The Sunday of the Last Judgment
Fr. Thomas Hopko · March 1, 2008
Fr. Tom reflects upon Matthew 25:31-46, the Parable of the Last Judgment.
The third Sunday of the pre-Lenten season in the Orthodox Church—which would be the second Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent—is called the Sunday of the Last Judgment. At this Sunday, at the Sunday service, the Divine Liturgy, the very well-known parable of Christ in Matthew 25 is the reading, the parable of the Last Judgment. And on this Sunday, of course, as usual, all of the hymns for the day—vespers, matins, there’s a canon at matins—[are] all dedicated to a reflection and meditation on the final judgment.
In this parable, Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes in his glory with all of his angels and sits upon his glorious throne, that he will gather before him all the nations, and this tells us that all the nations and all the peoples of the earth and every individual person will give an account of his or her life at the end of the ages. In fact, in our Orthodox Church, this final judgment is anticipated when a person dies. It would be the teaching of the Orthodox Church that when we die, we immediately are in the presence of the risen and glorified Christ, and that encounter is already constituting a judgment.
It’s important to see also that the judgment is simply the presence of Christ. Jesus said that already in St. John’s Gospel when he was on the earth when he said, “I didn’t come to condemn the world. I didn’t even come to judge the world.” He said, “My words are a judgment. My presence is a judgment. You are making the judgment, not me. I have come to save you,” but this is the judgment that he said had come. In St. John’s Gospel he says, “The light has shined in the darkness, but some people did not accept it because they loved darkness more than light because their deeds were evil.” And the light of God itself is a judgment. It makes things known. It makes things clear. Things are then seen for what they really are. We Christians believe that that is what happens when we die, and when we die we are somehow projected immediately into the final end of the world, the final coming of Christ.
St. John Chrysostom, whom we often refer to, said, “What a strange kind of a judgment it is. In fact, there’s no judge. There’s no defense lawyer. There’s no prosecuting attorney. There’s even no jury. There’s just Christ and us. That’s it.” And we pronounce the judgment on ourselves. How do we do it? The Lord tells us in this parable. He said when all the nations and all the people are gathered before him, he will separate them. By the way, that verb, “separate,” that’s where you get the verb “judge, krisis.” It means to kind of set a line down the middle to show how things actually are. In fact, you might say even judging means to make that decision: where do you stand? Where do you put yourself at this judgment?
Then in the parable—it’s very interesting how the Lord says that he will sit there as the King, and he will say to some on his right hand, “Come, blessed of my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared [for] you from before the foundation of the world.” Then he says the reason that they are inheriting the kingdom that is prepared for them is because, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty; you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in, you welcomed me. I was naked; you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison; you came to me.” Amazingly, the righteous, the just, those who will be saved, those who will stand the judgment, they ask him, “When did we see you? When did we actually see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or naked or sick or imprisoned?” Then the King, the Lord, Christ, will answer, “Truly, I say to you: as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
It’s interesting to note this expression “Truly, I say to you.” “Amen,” it says in Greek: “Amen, I say to you.” Sometimes when scholars are looking at the New Testament to try to find what is really original there, what can you really not find any precedent for at all, particularly in the Bible in the Old Testament, this is one of them, that Jesus in the New Testament often addresses people by saying, “Amen, amen,” or “Truly, truly,” or in the Old King James, “Verily, verily, I say to you.” “Amin, amin, legō ymin,” in Greek. He says, “Amin,” first. Normally when a person speaks, the person who listens or who hears is supposed to respond: “Amen, so be it,” but Jesus says, “Amen,” first, which means what he is saying, “This is not a matter of discussion. I am not interested in your ‘Amen’ to this one. I am saying ‘Amen’ first, which means that this is, in fact, the truth. This is non-negotiable.” So he says, “Amen, I say to you. If you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Now when he speaks to those on the left—he separates them, it says, like sheep and goats. Someone once asked what the Lord has against goats. He has nothing against them. It’s simply a parable that the animals must be separated. But when he says to those on the left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, unending fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And then he says the same words, but in a negative way: “I was hungry and you did not feed me. Thirsty, you did not give me drink. Naked, you did not clothe me. A stranger, you did not take me in. Sick and in prison, you didn’t come to me.” And then they also say, exactly like the just, “When did we see you? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison and not serve you, not minister to you?” Then he will answer them: “Truly, I say to you. Amen, I say to you. Inasmuch as you did not do this to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it not to me.” Then he says that they will go away into unending punishment, agelong, eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal or everlasting life.
The judgment, then, is on how we treat people. The judgment ultimately is love. Did we love our neighbor, our enemy? Did we love our fellow human beings? That’s it. That is it, because the commandment of God, the great and holy commandment, the S h’ma Yisrael, is that you will love the Lord your God with all your mind, all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. That’s how it’s quoted in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, there’s no “mind,” because in Hebrew, “heart” and “mind” were the same thing, but in the New Testament, written in Greek, they add specifically “mind.” That means, of course, that we are to love God with everything we think, with everything that we desire, with everything that we know. With all our soul it means all our behavior, our nefesh, our life, our activity. Then with all our strength, that doesn’t mean strength like in a gymnasium or a workout center. It’s strength meaning all the power that you have: your property, your money, your clout in society, whatever kind of power you have, particularly money, property. We have to love God with all those things: mind, soul, heart, and strength.
And then the second great commandment that goes with it from the Levitical code is that we are to love our neighbor as being our very own self. In other words, we find ourselves in our neighbor. Sometimes people want to speak about loving ourselves, that we should have a healthy self-love. That’s true. We should not be down on ourselves or berate ourselves or beat ourselves up or fall in any kind of despair over ourselves. We are made by God, and we are loved by God.
However, self-love, philofteia in Greek, which St. Maximus, one of our great saints, said, is the original sin. When you’re not loving God and neighbor, but you’re just loving yourself, that loving of ourselves is so destructive according to the Church Fathers because we don’t have any self in ourselves. We’re made in the image and likeness of God who is love, so the only way we can really love ourselves properly is by loving our neighbor. Even in Hebrew, that’s probably how it should be translated: “You shall love your neighbor because your neighbor is your very own self. You have no self in yourself.” You only find and fulfill yourself by denying your so-called self in love for the neighbor, and then your self is affirmed. It appears. It’s realized. Here, I think it’s important to note that the paraphrases of the New Testament that say, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself,” are not really an accurate rendering of the text.
In any case, it is a clear teaching of the Holy Scripture that the only way we can prove our love for God is by loving the person next to us, our neighbor. Of course, Jesus teaches that our neighbor is the worst enemy we can think of. In fact, if we wanted to evaluate how we’re doing as a human being, as a Christian, we would just ask ourselves, “How would I treat the person that I hate the most and that hates me the most? How do I treat the one that for me is the most ugly enemy I can think of?” When we see how we do it, then we’ll see if we love God or not, because it’s exactly that person that we have to love.
So the love of God is proved by the love of the neighbor, and this is said explicitly in I John, when he says how can we say we love God whom we do not see if we do not love the person next to us whom we do see. Anyone who claims that they love God and does not love the person next to them, according to St. John is just a liar. Just a liar. So the love has to be expressed to the human being. That’s where we show our love for God.
The same St. John, in his first letter, also said, “Let us love not in speech or in word, but in deed, in work, and in truth,” because the only way we can show that we are lovers is by how we act, how we behave. St. James says in the Scripture that that’s the only way we can prove we are believers. He said, “Show me your faith without your work.” You can’t do it. Faith without works is dead. The devil believes in God, but he does no works and therefore he shudders, the Apostle James says. So we have to act. We have to work.
All through the Scripture—in the psalms, in the proverbs, in the prophets, in the New Testament—it says on the day of judgment we will stand according to our works—kata ta erga, it says in Greek—according to our works. What is written in the Book of Life, the Book of Judgment, which is sung about a lot on this day in the Church, what is written is what we have done, not what we have claimed, not what we have verbally or mentally affirmed, not what we have said, but what we have done, this activity.
Love has to be expressed in concrete, specific acts, and that is what the judgment is based on. However—and this is a very good case study to prove that you cannot isolate any texts of Scripture from the whole of Scripture; any texts must be read in the light of the skopos as the Holy Fathers say, the whole scope of the entire Scripture—here when we think about this parable of the judgment, we have to know that those acts which express love, which are absolutely necessary—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking in the stranger, the homeless, visiting the sick and the imprisoned—those are acts that must express love. But here the Holy Fathers point out that according to Holy Scripture, even such external acts can be done without love, and when they are done without love, they profit us nothing, as the Apostle Paul said, and they are nothing.
So we have to read Matthew 25 in the light of I Corinthians 13, where the Apostle Paul says not only, “If I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have all faith to move mountains and have knowledge of all the mysteries and have not love, I am nothing and it profits me nothing,” but he also says, “If I give everything I have to the poor, if I even give my body to be burned, and I’m not doing it out of love, then it profits me nothing.” And this is very frightening, because it is possible to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless and visit the sick and the imprisoned without really having love for them.
And that’s why Jesus says that it has to be “as to one of his brethren.” We have to see him in it. It cannot simply be, so to speak, an act of charity or philanthropy as such. Oh, it has to be philanthropy because it has to have philia, it has to have friendship, but it’s possible to do these good acts, really objectively good acts, out of pride, out of vanity, out of arrogance, out of judgment for those who don’t do them. For example, I can feed the hungry and say, “Look at me! I’m feeding the hungry, not like that guy across the street who never does it.” I could go visiting people in the hospital or in a prison and say, “Look at me!” And then those people in the prison or in the hospital, they just become projects of my own vanity.
In fact, St. John Climacus, of the Ladder, he said, “Why is it that some people who do so many beautiful, righteous acts when they are healthy—they visit sick people and they help homeless people—but once they get sick and they can’t do it any more, they turn into monsters.” They’re cranky, they’re bitter, they’re judgmental. He says, “Why is it?” Or why is it that a person who may be very virtuous in the world will enter a monastery and turn into a total terror? He said, “The reason is because the righteous activity while we were living among our fellows, incapable of working with them”—these are his words—“was irrigated by the putrid sewage of vainglory, of vanity.”
In fact, St. Cyprian of Carthage went so far to say we could even die as a martyr for Christ and not be saved because we can do that out of arrogance and vanity and pride and judgment of others. He said if a person dies a martyr out of self-will, not because he’s caught and persecuted, he violates the commandment and simply ends up in hell. So it’s very terrifying to think.
But Jesus himself said this. He said it in the sermon on the mountain when he said, “On the day of judgment, many—polloi—will come, and they’ll say, ‘Lord, we cast out demons in your name. Lord, we did miracles in your name. Lord, we prophesied in your name.’—” I’m tempted to say, “Lord, we spoke and listened to Ancient Faith Radio in your name,” and then we can continue: “We fed the hungry in your name. We gave drink to the thirsty in your name. We clothed the naked in your name. We visited the sick and the imprisoned in your name.” And then we may hear the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mountain where he says, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evil-doer.” Three times it says, “In your name we did these things,” and he says, “Depart from me. I never knew you. You are an evil-doer.”
How can that be? The answer’s pretty clear. It’s because we did those things without love. We didn’t really do them for the love of God and the love of our neighbor. We did them for our own self-interest, our own self-esteem, our own vanity, our own pride, our own judgment of others. So the judgment, ultimately, is based on love! Sure, love has to be expressed in specific activities that the Lord lists in this parable, but those activities in and of themselves—we know from the Scripture as a whole, certainly from the Apostle Paul—that those activities can be done without love and therefore they profit us nothing. If we do them that way, without love, we may hear on the day of judgment, “Depart from me, you evil-doer. I never knew you.”
Now when we think of this parable as well, there’s a beautiful interpretation of it by St. Augustine, Blessed Augustine of Hippo, and also a very similar one by St. Simeon the New Theologian. My guess is that St. Simeon did not know what St. Augustine said. He may have, but in any case, they say the same thing, and they say this: In this parable, Jesus insists that what you do to others you have done to him, that the Son of God has become human and identified himself with every human being. Not only when you see him do you see God, but when you see him, you see every human being, too. He has taken on the sin of the whole world. He has taken on the suffering of the whole world in order to save it. It’s called the blessed exchange: he becomes what we are so that we can be what he is. He takes everything that is ours so that we can have everything that is his.
In this parable, this is how these Holy Fathers interpret it. It’s very beautiful. They say: The Lord said, “I was hungry. I was thirsty,” and they say he really was. When he was on the earth, he hungered. When he was on the earth, he thirsted. In fact, from the cross, one of his words in St. John’s Gospel recorded is, “I thirst.” The saints say the Lord, Son of God, came on earth, became human, and was hungry, and through his being hungry, he became for us the Bread of Life. That if we eat of that Bread which he is we will never die, but in order to become bread for us, the body broken, he had to hunger himself.
Then it says that he thirsted. He thirsted in order that he could give us the living water that, if we drink it, we will never thirst again. He thirsted on the cross that from his side could come forth this blood and this water, the living water and the Blood that is his own blood that he gives and sheds for the life of the world. That if we drink of that, we will never thirst again. So he becomes thirsty to become our drink, so that through his thirsting we would never be thirsty again. He hungers to become our bread, so that when we are hungry and eat him, we are never hungry again.
Then the Fathers continued. They said, “And he was a stranger.” He came into the world and the world did not receive him. He came unto his own home, his own people; they did not accept him. He said, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The Lord Jesus has no place in this world. He was cast out of the city of Jerusalem, outside the walls, outside the gate, crucified among thieves at the hands of Gentiles, totally rejected, having no place here at all. He is the stranger.
In fact, on Great and Holy Friday in our Orthodox Church, we will sing, “Where shall we bury this stranger?” But by being estranged, by being a stranger, by being homeless in this world, he himself becomes our home. He takes us home to the house of the Father. So by being a stranger, he overcomes our estrangement, and through his estrangement we are no longer strangers. We are now fellow citizens with the saints, as St. Paul says, members of the household of God.
Then he says, as well, “I was naked, and you clothed me.” The Holy Fathers say, “Yes, indeed, he was naked.” He was naked in the Bethlehem cave, born of Mary. He was naked on that table being circumcised by the priest on the eighth day according to Moses’ law. He was naked in the Jordan River when he was baptized for us and for our salvation, so that we could be baptized and die and rise in and with him. He was naked when he hanged upon the cross. He was naked and wrapped in grave clothes as he was wrapped in swaddling clothes when he was born, wrapped in grave clothes when he was dead, naked and put into a sepulcher, into a tomb.
He became naked for us so that through his nakedness, we would be clothed. That’s how St. Paul writes to Galatians that we sing in our Orthodox Church on every major feast day in place of the thrice-holy hymn. We sing it at every baptism: “As many as have been baptized into Christ have clothed themselves in Christ.” So by becoming naked and identifying with everyone who is naked, the Lord Jesus Christ becomes our clothing and we are never naked again. The nakedness of Adam is now clothed again in Christ, the glory of God, “the radiance of the Father,” as St. Paul says to Hebrews.
The same way that he becomes our bread and our food by becoming hungry, he becomes our drink by being thirsty, he becomes our home by being homeless, so also he becomes our clothing by being naked. And he was in prison. He was imprisoned. He was arrested by the police of Jerusalem. He was taken captive by the guard of the high priest and by Pilate himself, Jews and Gentiles, religion and politics. They all came together to imprison the Christ, and they put him in jail where he was beaten, mocked, ridiculed, spit upon, scourged, and ultimately executed—legally! He was put to death legally, with the accusation put upon his cross: “The King of the Jews.”
So he was imprisoned, and he was wounded. He became imprisoned, a prisoner, to set us free. By being imprisoned, he liberated us from our imprisonment and set us free forever with the freedom of the children of God, the glorious freedom of the children of God, the freedom of the Holy Spirit, the freedom of God himself. But he could only free us by being imprisoned.
Being sick—he was worse than sick. He never was sick with a sickness or a disease. He could heal the diseases, but he was wounded for our transgression. His hands were pierced in nails. His head was crowned with thorns. His side was pierced with a spear. He was put to death. He experienced pain greater than all of the pain and suffering of all of humanity taken all together, because he who was suffering on the cross was the Son of God, so by his “sickness,” so to speak, his suffering, his pains, our pains were healed. Our ssuffering was assuaged. And by his death—he became the dead one, not only sick, but dead—so that by his death he could become our life.
This is how the Holy Fathers see this parable of the last judgment. The judgment really is: How do we relate to every single human being? Because for us, every single human being is Christ himself. Christ identified with everyone and everything, and he certainly identified, according to this parable, with the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and ultimately even the dead. And the judgment on humanity is how we related to that, whether or not we knew it, because in the parable, both the righteous and the unrighteous ask, “When did we see you? When did we do these things to you?” And the answer is: “When you did it to the least person, the least of my brethren”—because he became like his brethren in every respect except sin, it says in the letter to the Hebrews—“then you did it to me.”
At the end of our earthly life and at the end of the age, every single human being will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. As Chrysostom said, “No judge, no jury, no prosecuting attorney, no defense lawyer—just Christ and me.” Christ and us. And the question that will be asked: “Were you a lover? Did you love in concrete acts of righteousness?” And: “Were your acts of righteousness, your good deeds, filled with love? Were they done out of love? Because if they were done to the least, lowliest human being,” God almighty says to us in the Person of his Son, Jesus, “then they were done to me.”