Justice, Mercy and the Last Judgment

Sunday, February 19, 2017: Judgment Sunday (Meatfare Sunday); The Holy Apostles of the Seventy Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and Onesimus, Philothei the Righteous Martyr of Athens, Niketas the Younger

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-13; 9:1-2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Icon of the Last Judgement provided by ΕΚΔΟΣΗ και ΕΠΙΣΚΟΠΟΥ, ΓΑΛΑΚΤΙΩΝΟΣ ΓΚΑΜΙΛΗ ΤΗΛ. 4971 882, ΕΚΤΥΠΟΣΗ Μ. ΤΟΥΜΠΗΣ Α.Ε.

St Paul asks the Corinthians: “Am I not free?  Am I not an apostle?” He answers the second question first by calling the Church at Corinth “my workmanship” and “the seal of my apostleship.” As for the first question, this is answered in the verses immediately following those we’ve just heard.

Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? Whoever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? (vv. 4-7, NJKV)

And, so there’s no mistake, he says his rights don’t reflect mere human desire, but God’s law (vv. 8-12).

We sometimes imagine that as Christians we have no rights. But as Paul makes clear, justice is not foreign to the Gospel or the life of the Church. That Paul, freely, chooses not to exercise his rights, doesn’t mean that he has no rights.

St Paul is willing to sacrifice many of the things to which he has a right (see, vv. 12-14). He does so, as he says at the beginning of today’s epistle, “lest … liberty …  somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

What he doesn’t sacrifice, however, is his authority as an apostle and especially his role as father to the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthian 4:15). And, how could he? To surrender his authority would mean to forsake his obligations, his responsibility before Christ for the Church.

These verses are important not only for what they tell us about Paul and the Church at Corinth but for what they tell us more broadly about the internal life of the Church.

As we’ve already seen, any suggestion that justice is foreign to the life of the Church or that sacrifice can be compelled or coerced rather than freely offered is contrary to the Gospel. Taking the Apostle Paul at his word, the Church is built on—and so held together by—both divine grace and human freedom. To teach, or even suggest, otherwise is to give a stone for bread (see Matthew 7:9), a serpent for a fish, and a scorpion for an egg (see Luke 11:11-12).

Besides what it says about the internal life of the Church, Paul’s defense of his rights matters because it helps us understand this morning’s Gospel and so the Last Judgment.

Rightly, our Lord’s word that how I treat “the least of these my brethren” I do to Him are applied to my obligation to care for the poor and those on the margin of society. St John Chrysostom is clear here. He says the goats were condemned because they “failed in mercifulness, not in one or two respects only, but in all; not only did they not feed Him when He was hungry, but they did not even visit Him when He was sick, which was easier. And look how light things He enjoins; He said not, ‘I was in prison,’ and ye did not set me free, but, and ‘ye visited me not.’ Also, His hunger required no costly dainties, but necessary food.”

He goes on to say all Jesus asks of us is that we act on “the natural feelings of compassion” and, in this way, receive the “promised … kingdom.” That we don’t, that I don’t, reflects my own avarice, a vice that “blinds men to all these considerations.” Our obligation to care for the poor reflects our common humanity, a real communion to which avarice blinds us.

So Paul’s stern words to the Corinthians aren’t simply a reminder of what the Church owes him in justice and what, in love, he has sacrificed for them. Here, as he does in other places in the epistle, Paul is also calling the Corinthians to repent of a sin that has taken hold in members of the Church. Avarice, the love of money and all the things money can buy, has poisoned the community and Paul, the good and godly pastor that he is, works to root out the sin by reminding his spiritual children that they are called to be generous and sacrificial in their love for him and each other.

As I said a moment ago, we often apply this morning’s Gospel to those on the margin of society. While there is nothing wrong with this, and in fact, it is a very good and God-pleasing thing to care for the poor, the words of the Gospel must first be applied within the Church before they can be applied to those outside the Church.

Chrysostom ask “But if they are His brethren, why does He call them the least? Because they are lowly, poor, and outcast.” Who are these lowly ones?

They are first of all “the monks who have retired to the mountains.” Second, and given the bias of the age, surprisingly, they are “every believer” who is hungry and in need of whatever act of mercy we can provide.

And it is “we,” you and I, who must provide this mercy to them because, through “baptism and communication of the Divine mysteries,” the poor Christian—whatever might be his or her need—has become our responsibility. Without prejudice to those outside the Church, my first obligation after my own family is to my brothers and sisters in Christ and it is how I respond to them that will determine whether “go away into eternal punishment” or “into eternal life.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

Christ has called each of us personally into the Church and He has called the Church, corporately, by the integrity of our doctrine, the solemnity of our worship and our sincerity of our love for each other, to be the light of the world. No matter how lofty our teaching, or how beautiful our worship, if we fail to love one another, if we fail to care for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need, we risk condemnation if we don’t repent.

As we prepare to begin the Great Fast and make the journey to Pascha, each of us must ask, “Have I been a source of mercy for those in need?” Above all, “Have I cared been a source of mercy for my brothers and sisters in Christ?” Or have I, instead, neglected those who are closest to me by failing to do even the little that I have been asked by Christ to do?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory