In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40)
Although I’ve previously shared the following story with members of Holy Name, I think it is worth repeating today, even if you have heard it before.
It’s about an elderly man who used to go walking on the beach early every morning. One day when he went along to the shore after a huge overnight storm, he found the beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Away in the distance, he noticed a small boy coming towards him and as he came nearer, he could see that the boy was stopping every so often to bend down to pick up something and then throw it into the sea. As the boy came closer, the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The boy replied “I’m throwing starfish back into the sea. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The man replied, “But there are thousands of these fish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up a starfish and threw it as far as he could into the sea. Then he turned, smiled and said, “Well it made a difference to that one!”
(adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley)
Our Lord is asking us in today’s Gospel to be like that boy and make a difference in the life of someone, no matter how small and even if it is for just one person. He teaches that when we help someone who is struggling, suffering or in desperate need, not only are we helping that unfortunate person but we also are akin to doing it for Jesus himself, so closely does he identify with such people.
In what is one of the most dramatic passages in the whole of the Gospels, Jesus teaches us that when we die we will meet God and face judgement. The judgement will be based on how we have responded or failed to respond to the needs and sufferings of what he terms the ‘least of these brothers and sisters of mine’ – the poor, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, the refugee and the marginalised. There is no mention of worship … but, of course, for Jesus we worship God by loving our neighbor.
In the face of so much pain and suffering in the world, we may feel that on our own there is not much we can do to lessen it. And we might ask: what difference can I alone make in such a vast world of suffering? Well, let’s not forget the little boy throwing the starfish back into the sea. If I can respond mercifully to the needs of just one person who is in trouble, I will be making a difference to that person’s life. On my own I may not be able to change the world but I can make a world of a difference for one person. And in that solitary act, however small or insignificant in the eyes of others, am I not contributing, somehow, to making the world a better place?
A whole new world of need has arisen for those of us affected by the pandemic lockdown, in particular for people who are now isolated and struggling to cope – emotionally and physically – on their own. It is brutally hard for some people to have no one to talk to so a telephone call from us or a knock on the window or door for a safe-distance chat can mean the world to them and make a huge difference to their lives.
Another way to make a difference to someone’s life is to support those well-run charities that help people in need, like the Diocesan Refugee Service, the St Vincent de Paul Society, our diocesan social care service – St Cuthbert’s Care – and CAFOD. They and many other well-run charities are supporting the people Jesus identifies with in today’s Gospel. When we support them they are supporting others on our behalf; they help more people than we can; they do the work we cannot do, and do it better than we could on our own. They can throw a lot more ‘starfish’ back in the sea.
Holy Name, Jesmond
26 November 2020