We’re only about a week away from Lent, and so the Church is getting serious about our preparation, placing before us the ultimate consequences of our either doing God’s will or failing to do it.
Johnny and Mary Mullins are here with us today, to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, and we might wonder why God has arranged for the Gospel of the Last Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46) to be read on this happy occasion! But perhaps this is appropriate after all. In a sense, every major decision we make in this life is made as before the judgment seat of God, because we are striving to do his will, and we seek his wisdom and his blessing upon our vocations, for we do not want to do anything that would displease Him. The prayer that we priests pray before each Divine Liturgy, which in the version we use here says we come before his awesome altar, reads, in another version, that we come before his awesome judgment seat every time we offer the Holy Sacrifice. So we all stand before God in the events and decisions of our lives, hopefully so that we will find ourselves standing without blame before his judgment seat at the end of our lives.
This Gospel is not readily accepted by some, especially non-Catholics. I’ll have to give some background here. I read an article in a recent issue of Christianity Today that just confirms what kind of errors people can fall into when they separate themselves from the Spirit-guided teaching authority of the Catholic Church. I would hardly have been able to believe this if it had not been confirmed by people I know who have personally experienced it. The issue is this: many Protestants focus much more on the words of St Paul than they do on the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ! The article recounts the experience (which is evidently quite common) of a man who, in growing up, almost never heard a sermon on the Gospels, only on the epistles of St Paul. Then, when he eventually entered a seminary, the great problem was how to fit the teachings of Jesus into the theology of Paul. Does something seem wrong with this picture? Um, I think we’re supposed to realize that St Paul was a servant of Jesus, that Jesus is the eternal Word and Wisdom of God, and therefore that everyone else has to fit into what Jesus has said. The Catholic Church has always given priority to the Gospels for precisely that reason, and it should be a no-brainer that the words of Jesus are absolute truth and can never be subordinated to the words of any of his disciples, and any interpretation of the epistles cannot be legitimately employed to minimize the force of Jesus’ own words. Of course, all of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and if one accepts the writings of St Paul in their entirety, instead of focusing only on certain passages that deal with salvation through faith, then Jesus and Paul are quite compatible indeed, as the Church has always held.
So what does all this have to do with the Gospel of the Last Judgment? It is something that Protestants don’t want to hear, and I’ve experienced this in conversations: Jesus explicitly states that salvation and damnation depend on what we do, not merely on what we believe. He says that if we see Him in others and minister to them accordingly we will be welcomed into Heaven; if we don’t, we will have to go to Hell. He does not present faith as the criterion for salvation, nor prayer, nor anything at all except love—love which is expressed in practical ways, meeting the urgent needs of our fellow human beings, for Jesus’ sake. Let us remember that these are the words of the Son of God, and as such they are absolutely, unequivocally true. If St Paul hadn’t been embroiled in controversies with those who insisted that Christians must obey all the precepts of the law of Moses in order to be saved—and hence had to overemphasize certain counter-arguments—there would never have arisen the falsely-perceived opposition between the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
Let us then try to understand more fully the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about what makes for salvation and what makes for damnation, for there is no more important issue than this for our eternal destiny.
First of all, we can say that in the Christian life love presupposes faith. If we don’t have faith in Christ, we are not going to accept that He identifies with the poor and needy, and we are not going to serve them for his sake. So if we don’t begin by believing that Christ is the Savior of our souls, who died and rose to forgive our sins and to open the gates of Paradise to those who would follow Him, we’ll never even get onto the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven. But merely believing these things is only the beginning of our life in Christ, and it does not guarantee our salvation. The whole faith/works controversy is really a non-issue for the true Christian. Instead of opposing faith and works, we should simply affirm that if faith is true faith, then faith works. Genuine faith is applied faith, it is faith that proves itself by practical expressions of it. Even St Paul, in the very epistle many use to insist on salvation by faith alone, says that the only thing that “is of any avail,” is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
This is why Jesus presents love as the criterion for our judgment, and hence of our eternal destiny. Scripture is very clear on this: if we believe in Jesus, we will love Him. To love Him is to keep his commandments. If we read the Gospels—and the epistles as well—we will see that keeping his commandments entails doing good to our brothers and sisters for his sake. If we fail to do good to others for his sake, we will lose our immortal souls forever. Jesus gave a concise summary of what is necessary for salvation when He was asked what one must do to inherit eternal life: love God and love your neighbor (see Lk. 10:25-28).
So let us look at this love which is the chief criterion for the judgment of our lives before God. According to St John, if we say we love God, but do not love our brothers and sisters, we are liars (1Jn. 4:20). And according to both St John and St James, if we say we believe in God and love our brothers and sisters, but do nothing of a practical nature to help them in their need, we are frauds and not headed for eternal life (1Jn. 3:17-18; James 2:14-17). Therefore it is clear that love is a matter neither of words nor of warm feelings, but rather of deeds. If love is not manifested in deeds, it is not love at all; it is a sham, it is self-deception.
That is why Jesus gave very practical examples of how we are to be judged. He doesn’t say: you didn’t have warm feelings for Me, you didn’t speak sweet words to Me. Rather, He says: you didn’t feed Me when I was hungry, or give Me drink when I was thirsty, or take care of Me when I was sick. It is fine to have warm feelings for Jesus and to speak sweet words to Him—but not as a replacement for the demands of true Christian life.
Jesus identifies with everyone who is an “other” in our lives, especially those who stand in need of our practical expressions of love. And He gives a teaching that we don’t usually like to hear, and quite quickly forget even when we have heard it: “What you do to these, you do to Me.” These brothers and sisters of Jesus, with whom He personally identifies, begin with those closest to us, but include others as well. For married couples: the way you treat your spouse is the way you treat Jesus. For families: the way you treat your children, or the way you treat your parents, is the way you treat Jesus. For monks: the way you treat your brothers is the way you treat Jesus. We can always have a “yes, but…” answer for this, but I don’t think “yes, but…” is an acceptable response at the judgment seat of Christ.
Then there are others who really may need to be fed, clothed, and taken care of in their basic needs. Since we live in an affluent society, these are often far from our notice, yet through modern means of communication they lay at our gates like Lazarus at the gate of the rich man. How can we say no to a starving child in Haiti or Sudan or India? We are saying no to Jesus. So we must be generous. We obviously cannot solve the crisis of world hunger or disease out of our own meager bank accounts, but we can always give more than we are comfortable giving, for Jesus is going to ask us if we fed and clothed Him in his poor brothers and sisters, and He will demand an answer.
If we have no material means at all, we can pray and sacrifice for the least of Jesus’ brethren. Not just perfunctory prayers, but prayer from the heart, prayer through which we feel the anguish of those who are suffering, and offer this to God to win blessings for them. If we pray for the hungry we should also fast, so we know what it is like to be hungry, at least for a time, and so our prayers will be more heartfelt and fruitful. This is faith working through love, and this is love that is genuine because it is expressed in deeds, and therefore it will rank us among the blessed of the Father, whom Jesus joyfully invites to inherit the Kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world.
The three main pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I’ve already recommended them all as ways of living our faith, of loving in practice. But works done merely to satisfy a requirement, or which are done grudgingly or self-righteously, are not expressions of faith working through love. Perhaps this is what St Paul was opposed to, and Jesus was as well. We are not saved merely by placing this or that act in order to make God indebted to us, so that He is then required to reward us. No, the works we do flow from our faith in God and from our faithfulness to the Great Commandment: to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So our attitudes and motivations will also be brought before the judgment seat of God. No one pulls the wool over God’s eyes, for He is the Searcher of Hearts, and that is precisely what He is going to do on judgment day. He’s going to look at what we have done, and also at why and how we have done it. He’s going to see if our treasure, and hence our hearts, have been with Him in Heaven, and if we have proved this by the way we have lived. Only then will we be invited to share in eternal life and joy.
So let us take the message of this Sunday seriously, and as we enter the final week of preparation for Lent, let us reflect upon the words of the Son of God and put them into practice. Let us not be like those who ignore them or reduce their significance for our salvation, simply because they prefer certain passages from St Paul! There is no opposition between faith and works, but rather the true life in Christ is faith working through love.