Saint Francis of Assisi is one of the Church's most popular saints. With good reason he is considered the one saint whose life most resembled that of Christ. Of all the good works he performed, one kind deed especially stands out. Shortly after he decided to dedicate his life to God, he came upon a leper in the street. It was customary at the time for lepers to ring a bell to warn people that they were approaching. When the young Francis saw the leper's twisted body and open sores, he felt disgusted and revolted. But, just as suddenly, another feeling came over him. His heart was filled with compassion for the man's suffering. Overcoming his feelings of disgust, he rushed over to him and embraced him as a brother. Inspired by today's gospel reading, Saint Francis understood that it was Jesus he was holding in his arms.
Jesus tells us in today's gospel that we will be judged by how we treat the poor and needy in our midst. He does not tell us this story to scare us, but to encourage us. For, when we find the courage to reach our hand out to another in need, something incredible happens. We discover Jesus. As he says, "Whenever you did it for the least of these, you did it for me." Jesus still walks the earth in the form of the neediest among us.
In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel blasts the "shepherds of Israel." They are both the political and spiritual leaders of the people who have used their authority and power to enrich themselves rather than to protect the sheep. God will not leave the sheep of his flock scattered, terrorized by predators and hungry. If the princes and priests of Israel will not lead, then God himself will come down to tend his sheep. God himself will protect them, feed them and heal them.
This prophecy finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God himself come down from heaven to guide his sheep to everlasting life. His message was not just that a better life was waiting for us in heaven. Rather, Jesus came to show us how even now we could experience the saving love of God. As he told the disciples of John the Baptist, "The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them." With Jesus, the destructive effects of sin and death are being undone and the foundations of a new heaven and a new earth are being laid. It becomes real in the world today by the love which Christians show to those in need.
On this feast day, we proclaim the bold truth that Christ is King! As Saint Paul describes it for us in the second reading, Jesus by his death and resurrection has already won the victory over sin and death. Evil has already been defeated. That victory has been revealed to us through faith. It is hidden to give the world time to repent and to be saved. But the day is coming when Jesus' victory will be revealed once and for all. Then there will be no doubt. All people will have to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Until he comes again in glory, Jesus has left it to us to seek out and find those who are lost. Who in our life needs an encouraging word? Who in our life needs a friendly ear? Who in our life could use a visit? Who in our own home needs to know that they are loved and cared for? Like lost sheep, they will not come to us. If we are to live up to the challenge Jesus is giving us, we must go out to them.
For Christians, salvation is not just a future event awaiting us after death or at the end of the world. Salvation and eternal life are here, today and now. What we as Christians seek to do is bring heaven and its promises down to earth. Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," and so we seek in everything we do to bring the love of Christ to those we meet.
Christ now reigns in heaven above. He has come to earth to bring hope and comfort to those who suffer. That same Christ is still among us hidden in the weak, the poor, the outcast and the sick. Saint John of the Cross said, "At the end of our lives, we will be judged on love." If we serve the suffering Christ in those we meet, we can be assured of reigning with Christ the King in his heavenly glory.