This past January, four volunteers with the group No More Deaths were found guilty of illegally entering a national wildlife refuge along the Arizona-Mexico border to leave food and water for immigrants crossing the hot, pitiless desert illegally. The area is called the “Trail of Death” because of the 155 who have died there since 2001. Did these four violate federal laws? Yes. Nevertheless, many debated have debated the morality of the group’s actions.
In today’s gospel, however, Jesus makes no distinctions whether one should show compassion to the needy whatever their circumstances. The commandment is unequivocal, it is unambiguous, it is clear:
“I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Mt 25:35).
Jesus expresses his identification with every human being who suffers and in need of compassion. The principal sin of the wicked “goats” was not what they did, but what they didn’t do. Theirs was a sin of omission, inaction. The opportunities to help others were abundant. But they chose to do nothing. Perhaps, because it was illegal to do so.
We are challenged to express our “preferential option for the poor.” That phrase is not to be domesticated, to be made safe, by adding qualifications and clauses. Expressing our “preferential option for the poor” may even come at a cost.
The Church offers us this gospel during the Lenten season to remind us about almsgiving. We are called, not to horde our goods and possessions, but to share them with those in need. We will be judged, not so much by our right and proper beliefs, although they are important, but by our conduct, our actions — our incarnational preferential option for the poor in Jesus.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.