24 - The Last Judgment, February 7, 2010

I Corinthians 8:8 – 9:2

Matthew 25:31-46

In the Gospel lessons of these four pre-Lenten Sundays, our holy Mother, the Church, directs our attention inward, I think to impress upon us the critical importance of getting serious about our eternal destiny. In the lessons of these pre-Lenten Sundays, one senses urgency in the Church’s preaching. She is challenging our priorities; shaking us out of our complacency, wanting us to see that something very, very important is at stake in how we live in this life.

This evangelical urgency comes out of the theological vision of the Gospel. We do not belong to ourselves. This world – and I would have you understand that “this world” includes this body, this mind, and this soul of ours – isn’t ours to do with as we please. We were made by God for a purpose: to subdue the earth, to subdue our bodies, our souls, our mind, not to our will but to the will of God. The will of God is life, not death; and life is attained in love, and love is attained in communion with God, partaking of His divine nature, sharing in His eternity and becoming like Him in union with Him.

Love is what we all want; it’s what we all live for. But, we have tried to attain to love not by submitting ourselves to the will of God but by doing as we please. As a result, we have not subdued the earth; it has subdued us. We do not rule over our bodies; our bodies rule over us. We are not masters of our emotions and our feelings. They are masters over us. They have become the passions, morphing into gluttony and lust, producing the passions of fear and laziness that produce the passions of anger and greed, envy and vanity, jealousy and pride. Our bodies and souls were made by God to become glorified, like the risen body of Christ, like the bodies of the saints. Instead, our bodies have become heavy and dull, corrupted by the passions, subject to disease and the corruption of death.

Our preparations for Great Lent are brought to a climax in this morning’s Gospel of the Last Judgment. We learn from this morning’s Gospel that everyone – believer or unbeliever, theist, agnostic or atheist, socialist, communist or capitalist, Republican or Democrat – everyone will see Christ whether they want to or not. And when we see Him, we will have to give account for what we have done with the world and our souls and bodies.

This morning’s Gospel exposes the lie that we have embraced, viz., the lie that the world is ours to do with as we please, our bodies are ours to do with as we please (gay marriage, abortion). This morning’s Gospel confronts how we have chosen to live for ourselves and not for the neighbor in need, how we have followed the wisdom of our own opinions and not the Wisdom of God, how we have spun religious philosophies out of our own mind and have not followed Christ’s commandments to come to an experiential knowledge of the living God, how we have lived according to our own will and have not sought to learn the will of God in the presumption that our body and our soul and our mind, our wealth, our goods, our talents, our skills – they are all ours to do with as we please, as though we are the God who made ourselves, as though we are the God to whom we are accountable.

This morning’s Gospel is warning us that a day is coming – the prophets called it the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord – when we will face the Lord Jesus Christ, and we will have to give account to Him for how we have lived our life, the choices we have made. We will have to explain why our bodies are not glorified, why our souls are not clean, our minds are not pure, why we do not carry about us the sweet fragrance of the Holy Spirit but instead why we reek with the stench of death; why we chose to feed our eyes and our ears with the images of the world so that our inner being is shaped not in the likeness of God but in the likeness of irrational beasts if not devils.

This morning’s Gospel proclaims to us: it is God who made us and not we ourselves. We do not belong to ourselves. You could say that we are on loan to ourselves, and the day of reckoning is coming when we will have to give account to the God who called us into being from out of nothing and gave us the command to subdue the earth and ourselves according to His will. What will our answer be then? Where will we find ourselves, among the sheep on the right or among the goats on the left? “Knowing that, my soul,” so the Church gives us to pray in the Canon of Repentance, “before the end, repent of your evil deeds.”

Now, in this life our tendency, whenever we are accused or confronted with our deeds, is to get huffy and offended and to defend ourselves, to look for an excuse. We resist the accusation; we don’t allow it to penetrate into our souls. But this morning, we are every one of us confronted not by each other but by God Himself. There is no defense. Yet, there is hope because of God’s mercy. How do we lay hold of that hope? Let’s reflect on the lesson of this morning’s Gospel in light of the other three pre-Lenten Sundays.

In each Gospel of these pre-Lenten Sundays we have two parties, each one representing a different inner attitude: the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal and the Elder Brother, the sheep on the right and the goats on the left in this morning’s Gospel. It is easy to see that the goats on the left in this morning’s Gospel correspond to the Publican and the Prodigal of the last two Sundays, because they did not do what the Lord commanded. They squandered their wealth, they were selfish, lazy and indulgent. And yet, they were justified and saved. The Pharisee and the Elder brother, on the other hand, correspond to the sheep on the right because they did everything they were supposed to. They fasted, they said their prayers, they kept the Father’s commandments, they even gave tithes of all they possessed. And yet, they were not justified and they did not make it to the Father’s house. What are we to make of this?

In this morning’s parable, one sees that the goats on the left correspond to the Publican and the Prodigal in every way but one, and in this one way they look exactly like the Pharisee and the Elder brother: they justify themselves. And the sheep correspond to the Pharisee and the Elder brother in every way except one, and in this one way they look like the Publican and the Prodigal: they do not justify themselves. Quite the opposite, they in effect say to the Judge that they did not do what He commanded them to do, that they were sinners.

One calls to mind the many times Holy Scripture teaches us that we all like sheep have gone astray, there is none who is righteous, no not one. And indeed, there was Isaiah the prophet who, when He was caught up into heaven and saw the Lord, cried out: “Woe is me, I am undone; because I am a sinful man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” There was Peter the apostle who, when he discerned the divine identity of Jesus, fell to his knees and cried out: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Even righteous Abraham was afraid of the Lord, calling out to Him, “I am but dust and ashes.” At the funeral of an Orthodox Christian, we ask God not to regard the sins of the departed because, after all, “none of us is without sin; none is righteous but Thee, O Lord.”

No one can stand in the presence of the living God without fear and trembling in keen consciousness of one’s sinfulness. That fear, however, can be healing if we do not resist it, if we do not excuse ourselves, if we accept God’s judgment against us in the words of the Psalmist: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquities and in sins did my mother conceive me. I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee only have I sinned so that Thou art blameless in Thy judgment.”

And so the Church, with these Gospels, I believe is working to get us past our defenses, to place us in the presence of the living God so that our mouths are stopped and our attempt to justify ourselves dies before it is spoken. For when we lay aside every excuse and accept God’s judgment against us, that is when we make ourselves able to receive God’s mercy. That is when we experience the ineffable tenderness and love of His forgiveness. And in the liberating and healing experience of God’s forgiveness, we are able to forgive our brother – as we will learn in next Sunday’s Gospel. Now – in this mind broken of all pride, and in a contrite heart that justifies itself no longer and which is able to forgive as it has been forgiven – now are we ready to begin Great Lent and begin making our way to Christ’s Holy Resurrection. It is in this mind of brokenness, conscious of one’s sinfulness and yet conscious of God’s great mercy and forgiveness, that we experience the rigors of Great Lent as a most blessed season of cleansing and healing, of such divine beauty and spiritual richness that we find our souls in eager anticipation hardly able to wait for it to begin.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us. Glory to Jesus Christ!