BY: Fr. Robert DeLeon Csc

Matthew 25:31-46
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of these least, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

“When Kyle Schwartz started teaching third grade at Doull Elementary School in Denver, she wanted to get to know her students better. She asked them to finish the sentence ‘I wish my teacher knew.’

“The responses were eye-opening for Ms. Schwartz. Some children were struggling with poverty (‘I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework’); an absent parent (‘I wish my teacher knew that sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom isn’t around a lot’); and a parent taken away (‘I wish my teacher knew how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was 3 years old and I haven’t seen him in six years’). “The lesson spurred Ms. Schwartz, now entering her fifth teaching year, to really understand what her students were facing outside the classroom to help them succeed at school. Other teachers tried the exercise and had similar insights.

“In her recently published book, ‘I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything For Our Kids,’ Ms. Schwartz details how essential it is for teachers and families to be partners. ‘I really want families to know how intentional teachers are about creating a sense of community and creating relationships with kids. Kids don’t learn when they don’t feel safe or valued.’

“Ms. Schwartz said classrooms can become a supportive environment for students coping with grief. She suggests that schools have ‘grief and loss’ inventories for students who have gone through a crisis, with input from families so that the child’s future teachers know what that student is dealing with. ‘As teachers, we know parents are the first and best teachers for their children and we want them to work with us,’ she said.” (“What Kids Wish Their Teachers Knew,” New York Times, August 31, 2016)

Coping with grief, whether it be mourning the death of someone close, or negotiating a challenging relationship (“My Mom’s giving me lots of grief lately.”), I wonder now how many of my former students were struggling with some invisible monster. I wonder how many of them were suffering, and I knew nothing of it. In the gospel parable we hear today, Jesus admonishes us to be especially attentive and solicitous to those most in need, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of these least, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

But who are the least? Coming first to my mind are the disenfranchised, those who have no power base from which to speak or act. These are those presently most in danger from rash governmental decisions. Another category of “the least” is those who, like Ms. Schwartz’s students, carry heavy and often secret burdens as they struggle day by day to blend with their peers. Truly, there are far more of “the least” than we’ll ever know. And Jesus says again, “Just as you did it to one of these least, you did it to me.”

“Pope Francis told Poland’s Catholic clergy [in July 2016] that the key challenge of the Gospel is that it remains unfinished—that Jesus looks to us to ‘take concrete care’ of his wounds by serving our brothers and sisters, ‘those close at hand and those far away, the sick and the migrant. [The Gospel] remains an open book that we are called to write by the works of mercy we practice. By serving those who suffer, we honor the flesh of Christ,’ Francis exhorted.

“‘From the beginning, [Jesus] wanted his to be a church on the move, a church that goes out into the world. And he wants it to do this just as he did. He was not sent into the world by the father to wield power, but to take the form of a slave; he came not to be served, but to serve and to bring the Good News,’ said the pope.

“‘Jesus directs us to a one-way street: that of going forth from ourselves,’ Francis continued. ‘It is a one-way trip, with no return ticket. It involves making an exodus from ourselves, losing our lives for his sake and setting out on the path of self-gift.’” ( ncronline.org , July 30, 2016) A recently spotted bumper sticker told the story —“Be who you needed when you were younger.” As we hear of Kyle Schwartz coming to learn the secret struggles and hardships of her students, it’s an invitation to us to recall our own challenges, both way back when and also in the present. Indeed, who of us has never known painful loss or desperate want? I don’t believe such a one ever existed.

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of these least, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40) While that bumper sticker advised, “Be who you needed when you were younger,” Jesus and Pope Francis broaden the plea—Be who the least need you to be.

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