In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we hear of the dread Last Judgment of God, when the righteous shall be separated from the wicked, and the everlasting kingdom of God shall be made fully manifest, while the places of eternal torment will receive their unfortunate inhabitants.
The Church readings explain to us that the Fathers have placed this commemoration on this particular Sunday as a sobering reminder. Over the past two weeks, we have been presented with vivid illustrations of God’s boundless mercy and compassion in the parables of the Publican and Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son. Lest we be carried away into negligence on this account, thinking that God will pardon us even if we continue to sin, now we are reminded that there will be a reckoning and a recompense for all that we do in this life.
When we consider contemporary attitudes toward the concept of the Judgment, the Church’s wisdom in doing this becomes clear. For many today, whether Christians or not, are unable to reconcile in their minds the idea of an endlessly forgiving God, and one who could consign a person to eternal damnation. Much more appealing is the idea that somehow, all will be saved; that our actions do not have meaningful eternal consequences; that even the devil and his angels will find their place in heaven, and everyone will be restored to perfection and bliss.
Of course, we have it on very good authority—quite literally from the mouth of God Himself—that such a teaching is false. But lest this alone be insufficient for those who are tempted with this thought, supposing that the Last Judgment is incompatible with belief in a merciful God, let us consider today’s parable of the Last Judgment more closely; for I am confident that we will find in it abundant indications of God’s mercy.
What then does the Lord say to those on His right hand? Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Mt. 25:34). Even before anything at all had been made by God, even before the creation of Adam, Paradise, his sin, the fall, the whole span of human history, or any of the good deeds of the righteous, an eternal kingdom was prepared for them; as St. Paul says, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth (Rom 9:11). Where is the justice? Where is the strict accounting? Who has ever done or could do something that would merit such blessedness? Usually, we wait and observe someone’s behavior, and make self-interested calculations about how to treat them, and congratulate ourselves on dealing fairly with others; but God, having a perfect knowledge of all things from the very beginning prepared this blessing in His pre-eternal counsel, before any deeds were done by those who would inherit it.
But is there not then grave injustice that apart from any merit, some were prepared a kingdom, while others were destined for punishment? No. Rather, the kingdom was prepared for all, but not all make themselves worthy of inheriting it. The everlasting fire was prepared not for men, but for the devil and his angels (Mt. 25:41). Moreover, those who fail to attain God’s kingdom are not cast out because of any evil deed they have done, as though God were unable to forgive them. According to the Lord’s own words, they are rejected for what they failed to do, namely, respond gratefully to God’s love and forgiveness by showing love and forgiveness to those around them.
God’s mercy is also manifest in this, that for some paltry deeds of ours, He is pleased to grant us an everlasting kingdom. You see, it’s not as though He requires anything particularly difficult of us, or as though He said, “Come, ye blessed, inherit the kingdom; because you hungered and did not eat; you were thirsty and did not drink; you were tired and did not sleep; you did many miracles and healings; you moved mountains, cast out demons and converted a multitude of heathen with your preaching; you tamed wild beasts and endured untold tortures, wounds and sicknesses, without ever muttering or complaining.” None of these things are mentioned here, but only the most basic tokens of sympathy for our fellow man—feeding him, clothing him, taking care of him, in a word, loving him.
This is the real criterion of judgment, that we be merciful, as our heavenly Father is merciful (cf. Lk. 6:36). Then Christ will come, and He will recognize us as truly His own. All the Apostles make this clear: as St. Paul says, though I give my body to be burned and have not love, I am nothing (Cf. 1 Cor. 13:2-3); or St. John when he says, If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar (1 Jn. 4:20); or again in St. James, If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding, ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? (Jam. 2:15-16).
In God’s great condescension and compassion, He identifies Himself with these poor brethren, saying, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Mt. 25:40); just as it says in another place, he is not ashamed to call them brethren (Heb. 2:11), having made Himself like unto them, partaking of flesh and blood, living a life on earth in poverty and obscurity, personally undergoing all the vagaries of our mortal existence. Thus, He accepts a good deed done to any person at all as done unto Him; and even a deed as small as providing a cup of cold water He promises will not go unrewarded (cf. Mt. 10:42).
Seeing then that we have such a plentiful field for performing God-pleasing deeds, and that they do not require anything exceptional or impossible from us, but only a sensitive and loving heart, how will we not justly be condemned at the appearing of the God Who is love, if we ourselves are found bereft of that love? If we are thus found, the shame of being near Him, and beholding His face, full of the terrible beauty of holiness, will be more unbearable for us than outer darkness and gnashing of teeth; His presence will burn us hotter than any lake of fire. He does not drive us away out of petty anger, but merely gives us what we ourselves have been preparing our whole life long: for he shall have judgment without mercy that hath shown no mercy (Jam. 2:13).
But what about those who themselves are poor, naked or sick; or those of us who have chosen the monastic life, and no longer have the material things needed to help alleviate our brother’s suffering? Listen to St. Mark the Monk, who says, “you don’t have money, but you do have free will and the will to act.” So let us give of what we do have. Is your brother sick and ailing from some infirmity? Visit him at least with your prayers. Is he imprisoned in the dungeon of despondency? Come to him with a kind, encouraging word. Are his faults naked and exposed to your sight? Clothe him with your good thoughts. Is he a stranger because he offended you in some way? Take him in with your forgiveness. In these ways, anyone can perform the deeds necessary for salvation; and truly, these things are better than material alms, just as the soul is better than the body.
So, let us be sobered by reflection on God’s judgment, but let us not despair of God’s mercy: for mercy rejoiceth against judgment (Jam. 2:13). And it is precisely a heart that is merciful like His that He seeks of us at His judgment. Let us make this our aim in the coming season of fasting; because food does not commend us to God (1 Cor. 8:8), as we hear in today’s epistle. The impending struggle of the Fast is only a means to a higher end, a powerful tool that the Church places in our hand, so that we can harrow the stony ground of our hearts, covered with the tares of self-love, and thus acquire a heart of mercy which in the sight of God is of great price (1 Pet. 3:4). Having achieved this end with God’s help, may we also be found worthy to stand on His right hand at the Last Day, and behold unashamed the face of Jesus Christ when He returns in glory; to whom be honor and dominion, together with His beginningless Father, and His most-holy, gracious, and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.