Following the Gospel of Matthew we have recently heard Jesus warning us in parables, first of all, to be faithful and responsible, after the example of the wise and faithful servant set over the household whilst his master was away; then -- in the parable of the 5 wise and the 5 foolish virgins -- to be prepared and alert at all times; and finally, last week, He admonished us -- in the parable of the talents – to put to good use the gifts we have received by bringing forth fruit for eternal life.
And now, just before the chief priests and elders of the people meet to plot Jesus’ death, Matthew puts before us this awesome scene of the Last Judgement pictured for us by the Lord Himself:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit upon His glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before Him. And He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Jesus goes on to make clear the grounds on which the sheep are to be separated from the goats, and in doing so He fills in with greater detail the advice given us previously in His parables by showing us how to remain faithful and responsible, ever alert and prepared, and how to invest for the future by bringing forth fruit for eternal life:
For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, a stranger and you welcomed Me, naked and you clothed Me, ill and you cared for Me, in prison and you visited Me
Those, on the left hand, who do not remain faithful, alert and prepared, who make little or no effort to gain profit for heaven, will be most severely judged and condemned, and the immediate continuation of our first reading from the prophet Ezekiel tells us why:
Then the King will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
“As for you, O My flock,” thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. Is it too little for you to have eaten up the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture -- and to have drunk of the clear waters, that you must foul the residue with your feet?" Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, I Myself will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. Because you have pushed with side and shoulder, butted all the weak ones with your horns, and scattered them abroad, therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.”
St. John Chrysostom, a Greek Doctor of the Church, when commenting on today’s parable of the Final Judgement, told his congregation at the imperial court in the city of Constantinople some 1600 years ago that God does not demand great things of us, for He is gracious enough to reward even little things:
And in return for what, do they receive such a great reward as a share in heavenly glory? For offering the covering of a roof, for giving a garment, some bread to eat and cold water to drink, for visiting one languishing in the prison. In every case it is for what is needed; and sometimes not even for that, for surely, as I have said, the sick and he that is in bonds seeks not only a visit, but the one to be loosed (from his chains), the other to be delivered from his infirmity. But the Lord, being gracious, requires only what is within our power.
Consequently, we can be sure the supreme Judge in today’s parable is seeking only what is absolutely essential:
I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, a stranger and you welcomed Me, naked and you clothed Me, ill and you cared for Me, in prison and you visited Me.
All, expressions of human compassion and signs of the beginnings of divine charity.
At times this parable of the Last Judgment has been wrongly interpreted as though it asserts that our salvation will ultimately depend exclusively on works of fraternal charity done or omitted by us. However, when looked at in the whole context of St. Matthew’s presentation of the teaching of Jesus, works of fraternal charity are valid and valuable only in so far as they are true expressions of love for God.
A lawyer, asked Jesus a question, testing Him, and saying, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." (22:35-40)
Love God with all your heart, soul and mind; love your neighbour, as yourself.
St. Matthew elsewhere (19:16-21) quotes Jesus showing love of neighbour to be a necessary preparation for love of God when he tells how a rich young man, though having long kept the commandments and shown love toward his neighbour, came to Jesus because he still felt himself to be far from perfect:
"Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to Him, "Which ones?" Jesus said, " 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'Honour your father and your mother,' and, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'" The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?" Jesus said, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
There Jesus obviously wanted to lead this promising young man on to the fulfilment of charity in personal love of God.
In our parable today also, notice that those called to His right hand by Jesus had indeed shown love of neighbour, but they had not sufficiently recognized God, Jesus, in their neighbour:
Then the righteous will answer Him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and welcome You, or naked and clothe You? When did we see You ill or in prison, and visit You?’
They still needed to learn much from Jesus in order to recognize and truly appreciate the pearl of great price.
The rich young man, however, by his life-long endeavours to find God, merited Jesus’ Personal invitation to “Come, follow Me”: only three short words but of surpassing significance. “Come and learn from Me to love both God and neighbour; come, learn to love My Father and your Father so much as to be able to embrace the Cross with Me for His glory and for the salvation of mankind”. He speaks those same words to us this very day, for we should recognize that there is much for us to learn concerning which none but Jesus can teach us. Our world’s greatest need is for divine wisdom to understand God’s will in the signs of the times, and divine charity to love His will and our fellows aright, and such gifts are only in the purview of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Once Jesus’ coming into our lives has freed us from the slavery of sin then, by the gift of His Spirit, those God-given gifts of understanding and love can begin to reform and renew our darkened minds and stony hearts for God’s glory and the blessing of all around us.
If, therefore, we aspire to be counted among the sheep at God’s right hand we must make a beginning by fulfilling, as St. John Chrysostom explained, the first and easiest demands of Him Who will, ultimately, be our Judge. Only little words and actions capable of expressing both sincere love for God and neighbour are asked of us: such as turning aside from evil, and witnessing to Jesus by speaking the truth in love; such as showing human understanding and compassion by admitting in others those human limitations and weaknesses which we consider so understandable and excusable in ourselves; such as setting aside our personal antipathies, and learning to forgive; such as refraining from snide remarks or whispered words of detraction, and being sincere and trustworthy in our relationships. All these common, every-day, matters -- for the most part unseen by others and of no great difficulty to ourselves -- are, nevertheless, of the utmost significance in our endeavours to walk with Jesus for God’s glory and our neighbour’s good. There is no need for us to look around for opportunities to make great sacrifices or adopt striking attitudes, for those who behave in such a way easily fall into the trap of seeking human praise rather than divine approbation.
For it is only as the ordinary, everyday, attitudes of individual men and women become spiritually healthy and strong through Christ living in them, that the Holy Spirit of Jesus will be able to gradually correct and efface the social and political evils which afflict our country and our world, until that time comes when Christ -- reigning supreme in hearts and minds of His disciples—will be publicly manifested as King of Glory ushering in the Kingdom of God. Towards that end every disciple of Jesus is able and called to contribute since all of us have a personal role to play in the development of that Kingdom and a necessary function for its fulfilment.
Dear People of God, be sure of this: in all that we do, each and every one of us is responsible to Jesus because each and every one of us counts for Him, each and every one of us is of unique worth before Him.