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Homily for Carnival Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, 7 March 2021
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
The Gospel for this Sunday is a prophecy in the sense of a declaration of what will come to pass—at the Last Judgment, ‘when the Son of man [the Lord’s self-designation] will come in his glory and all his angels with him, and then sit down on the throne of his glory’ (Matt. 25: 31). In Matthew’s Gospel, this is presented as the last piece of Jesus’ teaching before there begins to unroll the sequence of events leading up to his passion and death on the Cross. Before it, in chapter 25, there have been two parables: the parable of the Talents, which was our Gospel exactly a month ago, and the parable of the Ten Virgins, which we shall read at Vespers on the Tuesday in Great and Holy Week, as we take up again the Lord’s teaching as he approaches the last hours before his Crucifixion. Also: in the Church’s Year, this Sunday’s Gospel follows two Sundays when the Gospel is one of the parables (the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son). Several of the Fathers, commenting on this passage, note the transition from parables to prophecy—from dark sayings that illuminate only an aspect of the truth, often in a riddling way, to a clear prophecy about the Day of Judgment. And some compare this transition with the transition from how things are now in this present life with how things will be at the Day of Judgment. In our morning prayers, every day we make this prayer: ‘The Judge will come suddenly, and the deeds of each will be laid bare; but with fear let us cry to you in the middle of the night: Holy, Holy, Holy are you, O God. Through the Mother of God have mercy on us’. We pass from how things are in this world, where much is unclear, where the hearts of others are closed to us, to how things will be at the Day of Judgment, when ‘the deeds of each will be laid bare’. A late fourth-century commentary on St Matthew puts it like this:
So then, people on earth are intermingled…Between the righteous and the wicked there is no apparent difference. Even as in wintertime you cannot tell the healthy trees apart from the withered trees but in beautiful springtime you can tell the difference, so too each person… will be exposed. The wicked will not have any leaves or show any fruit, but the righteous will be clothed with the leaves of eternal life and adorned with the fruit of glory.
The simile here is particularly relevant to this Sunday, for we are approaching what in English we call Lent, which is an old English word for Spring. As the commentator sees this Gospel passage as marking a transition from winter to spring, from the hidden to the manifest, so in the Christian year we are embarking on what we might regard as a ‘dry run’ for the Last Judgment—a period in which, through our encounter with Christ, who we really are will be revealed. And this prophecy of the Last Judgment nudges us in the direction of realizing what this means.
First of all, discernment, seeing and grasping difference, division—between sheep and goats. We too easily read this prophecy of the Last Judgment as telling an old, old story that we are very familiar with. At the end, the good will be separated from the wicked: the wicked will go to hell, the good to heaven. The account in our Gospel is more complex than that: the longest part of the account concerns the exchange between the Judge, the Shepherd, and those before him, who are divided, some to his right, the rest to his left. He starts off with those corralled to his right: ‘Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (v. 34). The blessed, on the right, are coming into their inheritance, not receiving a reward, but coming to what is theirs by right. But think back to last Sunday, with the parable of the Prodigal Son. We might ask: how are the blessed to receive their inheritance—like the prodigal or the elder brother? What follows gives something of an answer. The Judge, the Lord, says to them, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.’ And the sheep are amazed! Note that! They don’t sit back on their haunches, as it were, in complacency. They say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and nourished you, or thirsty and gave you drink? When did we see you a stranger and took you in, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison, and came to you?’ When did any of this happen? they exclaim in astonishment. And the Lord says, ‘Amen, I say to you, inasmuch as you did this to one of the least of my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.’ Amen, ἀμήν—the Greek transliteration of the Semitic אמן, a solemn ‘In truth’, which must have been characteristic of Jesus, remembered by his disciples—such care offered to the least of my brothers and sisters is, in truth, offered to me. It is a matter of discernment, and the test of this discernment is responding to the needy, for in becoming incarnate, God Himself as come among us as one in need. It is not just a matter of doing good—though that is involved, too—it is rather a matter of showing that we are good, or better whole, morally healthy, so that we respond in the right way to manifestations of need. Or another way of putting it: it is a matter of the wholeness of our heart—that innermost place within us, from which springs love, prayer, desire for God—but when corrupted, the source of evil thoughts, as the Lord warned his disciples (see Matt. 15: 19–20): a place so easily hidden, overlaid with a kind of carapace, the result of our attempts to protect ourselves, to make ourselves invulnerable, indifferent—something we so easily do. And so we read in the psalms about a ‘broken heart’, the heart that God will not despise, since for most of us that hardness of our heart will only be softened, by being broken, so prone are we to protect ourselves. And we see the other side of this in what follows, when the Lord turns to those on his left: ‘Depart from me, you cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink… and so on.’ They too are surprised: we would never have turned away from you, if you were in need, and they get the same reply as the sheep: ‘inasmuch as you did not do this for the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ So, to go back to my question: whose inheritance? The prodigal son’s or his elder brother’s? Not the elder brother’s, for he expects it, he has a right to it. So the prodigal son’s, because he does not expect it, knows he has no right to it. For the account of the Last Judgment is not about the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. It is about whether, when there is no hiding, when everything is manifest, we are found to be without ‘leaves or fruit’, or found to be ‘clothed with the leaves of eternal life and adorned with the fruit of glory’: and that depends on who we are, who we have become—and that depends on our heart: Is it hard and turned-in, not noticing the other in his need, the other who, we learn, is Christ? Or is it softened, made tender—though being broken—sensitive to the need of the other, alert of the One who meets us as Christ in the other? Lent is an opportunity to see that we really are what we want to be, what we really are as we left the hands of God when we were created. Amen.