Last week when we considered the parable of the prodigal son, or as we renamed it then, the parable of the merciful father, we were treated to St Ambrose of Milan’s startling but rather attractive observation that he would rather be a son than a sheep. In his words: “For the sheep is found by the shepherd, the son is honoured by the father.” This week the contrast in the gospel is between the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the wicked. Now, personally, I like goats; they are curious, nosy, noisy and persistent… to be honest a bit like me. However, this is not about animal husbandry.
Our Lord prophesied in this manner about the Last Judgement because He wanted all of us to understand that crucial choices have to be made in our lives and upon these choices our eternal destiny depends. No pressure then! Well, actually, sometimes we need the pressure to shake us out of complacency into active service. To be in the sheepfold then, is to choose love and to respond to any kind of need, not because it’s a religious duty undertaken with one eye on the prospect of heaven, but simply because love always seeks the good of the other, any other, even our enemies. Remember that the sheep, the righteous, did not know that they had done anything for Christ when they served the poor; nor did the goats, the wicked, realise that their selfishness was a failure to serve God. Love is its own reason, fulfilment and joy. Love is enough, in fact infinitely more than enough, inexhaustible, for as St John taught: “God is love.” Wherever there is love, there is God, named or unnamed.
Now many people get very mixed up about this when it comes to the Last Judgement. Isn’t that all about rewards, punishments, heaven and hell, unquenchable fire and eternal bliss? How can a God who is love, as part of His divine plan, create a place called Hell for the express purpose of torturing for all eternity the damned? Wouldn’t such a God actually have a lower moral sense and dignity than a human parent who refused to abandon a child who had gone off the rails? Wasn’t in fact last week’s parable of the prodigal son all about this? The merciful father yearns for the return of his son. It is the son who has taken himself off and away from his father’s presence and that is hell for him, his return, heaven. We need some help here, some guide who will help us to reconcile and make sense of these apparently inconsistent biblical texts. Such a person is St Anthony the Great, the father of all Christian monks. Listen to what he says about this:-
“God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.”
So, the basic idea here is that God never, ever turns his back on anyone, righteous or wicked, sheep or goats. His love is constant and unvarying. He loves the sinner equally with the righteous. His love knows no boundary, no limit. He cannot be offended, made angry, appeased. He doesn’t punish people; still less does He create hell. St Anthony teaches that in so far as some experience the wrath of God and his judgement as suffering rather than bliss, this is on account of their own unloving choices and selfish actions, and the darkening of their souls by their own wickedness. To such people the love of God becomes an unbearable burning fire. A great gulf is fixed on an earth as well as in heaven between the hateful and God. Whilst on Earth, at least the wicked have a chance to repent, to turn to God again, to be forgiven, to learn and practice the art of love, to draw close again to God Himself which is heaven.
Upon death all of us, sinners and righteous alike, come into the presence of God. For the sheep according to their choices and their actions this will be heaven, sheer bliss and unending. For the goats according to their choices and their actions this will be hell, sheer torture, again, unending. But let this be understood very clearly that it is the love of God that both groups encounter and experience, both on earth and in heaven.
It is the choices we all make and the persons we wish to become that manifest God for us as either heaven or hell. Whenever we despair of our own ability to choose the good and resist evil, God has even provided for this by ensuring that we are never without His grace, His power, to do good. We only have to call upon Him and our choices will be honoured and the work accomplished… by both of us working together and in the Church.
Is this all a bit unfair though? Why does so much hang for good or ill on the choices we make? Why can’t God make us good? But you have to ask, even if God granted to Himself the power to make us good, and exercised it, would we be truly good if this was a goodness not of our own choosing and making? Wouldn’t we be just like pre-programmed robots?
No, freedom is what makes us human. Much as we might occasionally want to escape responsibility for own lives, we cannot. God gives us choices and ultimately these choices, for or against love, are choices for or against Him. As Christ Himself said in the gospel prophecy today: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).