27 Last Judgment - March 2, 2008

I Corinthians 8:8 – 9:2

Matthew 25:31-46

This morning’s Gospel and the Church’s meditation on it, which we find in the Lenten Triodion, tell us that we can be sure that a final judgment is coming and that no one will escape it. “The trumpets shall sound and the tombs shall be emptied, and all mankind in trembling shall be raised. Prince and governor together, rich and humble, great and small, all alike are tried.”[1]

This judgment will be absolutely just. “Since God is the Judge, nothing can help thee there, no zeal, no skill, no glory, no friendship. The trial is without respect of persons; nothing escapes the Judge, no favor can be won with bribes. Our hidden secrets will be disclosed and he will pay us what is due.” “No cunning argument or skill in eloquence can deceive Thy judgment-seat, O Lord; false witnesses cannot pervert Thy sentence. For in Thy sight, O God, every secret stands revealed.”[2]

The Judgment will be terrible. “Fear and trembling beyond all description are there: for the Lord will come and try the work of every man. And who will not mourn for himself? The Lord comes to judge: who can endure the sight of Him? When Thou, O God, shalt judge all things, who among us earthborn men shall dare to stand before Thee? When Thou sittest on Thy throne, O merciful Judge, and revealest Thy dread glory, O Christ, what fear there will be then! When the furnace burns with fire, and all shrink back in terror before Thy judgment-seat.”[3]

The reason for the fear and trembling beyond description will be the sight of the dark abyss opening before us in the “valley of lamentation,”[4] burning with the “fire of Gehenna that never shall be quenched;”[5] the sound of the “gnashing of teeth,” the “lamentation of the rich man in the flames of torment,” and the sudden realization that “I deserve the same condemnation,”[6] because my works condemn me.

Reflecting on the themes of these pre-Lenten Sundays, it seems that with this Gospel, our attention is drawn outward, to our deeds, after having been led to an inner self-examination with the Gospels of the Publican and the Prodigal, which help us lay hold of our inmost desires and attitudes so that we can expose within ourselves any arrogance or despair that keeps us from repentance. Perhaps it is significant that the Church, as she prepares us for Great Lent, turns our eyes first on our heart before she turns us to reflect on our deeds. It suggests that the real work of our repentance is the inner work of laying hold the desire of our heart and giving it to Christ so that we are cleansed within, animated from within by the humility of the Holy Spirit. With this Gospel of the Last Judgment, however, we are reminded that our repentance must manifest itself in our works; otherwise, it is without fruit.

This last week, I was on the treadmill at the gym, watching the Travel Channel on the TV above me, to divert my mind from the numbing boredom of the treadmill. The show was about luxury RV’s. It took the viewer on a tour of these luxury RV’s that sell for $1 million and up. The owners of these RV’s proudly showed off surround-sound Theater systems, plasma TV’s that come down out of the ceiling at the touch of a button, granite floors, Corian counter tops, private bedrooms with sliding doors that you can shut for privacy, each bedroom with its own TV, and so forth and so on. Now, of course, if you’re going to drive your $1 million RV around, you need a place to pull in for the night – but who wants to park a million dollar vehicle next to an ordinary trailer in an ordinary campsite where you have to put up with the stares and tedious remarks of riff-raff and ordinary folk? Elite, trailer park resorts have sprung up with an annual membership cost of 40 to 70 thousand dollars. Who, on earth, makes that kind of money? We’ve read stories of CEO’s making 9 figure incomes annually, even when their companies are forced to downsize, employees are laid off, or are made to take significant cuts in pay so that many are barely making even a living wage. But what about a hierarch of the Church, under the monastic vow of poverty, drawing multiple “stipends” from several different sources, to pull a six figure income annually, while mission pastors with wives and kids receive barely enough to live on?

Beneath whatever righteous indignation we may feel in the face of such obscene wealth or such injustice, and beyond whatever judgments we must make or actions we are obligated to take against such injustices, there is a deeper lesson that applies to all of us, rich and poor alike: how blind to spiritual realities and how indifferent to the way of the Cross excessive wealth and bodily comforts make us.

Though we may not be culpable of such obscene excess, the Church reminds us in no uncertain terms that each of us, prince and governor together, rich and humble, great and small, will stand before the Judge and give account for our own deeds. Before God, I am not permitted to judge anyone else; for, before God, I am under judgment.  And “who among us earth born men,” sing the Church, “shall dare to stand before Thee, for we are all beset by the passions.”[7]

Now, I find that a curious thing happens when one absorbs the Church’s meditation on the Last Judgment given in the Lenten Triodion, which we prayed last night at the Vigil. When I stand before God as before the Judge, laying aside every excuse, no longer worrying about the speck in my brother’s eye but focusing on the beam in my own, when I stand before God in stillness, absorbing the Church’s prayers and making them my own, I find myself sinking into a deep sorrow as I become keenly aware of my own darkness, my own vanity, my self-absorption, my laziness and my indolence. In the compunction born from that, I find myself feeling a certain solidarity with all of humanity, such that the sins of others, which before I wanted to criticize in self-righteous indignation, now become my own. I no longer distinguish between my sins and my brother’s sins; I feel that the sins of all humanity are my own personal sins, and I stand before God as the first of all sinners. In that solidarity, I find that when the Church gives me to pray, “O Lord, when I think how I must meet Thee at Thy fearful Second Coming, I tremble at Thy menace, I fear Thy wrath. In that hour deliver me, I cry, and save me for ever;” when the Church gives me to pray like this, I find myself praying not just for myself but for all mankind, identifying myself with all of mankind.

Some time ago, a brother shared with me the comment a fellow student had made to him when they were at seminary together. It was directed against certain bishops of the Church, who the student felt were corrupt and who were ruining the Church. “Be thankful you’re not a bishop,” he said. “Because then you won’t have to stand before God at the Judgment and hear him ask, ‘What have you done to my Church?’” One certainly can understand the righteous indignation reflected in this remark; but, when I stand at the altar on this Sunday of the Last Judgment, and I absorb the prayers of the Church as my own, I no longer find myself standing over against those “certain bishops” but side by side with them, feeling the terror they must feel before the dread judgment seat as my own, and finding myself praying for mercy and forgiveness for myself and for them.

Listening to the Church’s own meditation on this morning’s Gospel, given in the Lenten Triodion, I find myself coming to this understanding: that in everything the Church is doing to prepare us for the ascetic disciplines of repentance that she is about to lead us through in Great Lent, the chief work she is wanting to birth in us is humility and compassion. She brings us not just to an acute sense of our own sins, but in the compassion of the Savior, she brings us to an acute sense of our solidarity with the whole of the human race, so that as we stand in prayer before the dread judgment seat of Christ God, we tremble and pray not just for ourselves but on behalf of all and for all. When, in this compassion of the Savior, we see and hear stories such as the ones I described above, our inclination is not to spit on such people in self-righteous indignation, but to mourn for them; and, out of a profound and genuine feeling of solidarity with them, to feel a deep sorrow for them and a burning desire that God should have mercy on them as much as he has on me.

That this meditation is faithful to the lesson of this Sunday’s Gospel is confirmed by the fact that, in the Matins service for this Gospel, one of the last prayers the Church gives us to say at the conclusion of the canon, as the last thing we are left to think about, is this: “Consider well my soul: dost thou fast? Then despise not thy neighbor. Dost thou abstain from food? Condemn not thy brother, lest thou be sent away into the fire, there to burn as wax. But may Christ lead thee without stumbling into his Kingdom.”[8] I submit that we are led into Christ’s Kingdom as we submit to his judgment, that I am a sinner, and in that submission to his judgment, we allow him to create in us a clean heart, and to put in us a new and right spirit that performs works of humility and compassion from out of a heart of humility and compassion, in loving solidarity with all of mankind, in the hope of God himself: that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. Amen. 

[1] LT 150, 158

[2] LT 158, 160, 162, 156

[3] LT 157, 160, 161

[4] LT 156

[5] LT 153

[6] LT 157

[7] LT 161

[8] LT 165