Audio length: 17:01 minutes
Transcript published: March 27, 2010
A Homily on Matthew 25:31-46
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We’ve arrived today, my brothers and sisters, at Carnival Sunday. I think that’s a fair translation of Meatfare—carni-vale. That’s an identical translation I think—“goodbye to meat”—which means we’re bearing down now on Lent, which is a better way of saying that it bears down on us.
One week from tonight we will be having Reconciliation Vespers to begin the Lenten fast. Just prior to this, we’re given the picture of the Last Judgment, probably by way of getting us to put ourselves in a serious frame of mind. Although we call this Carnival Sunday, we think of carnivals as a celebration, in etymology it doesn’t mean that. It means “farewell to meat”, or “meat fare.”
This Gospel dominates the imagery of our hymnography of the day at Vespers last night and during Matins and Liturgy this morning. Jesus is portrayed in this morning’s Gospel in three ways: as judge, as brother and, formally, as teacher. This morning let’s take these three in order.
First, Jesus appears in this parable as the final judge of the whole human race.
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:31-32)
We’ve taken this claim seriously for so long, some of us from childhood, it would be good to pause and reflect on the extraordinary nature of this claim, the claim to be the final arbiter of universal history. A person within history, a Galilean carpenter, actually the Greek word tekton means a handyman, is claiming to be the final arbiter of all of human history and the judge of the destiny of every human being.
The early Church certainly appreciated the uniqueness of that claim. St. Paul, in his sermon to the Athenians, the philosophers, announced that God has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. Paul was equally clear in this point when he wrote to the Corinthians:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
So when we proclaim the Gospel to the world there’s always an edge to it. Non-Christians in this country and certainly in Europe don’t like to hear Christians talk about these things because it seems to be an exclusive claim. As one notable politician says: “you betcha.” It is a universal claim. The world can hear this claim of universal judgment only with skepticism and even ridicule. They hear it with skepticism because those who adhere to the world find it impossible to imagine that they are going to be judged at all, for the simple reason that there are no universal moral standards by which to judge them. Indeed it is taken as axiomatic that no one can judge anyone else.
If anybody here has gone through a single semester of college, and taken a single course in any of the behavioral sciences or sociology or cultural anthropology or psychology, you’ve been taught that proposition. Everybody who has a higher education in the contemporary world has heard that thesis, it’s taught. Having heard that thesis they go on to teach high-school kids and the high school kids hear that thesis—it’s a universal thesis that there are no universal moral standards. It’s only, well, “values clarification”; what you hold to be valuable. Those who hear this claim with ridicule do so at the thought that they will be judged by somebody they don’t even believe in.
There’s the first thing. We’re all going to be judged by exactly the same standards, no matter what standards we’ve been taught in this world as we’ve grown up and lived. Those won’t be the standards by which we are judged. The cultural values standards of any individual nation or culture or civilization will be absolutely worthless at that point. It won’t make any difference whether one is a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, an Episcopalian or an atheist, won’t make any difference. One will be judged by exactly the same standards, the standards of those outlined in the Gospel today.
Second, if the first point has an edge to it, the second, I think, softens the edge. In this parable Jesus appears as our brother. Indeed his brotherhood with other human beings is the very basis of His judgment:
And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:40, 45)
Christian emphasis on the common quality of the Lord’s humanity indicates more than an ethical preference on Jesus’ part. According to our theology, His complete solidarity with the rest of the human race was a condition of His ability to redeem the human race. The Council of Nicaea in 325 proclaimed that the Son is homo ousios with the Father. Now we’re very familiar with that, we recite that every time we recite the Creed at Baptism and in the Divine Liturgy that He is homoousios with the Father. Less well known, I’m afraid, among many Orthodox Christians because it is not liturgically reinforced, is the statement of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that He is also homoousios with us. In fact they paralleled the two things, according to Chalcedon, He is homoousios with the Father and He is homoousios with us. He is one being with the Father and He is one being with us. That’s very, very bold to use exactly the same word to describe His relationship to the Father and then apply it to His relationship to the rest of human beings.
This is the force of the reference to Jesus in St. Paul as born of a woman coming to redeem those under the Law:
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)
In other words Jesus is especially our brother in assuming our humanity and dying for us and rising again. Thus in today’s epistle, and I have not the slightest doubt that this is the reason today’s epistle was chosen to go with this Gospel. Look what Paul says in today’s epistle. He’s talking about something that is not even a problem very much anymore and that’s meat sacrificed to idols. I have not heard that in the confessional in weeks: “You know, I eat meat sacrificed to idols.” So that’s not a really live issue. What is a live issue? Listen closely to today’s epistle:
And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:11-13)
“The brother for whom Christ died”—put that with today’s Gospel: “Whatsoever you did to the least of these My brethren, you did to Me”. We treat other human beings, not just Christians, we treat other human beings as our brothers and sisters because that is how Christ regards them, not just Christians—Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists. In Orthodox theology, He died for all of them. If you are a Calvinist you don’t have to love these people because Christ didn’t die for them. In Orthodox theology, Christ died for everybody. He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world without regard for what religion they belong to or any religion or what nation they come from. That’s true of the rocket scientist. It’s also true of the caveman who makes these commercials about various things.
Let me give you some of the most important lines that have ever been penned in the City of Chicago. Let me give you the immortal affirmation of C. Herbert Woolston:
Red and yellow, black and white all are precious in His sight
You may have heard those words before. These awesome words were first heard here in Chicago where Woolston wrote them just before the Civil War: “Red and yellow black and white all are precious in His sight.” The word precious comes from the Latin word pretium which means price. It’s a price. A Christian’s assessment of human worth is not based on a sentimental response, but on a fact, the historical fact of the death of Christ, the theological fact of the value of His blood. The outpoured blood of Christ is the price tag that hangs on the human being. Human beings, that is to say, are never marked down. They are marked up. They are marked with the sign of that Cross on which their redemption was purchased. The blood of Jesus is the reason we hold all human beings as precious in His sight. The great tragedy, the immense tragedy of not being a Christian is in not knowing this. The great tragedy of a loss of a single soul anywhere is that for that soul the blood of Christ was shed in vain.
And this morning, for the third point, Jesus appears not in the parable but because of the parable, Jesus appears as our teacher. The story of the Last Judgment is our Lord’s final parable before the story of His Passion. It’s the last teaching of His public life. In this parable our Lord discloses to us what He most wants us to know. He has made Himself our brother, not only by assuming the conditions of our flesh but for dying for us on the Cross. This is the thesis by which we are defined and for that reason it is the last thing our teacher has to say to us. Each of us knows himself to be a blood-bought brother or sister of Christ. He’s left us a commandment that must guide our thinking in the entire measure of our lives:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
C. Herbert Woolston was not the last Chicagoan to know this. Another was Archbishop Job, who recently took his leave of us. Archmandrite Zacchaeus, in the final sermon that was delivered over the body of Archbishop Job in Black Lick, Pennsylvania, spoke of this aspect of his life and ministry with very moving words. I’ll just read them to you.
There were many of us, even among those with us today, who learned how to love when we saw how Vladyka interacted with his friends. I venture to say that there are probably just as many who learned how to love when we saw how the Archbishop dealt with his enemies. Love was the core of Archbishop Job’s service to the church, his ministry to us and his entire personhood. Vladyka keenly understood that nothing on this earth happens coincidentally. For that reason he made it a point to spend time with each person God sent him. In this way he became an instrument of God’s grace to all who knew him.
That’s the end of the quotation. I wish I had been present for that sermon, but it’s online. It’s a special blessing to have known such men and women who dealt with everyone as the little brothers and sisters of Christ Himself. It is not at all easy to treat everyone as a brother or sister of Christ. It’s not easy. We really must get past appearances to be able to do that. The eyes of faith do get past appearances. If we treat every human being as a brother or sister of Christ, if that is consistently how we live, we have nothing to fear at the Last Judgment.