Head out on the highway


As always on Sundays, today’s first reading and Gospel reading are coordinated. But they fit together less like a couple of Lego pieces than like the eastbound and westbound lanes of an expressway.

What is the same in both texts is the message that God intends to judge our cooperation or non-cooperation with his plans.

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God declares that he is coming to shepherd his sheep. According to ancient Near Eastern idiom, that’s a way of saying he’s coming as king to straighten things out. He will help those in need and destroy those who have failed to help the needy. “I will judge between one sheep and another,” God says (Ez 24:17).

In the Gospel, Jesus depicts himself stepping into this role. At the end of history, he will “sit on his glorious throne,” assemble the human flock before him, and “separate them one from another” (Mt 25:31-32). Those who have helped neighbors in need will be rewarded; those who closed their hearts to the needy will be punished.

But while the two readings belong to the same road, the traffic is moving in opposite directions.

In Ezekiel, God declares that, since the human leaders of his people have been failing to help those in their charge, God himself is going to come and care for them. This prophecy, of course, looks toward Jesus. In his coming, Jesus did in fact forgive sins, heal the sick and give rest to the fearful and anxious.

And now he has commissioned us, his followers, to extend his ministry everywhere. We’ve become the agents by which he brings his compassionate help to needy neighbors of all kinds.

But here’s the surprising part. According to the Gospel, when, as agents of Jesus we reach out to a neighbor in need, we encounter — Jesus! “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt 21:40). Jesus identifies himself with whatever needy person we may ever meet. So as we extend his love to that person, meet him in that person!

In the interaction, then, between a person in need and a person who meets the need, Jesus is doubly present. If we’re looking for him, wanting to get to know him better, that interaction is the place to be.