The Gospel for today – the Sunday of the Last Judgment – is the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25.31-46). The Church confesses in its historical creeds and liturgies that Christ came into the world the first time and will come a second time, not only to save the world, but in glory to judge the world. These two go together.1 They are two aspects of the same reality – truth. The Father’s truth, in Christ Jesus, is “the light” that shows things to be “as they truly are.”
Our eternal destiny – is fashioned on this earth in the choices they/we make regarding the truth as it makes contact with our life. Final judgment – salvation or condemnation – will depend upon deeds, not merely on good intentions or even on the mercies of God apart from personal cooperation and obedience. 2
When death comes after a lifetime of choices and opportunities for a positive response to the merciful truth of God in Christ, there is no opportunity for repentance in order to better one’s relationship with God. Our minds, limited as they are, cannot comprehend God’s love as involving both salvation and condemnation.1 We tend to separate them. After all, didn’t Jesus say he came save the world, not to condemn it? Yet, here, at the center of the Christian faith, is the belief that condemnation is part of the saving work of Christ. But where is the resolution of the seeming contradiction? It rests in the choice of men and women like you and me. It rests on the pragmatic presence of a particular kind of “love”. It is not Christ who condemns it is men and women who refuse to allow the truth to shine on them; purify them; and save them. That is what condemns.
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” (John 3.19-20)
The Gospel for today is certainly about judgment and the possibility of eternal condemnation. But, it is also, and more importantly, about “personal love”. Without “personal love” the Judgment is meaningless and seemingly arbitrary, issuing forth from a wrathful God who seeks to condemn, not to save. But, that is the conclusion we must come to about anything and everything without “personal love”. The parable, we come to realize is being used by Jesus to teach us that it is in the circumstances where “personal love” is so often denied people that He desires us to cooperate with Him to exhibit it – poverty (hunger and thirst), prison, nakedness, sickness, loneliness and alienation (always being the stranger), etc. 3
God is the One True Judge of those who engaged in wrong-doing without repentance while in this earthly life. The question is not one of judgment but of repentance. Approaching Lent and Easter, the Christian is admonished to correct his faults by repentantly fasting, praying and sharing their life sacrificially with the “least”. The Last Judgment will be made on the basis of the works of each person. These works show the character of his or her faith in and worship of God. These works are shown to be righteous or evil in relationship to a particular group of people, the “least”. It is those in need, as Christ Himself says, who have the incredible power to test the character of our righteousness. It is not our relationship with those who are rich, attractive, easy to love, willing to be served that God will use to manifest our faith in Him. No, it is the inconvenient; the unlovable; the destitute; the hardheaded; the resolutely uncooperative. In short, it will be those who drove us crazy and who we wanted to, or did, cast out, who will be used by God to manifest the true character of our faith in Him. On this basis we will either be allowed to or prevented from entering Paradise.1
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.40)
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” (Matthew 25.40)
What do we learn? All of our holiness is, first and last, channeled by God towards the goal of serving the world in love and mercy.1 This service is not generic. It is specific. It has a name and an address. This characteristic of true holiness is now interwoven with the themes of the previous pre-Lenten Sundays to form a greater pattern. This pattern displays the truth that it is not enough to behold Jesus; or come to see ourselves as we truly are and return to God as prodigal sons and daughters. The Church teaches that, in addition, one must also be God’s sons and daughters by uniting ourselves to Christ in service. We must, along with Christ, plunge ourselves into the lives of the “least” as well as the “greatest”; the “difficult ones” as well as the “easy ones”. We must follow Him there; see Him in everyone, and serve Him in everyone.2
We could very well come away from this Gospel reading with the same response as that of the disciples when Jesus spoke of the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood.
“Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ … After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.'” (John 6.60-63, 66-69)
So, Jesus consistently took His disciples places they didn’t want to go. But, these were the places they had to go in order to be saved.
And so, we too are taken, driven by the Holy Spirit (think of the baptism of Jesus), to the edge of our own power to save ourselves. Indeed, we are driven “over the edge” as it were, into the place where we don’t have the power or ability to save ourselves. To the place where we need a savior. It is the place where we believe we are at the brink of “losing it” and being “lost” that we “gain it” and are “found”. We must be willing to venture to the place where we must cry out from the depths, the core of our being, “Lord have mercy upon me a sinner!” And that, my brothers and sisters, is the attitude we must have and the territory we must explore as we enter Lent.
I am indebted to the following articles for the raw material and thought patterns for this homily. I have tried to faithfully note, in the body of the homily, the sections based on their material.
- “The Great Lent – A Week by Week Meaning,” by The Rev. George Mastrantonis
- “The Sunday of the Last Judgment” – The Orthodox Wiki website
- “The Sunday of the Last Judgment” (February 20, 2009), from the blog “Traveling … Somewhere, Somehow”