A sermon preached at St. Silouan of Athos Chapel at St. Gregory of Sinai Monastery on Feb. 23, 2014, by Hierodeacon Moses with the blessing of His Grace, Bishop Sergios of Portland, Igoumenos of the Monastery.
Today is the fourth of the Prelenten Sundays. It is commonly called Meatfare Sunday, because it is the last day before Great Lent begins that the Church allows for the eating of meat. More specifically though, it is called the Sunday of the Last Judgment because the liturgical focus of the Church is on the Last Judgment of Christ and centers around the Gospel which we have just read from Saint Matthew.
Each of these Sundays before Lent helps to focus us on the task that is coming upon us in earnest:
- With Zacchaeus we were reminded that we must desire to see Christ.
- On the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee we were reminded that we must approach our Saviour with humility.
- Then last Sunday, the parable of the Prodigal Son reminded us that we can return from the far country, repent, and be received back into our Father's arms.
And so here we are now, at the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and if these themes of desire, humility and repentance have not been made clear enough yet, the Church brings all of these into a rather stark and clear focus on this day. It does so by reminding us where we will all ultimately end up: standing in front of Christ at the Last Judgment.
The hymnography of the Church pulls no punches on this day. It is forceful and painfully clear. As just a small sample, here is the 3rd Ode of the Canon at Matins:
The Lord cometh, and who can endure the fear of Him? Who can appear before His face? But be thou ready to meet Him, O my soul.
Let us hasten, let us weep, let us be reconciled with God before the end; for fearful is the judgment seat where we shall all stand stripped naked.
Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy, I cry out unto Thee; for Thou shalt come with Thine angels to recompense unto all, according as their deeds deserve.
How shall I endure the unendurable wrath of Thy judgment, since I have disobeyed Thy commandments, O Lord? But spare me, spare me, at the hour of judgment.
Return, sigh, O my wretched soul, before the feast of life come to its end, before the Lord close the door of the bridal chamber.
I have sinned, O Lord, as none other man; I have transgressed above all other men. Before the judgment, be Thou merciful unto me, O Friend of man.
I don't know about you, but I find these rather intense. They are deep cries for mercy. You can almost imagine a criminal before a judge who has the power to convict and condemn a man to hard labor; or pardon him and give him freedom. What must have such a man done to cry with such passion? What horrible acts must he have committed to warrant such potential condemnation?
Today's Gospel gives us the answer, and shockingly, it is not murder, not adultery, not even lying... but only lack of charity, lack of love.
St John Chrysostom explains:
The present words are addressed to Christians... and He speaks only of charity to one's fellow man, and only to such as are charitable does He vouchsafe the reward of the righteous, while He punished sinners. This is not because He will not examine other matters – the righteousness of the just and the transgressions of sinners. The Lord will, indeed, examine all the deeds, words and thoughts of all men, as He Himself told His disciples. In many places in the Holy Scriptures we learn that He rewards good deeds and punishes sins; in the present place, however, He speaks solely of charity, wishing to show that He seeks this alone and requires it above all, as being most necessary for Christians. Love is fitting for all Christians: By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another. The strength of one's love appears in one's charity towards the poor, kindness to one's neighbor and compassion. Nothing so moves God's love as love of neighbor. Furthermore, the Lord speaks in particular about the duties incumbent upon Christians; He inspires fear in us, and directs us as men to show love for our fellow men, inasmuch as we ourselves will in that day need the love of the just Judge Himself for man. And His verdict will be just: mercy for the merciful, but no mercy for the merciless. (Gospel Commentary, p. 36)
The Gospel speaks of 6 specific acts of charity:
- Feeding the hungry
- Giving drink to the thirsty
- Taking in strangers
- Clothing the naked
- Visiting the sick
- Visiting those in prison
These are all meant quite literally, but they are also meant spiritually.
St. Theophylact of Ohrid writes:
You, then, O reader, flee from this absence of compassion, and practice almsgiving, both tangible and spiritual. Feed Christ Who hungers for our salvation. If you give food and drink to him who hungers and thirsts for teaching, you have given food and drink to Christ. For within the Christian there is Christ, and faith is nourished and increased by teaching. If you should see someone who has become a stranger to his heavenly fatherland, take him in with you. While you yourself are entering into the heavens, lead him in as well, lest while you preach to others, you yourself be rejected. If a man should cast off the garment of incorruption which he had at his baptism, so that he is naked, clothe him; and if one should be infirm in faith, as Paul says, help him; and visit him who is shut up in the dark prison of this body and give him counsel which is as a light to him. Perform, then, all of these six types of love, both bodily and also spiritually, for we consist of both soul and body, and these acts of love are to be accomplished by both. (The Explanation, p.221)
In today's Gospel Christ repeats that He is identified as... one of the least of these.
To consider this phrase more deeply let us think on these things in the light of the last few Sundays. But, rather than look at the positive virtues we have focused on (desire, humility, repentance), let us note a negative example in each of the last 3 Sunday's Gospels.
Zacchaeus desired to see Christ, and Christ entered into his home. Here we have an act of charity, as described in today's Gospel (visitation of those in need), and yet the Gospel says that when the people saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. To the people, Zacchaeus was clearly one of the least of these.
The Publican and the Pharisee both went up to the temple to pray. And by all accounts the Pharisee also lived an outwardly more righteous life. Yet, inwardly he was proud and prayed: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. Clearly to the Pharisee the Publican was one of the least of these.
Also, contrast this with the righteous in todays Gospel, who when commended by Christ say: Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, 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? They performed acts of charity like the Pharisee, but in their humility they did not even see it; their right hand did not know what their left hand was doing.
Then last week, the Prodigal Son returns home and the Father forgives him, giving him alms of both a physical and spiritual nature, but the elder brother was angry and refused to go in to the celebration. And so, though he had not sinned as much as the Prodigal Son, by his own choice he was left outside of the feast put on by the Father because he could not extend love to his brother, who because of his prodigality had become in the eyes of his brother: one of the least of these.
Thus, each of these preceding weeks finds itself reflected in this Gospel. In each week, there is someone who does not want to extend love to someone they consider one of the least of these. And yet, in doing so, they show themselves to be the goats mentioned in the Gospel. All of these goats are outwardly good and even seemingly righteous people, but they did not have love in their hearts.
Today, the Church calls us to remember these things. The Church calls us to remember the ultimate consequences if we follow the paths of the people, the Pharisee, and the older brother. The Church calls us to examine ourselves, our actions, our inner hearts. Are we full of love, performing acts of charity both tangible and spiritual, without boasting, not even allowing the right hand to know what the left hand is doing? And who, for each one of us, are the least of these?
Let us end by calling to mind the beautiful passage by the Holy Apostle Paul on this subject (1 Cor 13):
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.
Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child:but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.