Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
‘When the Son of Man shall come in His glory and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His Glory. And before Him shall be gathered all the nations, and He shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.’
This particular image, this prophetic word or vision, regarding the coming of the Son of Man is unique to the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew; however, the belief is not. It crosses over into the other Gospels and cross-fertilizes, if you will, the Holy Epistles of the Apostles where, in one of the earliest Epistles written, we hear St. Paul say quite plainly that the Lord Jesus will be “revealed from Heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He goes on to declare,
These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the Presence of the Lord and from the Glory of His power, when He comes in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, . . . . (2 Th. 1:7-12).
That the “’Son of Man will come in the Glory of His Father with His holy angels, and . . . reward each according to his works’” has been codified by the Church in her Creed (Nicene Creed; Mt. 16:27; Jn. 5:25-29; Rm. 14:10, 12; 2 Cr. 5:10), solidified as a non-negotiable of her Faith, and offered up in prayer in her Liturgy where we repeatedly pray for “a Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread Judgment Seat of Christ” (Litany of Supplication). In a way, St. Matthew offers us in today’s Holy Gospel the good defense we implore from Christ our God in the Litany. In a sense, Jesus says to us, just as He once did to the inquisitive lawyer sent to put Him to the test, who wanted to know what he must do to inherit Eternal Life, “’[D]o this and you will live.’” Jesus tells the lawyer this right after he answered correctly about the two greatest commandments in Sacred Scripture: “’Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind. And thy neighbor as thyself’” (Lk. 10:25-28). We know from elsewhere in St. Matthew’s Holy Gospel that these two great commandments are the linchpin and the keystone of the Law and the Prophets (Mt. 22:34-40). There are no greater commandments than these! “’[D]o this and you will live.’”
But, in St. Matthew’s Gospel today, we hear that the recompense meted out at the Great Judgment Seat of Christ the King and Shepherd is based upon our treatment of the least identified by our Lord as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger or sojourner, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. These are the lowest of the low, socio-economically speaking, the kind of souls St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once ministered to – the poorest of the poor. Elsewhere in this Gospel, other criteria for judgment are set forth by our Lord. Our words, He says, will either justify us or condemn us (Mt. 12:36-37). If we fail or refuse to forgive, we are told, God cannot and will not forgive us (Mt. 6:14). We are to learn mercy and show it or else face the consequences (Mt. 23:23). Other things found in the Sermon on the Mount like our use of anger and our judgmental spirit will have disastrous and eternal consequences (Mt. 5:1-7:28).
Perhaps, now, we might be confused and be wondering just what the final exam will be on and consist of? How do we prepare for eternity when the standard seems to be all over the place?
Some see in this great and terrible Last Day Judgment the answer to the age-old dilemma frequently put by unbelievers to believers, “What do you do with those who have never heard of Jesus and His saving Gospel and who die unconverted to the Christian Faith? Are they consigned to that fiery place prepared for the devil and his angels?” For in this great icon of the Last Judgment, we hear that all the nations will be gathered before the throne of our Lord’s Judgment. The Greek word for nations is the same word for Gentiles – those who are outside the Covenant people of Israel. And those who are identified as the least among humanity would be the disciples of Jesus Christ – the persecuted baptized faithful of the Church. How these Gentiles, that is, the unbaptized, treat the Church will determine their judgment at the end of all human history because how they treat the Church is the same as treating or mistreating Jesus Christ Himself. For, as He says, “’Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto me.’” Indeed, “’he who is not against us,’” says Jesus, “’is on our side. For whosoever shall give you a cup of cold water to drink in My Name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward’” (Mk. 9:40-41). We hear this same concept applied in the movie, Schindler’s List, when Oscar Schindler, a Gentile, risks himself to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazi death camps. He is honored by the nation of Israel and memorialized as among “the righteous Gentiles.” In short, we might say that our Lord sees in these righteous Gentiles, summoned to stand before the dread Judgment Seat of the King and Shepherd, a faith they had not identified beforehand as faith in themselves (The Incomplete Works on Matthew; Ac. 10:34-35). “’Lord, when did we see Thee hungry and fed Thee, or thirsty and gave Thee to drink, or a stranger and took Thee in, or naked and clothed Thee, or sick or in prison and came to Thee?’” It is nonetheless a faith the led them to do mercy, which is a very Jewish concept: faith is an action word (Jm. 2:1-26).
But, the consensus of the Fathers sees this Last Judgment as applicable to all souls across the board – Jew and Gentile alike, baptized and unbaptized, believer and unbeliever, sheep and goats. We are taught to understand this great vision of the Last Judgment in light of all that our Lord has taught us, especially in light of the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. And, the standard for this love is the least among us, which is to say, how we see the least and treat them. For like us, they also bear the image of God, and it is this that becomes the touchstone for our judgment. “’Whatsoever you have done (or not done) to the least of My brethren, you have done (or not done) to Me.’” Dorothy Day – a Roman Catholic laywoman who worked extensively with the downtrodden and on their behalf – puts it rather succinctly for us as to why Jesus exalts the least and sets them forth as the measure. She provides us with some insight here. “I really only love God,” she once averred, “as much as I love the person I love the least.” I think that warrants a second hearing: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” “Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God,” the Evangelist and Theologian says in his Epistle, “nor is he who does not love his brother. . . . My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:10, 18). If we love only those who love us or who are able to return the proverbial favor, so what? “’Even sinners do the same,’” Jesus says. “But, as God in Heaven is merciful to the evil and the unthankful, you go and do likewise,” we’re told (Lk. 6:27-36; 10:30-37). In fact, how can any of us confess to love God, Whom we have not seen, if we do not love our brother whom we can see (1 Jn. 4:20)? The love God will judge is seen in our love for the one we love least. This is also picked up by St. Paul in his Epistle today (1 Cr. 8:8-9:2).
Beloved, the Fathers see here not just corporal works of mercy, as described by our Lord in this Gospel, but they see as well something we call the spiritual works of mercy played out here. St. Nikolai of Zhicha tells us that “The holy soul is concerned with where the homeless will spend the night . . . .” But, the homeless, in the eyes of our Fathers, can be anyone in need of a place to call home whether it be an actual roof over their heads or temporary lodging. They can be someone in search of a church home to belong to, or those who are seeking refuge in the Church’s Faith and morals in the midst of the ever-shifting sands of our times. In fact, they can even be the dead in need of burial, in need of a final resting place, who need someone who will provide them Christian burial. The sick likewise can be those physically ill and quarantined or they can be those who are spiritually ill and who need someone to lend them time and an ear because they feel isolated and lost. The imprisoned can be sitting in a physical jail cell or they can be locked behind the bars of their own bitterness and hatred. Traditionally, brethren, the spiritual works of mercy consist of instructing, advising, consoling, comforting, forgiving, and patiently forbearing. These are alms we all can offer to anyone at any time, alms that are due to all souls, especially the least of Jesus’ brethren.
To be sure, the corporal works of mercy upon which the King and Shepherd shall sit in judgment take preeminence in our thinking because of this Gospel. Our social justice is based upon this. But, we should not under-value or de-value the spiritual works of mercy which are related. St. Francis de Sales of the Roman tradition reminds us of this truth: “Great opportunities to serve God [by serving our neighbor] rarely present themselves but little ones are frequent. . . . ‘Do all things in the Name of God,’” he says, “’and you will do all things well’” (Introduction to the Devout Life). This scene of the Last Judgment can seem pretty daunting, but let us recall the good Archbishop’s words that little opportunities avail themselves frequently, if we’re paying attention spiritually, and we are reminded by St. Paul elsewhere that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling through them (Pp. 2:12). To put it a different way, our Lord saves us through the least of these who are His precious brethren! As St. John Chrysostom points out, Jesus doesn’t call us to set the prisoner free or to heal the sick or to do miracles! What He calls us to do is far more basic: to visit, to speak a word of encouragement, to pray, to offer a word of hope, to bear witness to the saving Gospel, to make possible food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked as best as we can. Jesus calls us to put skin in the game of our Christianity. In short, to show compassion and do mercy. To truly care for others because “holy souls are concerned.” This is what faith does, a very Jewish-Christian concept.
“The Judge shall come suddenly, and the deeds of each shall be exposed” (Troparion). As we ponder the scene of the Last Judgment, it seems to me, beloved, the key is this: that as we go back out into the world to do the Liturgy after the Liturgy, that we see all men and women, no matter who, as God sees them, with God’s eyes. That we see in them the very image of God and then treat them as His icons regardless of their state in life. If we do, then we will be as nobly oblivious as the sheep who ask “sheepishly,” “Lord, when did we see Thee in such straits and touch Thee?” This is pretty much the apostolic counsel to the Church in Galatia. “[A]s we have opportunity,” St. Paul says, “let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the Household of Faith” (Ga. 6:10). And may God grant us to hear those words of the King and Shepherd, “’Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” all the while remembering the fate of those damned with the devil and his angels. “’And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into Life Eternal.’”
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God,
have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Cr. 8:8-9:2