No intention to discourage the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, but if we are to understand the parable of the Last Judgment, we need to see it more as a parable than as a literal scenario. After all, if we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked, and if we have heard the parable of the Last Judgment countless times, we’d have to feign ignorance to ask Jesus Christ, “When did we see you hungry and feed you or naked and clothe you?”
There must be something going on here–more than meets the eye. Something that will have us sincerely surprised. Perhaps it might be less about not realizing our actions were toward Christ, but perhaps more about our unawareness of other sorts of actions, or their omission, as being beneficial or detrimental.
An example should help illustrate. Suppose you frequent a website that has a forum for discussion of a shared interest. Some of the regulars decide they’d like to get to know one another better and so they establish a digital friendship via a well-known social media site. They finally get to see what one another look like via their profile pictures and possibly see their other interests and family members. One digital friend appears to be overly friendly and too forward, even without encouragement on your part. It makes you pull back somewhat. Then finally an event related to this common interest is about to take place and the folks who have taken their virtual friendships to another level now naturally want to meet in person, so a pre-event dinner is arranged. You anticipate this, wondering if various people, especially your favorites, will be in person as enjoyable as they are online. Perhaps you arrive a little late and others are in various stages of their dinner, so you quickly order food with your companions in the hopes of catching up. You see Mr. Friendly across the room and he doesn’t look so friendly. Neither does his wife. You hadn’t come to this gathering particularly planning to avoid the Friendlies, but now you think that might just be the best thing to do. You feel a little guilty, but there are plenty of other people interacting with the couple, so you figure, good enough–they probably didn’t even miss you.
A couple of months after the event it becomes clear that something terrible has happened to Mr. Friendly. Turns out he has died from cancer, yet you never even knew he was sick — he was just too friendly as far as you were concerned. It now makes sense. He was near the end. Attending that event and the dinner beforehand were the actions of a man living out his dying wish. His “over-friendliness” was merely the actions of a man knowing he is about to leave this world and simply trying to squeeze some last drops of human contact out of his existence before passing on. That unfriendly-looking man at the dinner was Christ thirsting for the comfort of human contact–and you refused him a drink!
It doesn’t matter that you didn’t know the man had cancer. Christ didn’t say to love one another only when you perceive the need, the thirst. He didn’t say to continually try to figure out when it is a good time to love. It was a commandment to be obeyed, not to be figured out. You are not to be wise and clever. You are to be like an obedient little child.
You weren’t, and now the chance is gone forever. How many chances like that do we blow? Is this the horrible surprise that awaits us at the last judgment?
If we resolve to be like generously obedient little children and not constantly need to calculate and figure out when the right time to be loving is, we might be the ones who are told that we did give Christ that drink of water, though at the time we genuinely had no idea.
Gary, I’m sorry I blew it and didn’t give you that refreshing drink. Please forgive me.