In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, beloved in the Lord, we’ve reached the gospel of the Last Judgment; Lent is not very far away. This gospel is read every year on this Sunday. This year I particularly have been paying attention to the hymnography of the Church as it reflects on this gospel. I think in most places where this gospel would be preached, probably it would be a sermon on charity, care of the poor. But if you notice in the hymnography of the Church there’s not a word about that; it’s all about judgment. In fact, in the hymnography of the Orthodox Church on this Sunday, the judgment seems kind of negative. We kept hearing all these things about “river of fire,” put the fear of the Lord into you.
It’s very different. I mean, I can imagine this—I can imagine it, because I used to be there, back when I was an Episcopalian, preaching on this text—it’s very different from preaching on it as an Orthodox; very different! 180º of variance from the sort of sermon I would have preached back then. Back then it would have been a sermon on social justice, and you certainly were going to get that from the text. But it was interesting that in the hymnography of the Orthodox Church, in the comments on this text, there’s not one word about social justice, not at all. It’s all about the fear of judgment.
I’m going to give you three points this morning, if I may, probably to your immense surprise. The first is the Son of man. At the end of time, the Son of man appears, and all the nations—all the ethnics, panta ta ethnoi, all the nations—will be gathered before him. All the nations are going to be gathered before this ben-adam, Son of man. Who in the world is this? To understand this, it’s necessary to go back to the book of Daniel, which appears to be the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures to be written, in fact so late it’s not even written in Hebrew; it’s written in Aramaic. It’s the only one of the books in the Hebrew Bible that is written not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic.
Daniel is a prophet of the last times, who describes the final verdict on history by this ben-adam, this Son of man. Now, think about this, because it’s rather surprising, given our modern notion that history itself will be the judge. I mean, I keep hearing this all the time, particularly from politicians. How will we be judged by history? Are you concerned about that yourself? May I have a show of hands of those who are really concerned about how you’re going to be judged by history? I see no signs that the people down the road are going to be any more intelligent than the people around now, and that’s not encouraging. In fact, it seems to me if we are going in a certain direction, it is toward idiocy.
I really don’t care what history says about me, nor should you. You see, because history is not going to be the judge. History is going to be judged. The Judge appointed by God is the One that Daniel calls the ben-adam, the Son of man. And when this Son of man appears, who in the parable is identified as the melech, the king, when he appears, all the nations will be assembled before him. Now, think about that a little bit.
Jesus identifies himself as this Son of man. That’s a big claim for a Galilean carpenter, a human being at a particular time and place, from a little town called Nazareth in Galilee. He’s going to judge all the nations, and he’s going to judge them by his standards. The people of Sri Lanka are not going to be judged by Buddhist standards. The people of Arabia are not going to be judged by Muslim standards. The Chinaman is not going to be judged by Confucian standards, nor the Greek by Stoic standards. All the nations are going to be judged by one standard, a standard established by this Galilean, Jewish carpenter, whom God has appointed Son of man.
Panta ta ethnoi, he says: all the nations will be assembled before him. Who are these nations? These nations in Matthew 25 are identical to the nations in Matthew 28. In Matthew 28, Jesus says to go forth and make disciples of panta ta ethnoi, of all the nations. And that is our task. That’s our task in this world, beloved in the Lord: to prepare the world, all the nations, for the final judgment. That is our task.
Let me come to point two. This one [is] a little more subtle. In fact, even the title suggests its subtlety: Logos and the moral law. This is an old philosophical question: What is the root of the moral law? Is the moral law determined by decree? In other words, are things good because God says so, are they bad because he says so? Is murder bad because God says it’s bad? Is stealing bad because God says it’s bad? If so, morality is rooted in will and the assertion of will. Or, the other possibility, does God say it’s bad because it’s bad; does God say it’s good because it’s good? Because if that’s the case, the moral law is rooted in wisdom, God’s perception of truth. Is the root of law the assertion of will or the perception of wisdom? Wisdom or power? In the tradition of the Bible, the moral law is rooted in Logos, is rooted in God’s word: God’s word not just as an assertion, not just as a proclamation, but God’s word as a perception.
Is this an important question? I ask this question within the first week or so of any philosophy class I’ve ever taught. I consider this an absolutely essential question. The first question I asked was an earlier formulation of the same question. Do birds fly because they have wings, or do they have wings in order to fly? Is there logos in the thing, or simply ability? I began every philosophy class I ever taught—the first lecture, that was the question I asked: Do birds fly because they have wings, or do they have wings in order to fly? Invariably, a little hand would go up, trembling in the back: “What about penguins?” [Laughter] As though I were trying to make a point about birds! I wasn’t trying to make a point about birds! Take the birds out of there! Do we have molars in order to chew, or do we chew because we have molars? “What about somebody who doesn’t have any teeth?” Well, I don’t… [Laughter]
It’s not a question about birds or teeth. By the way, I took those questions from Aristotle. I’m not smart enough to make up a question like that. Is something good because God says it’s good, or does God say it’s good because it’s good? In other words, is the structure of reality rooted in Logos? Is it rooted in the true devar Adonai, the true word of God, word as perceptive? See, this is also an essential question, because it has to do with the being of God. Is God, first of all, omnipotent and then wise? Or is he wise and then omnipotent? It’s a question about God. It’s also an anthropological question. Is man defined by his will or is defined by his nous, his perception of truth?
Those who believe that history will be our judge simply mean that whoever comes to power in the future will have the say. Nietzsche called this the will to power, where human beings are defined by their power: economic power, social power, military power, political power. Let me put the question to you another way. Is human nature so structured that human perfection consists in the assertion of power. Are we put together that way? There’s a whole bunch of people who believe we are. Is that what human beings are? Are they structured that way? Their perfection consists in the acquisition of power.
Let me give you an illustrating question on that, an illustrating point. Let’s just take one point. I bring up this point solely for the purpose of illustrating the question I’ve been asking you. Take the abortion question. Take the abortion question; take that. I take that because I’m presuming in this congregation: that will be clear. I’m presuming in this congregation that nobody this last election voted for a pro-abortion, pro-choice candidate. I’m presuming that. If I raise that question somewhere else, I’m going to get a different answer, but I don’t expect a different answer in this congregation. Does a right to choose determine the moral law? Something so abstract, a right to choose, something I’ve never actually seen before, something I can’t grab—it doesn’t have a taste to it, has no sound to it: it’s just out there: a right to choose. This right to choose is simply the assertion of power. Does the right to choose determine the moral law? If so, then the difference between right and wrong is simply a matter of who has the power. As a matter of who has the power: that the powerless will invariably lose.
The abortion question goes to the very heart of this matter of Logos, because the abortion question is a symptom of a far deeper social divide. How do we treat someone who is hungry, naked, homeless, a stranger, when that person cannot vote? Well, a non-voter. How do we treat those who are hungry, naked, and homeless when they have no political power? Is the moral question of the instance of abortion a matter of power or of wisdom? In this respect I must insist with you—you probably know I was going to tell you this—this cannot be determined by a supreme court. The Supreme Court cannot determine this. In the title of Richard Weaver’s book, ideas really do have consequences.
Someone who used to be in this parish and had moved away to Colorado wrote to me yesterday. She had just finished reading Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and she found that a totally transforming experience. Back when I began teaching at Bellarmine College, back in the ‘60s, that book was required reading; in one course or another, during the course of four years, one had to read that book, Ideas Have Consequences.
Matthew 25, beloved, is a parable about what it means to be a human being. It’s a parable of anthropology. We all know that if unborn infants were able to vote, it would certainly have been a prohibition against abortion on both the political platforms this past year. If infants, unborn infants, had a right to vote, it would all be quite settled politically. Nobody’s going to give up a million-and-a-quarter new votes willingly. But that’s an illustration of a deeper question: What is it that makes that wrong? What makes killing an unborn infant wrong? It’s not simply the assertion of power, political power; it’s truth. It’s the perception of truth. We believe that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and that’s the whole burden of today’s Gospel, isn’t it? “I was hungry, I was hungry. You fed me. I was thirsty; you gave me to drink. I was naked and homeless and a stranger, and you took care of me.”
We’ve come to point three. Point three is my own thesis which I’m stealing—at least I’m giving him credit for it—from a writer named Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, the last line of that wonderful book, when the country priest is dying. He’s dying without the sacraments. Do you know that that’s the population that’s most likely to die without the sacraments—are the priests? Whom do you call? There’s an old saying which I remember hearing as a child: [sacerdotum] sors, improvisa mors, that the lot of the priest is an unprovided death. Anyway, the country priest is dying at the end of the book, and there’s no priest around because he’s just out in the country, the village. The only one around who can give the sacraments is him, and he’s dying. His last words are, “La grâce est partout; grace is everywhere.” Grace is everywhere.
They asked the question in this morning’s gospel: “Lord, when?” Everybody asked that question: “When? When did we see thee hungry? When did we see thee naked? When did we see thee in prison?” See, it’s always a question of when, the instance, the occasion, the opportunity. Life is full of what the Greeks called chairoi, which is plural, which means times, selected time. Life consists in a series of “whens,” and a when always comes something of a surprise. This chairos is an instance of discovery. There are folds within existence; it’s not just a straight sheet. There are folds within it, and there are surprises enclosed within those folds.
One is terribly surprised if he comes into a situation and he had no idea until it was unfolded to him what was there, because according to the Scriptures wisdom lurks everywhere. Wisdom lurks everywhere. Wisdom is behind every tree. Wisdom is under every rock. Wisdom, according to the Book of Wisdom, a book of the second century before Christ, the Book of Wisdom, sometimes called the Wisdom of Solomon, according to this book, wisdom reaches from end to end mightily and disposes all things sweetly. Wisdom reaches from end to end mightily and disposes all things sweetly.
The difference between the righteous and the damned in today’s parable boils down to this: who, which ones, lived as good human beings? Because you notice that not a single person—not a single person in this morning’s gospel—recognized the Son of man during their lifetimes. Both the just and the damned, none of them recognized the Son of man. Both of them ask, “When? When?” None of them recognized it. Wisdom was hidden so deeply within the structure of human experience.
So what, then, prompted the moral response of those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, sheltered the exposed? What prompted them to do this? I won’t presume to answer the question. Whatever it was, this compassion, shown toward the weak, the sick, the naked, the hungry, was an expression of wisdom in the availability of grace. In the final judgment, the great assizes, before the great white throne, when all the nations are gathered and the sheep and the goats are forever separated, the advantage will not be on the side of the powerful. That’s as clear as day in the Gospel. In the final Day, the advantage will not be on the side of the powerful. What Christ says about occasions provided by history is this: “I was there all along. The kingdom of God is likened to a treasure hidden in a field. It’s concealed.”
Ubiquity of grace and of wisdom is simply an abstract expression of the ubiquity of Christ our Lord, this Jew who will judge the world, the Danielic Son of man, into whose hands God placed final judgment for all of history. So to him who loved us and washed us from our sins by his blood, made us kings and priests unto his God and Father, be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.