Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment

Gospel [Matthew 25:31-46 (§106)]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit

My dear father, brothers and sisters:

Today we come to the third Sunday of this pre-lenten run-up to Great Lent: the Sunday of the Last Judgment and the final day on which we can eat meat before Holy Pascha. Today there is a distinct shift in tempo. The fast which we have been talking about for some time now is finally almost here and from tomorrow we embark on Cheesefare week, the last week in which we can eat dairy products as well as fish. Over the past two Sundays, or three if you count the Sunday of Zacchaeus, we have been meditating together on the nature of true prayer, and considering what repentance actually looks like. What has been so striking over these past few weeks is the infinite mercy and compassion of our Heavenly Father for sinners who repent, summed up in that perfect verbal ikon which we discussed together last Sunday: the image of the Father running and leaping for joy at the sight of his home-bound prodigal son, embracing him and pouring kisses upon his neck. In today’s Gospel, we move from these beautiful parables of St Luke’s Gospel to a far starker and darker prophesy of our Lord from St Matthew’s Gospel. Here we confront this terrifying though glorious image of the Son of Man at the end of the age, coming to split the sheep from the goats, the righteous from sinners. Holy Church reminds us of this to help ensure that there is real eschatological urgency and seriousness to all our fasting, prayer and spiritual work. To help us interpret this reading, as is our established custom, let us turn to the Commentary of St Theophylact of Ochrid.

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 nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

In the fifth chapter of St John’s Gospel, our Lord clearly states that – ‘the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son’. In this very first verse of our Gospel reading we can see how this will be exactly fulfilled, as it is explicitly the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son who shall come to mete out Judgment rather than the Person of the Father or the Holy Spirit. St Theophylact begins his commentary on this passage by noting that, ‘Since the first coming of the Lord was not with glory but with dishonour and indignity, He says ‘When he shall come in His glory’. At the first coming of the Lord, He came to us in simplicity and in poverty, having emptied Himself for our sake of the fulness of His Divine Glory. However, when He will return to us at the end of the age, at a time that only the Father knows, then He will appear in His full resurrected glory. But this great and final second coming of our Lord at the end of the world, will not be to ‘save us’, but precisely to ‘Judge us’ and divide us into these two distinct groups – the sheep on the right hand, and the goats on the left. To those fond of goats, St Theophylact makes clear why the Lord chose this metaphor of the righteous and the damned – ‘He calls the saints ‘sheep’ on account of their gentleness, and because they yield fruit and useful things for us, ‘the goats are the sinners, for they walk along the precipices and are unruly and fruitless’. Whether we feel this characterisation of goats is fair, the important thing for us to grasp, is that whilst in the Church’s prayer and hymnography all Christians are called “rational sheep”, it is essential that we understand that just because we may be baptised Orthodox, just because we may go to church regularly, or even occasionally, none of this means that we will be definitely counted amongst Christ’s sheep at the Last Judgment. All of us our free to become sheep or goats.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

First we hear our Lord speaking directly to the sheep, to the blessed. St Theophylact picks up that the real sonship of the righteous is affirmed here. ‘He considers them to be inheritors of the kingdom to show that God makes them participants in His own glory as His sons. For He did not say, ‘receive’, but rather ‘inherit’ as a man would his father’s estate’. Then we come to the real crux of our Gospel reading today, and its most important lesson for us. Our Lord doesn’t just tell us that we will be judged, He also tells us exactly what criteria He will use to judge each one of us.

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

These are the criteria our Saviour will use when he judges us. Yet the things that we so often focus on in confession seem to be curiously missing, strangely absent from our Lord’s list. There is no mention of whether we have completed our prayer rule; how often and how fully we have fasted. There is nothing about the church services we have attended, the many candles we have lit or the number of prostrations we have made. Instead, our Saviour will focus entirely on what we have done. This is not to suggest, however, that at the end of the day, and at the end of the world, our prayer life, our fasting and our reception of the Mysteries of the church are worthless. On the contrary it is precisely our prayer and fasting which should lead to transformed action and transformed sight. Our prayer and fasting should fundamentally transform how we look at the world, how we look at our neighbour and should manifest in the fruits of prayer which is almsgiving and holy deeds.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

As St Theophylact underscores, ‘see the good disposition of their mind, how they deny, with befitting modesty, that they have cared for him.’ Here again, we can see how the true sheep, the righteous are not full of pride for the acts they have committed but have already forgotten them. They don’t justify themselves or produce a long list of their good deeds, as the Pharisee in the Parable no doubt would have done.

And the King shall answer and say unto them, 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.

Here we see the full identification of our Lord with fallen humanity. He identifies with and assumes fallen human nature not only becoming Incarnate, but also continuing to identify His own body with the frail, broken and oppressed bodies of the poor, the sick, the naked and the imprisoned. ‘The Lord,’ St Theophylact says, ‘accepts as for Himself the things done for the poor’.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

Finally, our Lord then turns to the goats, to the damned who are on His left and consigns them to the everlasting fire and punishment of hell, set apart from the love and joy of the Father in Heaven. Paradoxically, St Theophylact underscores that from this verse it is clear that God does not will or intend the damnation of any of His creatures. Hell was made, not for man but for the ‘devil and his angels’. We Orthodox thus firmly reject the predestinationism of forms of heretical Protestant Christianity where God arbitrarily elects some to paradise and condemns others to damnation. No – God wills the salvation of all men, and offered Himself up as a Sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. However, we Orthodox also reject the corresponding heresy in the opposite direction which is just as harmful, namely that God has ordained that all of us will be consigned to heaven, all will ultimately be saved. This was the universalistic heresy of Origen but has found increased traction today. However, this doctrine is equally disrespectful to human freedom, human agency as the Calvinist doctrine of double destinationism. Just as we are free to choose God, so we are also truly free to reject Him. God never forces Himself upon anyone, but respects our choices and our will as infinitely precious. The choice is ours and is fundamentally determined not by our flowery words, or intentions, but by our deeds, by what we have done. As St Theophylact says,

Tremble, then, O man, and understand from this that these men were not punished as fornicators, or robbers, or perpetrators of any other vice, but for not having done good.

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

As St John Chrysostom used to often say in his homilies, any riches, any wealth, any possession that we have beyond what we strictly require for our own needs is food, is water, is clothing which belongs to the poor, and which we are in effect stealing from them. The same can also be said for our time, which is just as precious. Any time that we waste on the worthless things of this world, on endless mindless and stupid distractions, is precious time that we are also stealing from the sick, from the imprisoned, from the lonely people of this world.  

Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

Dear father, brothers and sisters: this Sunday always comes as something of a bright spiritual wake-up call. But will we heed it? As we prepare for Great Lent once more, as well as our spiritual reading, and our prayer rule, and the rigour of our fasting, let us not neglect to cultivate within ourselves the fruits of prayer and the fruits of fasting in good deeds, in holy almsgiving. This isn’t all about giving money, but also of giving our time to those around us and maybe to the souls that God will bring to us. Let us not fail to notice Him in the face of our neighbour and the faces of those that He may lead to us seeking mercy.