Tuesday, November 15, 2011
The Blessed and the Cursed (Part 1)
As the liturgical year draws to a close, we are once more reminded by the Sunday readings about the four last things, one of which is the Last Judgment. This reflection is taken from the book The Afterlife by Fr. Federico Suarez and it will do us tremendous good if we can spend some time to really think about this rather very unpleasant topic at a deeper level.
After recording the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents (both having to do with the “four last things”), St. Matthew brings chapter 25 of his Gospel to a conclusion with an allegory narrated by Jesus on the last judgment, the event that will take place at the end of time.
“But when the Son of Man shall come to his majesty, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory; and before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and he will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the king will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; naked and you covered me; sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the just will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee; or thirsty, and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and take thee in, or naked, and clothe thee? Or when did we see thee sick, or in prison, and come to thee?’ And answering the king will say to them, ‘Amen I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left hand, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you did not give me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Amen I say to you, as long as you did not do it for one of these least ones, you did not do it for me.’ And these will go into everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life.” (Mt 25:31-46).
This is the end of the world, the last judgment that will precede the resurrection of the body. It is the final, the definitive judgment. Note that, in this passage of the Gospel, Jesus, the Son of Man, is no longer the passive Victim, who has been treated by men, by all of us sinners, as ruthlessly as we liked throughout the centuries. On the way to Calvary he carried all our sins: blasphemies and idolatries, fornications and adulteries, profanities and acts of sacrilege, lies and falsehoods, calumnies and defamations, homicides, thefts and envies, rancors and hatreds of all kinds – he bore them all. All the evil deeds of men, all our sordid transgressions, he carried on his shoulders. The weight was so heavy, so crushing, that his sweat became as drops of blood.
Now, in this allegory, he appears in his glory as a judge, to pronounce a sentence against which there will be no appeal. He became man and came into the world not that he might judge it, but that the world may be saved through him (Jn 3:17). He came into his own and his own did not receive him. But to those who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God (Jn 1:11-12). And those who believe will not be judged. But “he who does not believe is already judged because he does not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (Jn 3:18)
It is further worth noting that in this text of the Gospel Jesus does not say any more: “The kingdom of heaven is likened to…” He does not need to use such an expression now since he is not narrating a parable (which is usually meant to demonstrate some aspect of the kingdom by analogy). Parables facilitated the understanding of truths that would not have been understood by the majority of people if they had been told them directly. This time Our Lord uses another mode of expression altogether. He says: When the Son of Man comes in his glory…” This time he is announcing in advance an event that will take place at the end of time when the world comes to an end. Then Jesus as judge will bring about the final separation that has already been envisaged in the parables of the kingdom of heaven. What is now during our mortal life mixed and mingled within the Church and within the world will then, at the end of the world, be differentiated and separated, the wheat from the weeds, the grain from the chaff, the good fish from the bad fish that are thrown away. This concluding allegory, therefore, tells us that what was alluded to in the parables concerning the Church militant will then be accomplished at the end of the world.
In one of his homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew (Hom. 72), St. John Chrysostom turns the spotlight on certain aspects of the allegory of the final judgment. These are undoubtedly very significant aspects. For example, while Jesus, addressing those whom he had placed on his right hand, calls them: “blessed of my Father,” he does not call those whom he had placed on his left “the cursed of my Father” but simply “the cursed.” And this is truly how it ought to be, because it is not the Father who reviles them, who rejects them as objects of malediction. They are reviled by their own works, because through these same works, they have manifested their decision to turn their backs on the Father’s blessings. And here is another significant aspect: Jesus speaks of “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” and of “the eternal [i.e. endless] fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” He is telling us that what has been prepared for us since the creation of the world is the kingdom, since we were destined to share with God’s glory: the eternal fire was never originally meant for us but for the devil and his angels. So if a man enters into the eternal fire he does so in spite of God who has prepared for him nothing less than a happiness without end.
The kingdom or everlasting fire, heaven or hell, salvation or damnation: apart from these two polar options in opposition to each other, there is no alternative. All men will in the end necessarily find themselves in one place or the other: this is the eternal destiny of all men, of each man without exception. Here there is no room for another way, for compromise and negotiation, for a third and intermediate stage. There is no “center” equidistant from both states, just as there is nothing between life and death. This is certainly something worth thinking about slowly and seriously. It is a circumstance of man’s life that has perhaps not been sufficiently emphasized.
In fact we are struck by the reason given in this allegory for the consigning to perdition of the condemned ones, of “the accursed.” St. John Chrysostom draws attention to the importance God seems to give to mercy and almsgiving, since those who have been merciful and compassionate towards their neighbors in their needs and afflictions are recompensed with eternal glory, while those who, on the contrary, have been egoists and have never been concerned about their neighbors are deprived of that reward. Besides, Jesus identifies himself with our neighbors to such effect that whatever we do to them or fail to do for them we likewise do to Jesus or fail to do for him. St. John Chrysostom goes on to say that this may perhaps explain why Jesus speaks allegorically of sheep and goats, making reference as he does so to the sheep’s usefulness for man and the goat’s comparative uselessness.
Be it as it may, this allegory indicates that the cause of man’s damnation is not positive evil manifested or expressed in the transgression of the precepts of God’s law, of that law which was given to us so that it might serve as the path towards salvation, as an indicator of the route we ought to follow. In this solemn moment of the last judgment, there is no mention of homicide and fornication, of idolatry and injustice, of theft and drunkenness, of avarice and pride, of lies and violence. Of course, the fact that these and other sins are not explicitly mentioned does not mean in the least that in the end they do not have any decisive bearing on our final destiny, whether it be salvation or damnation. St. Paul (and we here remind ourselves that the entire New Testament is the inspired word of God) already touched upon this question and left it clearly settled: “Those who do such things will not possess the kingdom of God.” That is flat.
But now in this allegory it is the omission above all that are highlighted as the reason for man’s perdition: they did not feed him or give him anything to drink, they did not offer him a dwelling place, they did not clothe him or visit him. As St. John Chrysostom emphasizes, they did not practice charity and mercy towards their neighbors. In other words, they failed to love Jesus. There is absolutely no doubt at all about this.
But let us avoid narrowing the horizon to only one type of mercy, that which moves us to help our neighbors in their necessities and afflictions. Such acts of mercy done out of love for God, or as an expression of our love for God, may possibly solve all the problems concerning our own salvation. God may want to reward us for these acts of service by helping us in the end, liquidating because of them all our debts towards him. But it does not do us any good at all – in fact it is a great danger to our salvation – to think that because we have some good qualities, “all the evil that we carry within us will be excused or forgotten simply because of those good qualities.” At least theoretically it is possible to practice the works of mercy and omit those of justice: we could have compassion towards our neighbors in their material necessities and be completely unconcerned about the welfare of their souls; I could be compassionate towards one man and despotic towards an entire nation.
I think those who have been vested with authority are greatly exposed to this danger. Of course, I refer to all those cases in which authority is given to men to exercise for the good of those who are subject to their jurisdiction. Their official task is to care for those subject to them and to guide them in such a way that they avoid falling into evil ways. Thus, if they omit doing something that out of love for others their office obliges them to do, then that omission will be equivalent to allowing evil or ham to befall some of their fellowmen. There is a passage from the prophet Ezekiel that illustrates this matter very clearly. It highlights the tremendous obligations we incur through our sins of omission. Even if the words of the prophet are addressed directly and specifically to those who have been appointed watchmen over others (this is the word used in the biblical text), it would nevertheless do us a great deal of good to take them into consideration. Thus, God tells the prophet Ezekiel:
“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life. Again if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless, if you warn the righteous man not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and you will have saved his life.” (Ez 3:16-21)
This case illustrates how an omission could bring with it very serious consequences. It is a very serious fault to fail to admonish, to fail to inform our neighbor about the dangers he faces, to keep silent, and, keeping silent, to allow him to ruin his life and lose it for all eternity. It is such a serious fault that we shall answer for it with our own soul. Obviously, those who have been vested with authority must, like the watchman, be alive to imminent dangers and warn those who are under their jurisdiction. They obviously have a greater responsibility to do this, which is more than just an act of mercy. It is also an obligation in justice. And in reference to this point, there is one attitude that should be particularly watched for and feared. It is known by the name of permissiveness. It has today been adopted by many in the name of a false idea of freedom. And I think we priests especially have reasons to fear for our souls if we consider the panorama that can be observed all around us. Perhaps we have not spoken out as we should have done. Perhaps with the well-intentioned idea of making religion more attractive, with the intention of winning over the world of today and ecumenically attracting those who have wandered far away, we may have played down or even suppressed certain essential truths that could have “disturbed” their sensibilities. Perhaps the fear of ourselves being abandoned and left alone may have led some of us to become too indulgent – so indulgent that merely the thought of admonishing someone and warning him of his evil ways may have come to seem a pastoral error. And, once again, we may have kept silent. Today it is not at all difficult to perceive the confusion with which so many Christian consciences are struggling. We may be held directly responsible for all this confusion because we may not have spoken out when we ought to have done so. And such a silence is more than just an omission. It is being transformed into complicity with the error (and perhaps even with the sin), since we have not only failed to keep it from spreading but have also encouraged its diffusion through our permissive attitude.
(...to be continued)