The latter part of Matthew 25, read on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, is certainly among the most sobering, even frightening prescriptions in the lectionary of the Church. The answer to fundamental questions, How can one be saved? How will I be judged? How shall I live? are answered, with stark clarity, by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s not a difficult teaching to understand. By this, I mean, it is not a riddle to solve, or a mental or spiritual exercise. It’s brutally simple and practical: Did you visit the sick and the prisoner? Did you feed the hungry? Did you give drink to the thirsty? Did you clothe the naked?
Perhaps this Scripture’s directness and finality are what also make it polarizing. This makes sense: the image itself is literally about separating, dividing. But the polarization I’m referring to is about interpretation. There is discomfort in knowing what one is to do, how literally one is to take what seems clearly presented—we will be judged by our Creator based almost solely on how we cared for those in need.
One response is to “spiritualize” the text. This happens to other teachings from Jesus, usually about the rich and poor, attachment to things of the world (including nation and family), and the severity of effort one should exert to flee sin. Love your enemy is a beautiful ideal as an abstract, overarching principle; but if someone steals your coat, offer your shirt as well is a little more concrete and unsettling.
At the heart of this felt tension between the spiritual/eternal and the temporal/practical, is the mystery of the Incarnation. This is yet another reason why the Church has defended, unwaveringly, the dogma of the full, real divinity and full, real humanity of Jesus Christ. It is why the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, as the work of God in the world, of course carry with them eternal weight, eternal consequences. St. John of Damascus calls the Incarnation “the only new thing under the sun, through which the boundless might of God is manifested!” Jesus did not just come to earth to give some teachings on better social order or “doing good.” He was offering eternal life and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
But these events are also something that happened in a real time, 2000 years ago, in a real place, surrounded by real people with real experiences. Both are necessary for our salvation, and so both must be necessary in how we understand the Last Judgment.
It is a danger to either “over-spiritualize” this fearful word from our Lord, making the tangible acts of mercy only symbolic, or to turn this into simply a social teaching. One extreme can lead to an almost gnostic, isolated spirituality, focused on one’s own holiness and “ascent,” but divorced from the acts of mercy and service that are clear in the teachings and life of Christ.
The other extreme leads to a kind of secular humanism, where Christ’s teachings on charity serve an ideology of social evolution or change, but becomes divorced from the source, from worship and repentance that are also clear in the teachings and life of Christ.
It is the Church that gives us the correct interpretation of the Last Judgment, for her interpretation is not rooted in human ideology, but in the experience of the incarnate Christ. In the hymns and the writings of the Fathers one will find not just a balance, but a fulness, one that does not reduce the words of our Lord to either an abstract spiritual or social teaching.
In just one example of many, St. John Chrysostom teaches:
…To not share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs. If we have this attitude we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ.
See how St. John brings together the eternal and the temporal, the life to come and life now, the spiritual and the practical, all anchored in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the image we see at the Last Judgment, and a guide for how we should continue to strive to live.
We have another shining witness to this in the life and words of St. Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, who was martyred at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945, sent there for providing shelter for Jews being sought by the Nazis in Paris. According to several accounts, she took the place of a Jewish woman en route to the gas chamber, thus sparing the woman’s life.
St. Maria is a saint for our day because she too wrestled with the tension between the spiritual and the practical in a polarized political climate. She left the Church for a time as a teenager and young adult, partially due to the tragic loss of her father, but also because she was dissatisfied with what she saw as the Church’s lack of work for the poor in early 20th-century Russia. This zeal for justice led her to the Communist Party for a time. One could say, she explored and experienced both extremes—the over-spiritualized path that hoped for the kingdom to come but lacked charity and mercy here and now, and the secular humanist path that promised and focused on reordering the “here and now” but had no foundation in the eternal.
It was an experience of Christ, at the loss of her daughter, that gave St. Maria a clear vision and answer to her dilemma. St. Maria wrote these words about the effect of that experience. I believe it is a powerful word for us today, and one with which I will conclude this reflection:
The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry, and imprisoned person the Savior says I: I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison. To think that He puts an equal sign between Himself and anyone in need…I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.
St. Maria of Paris
Father Joel Weir is the pastor of St. Stephen the First Martyr Church (OCA) in Crawfordsville IN.