AS MUCH AS YOU HAVE DONE TO THE LEAST OF MY BROTHERS YOU HAVE DONE TO ME. These are some of the best known words in the Gospels; each of us has heard them many times. Probably every Christian who takes the faith seriously has reminded himself of them fre quently, especially at times when confronted with some situation where it requires extra determi nation to practice charity or show consideration to others whom we find burdensome. Now, to day, at the beginning of Lent we are reminded once again that we are to give much attention to how we treat others, especially the unfortunate, as we strive to do what is pleasing in God's sight. At this season when we are asked to deny ourselves various satisfactions of our senses by fasting, greater silence, and avoiding idle curiosity, this Gospel brings to our attention a more important obligation, that of mercy and thoughtful charity to those in need..
Monks, from earliest times, as we can learn from reading the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, have considered it their strict duty not only to work with their hands to support themselves, but also in order to be able to supply aid to the poor. Our own Cistercian Order has often been exemplary in showing concern for assisting the needy, and often communities denied themselves comforts, even what we today would consider necessities such as heating their buildings, in order to have something to give to others. They went further, and became poor themselves with the poor Christ so as to share in the victory of Christ over injustice and selfishness.
Jesus' words in this text refer only to providing material aid to impoverished and unfortunate persons. Elsewhere he speaks of other forms of fraternal charity no less essential for any one who would follow him. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." This second command ment, he states, is like the first which makes it our obligation to love God with all our heart and soul. In today's first reading what such loves entails in good part is brought home to us. This text was familiar to our Lord and no doubt had contributed to forming his concept as to what love of neighbor involves. It would even seem that what this passage from the Holiness Code of the Book of Exodus tells us about the appropriate treatment of our fellow men and women is, largely, an explanation of the first words of this Chapter: Be holy for I, the Lord your God. To imitate God's holiness, in addition to observing the Sabbath and other ordinances prescribed for his worship, the whole congregation of the sons of Israel are to avoid all injustice, all deception, all exploitation of their neighbor. We must not take advantage of the weaknesses of others, of their defects; we have the duty to care for their reputation and to avoid speaking evil of all; we must stand up against the powerful when he is in the wrong.
Obviously, then, Lent is more profoundly challenging than first appears. We are sinners and need to do penance; we belong to the Church and must show concern for oth ers by denying our self satisfactions and praying for them. We recognize as well that learning self-discipline is essential, for without it we cannot expect to please God or man. But these basic duties find their completion in our fidelity to God's will and in the consideration and love we bring to bear in our dealings with others. May this Eucharist, in which we are all united with one another in Christ, and with the whole Church as well, strengthen us in this love of God and neighbor that we might deserve to hear the Lord call us to his side when he comes to judge the living and the dead.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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