Lent, ‘the least of these’ and our parents

| Jonathan Liedl | March 13, 2020 | 0 Comments


Lent is marked by prayer and fasting, but also “almsgiving,” or works of mercy. Regarding this final category, Christ’s words in Matthew 25:40 are a clear foundation: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

Christ identifies “the least of these” as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. But the deeper quality that unites them all is their poverty. People experiencing these hardships are in need without having anything to offer in return.

This understanding of “the least of these” finds a parallel in Luke’s account of the Gospel, when Christ instructs us to invite “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”— not our friends or peers — to our banquets and feasts. In so doing, we’re blessed precisely “because they cannot repay you.” Serving the “least of these” is love at its purest, because it seeks the good of another without any regard for what we get out of it.

In applying this type of selfless love, we tend to think of those on the margins of society — perhaps someone experiencing homelessness or a refugee family — and rightfully so. They need and deserve our mercy as a matter of justice. But perhaps it’s also good to reflect upon how “the least of these” can sometimes be even closer to home — and therefore all the more easy to overlook.

I was recently reminded of this in a humbling way while spending a couple of weeks with my mom. In many ways, we had an enjoyable time together, but I must also admit that I too often did not love my mother in the way that she deserved. At times I was impatient, easily annoyed and even dismissive.

At the end of our time together, I apologized to my mom for my lack of charity. Deeply chastened, I wondered if I was the only one who experienced this kind of dynamic with a parent. But shortly thereafter, I saw that a friend from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had posted about the exact same topic on Facebook. Her post read, in part: “Don’t treat the person who loves you the most … the worst. Don’t take your mom for granted.”

Why is it so easy for us to take our moms, and our parents in general, for granted? It might sound strange to say, but as we mature and grow in independence, our parents can become “the least of these” for us. They are “poor,” not necessarily because of material hardships, but because what they have to offer us — their unconditional love — is already given. No matter how we treat them, their love for us is likely to stay the same.

Therefore, consciously and willingly giving our parents the love they deserve can be a truly selfless kind of love, a love that brings us nothing from them that we wouldn’t already have. For this reason, it can be more challenging to love our parents than it might be to love a friend, a coworker, or someone else who likely wouldn’t put up with disrespect or being taken for granted.

The Church teaches that the mercy we are to show “the least of these” isn’t altruism or pity, some kind of “bonus” good we do, but is rather obligated by justice. In an even deeper way, this is true of the love we should have for our parents. The Fourth Commandment, which exhorts us to honor our father and mother, makes this clear, not only in its content, but also in its context. By linking the first three commandments, which refer to the things of God, to the last six commandments, which address the things of men, the Fourth Commandment acts as a kind of connector between heaven and earth, emphasizing our parents’ role as a mediator of God’s authority. To love them is to love God.

The primacy of our parents receives special attention in the New Testament as well. For instance, St. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 5:8 that anyone who neglects his own family “has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Serving the poor, the sick and the hungry is essential, but it can never become an excuse for failing to love our families, especially our parents, to whom we owe a debt that can never be repaid.

Lent is already underway, but perhaps we can consider adding some “parental works of mercy” to our practices. These don’t have to be extravagant: a weekly phone call, an invitation to spend time with the grandkids, a ride to a medical appointment. Whatever we might discern to do, we can’t go wrong in being more intentional about loving our parents. Because, like serving any of “the least of these,” loving our parents is not only an act of mercy, but a requirement of justice given by Our Lord.

Liedl is a seminarian in formation for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Beginning this month his column, To Home From Rome, will appear under the title Already/Not Yet.

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Category: Already/Not Yet