"Have you ever done something simply on principle, because it was the right thing to do, knowing that you couldn't explain it to anyone, without there even being a good feeling attached to your act?" Karl Rahner wrote that and then added: "If you have done this, you have experienced God, perhaps without knowing it." Jesus would agree, so much so that he makes this both the central tenet of religion and the overriding criterion for salvation. We see this explicitly in the Gospel text where Jesus tells us that whatsoever we do to the poor on earth we do to him. For Jesus to give something to a poor person is to give something to God, and to neglect a poor person is to neglect God.
There is an important background to this teaching. People had been asking Jesus, "what will be the test? What will be the ultimate criterion for judgment as to whether or not someone enters into the kingdom of heaven? His answer surprised them. They had expected that the final judgment would revolve around issues of religious belonging, religious practice, correct observance and moral codes. Instead they got this answer: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on the throne...and all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will put the sheep on the right and the goats on the left."
What, according to Jesus, will be the basis for this separation? Only this: Did you feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Welcome the stranger? Clothe the naked? Visit the sick and imprisoned? Because when you do these things to the hungry, thirsty, strangers, sick and imprisoned, you do them to God : and vice versa! There was immediate confusion among those hearing these words. Both those who did what was asked and those who did not, were equally befuddled and lodged the same protest: "When? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, or a stranger or sick or in prison and serve you or not serve you? When did we see you, O God, and do this to you?
Both groups are caught off guard and both seemingly ask the same question, but their protests are in fact different. The first group : those who had measured up : are pleasantly surprised. What they say to Jesus is essentially this: "We didn't know it was you! We were just doing what was right!" And Jesus responds: "It doesn't matter! In serving them, you were serving me!" Those who hadn't measured up are rudely shocked. Their protest is: "If we had only known. If we had known that it was you inside the poor, we would have responded. We just didn't know!" And Jesus answers: "It doesn't matter! In not serving them, you were avoiding me."
What's the lesson? The more obvious one is the challenge already contained in the famous mantra of the prophets who had stated unequivocally that the quality of our faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land, and the quality of justice will be judged by how the most vulnerable groups in society (widows, orphans, strangers) fare while we are alive. The Jewish prophets had already taught us that serving the poor is a non-negotiable, integral part of religion,
that nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor. But Jesus adds something: God just doesn't have a preferential option for the poor; God is inside the poor.
Yet there's another lesson, subtle but important: In this Gospel story, neither those who served God in the poor nor those who didn't serve God in the poor actually knew what they were doing. The first group did so simply because it was the right thing to do. They didn't realize God was hidden inside the poor. The second group didn't reach out because they didn't realize God was in the poor. Neither knew that God was there : and that's the lesson!
A mature disciple doesn't calculate or make distinctions as to whether God is inside a certain situation, whether a person seems worth it, whether a person is a Christian, or whether a person appears to be "good," before reaching out to serve. A mature disciple serves whoever is in need simply because they are in need.
T.S. Eliot said that the temptation that is the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Jesus would add that doing the right thing is reason enough.