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This is tough love

Kate Barrett | Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sometimes I do feel as if Jesus is saying to us patiently, but emphatically, “Pay. Attention. To. Me.” I believe that this week, between two Sundays of very straightforward gospel readings, is one of those times.

Last Sunday he told us, “Make the most of the gifts God has given you, or you — useless and lazy — will be thrown out into the darkness.”

This Sunday he will warn, “Take care of those who need you the most, or you will certainly go off to eternal punishment.” These passages from Matthew’s gospel contain some of Jesus’ most frank, forthright commands to his disciples, which means of course that today we must understand that he is speaking to each of us.

I can remember hearing this Sunday’s gospel reading as a child, and actually enjoying it. I think I liked the familiarity of it: as soon as the priest read the part where Jesus says, “He will place the sheep on his left and the goats on his right,” I knew what was coming.

I liked the rhythm and the repetition I knew would come — “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me,” and then later, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me no drink … “

It was even set to music, which gave us the opportunity to sing those engaging, poetic phrases, rather than simply listen to them.

As I grew older and came to understand more clearly the meaning of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, I realized the complexity of this reading called me to a deeper, more substantive response than simply finding it as appealing as a familiar acquaintance I met up with every so often at Mass.

So this reading is what tough love sounds like. On the one hand, we rest the foundations of our lives and beliefs on the faithful knowledge that God loves us wholly and unconditionally, and yet on the other hand the same limitless love of God calls us to unselfishness, and demands that we live for others.

God’s love insists, in fact, that with every cell in our bodies we attempt to imitate the way God loves us in the way we treat not only our family and friends, but those we might be tempted to overlook. In the hungry and thirsty poor, in the lonely outcasts living on the edges of our communities, in the prisoner who needs our compassionate presence, Jesus is unavoidably present and pleads with us to love as he loves.

If these demands make us uncomfortable, we might be tempted to think to ourselves, “At least after this Sunday, Advent begins. Now we’ll hear some comforting, heartwarming stories about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.”

Nope, not so fast.

Throughout the first three weeks of Advent (that’s a whopping 75 percent of the season, if you’re counting) the gospels continue to bring us more warnings: “Keep awake!” “The one more powerful than I is coming!” “Make straight the way of the Lord!”

The ancient Israelites, guided by their belief in their covenant promises with God, anticipated that God would break into human history in a way that would change everything — and he did, in the person of Jesus Christ. Our anticipation has a different character: we await the return of Christ at the end of time.

When we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, we have to ask the Jesus who died and rose for us to show us, over and over, how we are to make straight the path for his coming again.

The Good News — and it is good news, even if it is of the demanding, uncomfortable, tough love variety — is that God is not trying to trick us into eternal damnation. He does not wish unsuspecting errors or oversights upon us, moments when we fail to notice his presence in the lonely, the poor or the imprisoned. If we choose to unite ourselves to his intimate love for us, through finding him not only in our prayer and worship, but in tending the sheep of God’s flock as lovingly as he does, we will truly find, as Jesus states at the end of Sunday’s gospel, eternal life.

Kate Barrett is the director of the Emmaus Program in Campus Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.