Picture in your mind the face of Jesus. For many who grew up Protestant in America, the familiar face from Warner Sallman's 1941 portrait titled "Head of Christ" comes to mind. It's the gentle, mild, long-haired and oddly Caucasian Jesus you see on the walls of Sunday School rooms of the Baptist Church and homes across the United States.
For many Catholics, it may be the image of Jesus pointing to His exposed heart ... the image often called "The Sacred Heart of Jesus."
For Orthodox Christians, it may be the familiar face on the iconostasis in the front of the church, probably more Middle-Eastern-looking. Keep "that Face" in your mind as we talk this morning.
It's a Wednesday, near noon, and you've volunteered to help feed a group of hungry homeless people at a local shelter. Sad, weary people in worn, dirty shoes and ill-fitting clothes from a thrift shop shuffle past your table as you ladle steaming vegetable soup from a large stainless steel pot into plastic bowls.
Most don't make eye contact, some don't even seem to notice you and focus entirely on the soup. But one tall man stops directly in front of you, looks into your eyes and says, "Thank you." As you look up, you recognize "that Face," you've seen those eyes before, you gaze for just a quick moment ... He turns and walks away.
Surely that wasn't really ... There was probably just something about his gaunt, angular face under the florescent lights that reminded you of "that Face" you've often seen before ... How could it be ... Jesus wouldn't really be homeless, waiting in line at a soup kitchen for lunch.
It's Thursday morning, visiting hours have just begun at the local hospital, and you're there to see an elderly neighbor just out of Intensive Care after surgery. In your hand is a small bouquet of spring flowers from the supermarket.
You walk past the gift shop and pharmacy to the elevators, go up to the fourth floor, try to ignore those signs with words we don't like to think about -- pulmonary therapy, oncology, EKG.
You find her room. She's propped up on pillows in one of those hospital gowns with little birds or rabbits that try to look cheerful — but fail. She turns to you, reaches for the flowers and, as she smiles and says, "Thank you", for just a moment, you see "that Face" ... "that Face" again.
Now, that one couldn't have been Him. You're imagining things. Jesus was a man, barely middle aged, and your neighbor's an elderly woman.
It's Friday, and a friend who volunteers as a chaplain for the sheriff's department has somehow talked you into meeting him at the county jail to visit an inmate. As the deputy at the window checks your driver's license, you notice how many visitors are young black or hispanic women, many either pregnant or trying to calm a crying baby.
At a nearby window, a pretty young mother struggles in broken English to arrange bail for someone.
A door next to you buzzes loudly and opens, and the noise of the cell block assaults your ears — shouts and screams mixed with blaring televisions, each tuned to a different channel.
The deputy leads you and your chaplain friend to a visiting room, really nothing more than a tiny, cramped booth with a window and a telephone on each side of the glass.
Minutes pass and, finally, on the other side of the glass partition, you see him. He's in his late teens, barely an adult, wearing an ill-fitting bright orange jumpsuit. As he picks up the telephone, his unfamiliar features seem to transform into "that Face" you know so well. You hear his voice from the phone. "Thank you."
What is happening? Why are you seeing "that Face?" You leave the jail and drive home strangely confused.
The disciples were probably also perplexed when their Master told them the story in today's Gospel. He spoke of the day of His glorious return with legions of angels, the day He would sit upon the Great White Throne, and sort out those before Him as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. But His words spoken to the sheep on that day must have seemed mysterious to His disciples.
"That night when I was hungry, you gave Me food to eat," He told His astonished flock. "Remember when you found Me shivering in the cold? It was you who gave Me a coat and some warm clothes to wear.
That time when I was sick, you are the ones who came to see Me. When I was in prison, it was you who visited Me. It was you who did those kind acts, and I remember!"
"When was that, Lord?" bewildered, they asked. "What are You talking about? We don't remember finding You hungry or cold, and giving You food and clothing. And when did we ever visit You when You were sick or in prison? We don't remember any of that."
The Master answered, "Anytime you did those things for the least of these brothers of Mine, the ones too often forgotten and easily ignored, what you did for them — is exactly the same as if you did those things for Me."
Somewhere today in this city, Jesus is hungry. Somewhere He's homeless, shivering in the cold. Somewhere Jesus is sick in a hospital room. Somewhere He's in jail or prison, locked in a cell.
We don't like to think of our Master in handcuffs in the back seat of a police car. Or alone in a hospital bed in the back ward of a nursing home, forgotten and ignored — the least of these our brothers or sisters.
My brothers and sisters ...
It is for Him, we organize food drives for the hungry.
It is for Him, we support shelters for the homeless.
It is for Him, we pray for prisoners and their salvation.
It is for Him, we give our old clothes to the Goodwill or Salvation Army instead of throwing them away.
It is for Him, we visit a widowed neighbor in the hospital.
It is for Him, we are kind to those in need, those on the tattered margin of society, those who cannot help themselves.
And "as much as you did these things for the least of these My brethren," we hear His voice say, "You did it unto Me."
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