I was ill and you cared for me. (Matt 25:36)

So the king will say, seated on his glorious throne with all his angels in attendance and all the nations assembled before him: some on his right and some on his left. The king will speak these words to those on his right after saying to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt 25:36) When they ask him when it was that they found him ill and attended to his needs, he will reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt 25:40)

This is part of the gospel passage the Church proclaims every third year on the Solemnity of Christ the King. The Church invites us to reflect on this passage in order to better understand the kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we do that, we come to know Jesus is a king who personally and compassionately identifies with each one of his subjects, especially the lowliest and most afflicted. We see Jesus coming in glory with all the heavenly host to establish his kingdom on earth once and for all. We see Christ the King wielding absolute power and total authority. Nevertheless, we find him establishing his kingdom, not in order to rule over his subjects by force, but to rule with those who show their love for him by sharing his compassion for the lowliest and most afflicted. “Inherit the kingdom,” he says. Saint Paul echoes this invitation: “If we persevere we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 12).

Jesus is a different kind of king than the ones we read about in history books. He is different because he is greater. He is king of heaven and earth, of all times and all places. He is also different because he has a different relationship with those he rules. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his apostles at the Last Supper, “The kings of the gentiles lord it over them . . . but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest and the leader as the servant. For . . . I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22: 25-27). He goes on to tell his apostles, “I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:29-30). For Jesus, kingship is exercised through service. For those who reign with Jesus, who sit at his table and inherit his kingdom, the same must be true. Reigning means serving. Jesus Christ is a king who serves and those who serve Jesus in the persons of the lowliest and most afflicted are invited to reign with him.

The Church calls the ways of serving that Jesus describes in Matthew 25, “Corporal works of mercy.” They include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the imprisoned. They also include, as we have seen, caring for the sick. “I was ill,” Jesus says, “and you cared for me.” Caring for the sick is one of the principal ways that we are invited to show love for Jesus by serving him in the lowliest and most afflicted. In our sick brothers and sisters, it is Jesus Christ whom we encounter. In them we are invited to care for him.

People care for the sick in many ways. Some people care for the sick in professional capacities, as doctors or nurses or in another of the many health care professions. Some care for the sick as chaplains, attending to the spiritual needs of sick persons, their loved ones, and the medical professionals who care for them. Chaplains can include trained clergy and laity from a multitude of religious traditions. In the Catholic tradition, priest like myself are appointed chaplains for the sick residing in particular health care facilities in order to provide for their pastoral care. By virtue of their ordinations, bishops, priests, and deacons are charged with the ministry of Holy Communion and Catholic laity can also be commissioned to bring Jesus’ Eucharistic presence to the sick and those who care for them. Many more people care for the sick by helping sick family members, friends, and fellow parishioners who suffer illness in hospitals, in other facilities, or in their own homes.

No matter how we care for the sick, Christ the King invites all of us to recognize him in their persons. Our sick brothers and sisters provide us with a great opportunity: to care for Jesus himself and to inherit the kingdom that he has prepared for us from the foundation of the world. By caring for the sick we are invited to reign with Christ in his eternal kingdom: “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”[1]

[1] Roman Missal, Preface of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.