|25 - Last Judgment, February 19, 2017|
I Corinthians 8:8 – 9:2
Matthew 25:31 – 46
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
In his homily for this Sunday of the Last Judgment, St Gregory Palamas notes how these pre-Lenten Gospels that set forth the incomparable mercy of God are concluded with this morning’s that sets forth the terrifying Judgment of God. In this, the Church’s liturgical order follows the order of Holy Scripture. “I will sing of mercy and judgment,” says the Psalmist (101:1 LXX); and, “To Thee, O LORD, belongs mercy; for, Thou dost render to every man according to his works” (Ps 62:12 LXX).
Yet, even and perhaps especially this morning’s Gospel, is radiant with hope. Its message is profoundly liberating. It would free us from pretending to be what we aren’t – worthy – to gain God’s mercy. Indeed, it tells us that only by confessing sincerely that we are not worthy do we gain God’s mercy. There is deep healing in this. Think of the energy we expend to keep up the appearance of being worthy. I wonder if the effort to maintain such a front contributes to anxiety, nervousness, uneasiness, irritability and all kinds of disorders of the soul and even the body, not to mention how it destroys intimacy and authentic relationships.
St Gregory says the sinners on the left are called goats because they are audacious and unruly. Let’s add presumptuous and entitled, sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud. I’m sure we can say that they are the Pharisee and the Elder Brother at the Judgment. When accused, they argue, they insist that they are worthy and, in effect, they accuse the LORD God, the merciful Judge, of injustice and hard heartedness! The lesson I take from this is how subtle and hard to see spiritual pride is. These pre-Lenten Sunday Gospels show me its symptoms so that I can detect it in myself and take up my cross to put it to death – if I want to. If I find myself justifying myself before God – and there are many ways we do this – or even, questioning His mercy or His justice given all the evil in the world – as though He is to blame and not we – that’s a sure sign that I have slipped wittingly or not into the conceit of spiritual pride. Might we draw from our epistle reading last Monday, and say that the goats are those who say they have no sin, yet they believe that the Truth is in them (I Jn 1:8)? They would rather believe they have no sin than to acknowledge that the Truth is not in them.
The sheep, St Gregory says, are so-called because they are meek, gentle and humble. They walk the level path of the virtues that the LORD trod and they are like Him who was called by the Forerunner and Baptist, the “Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29). Might we say that the sheep are those who are confessing their sins and are being cleansed of all their unrighteousness (I Jn 1:9)? In this morning’s Gospel, they say to the LORD in genuine bewilderment: “When did we minister to Thee?” In this, they behave, it seems to me, like the faithful servant who, having done what he was commanded, says: “I am an unworthy servant. I have simply done what I was supposed to do” (Lk 17:10).
Here, too, may be a check for catching any self-righteousness that may be in me. If I find myself recounting my good deeds and accomplishments to God as reason to believe myself worthy of His Kingdom, it is an indication that the LORD before whom I stand in my mind is but the projection of my ego. I am standing with the Pharisee and the Elder Brother and the goats. Holy Scripture and perhaps one’s own experience bear witness that when one has seen the LORD, even if it is but an almost undetectable whiff of a fleeting glimpse that comes to prayer, it is the prayer of the Publican, the Prodigal, the sheep that comes to the tongue: “I am unworthy”; even the prayer of Abraham, “I am but dust and ashes,” or of Isaiah, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips (heart)!” or of St Peter, “I am a sinful man!” Even St Gregory Palamas, the great luminary and pillar of Orthodoxy, as he entered into the Spirit of his homily, could not refrain from saying; “Let us listen and groan ourselves, for I who am telling you these things stand accused by my conscience of not being completely free of passion” (Hom 4.18).
But, let’s beware as well of feigned humility. This is but vanity using the appearance of humility to convince itself that it is worthy. In other words, the work is to transfigure the heart within. I believe that we discipline the body with asceticism because sin has become embedded in us corporeally. St Paul speaks of the “law of sin that is in our members,” such that he calls the body a “body of death” (Rom 7:23-24). Through the corporeal aspects of the fast, we wage war against the spiritual cause of our sin, the self-love of our idolatry and spiritual pride that deceives us in so many subtle ways to believe we are worthy. Perhaps this is why, in the Church, the fasting regulations are the goal; they are not the requirement. They are the means, not the end. The end is not to fast from meat and dairy but to deny ourselves for the sake of Christ. We come as close to the prescribed ascetic regulations as our strength and circumstances allow. To whatever degree you are able, observe the Fast as the means for laying hold of your self-love that has become incarnate in our body through gluttony, lust, greed and laziness; our soul through anger and vanity; our mind through spiritual pride.
I said that the goal of the Fast is denying ourselves for the sake of Christ. But, what is that but to say that the goal of the Fast is to turn our love away from ourselves and toward Christ? The goal of the Fast, then, is to grow the seed of love, the Holy Spirit, that was sown in our souls at our baptism. And so, we perform as part of our ascetic discipline, alongside fasting and prayer, works of mercy or almsgiving, not, I think, so that we can say with the goats: “Look at our good works! See how worthy we are!” but so we can say with the sheep, “We are unworthy servants. We have done no more than what was commanded of us.”
For, when works of mercy are performed out of love, they are by their very nature self-less, are they not; concerned for the other, not for oneself, even to the point of identifying with the other in his or her suffering and joy. The Church throughout the ages has identified not only corporeal but also spiritual works of mercy: converting the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, praying for the living and the dead. To these correspond the corporeal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, burying the dead.
But, I think these are given only as disciplinary guides to direct us onto the path that leads to the creation of a clean heart in us, that lives in the new and right Spirit of God; because when our hearts are cleansed and restored to their original beauty, we are clothed in the wedding garment of the likeness of God, and in God, we do works of mercy spontaneously, even without thinking because they are but the works of love, and God is love, and we, when we are truly who we are, live and move and have our being in the Image and Likeness of God. In truth, our left hand doesn’t know what our right is doing (Mt 6:3) – or perhaps, we could say that our left hand is in no way impressed with what our right is doing because we, having tasted and seen how good the LORD is – marveling in fear and trembling how He who was the Son of God, nevertheless emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and in obedience humbled Himself even to the point of death on the Cross so that in His love for us He could become perfectly one with us and make us perfectly one with Him in the Glory of His Holy Resurrection – we know that we are unworthy servants and have done no more than what was commanded of us.
Last week, we read from St Mark, and this coming week we will read from St Luke of another judgment: the trial and condemnation and crucifixion and burial of Christ. This morning, the Church has set us before the Judgment that is to come – although I think even now we experience the forewarning of that judgment in our conscience and in all the many maladies that trouble us in our soul when we live for ourselves and not for Christ. All of us will stand before the LORD and give account of ourselves. This morning’s Gospel, by setting before us the terrifying Judgment of the LORD that is to come in the middle of St Mark’s and St Luke’s account of the Crucifixion is the final warning of all the prophets; only it is given to us directly from the LORD Himself high and lifted up (cf. Isa 6:1!) on the Cross, the holy footstool of His Throne (Ps 99:5) where Isaiah saw Him seated in incomparable glory! God the LORD who knew no sin has become sin for us to destroy our sin in His flesh. Great Lent draws near. Judgment is at the door; but before judgment is mercy! In humility and contrition, let’s draw near the Fast in the fear of God with faith and love, and work to stand with the sheep before the Footstool of His merciful judgment and His just mercy!
Most Holy Theotokos, save us!
Glory to Jesus Christ!