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Expert Reveals the Challenge Behind Mother Teresa’s ‘Five-Fingered Gospel’

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — For those who have never heard Mother Teresa’s famous “Gospel on Five Fingers,” just imagine the short, wizened founder of the Missionaries of Charity counting those words on the fingers of one hand – your hand: “You. Did. He. HAS. Me.”

Singing the words of Jesus Christ in English from Matthew 25:40 – “Very truly I say to you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you also did it to me. have done it” – it not only offered a vivid visual demonstration of Christ’s declaration. Mother Teresa, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, also issued an invitation and a challenge.

This invitation and challenge has deep biblical roots, explained Bradley Gregory, associate professor of biblical studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, during a September 7 lecture by the Mother Teresa Institute of the Catholic University.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta poses for a portrait in this file photo. (OSV News Photo/Carmel Communications)

Gregory’s lecture opened a three-day series of events culminating with a Sept. 9 celebration honoring the saint at the National Shrine Basilica of the Crypt of the Immaculate Conception.

“In almost every public talk she gave, Mother Teresa mentioned Matthew 25:40,” Gregory told his audience. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that his life was modeled on this verse.”

But what if this verse had more layers of meaning than we imagined?

“In some modern translations, this phrase from Matthew translates to, ‘You did it for me,’” Gregory explained. “Is it ‘You did it to me’ or ‘You did it for me?’ The Greek of the verse is ambiguous; this can be translated one way or another. But the difference between these two renderings is significant.

A small word, Gregory emphasized, has a very big impact.

“The translation ‘You have done it for me’ suggests that believers should see themselves as ambassadors of Jesus and perform works of mercy on his behalf,” Gregory said. “And that’s certainly true. But the translation “It was you who did it to me” is not only more probable, but much more striking. »

Gregory noted: “In this reading, Jesus is so identified with the poor and the suffering that everything done to them is – on a deeper level – an action done directly to Jesus. Notice that it’s not “like you did it to me” – it’s “you did it to me.”

“As Mother Teresa deeply understood,” Gregory said, “it is a sobering thought: that Jesus views actions done toward the needy as actually being done directly to Him. Most scholars agree that this second interpretation probably corresponds to the intended meaning. Actions performed towards the poor are – in a mysterious way – acts simultaneously performed towards Christ.

Matthew 25:40 appears near the end of this Gospel, Gregory said, as part of a series of parables intended to teach what happens at the final judgment. They include foolish bridesmaids (Matt. 25:1-13); talents (Matthew 25:14-30); and the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46).

“An honest reader might ask, “Does this mean we are judged solely by our works and our faith is not that relevant?” After all, faith is never mentioned in this passage,” Gregory pointed out.

To illustrate his response, Gregory explained Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor’s concept of the “social imagination”: the way people imagine their own social existence; the assumptions, expectations, and filters used when interacting with the world.

Expert Reveals the Challenge Behind Mother Teresa's 'Five-Fingered Gospel'
Saint John Paul II holds the hand of Saint Teresa of Calcutta in 1986 after visiting a home for the destitute and dying in India, run by the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity. (Photo by OSV News/Luciano Mellace, Reuters)

So, in Gregory’s example, more than a thousand rush-hour commuters on the Washington subway rushed past world-famous and Grammy-winning musician Joshua Bell when ‘in 2007 – in a baseball cap, jeans and a t-shirt – he proposed an impromptu speech. , a concert lasting more than 30 minutes with his multimillion-dollar Stradivarius violin.

Only one woman really recognized Bell. Only a handful stopped to listen to him play. Everyone else was unaware of what was happening, of a deeper reality they didn’t know existed.

Context and conversion of imagination are important, Gregory said. Subway riders didn’t expect to see Bell busking in the station; it defied their expectations. “Because these commuters were unaware of the experiment taking place, their social imagination prevented them from seeing the real person right in front of them,” Gregory observed.

“The way Mother Teresa lives Matthew 25:40 is very much like the woman who recognized Joshua Bell: in her ministry to the poorest of the poor, she witnesses a different view of the world,” Gregory explained. “A different social imagination. A testimony of an encounter with Christ where others might see nothingness.

His view of the gospel call, Gregory says, is difficult for the modern Western view to grasp.

“The works of mercy do not consist of winning the favor of God, but of entering into the mystery of the kingdom,” Gregory emphasized. “In Scripture, the poor have a completely different value in the social imagination of God’s economy. »

God has a special concern for the poor, Gregory added.

“In Proverbs 14:31 we read: “Those who oppress the poor insult their creator; but those who are kind to the needy honor him. Notice what this verse implies,” says Gregory. “God identifies so much with the poor that our attitude toward God will be revealed by the way we interact with the poorest around us. »

“It’s a package deal,” Gregory advised. “The biblical authors present our relationship with God and our relationship with the needy as two sides of the same coin. »

“Caring for the poor,” continues Grégoire, “is not simply a good action or an obligation. It is a full statement of faith that one believes in the kingdom of Jesus, which is not of this world. Mother Teresa deeply understood this theological truth,” he said. “In the book “A Call for Mercy,” she explains why she takes the call in Matthew 25:40 so seriously. She says she does this “because I love God and because I believe in His Word.”

The poor are not, Gregory emphasized, a burden or an obligation.

“They are a living opportunity to encounter Christ,” he said. “This is the idea at the heart of Matthew 25:40.”

We can express our belief in God’s grace, Gregory said, by serving Christ by caring for the needy; it allows us to “incarnate the Gospel” in our lives.

Before Gregory’s lecture, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, priest of the Missionaries of Charity, director of the nonprofit Mother Teresa Institute and official promoter of her cause for canonization, welcomed the participants.

“St. Pope John Paul II called Mother Teresa a ‘personal message,'” Father Kolodiejchuk said, “and so I believe there is much to study and develop our understanding, because she is one of the greatest saints of the last century.

Peter Kilpatrick, president of Catholic University, introduced Gregory, noting that CUA’s Mother Teresa Day of Service draws nearly 1,000 participants each year.

Her commitment to the poor and disenfranchised, Kilpatrick said, might inspire people to “put her on a plane so far above us that she’s unreachable.”

“Watching her speak… you quickly understand that she was a kind, peaceful and cheerful woman who was not at all otherworldly, but very down to earth,” he said .

Gregory nevertheless noted that Mother Teresa is “easy to admire from afar” but “much more difficult to imitate.”

“The fact that she is living according to Christ’s claim to the world is certainly a challenge,” he said. “But if we have eyes to see, it is also an invitation, it is a call to experience the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”

Here is a link to the Mother Teresa Institute: https://motherteresainstitute.org.

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