[This is the last homily I gave at Mt Tabor. It doesn’t really have much to do with my departure, but since I didn’t manage to post it at that time, I thought I’d do so now. It’s still Lent, and it’s good to reflect on the Last Things during Lent!]
It is perhaps, in some strange way, appropriate that the last homily I will preach in this holy monastery is on the Gospel of the Last Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46). As for me, I would prefer to take the perspective of seeing the Lord waiting for me at the place I’m going, and hearing Him say, “Come,” rather than seeing Him here and hearing Him say, “Depart”!
There are different ways that one can understand this Gospel. If you read the liturgical texts for Vespers and Matins of this Sunday, you’ll see that it is all about our own fear and trembling for our sins and the prospect of eternal damnation before the throne of Divine Justice, along with a fervent plea for mercy and compassion to Christ the Lover of Mankind. So it is that when Christians speak of divine justice or judgment, it is usually a pretty scary thing, because we know that if we are given what our sins deserve in all justice, we will be receiving a ticket for a one-way trip on the hell-bound train.
But if you look at the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, you get a different perspective on divine justice. When the psalmists speak of divine justice, their prayer is usually: “Bring it on!” That is because they are convinced of their own righteousness as faithful keepers of the divine commandments, and hence justice means their vindication against their enemies. So they are always praying for justice.
I suppose it is not too prudent for us to take this approach, for since the New Covenant has been established, one cannot easily take one’s own righteousness for granted. If all we had was a series of clear-cut commandments, we could easily tell if we obeyed or disobeyed them, and if we always obeyed, then, voila!—we are righteous before God!
But Jesus had a curious habit of saying things like: it’s not enough for you to refrain from killing someone; you’re liable to punishment even if you get angry at them or insult them. Or, it’s not enough if you refrain from committing adultery; you’re liable to punishment if you even look with lust at another. Or, most people love their friends and hate their enemies, but you have to love both your friends and your enemies. You get the picture, which is no longer black and white. It’s not always easy to know just how much anger is in us, how much our looks really are lustful, or how genuine is our love for our enemies. Jesus wants us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, so we can’t get too cocky about God coming down to destroy our enemies for us while we get off scot-free. Therefore if we want to find ourselves on the right hand of the Lord and not on the left when He separates the sheep and the goats, we have to pay close attention to what He says about the criteria for divine judgment, what makes for salvation and what makes for damnation.
This image of the Last Judgment that Jesus presents to us in the Gospel is actually the last of three consecutive perspectives on the final judgment that are found in Matthew 25. So perhaps it would be good if we took at least a brief look at them all.
The first is about the wise and the foolish bridesmaids waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom. We are all in this situation. The Lord has not yet returned in glory, so the proper attitude of the Christian is one of attentive and prayerful vigilance, keeping our lamps burning with the oil of virtuous deeds. Some will be ready to receive the Lord and some will not, the latter being unable to make up for their culpable laziness in time to meet the heavenly Bridegroom. So the door to the Kingdom is opened for the virtuous, vigilant ones, and it is closed to the slothful, self-absorbed ones.
The next image of the final judgment is the parable of the talents. The king gives his servants various sums of money suited to their capabilities and expects them to make a return through their assiduous labors. Some of them do, but not all. One is singled out who seemed to have a sort of grudge against the Master for asking him to make some effort to increase the Master’s wealth. All he got for his laziness and negative attitude was to be cast out into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. This, of course, is metaphor of Hell.
So we see, then, that Jesus expects us to do something in order to be found worthy of a favorable judgment when we finally stand before Him with the account of our lives. This becomes crystal clear in today’s Gospel. To the great consternation of those who insist we are saved by faith alone, Jesus tells us precisely that the criterion for salvation or damnation is works, or the lack thereof. We have to assume that faith is presupposed, for we accept the word of God as a whole—and much is said elsewhere about the necessity of faith—but the essential value of doing the will of the Father in order to be saved cannot be minimized without severely distorting the Gospel of Christ.
So the message of the Gospel of the Last Judgment is simply this: How you treat other people determines whether you will go to Heaven or to Hell. This is not something that all pious people would like to hear. Some might think: if only I believe in Christ and accept that He died for my sins, I will go to Heaven, regardless of how I treat other people for whom He also died. Perhaps some might think: if only I spend a lot of time in prayer and avoid doing really bad things, I will go to Heaven, even if I look down on others as inferior to myself and hence refuse to serve them or help them in their needs.
Jesus says: Sorry, you have to stand over there on the left. For what Jesus said was that the ones who recognized Him and served Him in others, especially others in serious need—these are the ones who are blessed by the Father and who will inherit the Kingdom prepared for the friends of God.
The rest have to go to that other place. There’s an interesting point about the other place. No human beings were ever supposed to go to Hell. There is a Kingdom prepared for human beings, who are made in the image of God, and this is Heaven. One of the elements of the great horror that is damnation to Hell is that Hell was never supposed to be the dwelling place of human beings! When Jesus condemns those who refused to feed the hungry and help the needy, He tells them to go to the place prepared for the devil and his demons. So they have to go to the abode of devils, a place not fit for human beings, and where they will be subject to the torment and domination of the demons forever, for it is their place, and human beings—who refused to serve God in their fellow human beings on earth—have now to be slaves of demons for all eternity.
Jesus has no choice. The place prepared for human beings is Heaven. But if human beings are found, through their own fault, to be unfit for Heaven, the only place left to be sent is the place prepared for demons.
This is why the Church takes great pains to put this reality right in our faces. It is why we read this Gospel and all the liturgical texts and all the writings of the saints who try to warn us about the place prepared for demons, so that we will flee anything that even smells of sin and run to the arms of the Lord, so we can spend a happy eternity in the place prepared by the Father for his beloved children.
I remember when I was in the seminary, I had a powerful experience of the message of this Gospel. It wasn’t an experience of being condemned to Hell, thank God, but rather of doing something for someone with whom Jesus identified. There were some laypeople who were taking theology classes with the seminarians, and we all graduated together. One of these was a blind woman named Debbie, and she happened to be sitting next to me at the Mass. So when it was time for Holy Communion, I took her arm and walked with her, and guided her up the several steps we had to climb in that place to reach the priests distributing Communion. I was concerned with making sure she was all right, and so I wasn’t sufficiently recollected and I received Our Lord rather hurriedly. When we returned to our places, I repented of this in my heart to Him. But immediately, I felt Him clearly say in my soul: “What you did for Debbie, you did for Me.” Peace returned, and I understood the Gospel more clearly than ever.
The Lord is asking us to get to the heart of the Gospel. Even Pharisees can pray and fast, but they don’t have compassion on others or treat them with charity. Perhaps that is another reason why this Gospel is read shortly before Lent. We must pray and fast, but if we don’t treat others with charity and compassion, doing for Christ what we do for them, then our prayer and fasting will be pharisaical and hence fruitless.
There are only two ultimate destinies: one that is announced by, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father,” and one that is announced by, “Depart from Me, you cursed…” The whole of the Gospel, the whole of our spiritual lives, all that Jesus said and did—it is all meant to lead us to the blessed end of the righteous. This should be the absolute most essential thing in our lives, and we should allow nothing ever to derail us in this ardent pursuit, even only temporarily. Either all is gained or all is lost; in the end there is nothing in between.
So let us be determined to treat others as we would treat Our Lord, remembering what his final words will be, and entering into the time of Lent willing to be cleansed, enlightened, and changed into more faithful images of Jesus. For nothing is more important, and nothing is worth risking the loss of the heavenly kingdom. The love of God has prepared this for us from the foundation of the world, and it is his ardent desire that we join Him: with the Heavenly Queen, the Angels and Saints, and all the righteous who have given their hearts and lives to Jesus for the sake of his Gospel. It is already prepared; the grace is offered; the rest is up to us.