There is a story I once heard of a young man who came home from University for a holiday. He asked his younger brother how things were, and was told everyone was fine although they were a bit concerned about Granny. “She is reading the Bible a lot just lately,” said the younger brother. “Ah” said the student “I expect she is cramming for her finals”.
Any teacher will tell you that a good student does not leave study until the last minute. Examinations are scary, we all know that. The idea of judgement is worse. Western artists have produced some terrifying images and music about the Last judgement. A search on you tube for the “Dies irae” (the Wrath of God) will produce a lot of examples. Such a picture of terror is deeply engrained in our culture in the west and preachers have given a great deal of attention to hell fire and damnation.
These ideas puts a lot of people off God completely. It is based though on a misunderstanding of the truth. The last judgement is indeed a terrifying prospect for some, but the real fear is that we will see God, face to face. At that point we have to face the reality of what we are and what we have done.
Sheep and goats are not easy to tell apart. I think that was truer at the time Christ told the parable. I have discovered that ancient sheep looked rather more goat-like. They had rather less fleece and rather bigger horns. Since sheep and goats were also commonly kept in the same flocks with the same shepherd looking after them the parable takes on a whole new layer of meaning. When my son was much younger my wife was driving with him over the local common when they saw some newly shorn sheep. “Look Duncan - sheep” she said. “Don’t be silly,” he said: “Them’s goats”. When Jackie told me afterwards she said that in fact they did look very like goats. Without the usual fluffy wool we are used to on modern sheep they are much the same size and shape.
So how is God to tell us apart?
St Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans Chapter 2:6: “God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, He will give eternal life.”
The parable of today’s Gospel talks about particular actions, acts of love to others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked etc. These show our nature, what we are. What we have done, what we want, and what our dealings with others are all reflect and shape our very nature. Yes the idea of the books being opened and our actions being held to account is true, but the books are those of the human heart. Judgement is not a rigorous assessment before a suspicious and implacable deity, but the revelation of our inner being and the depths of our hearts. The non-Christian - I suggest- is judged by his conscience, by what he has done, by what he is as well. St John Chrysostom drew the same conclusion. He wrote “For the conscience and reason doth suffice in the Law’s stead”. (Homily 2 on Romans at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf111.vii.vii.html)
There is another story about someone reading the Scriptures a lot. This one was a lawyer, and he explained he was reading it to see if he could find a loop hole. The answer to him is that there is no loophole. There is however something much more than a loop hole. In St John’s gospel chapter 10:9 Christ says “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture”. Again this is a parable about sheep. Do we wish to follow Christ, do we wish to be what we are capable of? Do we want to meet God?
So, the Last Judgement is not so much about the trial as about the revelation of truth, of acts, intentions, and the nature of our being. Bliss or pain is our choice. Indeed the Orthodox understanding of the fire suffered by the damned is that it is the light of God, the very thing that is bliss to those who want it but pain to those who have rejected it. C. S. Lewis gave a couple of nice examples. In the Great Divorce the grass of heaven is a source of pain to those who do not want to be there, but softness and bliss to those who do want to be there. Again in the Last Battle a group of dwarves have entered the new Narnia, into heaven if you like, though a stable door, but persist in believing they are in a dirty stable. They are blinded by their own will. It is in rejecting salvation offered that leads to damnation, to pain. Embrace God or finally feel the pain that comes from rejecting Him. It is our decision to make.
No amount of keeping of rules may save us. What matters is how we act and how we respond to God’s love. We need to try to amend our lives and live as we ought to. We should remember the Pharisee and the publican. The self-righteous man was blameless on paper. The other man knew his sin and his prayer for mercy was heard. Turning to God is a life time’s work. The better we get the more we see our need to improve. St Sisoes (one of the desert fathers) was dying, and he shone with the Light of God. The brothers gathered around his bed. Some of them saw that his lips were moving. “Who are you talking to, Father?” they asked him. “See,” he replied, “the angels have come to take me, and I am asking them for more time - more time to repent.” His disciples said, “You have no need to repent.” But the old man said, “Truly, I am not sure whether I have even begun to repent.”
Lent is a time to put our repentance to the front of our minds; to make peace with those about us, to make a special effort to do the works we should do. It is a time of training. Let us respond to the love of God. Let us repent one day the reality of what we are and do will be revealed.
In the words of St John Chrysostom again (end of Homily 5 on Romans):-
“Let us send up glory unto Him by our works [for words alone are not enough], that we may also enjoy the glory that comes of Him, which may we all attain unto by the grace and love toward man of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom, and with Whom, to the Father be glory, with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.”