The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON THE PARABLE OF

THE LAST JUDGEMENT

        28th February 2008

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L
ast week we saw an interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was the second Sunday Gospel reading before we enter the period known as Great Lent. A period of intense prayer and fasting, often described as a spiritual journey because it is a period that will prepare us to understand and participate more fully in the Great and Holy feast of Pascha. In the same way that Great Lent is the Period of preparation for Pascha, the four Sundays before Great Lent are also a preparation to help us understand that if we want to have spiritual benefits from our Lenten effort then we must begin with certain fundamental qualities (attributes) otherwise we turn our effort into just a diet, which might benefit our bodies, but spiritually it will all be in vain. We mentioned that there are four Sundays of the Triodion with Gospel themes that will help us to prepare for that spiritual journey. In fact there are five Sundays, but the first begins a week or two weeks before the Triodion. This is the Sunday with the Gospel reading of the Publican named Zacchaeus. We didn’t have time to look at the message of this Sunday reading. It is the story of how a tax collector called Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus as he was passing by because he was very short, but because he was filled with a great desire to see him, he climbed up a sycamore tree to get a better view. The result was that Jesus noticed him and responded by going to his house. Zacchaeus is the first symbol of repentance, because repentance begins with the desire for God, his righteousness and for true life. Zacchaeus made that first move, in his desire to see Christ he climbed that tree. The message is that if our desire is as strong as Zacchaeus’ then Christ will also respond to our desire and come to our house, he will come to live in our hearts and then our lives will also change as drastically as Zacchaeus’ and Christ will give us the strength and grace to climb even higher.

So the first thing we must have is desire for God. The next thing we must have is humility which we are taught with the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. The theme of humility is taken up again with the Parable of the Prodigal Son which shows again that repentance begins with desire, the desire of the Prodigal to return, which leads to feelings of humility. But as we saw last week the Parable also teaches us that we must have compassion and love for all of mankind. In fact we notice that with each Sunday reading, the message of the previous Sunday is taken up again, but with an added message. This week then we will continue with the Next Sunday Gospel reading which again teaches us that we must have love for all mankind, but also fear of God. The Sunday is known by two names: The Sunday of the last Judgement taken from the Gospel reading and Meatfare Sunday because it is the last Sunday we eat meat until our Paschal (Easter) breakfast.
This then is the Gospel reading:
“The Lord said: When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he shall 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 divides his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when did we see thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungry, and you gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and you visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
So now let’s take each sentence and analyze what Christ is telling us in this Parable, which in fact is not a parable as such, but an image of the future judgement that awaits all mankind.
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he shall sit upon the throne of his glory.”
The first time Christ came was as a very humble infant to the stable of Bethlehem. The second time He will come in His glory and in His dignity. The first time he came, not many people noticed his arrival and instead of a royal throne, the people put their king and God on the Cross. But with his second coming he shall come sitting on the throne of glory. But he does not say that the Son of God shall come, but the Son of man. Many people, especially from the west confuse this as meaning that he has only a human nature, but as we have seen in another talk, Christ had two natures, the divine and human and sometimes he speaks and acts as God and at other times as a human being. When Christ calls himself the Son of man he is saying that he represents all of humanity. He sees himself in a unique way as the leader of the human race because every thing he did and everything he suffered was so that humanity might be saved. The first time Christ came his entrance was escorted by angels, again this next time he will be escorted by all the heavenly powers. St. Paul gives us a more vivid picture of his second coming “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God.” (I Thessalonians 4:16) The reason that all the angels will be present is simple: they are witnesses of everything that has happened on earth. They were continually sent by God on missions to men with messages and commandments concerning mans salvation. But also each and everyone of us has a guardian angel who has been with us from the time we were born. They are therefore witnesses of how we have lived our lives and will bear record of that at the Great court of the Last Judgement.
“And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.”
The whole world will be gathered before Christ. In others words there will also be a resurrection of the dead. All those millions and millions of people who have long been dead in the graves, from Adam to the time of the second coming will now stand before the throne of his glory awaiting judgement. But they will all be mixed up and will need to be separated into two groups: of those who are righteous and those who are unrighteous. This will be done with such accuracy and ease because Christ will separate them as a Shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and he will place the sheep to his right and the goats to his left. There is no way Christ can make a mistake. In Palestine the sheep are usually white whilst the goats are black. It would be easy to spot a black goat among the white sheep or a white sheep among the black goats. In spiritual terms, the righteous will glow with the divine light while the unrighteous will remain in darkness. But it is not only the colour of the two animals that separates them, but also their characters. The sheep have a good, gentle and meek disposition, they give up their milk and wool willingly without protest. The goats on the other hand have none of the gentleness of the lamb; they are undomesticated, wild in character, inclined to walking along the edges of dangerous steep precipices.
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
We should not be surprised that now instead of calling himself the Son of man, he calls himself the King. If the Son of man comes sitting on the throne of glory then indeed he is a King and his subjects are all the nations that have gathered at his feet. And now he begins his judgement on those he has placed to his right. Come you blessed of my Father. He praises the righteous by showing them from how high up comes their reward. How worthy to be called not only blessed, but blessed of my Father. They were chosen by Christ and they were given to Christ by the Father. “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” He does not say receive the kingdom, but inherit as though it is their ancestral home, a familiar place legally belonging to them. And it is their ancestral home, their fatherland, which was prepared for them from the very beginning when the world was created. Before we were all born God had prepared for this day. He knew man would fall and he knew that man would also be saved and come into his rightful inheritance.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me.”
He then tells them why they have been found worthy of such an inheritance: because they lived a noble and Christian life caring for the sick and needy without prejudices even to the extent of visiting criminals in prison. To give someone a glass of water today is no great feat, we just turn on the tap and there we have running drinking water, but in those days people had to draw the water from a well or spring and carry it home in earthen pots. Giving a traveller who was passing by a glass of water was an act of kindness and love. It was not so long ago that in many villages in Cyprus they continued to bring water from natural springs for their drinking water. I remember when we came to Cyprus to visit my Grandparents in 1970. They would send us to the nearest spring which was a good walk away down a rugged mountainous path to fill the waterpots which we then carried on our shoulders. When you go to such trouble to have drinking water you don’t waste a drop. I was a stranger and you took me in. Hospitality is indeed a Christian virtue which we rarely see nowadays. How many people are willing to let a complete stranger sleep overnight in their home? The first thing that would pass through our minds is “what if they come into our bedroom and knife us while we are asleep.” How many of us visit the sick? Are we not more worried that we might catch something from them? As for those in prison, they deserve to be locked away from us law abiding citizens. They are murderers and villains, why should we keep company with such lowly scum? Yet, these are the qualities that every Christian should have. Christ doesn’t mention anything about the other Christian virtues, he doesn’t mention how they lived uprightly with prayer and fasting. The only criterion that Christians will be judged with is whether they showed love to their fellow men. This is all that he demands of us Christians. Did he not say elsewhere: “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.” (John 13. 34-35)
Love then is the law and the criterion on which the separation will be based on. So how did the righteous respond to such praises from the Lord. They were amazed and puzzled at the divine valuation of their actions which is very different from their own estimation of how they lived. Thus in humility they answered: “Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when did we see thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” They never once thought that their good acts of love were directed to brothers of the lord let alone to his very person. They had no idea that they had offered help at any time to the Saviour: they just did what was in their nature to do – to offer a little help and love to their fellow men who were in need. But the King answers their puzzlement: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” That Christ sees the poor and suffering as his brethren is in complete agreement with his character as the Son of Man and the Son of God. God is his Father and the Father of all people.
In that Great court of the last judgement, Christ justifies why he has placed the righteous to his right and why they are worthy to inherit the Kingdom of God. But now he turns to those on his left and say: “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” In this sentence we should take note of two important differences with what he said to the righteous. Firstly we should notice that with the righteous he said “blessed of my father,” now with the unrighteous he doesn’t say cursed of my father, but only cursed. God doesn’t curse anyone: they are cursed by their own works. The condemnation and curse of the sinner is a result of his bad actions, but the salvation of the righteous is an act of grace and therefore the word blessed is followed with “of my Father.” Secondly, that the everlasting fire is not for us, but for the devil and his angels. To the blessed he said “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” but he doesn’t say this of the everlasting fire, but only that it has been prepared for the devil. He is thus saying “For man I have prepared the Kingdom, the fire is not meant for man, but only for the devil and his angels: But you have taken on the likeness of his angels, you no longer resemble the man I created in my image and of your own free will you have put on the image of demons. Therefore you will share the same reward as the demons you resemble.”

And they are worthy of such condemnation because they had no love for their fellow men. “For I was hungry, and you gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and you visited me not.” They are guilty because they didn’t do any good works and are condemned because they were unsociable. They are not accused because they committed murders, or fornicated, or lied, or stole or broke any of the other Old Testament Commandments, but because they neglected to do a few good works. Christ does not expect us to spend our lives going around looking for ways to be a Good Samaritan, but to offer that most needed help when it passes our way.

To these accusations the unrighteous respond in a similar way as did the righteous, but whereas the righteous answered with humility, here they try to justify themselves by saying: “Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” If we saw you at any time suffer those things you now accuse us of, we would surely have offered you help, but we are innocent of all these things because you never once came to us for help. And the Lord answered them saying: “Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” Notice that he does not say “to one of the least of these my brethren” as he said to the righteous, but only “to one of the least of these” The unrighteous are ignorant of the brotherly relationship between the righteous and Christ and will continue to be ignorant. Having then heard the reason for their condemnation they cannot respond with an answer. Every mouth is sealed and the righteousness of the decision is recognized by all.
With the great court come to an end, it remains for each group to receive the sentence. “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Eternal means eternal and everlasting without change or end. If hell has an end then so does life, but as we do not deny that the life of the righteous in heaven is forever more, thus we do not deny that punishment in hell will be forever more. At the Last Judgment we saw that Christ directed his judgement first on the righteous so that the unrighteous could hear, but with the carrying out of the sentence it will be reversed. The unrighteous shall depart first so that the righteous can see God’s justice on the unjust, but the unrighteous will not be able to see anything of eternal life.
Keep in mind then that whatever help we offer even to the lowest man it is as though we offered that help to Christ, and whatever help we didn’t offer to someone who was in need it is as though we didn’t help Christ. Love is the criterion by which we shall be judged. If we cannot love our fellow men then in truth we don’t love Christ, because he has created each man in his own image and likeness. Christian love transcends above someone’s physical appearance, social standing, ethnic origin, intellectual capacity and reaches the soul, the unique personal root of a human being where the image of God is.
Thus the first message of the Parable is love. Blessed are they who are full of love, and cursed are they who did not have any trace of love, but lived only for themselves. Whatever we sow that is what we shall reap. But as we mentioned in the beginning, there is a second message of fear of God. In the hymns for the day we are continually reminded that we must be fearful before the Lord; to remember with fear the appointed judgment; to acknowledge in fear the sinful state of our lives. The hymns are full of words and terms that make us uncomfortable: words like: terror, judgment, fire, torment, pain, suffering, hell. Yet our whole teaching on Christ is usually the complete opposite. He is the God of love. Did we not see just last week his great love and compassion when he embraced and kissed the Prodigal Son? Do not the Gospels testify to his great love for mankind? Why now are we told to cultivate this negative emotion of fear? We have taken it for granted that God is love that now this emotion seems out of place and foreign to our understanding of God. We are now told to have fear of the Last Judgment, fear of the divine justice of God, fear of the just punishment awaiting sinful man.

One encounters here an emotion that many in the modern world are loathe to address or discuss, we don’t want to ponder on such negative thoughts. Yet the hymns for the day keep pouring out this message of fear: “I lament and weep when I think of the eternal fire, the outer darkness and the nether world, the dread worm and the gnashing of teeth, and the unceasing anguish that shall befall those who have sinned without measure, by their wickedness arousing Thee to anger, O Supreme in Love. And among them in misery I am first: but O Judge compassionate, in Thy mercy save me.”
And another hymn: “Terror seizes me when I think of the unquenchable fire, of the bitter worm, the gnashing of teeth, and soul-destroying hell; yet I do not turn in true compunction. O Lord, Lord, before the end, strengthen Thy fear within me.”
And: “When Thou shalt come, O righteous Judge, to execute just judgment, seated on Thy throne of glory, a river of fire will draw all men amazed before Thy judgment-seat; the powers of heaven will stand beside Thee, and in fear mankind will be judged according to the deeds that each has done. Then spare us, Christ, in Thy compassion, with faith we entreat Thee, and count us worthy of Thy blessings with those that are saved.”
“Behold there comes a day of the Lord almighty, and who shall endure the fear of His presence? For it is a day of wrath; the furnace shall burn, and the Judge shall sit and give to each the due return for his works.”

Through the wisdom of the Church in her texts and hymns, we are called to embrace fear as a healthy and life-giving source of compunction that will lead us to true repentance. With our fallen and sin-stained perceptions, we often fall into the deadly trap of focusing upon God’s love and compassion to the exclusion of His justice. We are all too ready to accept the outstretched arms and inviting embrace of the Father that we blindly forget that we need to passionately beg for forgiveness and mercy. St. Paul commands that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2.12).
But we are not called to fear simply to be 'scared out of our wits,' but to be prompted into action. There are two kinds of fears of God: the first is created in our soul by the threats of hell and eternal damnation, the second is connected and associated with love itself. This kind of fear gives birth to devotion, reverence and godliness in the soul so that the soul doesn’t take God for granted because of the freedom and familiarity created by love. Thus the fear we are called to embrace is a fear that stems from love and will lead us to compunction, and compunction to humility, and humility to repentance, and repentance to eternal life. It is this fear that we pray for at every service “For this holy temple and for them that enter therein with faith, reverence and fear of God, let us pray unto the Lord.” It is this fear that the church warns those who are approaching to receive Holy Communion to have “With fear of God, Faith and Love drew near” We see that it is not a fear that is mentioned on its own, but always with faith, reverence and love of God.
In the majority of the parables, Christ is telling us about the Great Judgement and how life will be thereafter. We have the Parables of the Ten Virgins, of the Talents, of the Sower, of the Weeds, of the Net, of the Treasure hid in a field, of the Pearl, of the unmerciful Servant, of the Rich man, of the Faithful steward, of the Great Supper, of the unfaithful Steward, of the rich man and Lazarus, of the labourers in the vineyard, and of the ten pounds. All of these parables give us a warning of the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgement. They are all telling us how to live so that we don’t end up, by our own actions in a place distant from eternal life with God.
As we have some time I would also like to mention something about this Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Today as you know is Τσικνοπέμπτη, which translates as Scorching or Sizzling or Fat Thursday. Τσίκνα is the smell of burning meat and thus lends its meaning to the last Thursday before Lent that we eat meat. Of course we eat meat on the Weekend but Saturdays and Sundays were never considered as true fasting days, so with the Friday being a fast, this Thursday is the last weekday for eating meat before lent. As such, it has become a custom and tradition or rather an excuse to celebrate this day with parties. The mournful character of Lent does not allow for celebrations so it is natural for people to have the desire to hold a large celebration at the last possible opportunity before the fast. In fact, it would even be justifiable if people actually took the fast seriously, but as we know very few actually keep the fast so the meaning of the day is lost in the party atmoshere. This morning I was at the Hotel and catering School where I go once a week for confessions. Needless to say, there was no one for confession because everyone was in the School yard where barbecues were sizzling away with kebabs and sausages and haloumi. The school band created the party atmoshere with teachers and kids singing together and even the headmaster was out there dancing with the children. As I was eating my kebabs I wondered how many understood why they were having a party. Did they even care? Anything was better than having lessons.
After this Sunday we enter Cheesefare week where we may eat all animal products except meat, everyday including Wednesday and Friday. It is a sort of preparation for Lent so that we don’t stop all animal product abruptly, but slowly get used to not eating meat before we abandon other products like milk, cheeses and eggs for the next 50 days.
This Saturday is also a very special day. It is called the Saturday of the Dead and has a close connection to the Sunday of the Last Judgement. On this day there is a universal commemoration of the dead, in other words a commemoration of all those who have departed this life and gone to their rest from all the ages, from the first man Adam to the present day. Before we call to mind the Second Coming of Christ with the Sunday service, we commend to God all those departed before us, who are now awaiting the Last Judgement. Talking on the Last Judgement, St. Paul says. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” (1 Thess. 4:13-18) So remembering the dead on this Saturday before the Last Judgement reminds us that all mankind, not only ourselves and those to come, but all those who have gone before us from the first moment of creation, will be called to account on the day of the great reckoning.

In the texts for this Saturday there is a strong sense of the continuing bond of mutual love that links together all the members of the Church, whether alive or dead. For those who believe in the resurrection, death does not separate us from our departed loved ones, since we are all alive in Christ. The departed are still our brethren, members of the same family with us, and so we are conscious of the need to pray insistently on their behalf. You might like to know how we do the memorials. On the Friday evening before the special vespers service for the departed, people bring a plate of Kolyva and a loaf of bread with a list of the names of their departed. At the end of the service we sing the usual memorial service and the Priest then commemorates all the past generations in groups, e.g. fathers, forefathers, grandparents, parents, brother, sisters and so on, then begins commemorating the names on the lists he has been given. The next morning on the Saturday, the Liturgy is held on behalf of the departed and again at the end of the Service the memorial is repeated. In villages it is usual to have only the Friday memorial without the Saturday Liturgy. As you can imagine, in town Parishes we have literally thousands of names to commemorate so we have adopted to begin commemorations of the dead about 3 hours before the actual Vespers service. People begin just after lunch to bring their plates of Kolyva and we sing the memorial service commemorating the names. As the plates keep coming we continue in this way until the time for Vespers.
The other thing I wanted to mention is the Children’s Carnival this Sunday and the main Carnival next Sunday. We are often asked how the Church sees these events and most priests will tell you that they are pagan rites. In truth, the origins of the Carnival does go right back to the pagan festivals in honour of various gods. In Egypt these gods were Isis and Apis. In ancient Greece and the Greek world, processions including dancing and satirical plays, were held in honour of the god Dionysus. In Rome they were held in honour of the gods Bacchus and Saturn. Many of the modern day elements of Carnival, such as the masks and fancy dress can be traced back to the Roman times. Fancy dress or disguise was usually associated with the ancient death cults and by taking part in the revels in honour of Bacchus or Saturn one could appease the spirits of the dead. When the Church became established these traditions did not disappear, they were firmly rooted in the minds of the people. What the Roman Catholic Church did, as with many other pagan festivals, was to take it and give a Christian character. They placed the festival just before Great Lent and gave it the name Carnival, which is derived from the Latin word “Carne” referring to the meat which would been given up during Lent, and "Vale" farewell. So it became a last celebration before Great Lent, which as we have already said is a time for mourning and prayer, and any kind of celebration is out of character. The Carnival was probably introduced to Cyprus during the Frankish rule between the end of the 12th century and the 15th century. During that time the Latin Church established itself on the Island making itself the official Church while the Orthodox Church of Cyprus experienced a series of religious persecutions. It might be of interest to know that the Orthodox Church didn’t have an Archbishop from 1260 until 1571.
Because of the ancient pagan roots of the carnival, the Church condemns all the activities associated with it. But how should we Christians approach the question of carnival? For those of us who have young children it is especially difficult to demand that they take no part in the activities that other children are enjoying. Modern carnivalist do not actively associate themselves with pagan rites and it would be wrong to tell our children that they are devil worshippers. We should find a simple but truthful way of explaining to them the ancient roots so that they understand that it is not a religious festival. We should also allow them to attend the fancy dress parties held at school and at many of the extra curriculum classes they have, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to buying them special costumes and masks. You will be surprised how they can find their own costumes for mum and dads clothing and a little make-up.

As for us adults, masquerading and prancing around and following king carnival is not an activity we should associate with someone who believes in the Christian faith and is an active member of the Church. We should live by a code of conduct in every aspect of our lives and our model should be Christ and the saints. Long ago when my brother was getting married and I was preparing to enter a monastery, I couldn’t come to terms with the ideal of dancing at the wedding which was something expected of me. I asked my spiritual father for advice and he made me understand that there are different kinds of dancing, but there was nothing wrong with the traditional Greek dancing I was expected to take part in. He saw that I was still uncomfortable with the ideal and so gave me another piece of advice, he said that when in doubt, always have Christ as your model: if you can picture in your mind Christ or the Mother of God dancing, then dance.