s Gospel: ‘There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.’ (Luke 16:19-23) In both stories, the victims — the poor man and the prisoners of war — were deprived of those things necessary for a life of dignity and self-respect. The big sin that the rich man and the medical orderly committed was that they did nothing!

Which brings us to St Matthew’s portrait of The Last Judgement in today’s Gospel. Here we have a Court being held: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.’ (Matthew 25:31) The throne he sits on is the Judgement Seat. (C.f.: Matthew 27:19) And those appearing before the Court are ‘all the nations’ (Matthew 25:32), that is, everyone; all of us. There, we are all divided into two groups: the good on his right, and the evil on his left. (Matthew 25:32- 33) Then Judgement is pronounced: To those on his right our King/the Judge says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34); and, to those on his left he says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41) — this is where the rich man in Luke’s Parable found himself.

The criteria used for Judgement surprises both groups. (Matthew 25:37-39, 44) For what determines which group each is assigned to is not for anything religious: No commandments being observed or violated are mentioned; no one is condemned for some moral wrongdoing — and, in the story of The Rich Man, one could imagine that he kept all the commandments, even attended Synagogue every Sabbath … and yet he found himself ‘in torment in Hades.’ (Luke 16:23) What determines whether we are to be placed with those on the King’s right or on his left, is the position we take in regard to what has always been Humanity’s bane: ignorance, poverty, disease, injustice, bigotry, and death of either body or soul. Those deprived of Life’s necessities are unable to live a human life. When faced with someone so deprived, we are called to do something about it, to do what we can to ensure they have what is necessary to live with dignity. (That is, to practice the Seven Works of Mercy that this Gospel puts before us: Matthew 25: 35-36, 42-43) This does not mean that we have to give them everything, so that they end up becoming rich people. In the story of The Rich Man, we are told that poor Lazarus merely ‘longed to be fed with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table’; to have given him these would not have cost the rich man anything. In whatever blessing we enjoy — the gifts and talents we possess — when we come across another who is not so blessed and their life because of it is a misery, we are called to share our joy … and it may be that we have only the luxury of time to give: in allowing ourselves to give some poor person the time of day, we at least recognise their worth as a human being; a great gift!

At the Final Judgement, we will find ourselves numbered among those on Christ’s left, if, when we come across another who for whatever reason is unable to live a dignified human life … and we do nothing: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” (Matthew 25:41-43) It will do us no good to try and plead some excuse — like the Japanese medical orderly: “You have to understand: We didn’t see them as human beings.” For, to us Christ will simply say, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:45) We need to be wary of those who would have us look upon others as somehow less than human, by say, referring to them as ‘vermin.’ We are all made in the image of God; in each person can be seen The Christ who is The Image of God. (Genesis 1:26-27; Matthew 18:20) We all need to attend to each sacred image as something holy. (Matthew 25:40) In saying, “You have to understand: We didn’t see them as human beings,” the Japanese medical orderly further highlights what might be called Pope Francis’ Eighth Work of Mercy: Care for Our Common Home. (Pope Francis: Laudato Si’, and Laudate Deum) For what this man seems to be saying is that in what we do or fail to do, it’s okay to abuse or mistreat something else just because it is not human. This, too, is beneath our human dignity. (C.f.: Genesis 2:15) And to indulge in such activity is to abuse our own human dignity (C.f.: Romans 8:19-23), and for this most assuredly we shall hear The Christ saying to us: “You did it to me.” (Matthew 25:45)

All this is not to make us fearful of some future ordeal. Rather it is a call, an invitation, to live a dignified life here in this world, and to live now a life that befits a human being … by doing what we can to ensure that everyone we come across can do the same. (C.f.: Luke 10:25-37) For doing this, for simply being a good neighbour, especially to someone in need, when comes the time for us to give our account of ourselves (Romans 14:12. C.f.: 2:15-16), we will hear The Christ say to us: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34) Today, in our rich land, increasingly we should be finding ourselves disconcerted by Jesus’ word in today’s Gospel. For many are now facing the real prospect of becoming homeless, of being unable to feed their families, of being forced out to live on the streets hand to mouth — this is not the way we humans should have to live. (C.f.: Luke 16:19) Somehow, we are encouraged to just look on them as some kind of collateral damage necessary in the course of economic repair, as though it’s okay. They are not collateral damage; they are human beings who are hurting and unable to live a decent human life, and their plight is not their fault. This is unacceptable, and it is not okay; we should be affronted. As this housing crisis deepens, Jesus’ word in today’s Gospel should start niggling us more and more, challenging and urging us … to do something: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’.” (Matthew 25:44-45)

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO