23 Last Judgment - February 11, 2007

I Corinthians 8:8 – 9:2

Matthew 25:31-46


The lesson of this morning’s Gospel of the Last Judgment certainly contains a dire warning. Kallistos Ware says in his introduction to the Lenten Triodion: “On this Sunday, we are powerfully reminded that while no one is so patient and so merciful as God, even he does not forgive those who do not repent. The God of love is also a God of righteousness, and when Christ comes again in glory, he will come as our judge. ‘Behold the goodness and severity of God [Rm 11:22]. Such is the message of Lent to each of us: turn back while there is still time, repent before the End comes.”[1]

At the same time, however, if one attends closely to all the threads of that light with which God clothes himself as with a garment, which the Church is weaving together in the Scriptures and prayers of this liturgical season to prepare us for Great Lent and our spiritual journey to Pascha, one begins to make out even in this very severe Gospel of the Last Judgment a light that shines forth with Good News.

It begins to shine when it dawns on us that we do not in fact stand with the sheep but with the goats and we acknowledge that, like the Pharisee, like the Prodigal’s elder brother, and like the goats in this morning’s parable, we tend to stand before God in the closet of our heart and there where we are always talking to ourselves, we are talking ceaselessly at God pointing out to him all the good things we have done and the reasons that justify our behavior, our words, and our attitudes. But precisely this is the pride of the Pharisee and the Prodigal’s elder brother that is the judgment against us.

In this moment of insight we suddenly see the unconscious fear that secretly drives our life: the fear that we are displeasing to God and that he rejects us, that he will cast us out of heaven and into the outer darkness. To protect ourselves from this unconscious fear we do not submit to God but we justify ourselves both to ourselves and to God, to convince ourselves and God that apart from a few blemishes here and there, we are basically okay and that God has good reason not to reject us. Suddenly we see that in our heart we have taken refuge from our fear of God’s judgment just as did Adam and Eve in the Garden: not by owning up to our failure to keep his commandments but in pride and self-justification.

The force of this morning’s Gospel is unrelenting. It allows us no wriggle room. It compels us to stand before the judgment of God not with the sheep but with the goats. It takes away every excuse, every self-justification, for as soon as we start talking to God again in our heart, we find that we are speaking precisely the words not of the sheep but of the goats.

The lesson of these Sunday Gospels leading us to Great Lent is absolutely unyielding: we are so sick with the sin of pride that we cannot lay aside our pride even for a moment; and this morning’s Gospel silences every effort at making an excuse as soon as it is uttered. We have become fragmented because of sin; we suffer from a spiritual schizophrenia that afflicts us all. The Lord refers to this spiritual schizophrenia when he says: the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. St Paul refers to it when he writes in Romans: I joyfully concur with the law of God in my inner man, but I see that there is a different law in the members of my body that wages war very subtly against the law of my mind, and makes me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. For this reason, the Church tells us in her scriptures and in her saints that we absolutely cannot trust ourselves to ourselves. We cannot be our own spiritual directors. We cannot rely on our own resources or our own goodness or our own wisdom; for we have all like sheep gone astray. Each of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There is none who is righteous, no not one. We have done nothing good on the earth. Because of the law of sin that is in my members, as though it has become my very body, I cannot stand before God except as a self-righteous Pharisee. Because of the deep spiritual schizophrenia that afflicts us, we cannot trust even our sense of becoming humble and meek. For no sooner do we feel ourselves becoming humble when there immediately rises in the soul the gleam of a conceited self-pleasure that would have us imagining ourselves standing before God who is now pleased with us, because we are becoming humble like the Publican.

So where is the light of Good News that is shining forth in this morning’s offensive and frightening Gospel lesson that seems to be condemning us without mercy? It begins to shine, as I said, as soon as we acknowledge that we are standing with the goats and in that acknowledgment, we accept the condemnation of God’s judgment against us so that we stop altogether trying to justify ourselves before God or to please him by our own goodness. In other words, we stop arguing with God, we stop opposing ourselves to God’s judgment against us. In that moment, when our mouths have finally stopped talking and our heart relinquishes every excuse, every self-justification, we find that we have nowhere to go, nowhere to stand but in God’s mercy. Now, we have found the mind, the inner disposition, of the Church’s ascetic disciplines. Now, the light of the Good News begins to dawn in the darkness of this morning’s terrible Gospel.

Listen to the Lord who spoke to us from the pages of Holy Scripture in yesterday morning’s Gospel lessons: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.”[2] “Most assuredly I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”[3]

The Church is the body of Christ. The words that she speaks in her Holy Scriptures, in her prayers, in her holy icons, in her dogmas, are the words of Christ that he is speaking with the mouth of his body. They are the words of Christ; and so they are words that will never pass away. They are words that give life to those who hear them and believe in them. When you were baptized, you were united to Christ. In the partaking of Holy Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood, your own bodies became members of his body.[4] In the Church, you are given the words of Christ that you can say as your own, so that your own speech becomes united with Christ. You are given dogmas that you can study, holy icons you can look at, so that your mind and the thoughts it dwells on, the images that occupy it, become united with Christ.

When we stand before God and justify ourselves, we are speaking our own words. When we stand before God and lay aside every excuse, stop justifying ourselves, when we stop talking at God and to ourselves – this is the spiritual work of the fast – we can then grow still in our hearts and hear with the ear of our soul his words that he is giving us to say in the prayers of the Church. The words of the Church’s prayers – the prayers of Great Lent, the prayers of the Psalms, the prayers you find in your Orthodox prayer books, in the Festal Menaion, the Lenten Triodion, the services of Compline, Vespers and Matins, the hours, the Divine Liturgy – because they are the words of the body of Christ, they are words that have substance. They do not come from us; they come from the body of Christ; they are spoken by Christ in his body, the Church. They are words that are eternal, words that give life because they are the words of him who is the Life of the world. When we stand before God in the Church which is his body, who is personally present to us, incarnate among us, in his holy icons, and listen to the prayers of the Church, Christ pours into our ears words of prayer that are pure, words that are holy, words that are full of life-creating power. In the Church, we who are like the Pharisee are given to say the prayer of the Publican, Lord have mercy on me for I have sinned. We who are like the elder brother are given to say the prayer of the Prodigal: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. If we absorb these words of the prayers of the Church into our heart and make them our own, they can pierce like a sword all the way to our heart, to our spiritual schizophrenia and to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, joint and marrow, and begin to break up the stony ground of our heart; and through those words of the Church’s prayers, as we stand before God trusting not in our own goodness but wholly in his mercy, he begins to create in us a clean heart and a new and right spirit. He incorporates us into his own crucified and risen body.

This is the Good News: that God has not dealt with us as we have sinned. He who knew no sin became sin for us and by submitting to death on the Cross he has cancelled the judgment against us. In our baptism we were united to this one who became sin for us. Through the fast, practiced not according to our own lights but under the light of the Church’s spiritual direction, we can bring our mind, our soul and our body to a place of stillness, where we can stand before God in silence, making no excuse, no self-justification, but simply listening to the words of Christ that he gives to us in his holy Church, to absorb them, to make them our own, and so in this way to receive Christ himself, through the words that he speaks to us in his body, the Church, into our heart and soul, just as we receive him into our body through Holy Eucharist. This spiritual discipline is the ascetic dimension of our baptism. The fast is the ascetic practice of uniting ourselves to Christ in a death like his; receiving the prayers of the Church is the ascetic dimension of being raised with Christ in a resurrection like his. In this way, our mind, our soul, our will, all of our senses are incorporated together with our body into the body of Christ, his holy Church. In this way, the seed of Christ’s Holy Spirit that was planted in our hearts in our baptism grows in us. God in his Holy Spirit raises us from the waters of our baptism and refashions us in the waters of our baptism to become children of God as he raised Adam and fashioned him from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life to make him a living soul.

This is the Good News of this morning’s Gospel. When we acknowledge that we stand among the goats, that we are the Pharisee and the Prodigal’s elder brother, and when we accept God’s judgment against us, we stop trying to please him. We lay aside every excuse and make ourselves free to trust wholly to his mercy. Then we receive from him not judgment but mercy, for as we listen to his words in the prayers of his holy Church, and make them our own, as we practice the ascetic disciplines he gives to us, we believe in him. His word is then planted in our heart, in our mind, in our will, in our body. In this ascetic discipline we rise up from the waters of our baptism to become partakers of his own body and blood in Holy Eucharist, and he reshapes us. He creates in us in a clean heart; he puts a new and right spirit in us. He gives us the power and the grace to do his word. He gives us the grace of humility and of purity of heart without which no one can see the Lord. And so, made one with him through the ascetic disciplines and the sacraments of the Church, we do not come to judgment, but we pass from death to life.

Therefore, be mindful, be attentive. Listen to the words of Christ that come from the mouth of his holy Church, his body. Trust yourself not to your own understanding. Give yourself no longer to the effort to please God, to justify yourself, and stand silent before him, trusting in the greatness of his mercy by which he brought all things from nothing into being


[1] LT 45

[2] Lk 21:33

[3] Jn 5:24

[4] I Cor 6:15