I know that Advent hasn’t even yet begun, but sometime in mid-December I will carry out a pre-Christmas ritual that I’ve practised now for many years. It involves reading again the classic work by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Most people will be familiar with the story from the many film versions. But if you’ve never read the short novel, only about a hundred pages, maybe give it a try this year.
Why do I speak about A Christmas Carol on this great Feast of Christ the King? Because it mirrors something of the important truth given in today’s Gospel. The choices we make have consequences for the future. If we say we love Christ, and want to share eternal life with Him, He asks us to show this love in real and practical ways towards the least, here and now. In fact, there’s actually something far more radical at stake. When we love the least – the poorest human beings, the weakest human lives – we are loving Christ. Put, straightforwardly, the other way round: If we are not loving the poorest and the weakest, we cannot make any claim to really be loving Christ.
Dickens’ central character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is given a stark warning, a wake-up call of the first order. The consequences of his life so far for the future are not looking good. But – and it’s an essential but – he can change. His past does not have to determine his future. He can live in a different way, a better way, a more Christ-like way. A powerful theme of transformation is at play in Dickens’ story, and some scholars see here an underlying Christian motif.
On this Sunday, given over to Christ’s kingship, His lordship and sovereignty, Jesus calls us, individually and together, to deep-rooted transformation of life – a transformation of how we see things, a transformation of how we think things, a transformation of how we do things.
Christ the Shepherd King, Christ the returning King, Christ the King of glory and of judgement, presents us with two different pathways. The choices we make have consequences. Our future is determined by the kind of life we live. The Gospel pulls no punches. If it doesn’t make us uncomfortable at some level we are not hearing it properly. However we might try to soften the blow, here’s the far-reaching truth about following Christ: our love for Jesus is only as real and genuine as our love for the weakest and the poorest. The same Lord who is merciful, kind, and compassionate sets standards for anyone who would enter into eternal life. His demands are upfront. No ifs and buts. No excuses.
These standards can, and should, be applied in many and varied ways. But they cannot be explained away. Every day, every Christian must take the test of discipleship which Christ lays out before us:
- What am I doing to feed the hungry? If I’m doing nothing, then I’m leaving Christ starving.
- What am I doing to give drink to the thirsty? If I’m doing nothing, then I’m leaving Christ parched.
- What am I doing to welcome strangers? If I’m doing nothing, then I’m closing the door on Christ.
- What am I doing to clothe the naked? If I’m doing nothing, then I’m leaving Christ stripped bare.
- What am I doing to show my concern for the sick? If I’m doing nothing, then I’m ignoring Christ’s suffering.
- What am I doing to care for the imprisoned? If I’m doing nothing, then I’m leaving Christ abandoned.
None of us can solve everything. But we can all do something which is more than nothing. That something for someone in need is something for Christ. ‘If you can’t feed a hundred people,’ said Mother Teresa, ‘then start by feeding one.’ ‘If you do something as simple,’ she said, ‘as give a glass of water to someone who is thirsty, you are giving it to Christ.’
When I was newly ordained, I remember a teacher saying to me: ‘When you ask small children a question in your homily, be prepared for the answer always to be ‘Jesus’, ‘love’ or ‘sharing.’ This is what the Gospel means to them.’ In simple reality, this is what the Gospel means to us all. Because of the Lord Jesus, because of His love for us, and through us, sharing is part of discipleship. And that sharing includes, but isn’t limited by, the examples that separate the sheep from the goats. Acts of largesse, wonderful and important though they are, can sometimes be easier than sharing something small with those we find it hardest to love. All sharing begins in the heart. It starts with the way I see others. If I see Christ in them it becomes easier to share His love with them, whatever that means for my time, my money, my talents and my belongings.
I once sat in a Presbytery trying to write a talk when a man came to the door asking for money. I was tired. He’d been before, many times. There was always a sob story which I doubted was true. I was irritated that he’d disturbed me and I sent him away quickly. I watched him walk down the path on a late afternoon in dark, wet January. I went back to my desk, but I couldn’t settle down to work. All I could think about was how mean I had been. About half an hour later, another caller came to the door. He too had a story, but this time I listened. I was so moved, I gave him my coat. Now, please don’t rush to petition for my canonisation. There was little real virtue at play, if any. I was trying to make up for what I should have done before, through time and love. Life is sometimes like this. We are all learners in the school of charity, learning often from our mistakes, needing to learn from Christ.
Rather than hearing this Sunday’s Gospel as self-critique, might we hear it as a gracious summons to share more spontaneously, to share more generously, with the weakest and the poorest? This is what our loving God does with each of us. Might we hear the Gospel as a rallying call to change and become more like Christ who gave, and gives, everything out of love?