My dear friends in our Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
Today is the fourth of the Prelenten Sundays, the fourth in the preparatory Sundays given to us in order that we might prepare ourselves for the Great Fast. It is commonly called Meatfare Sunday, because it is the last day before Great Lent begins that the Church traditionally allows for the eating of meat. It is also called the Sunday of the Last Judgment, quite simply because the liturgical focus of the Church is on the Last Judgment of Christ and centers around the Gospel which we have just read from Saint Matthew.
Now, each of these Sundays before Lent helps to focus us on the Lenten journey that is coming upon us so very quickly:
Three weeks ago, with Zacchaeus, we were reminded that we must desire to see Christ.
Two weeks ago, on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee we were reminded that we must approach our Saviour with humility.
Then last Sunday, the parable of the Prodigal Son reminded us that we can return from the far country, repent, and be received back into our Father’s arms.
And so here we are now, at the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and if the themes of desire, humility, and repentance have not been made clear enough yet, the Church brings all of these into a rather stark and clear focus on this day. It does so by reminding us where we will all ultimately end up: standing in front of Christ, our Just Judge, at the Last Judgment.
St John Chrysostom explains in his homily on today’s Gospel:
The present words are addressed to Christians… and He speaks only of charity to one’s fellow man, and only to such as are charitable does He vouchsafe the reward of the righteous, while He punished sinners. This is not because He will not examine other matters – the righteousness of the just and the transgressions of sinners. The Lord will, indeed, examine all the deeds, words and thoughts of all men, as He Himself told His disciples. In many places in the Holy Scriptures we learn that He rewards good deeds and punishes sins; in the present place, however, He speaks solely of charity, wishing to show that He seeks this alone and requires it above all, as being most necessary for Christians. Love is fitting for all Christians: By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another. The strength of one’s love appears in one’s charity towards the poor, kindness to one’s neighbor and compassion. Nothing so moves God’s love as love of neighbor. Furthermore, the Lord speaks in particular about the duties incumbent upon Christians; He inspires fear in us, and directs us as men to show love for our fellow men, inasmuch as we ourselves will in that day need the love of the just Judge Himself for man. And His verdict will be just: mercy for the merciful, but no mercy for the merciless.
Plain words from Saint John Chrysostom. “In the present place,” he says, “He peaks solely of charity, wishing to show that He seeks this alone and requires it above all, as being most necessary for Christians”
Today’s Gospel speaks of six specific acts of charity:
Feeding the hungry
Giving drink to the thirsty
Taking in strangers
Clothing the naked
Visiting the sick
Visiting those in prison
These are all meant quite literally, but they are also meant spiritually.
As Blessed Theophylact tells us, we must flee from the absence of compassion, and we must practice almsgiving, both tangible and spiritual. Feed Christ Who hungers for our salvation. If we give food and drink to him who hungers and thirsts for teaching, we have given food and drink to Christ. For within the Christian there is truly Christ, and faith is nourished and increased by teaching. If you should see someone who has become a stranger to his heavenly fatherland, take him in with you. While you yourself are entering into the heavens, lead him in as well, lest while you preach to others, you yourself be rejected. If a man should cast off the garment of incorruption which he had at his baptism, so that he is naked, clothe him; and if one should be infirm in faith, as Paul says, help him; and visit him who is shut up in the dark prison of this body and give him counsel which is as a light to him. Perform, then, all of these six types of love, both bodily and also spiritually, for we consist of both soul and body, and these acts of love are to be accomplished by both.
In today’s Gospel Christ repeats that He is identified as… one of the least of these.
To consider this phrase more deeply let us think on these things in the light of the last few Sundays. But, rather than look at the positive virtues we have focused on (desire, humility, repentance), let us note a negative example in each of the last 3 Sunday’s Gospels.
Zacchaeus desired to see Christ, and Christ entered into his home. Here we have an act of charity, as described in today’s Gospel (visitation of those in need), and yet the Gospel says that when the people saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. To the people, Zacchaeus was clearly one of the least of these.
The Publican and the Pharisee both went up to the temple to pray. And by all accounts the Pharisee also lived an outwardly more righteous life. Yet, inwardly he was proud and outwardly he prayed: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this publican. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess. Clearly to the Pharisee the Publican was one of the least of these.
Now, contrast this with the righteous in today’s Gospel, the just ones, who when commended by Christ say: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? They performed acts of charity like the Pharisee did, but in their humility they did not even see it; their right hand did not know what their left hand was doing.
Then last week, the Prodigal Son returns home and the Father forgives him, giving him alms of both a physical and spiritual nature, but the elder brother was angry and refused to go in to the celebration. And so, though the elder brother had not sinned after the manner of the Prodigal Son, by his own choice he was left outside of the feast put on by the Father, because he could not extend love to his brother, who because of his prodigality had become in the eyes of the elder brother: one of the least of these.
Thus, each of these preceding weeks finds itself reflected in this Gospel. In each week, there is someone who does not want to extend love to someone they consider one of the least of these. And yet, in doing so, they show themselves to be the goats mentioned in the Gospel. All of these goats are outwardly good and even seemingly righteous people, but they did not have love in their hearts.
This week, the Church calls us to remember these things. The Church calls us to remember the ultimate consequences if we follow the paths of the murumuring multitude, of the Pharisee, and of the older brother. The Church calls us to examine ourselves, our actions, our inner hearts. Are we full of love, performing acts of charity both tangible and spiritual, without boasting, not even allowing the right hand to know what the left hand is doing? And who, for each one of us, are the least of these?
Let us end by calling to mind the beautiful passage by the Holy Apostle Paul on this subject:
Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.