The Gospel According to My Neighbour
The Gospel calls on us to always have our eyes and hearts open to those who suffer. Judith Turner writes about a woman who lived by that Gospel command.
Last month the Church observed the first World Day of the Poor, proclaimed by Pope Francis.
This day, which will become an annual event, is intended to highlight the plight of the poor in the world and to open our minds and hearts and our attitudes towards the poverty that exists every day of the year.
The gospel of Matthew spells out very clearly the mandate we have to serve the poor: “Truly, I say to you,” the evangelist quotes Jesus, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (25:40).
There is no better way for me to reflect on this mandate given to us in Matthew’s gospel message — which in this season of conspicuous consumption has special resonance — than to tell you the story of my neighbour of 34 years, whom we buried four months ago.
Living Out Matthew
This woman truly lived this message of Matthew to the tee. She did good to everyone — especially “to the least of my brothers”.
We are always tempted to think that one day we will do something great for God. One day we will have a lot of money and feed a lot of people, or something spectacular like that.
But when we think like this, we do not realise that our opportunity to do something spectacular does not lie in the future, when things are better for us, but those opportunities are with us here and now, and every day, when things are not good for others.
Whenever my neighbour and I had time to talk over our fence, she always would relate her encounters with other people. And inevitably it would slip that she has helped someone in some small way. She would never start her conversation with the aim of boasting about what she did. We would just talk about some other issue, and somehow during the conversation I would realise the tremendous outreach she had to people around her.
And these people were never people of status or influence. She would always say something like, “The child looked so lost, so I did this…”, or “The man looked so dirty so I did this…”, or “The woman looked so hungry and I did this…”
My neighbour had taken the mandate given to each one of us in Matthew’s gospel as her own life mission. She saw an opportunity to do something good for people we could best describe as the least, the lost and the last.
She Didn’t Want Walls
There was a time when all of us in our street built fancy brick walls around our houses, with beautiful palisades and security spikes.
I am sure my neighbour also wanted her house to look fancy and secure. But one day, during one of our conversations at the fence, she told me that she did not want to have her wall too high and she did not want a gate that locks, “because how will someone who is looking for a piece of bread get into my yard?”
She told me: “There are people coming to me every morning on their way to work for their TB medication, I don’t want them to struggle to get in.”
At a time when all of us were rightfully thinking of our own safety and security, my neighbour was looking out for the “least of my brothers”.
There was something in the way my neighbour looked at a poor person that was different to the way society looks at the poor today. When she looked at a poor person, it touched her deeply and she connected with the goodness within herself, she connected with the godliness within herself, she connected with God in herself — and it led her to action.
Whenever she saw a poor person, though she never articulated it or maybe even never realised it, she saw the face of Christ. And therefore this verse of Matthew describes her perfectly: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
And we will do well to reflect on how the least, the last and the lost are faring around us while we are alive. And then act!
This, I think, is to live the spirit of Christmas every day.