Matthew 25 is perhaps one of the most well known gospel passages in service and justice work. Jesus tells us the key to inheriting eternal life: by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the ill, and visiting the imprisoned. Jesus proclaims, “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
This line, as beautiful as it is, also makes me really nervous. If I were writing this reflection for any group other than the Ignatian Solidarity Network, I might write a beautiful reflection on living lives of solidarity and engaging in these works of mercy. My hunch is that if you are reading the Lenten reflections on “Harden Not Your Hearts,” you already know that this work of justice is essential. Instead, I invite you to consider how interpretation of today’s Gospel can risk turning the people we are serving into objects.
Let me explain: I think there is a tendency to romanticize the poor. Recently I saw a person who is unhoused shivering on the side of the road. I pulled over, went to a coffee shop, and bought him coffee. And because I am a theologian, Matthew 25 started running through my head. Here I was, being a great Christian and giving drink to the thirsty, recognizing that Christ was present in this person. And just like that, I had failed to see this person as a person and instead turned him into a game piece on my path to eternal life.
The work of service and justice is crucial in our faith, but we harden our hearts if we turn others into objects. People are images of God, imago dei. We cannot turn others into objects on our path to salvation while recognizing their own dignity. People are never a means to an end, but always ends in themselves. As we continue on this Lenten journey, I invite you to consider how we recognize the dignity of others in our common work of justice.
- When I engage in service and justice work, how am I regarding those who I am serving?
- In what ways is my heart hardened towards others? How can I encounter others as full persons, and not a means to an end?
Annie Selak, Ph.D., is a Catholic feminist theologian who researches racism and sexism in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. She serves as the associate director of the Georgetown University Women’s Center.