Homily Given by Dcn. Michael on Meat-fare Sunday, 2019
Today marks a very important turning point in our preparation for the Lenten journey to Christ’s Pascha. Today is Meat Fare Sunday, where we say “Farewell” to meat for the next 56 days. But the focus for today is from St. Matthew’s Gospel account of the “Last Judgement,” where the Church asks us to reflect on which side we will be standing when Christ returns to earth to judge the world. Part of the Christian Creed, which we recite at each Divine Liturgy, is the acknowledgement of Christ’s return “in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
The final judgement and the subsequent end of the world as we know it is a topic that many of us tend to ignore, or at least not devote too much time thinking about. In our Western culture we have a tendency to downplay the whole thought of God’s final judgment. Most of the discussion seems to be focused on the Apocalypse, especially the misconceived notion that the last book of the New Testament is somehow a literal blueprint for how the world will end. So much of the Western culture, both secular and ecclesiastical, seems to spend a lot of time trying “decode” St. John the Theologian’s mystical writing, as if it were some sort of secret message that if understood, will help those of us left behind to deal with the impending judgement of Christ. Anyone who has lived through the entire cycle of Church readings will realize that the book of Revelation is not even part of the Orthodox Churches lectionary, so the questions of pre/post-millennialism, fantastic beasts and strange images, do not play a part in our understanding of God’s judgement of the world.
The Orthodox Christian understanding of the final judgement by God is reflected in today’s reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel. Here we see Christ returning in His glory, sitting upon His throne. At this point, Jesus says that all the nations will be gathered around Him, and He will separate the people “as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (15:32). To understand the significance of Christ having to separate the sheep from the goats, we need examine the nature and characteristics of these two animals. Sheep tend to be docile and are easily herded. Jesus uses the analogy of sheep and the good shepherd in the Gospel of St. John to refer to His followers and Himself. He points out that sheep will recognize the voice of their shepherd and follow him. The shepherd will even lay down his own life for the life of the flock (John 10). In the exorcism prayers that are read before Holy Baptism and Chrismation, the priest prays that the candidate preparing for Holy Illumination will be made a “reason endowed sheep”: not an animal that blindly obeys but one who has the understanding to know and follow the Good Shepherd. Sheep also play a significant role in the Old Testament Jewish rites, where the young sheep, a lamb, is selected as the Passover sacrifice, and through the blood of the Paschal lamb the first-born of Israel is saved from the angel of death. So, the image of sheep represents the good.
Goats on the other hand, are not as manageable as sheep. Herders separate the two because the goats tend to have a mind of their own and require more direction than the sheep. The worst part is that the goats could lead the sheep astray, since the sheep tended to follow the direction of the herd. Goats prefer the narrow, winding mountainous paths rather than the level pastures. We also know from the Levitical Laws that the sins of the Israelites were placed on the head of a goat by Aaron, and the goat was released into the wilderness as sin offering, symbolically carrying away the inequities of the children of Israel (Lev. 16:20-22). The term scapegoat is derived from this ritual. The goats in today’s parable are used to represent sin and the inclination to wander away from the safety and direction of the Good Shepherd.
With all the imaginary provided by today’s parable, it is easy to lose the real focus of the message that Jesus and the Church are giving us today. The true theme of the parable is not good versus bad or sheep versus goats. It’s not even so much the act of judging the world. The main point that Jesus is trying to drive home is a very simple one that we have all heard many times before: that is, love your neighbor. All the acts that made the sheep, sheep and the goats, goats, all have to do with love and how they treated their neighbors in need. Those who showed their love by feeding, clothing and visiting the sick and incarcerated were indeed obeying Jesus’ new commandment to “love one another” (John 13:34). This is not only the love we show for our Christian brothers and sisters, but the love we show to all humanity, even—maybe especially—our enemies. Jesus teaches us in St. Matthew’s Gospel to, “…love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (5:46). Jesus then poses this question: “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (5:46). It is these loving actions that separate the sheep from the goats; loving the seemingly unlovable.
One way to measure whether we will be with the sheep or the goats on the final judgement day is to honestly ask ourselves this simple question: During my lifetime, what did I do to Jesus? As we see from today’s reading, our actions are not directed to the stranger on corner or the nameless person in a homeless shelter but are actually against God Himself. In both situations Jesus’ answer is the same:“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (v. 40). Each time we show love—or contempt—to anyone, especially to those who are in the greatest need, we do the same to Christ. We should certainly consider this point as we enter the Great Fast, a time where the Church challenges us to understand where our real treasures are stored. All those additional services, prayers and prostrations are prescribed as medicine for our souls, to help us recognize not only how badwe are, but more importantly how goodwe can and should be. Those simple acts that Jesus calls us to perform—to give some small amount of physical comfort to those in need—is part of that spiritual prescription that will help to cure the sickness of pride, selfishness and indifference to the plight of others that we all suffer from. The Lazarus Bags that our parish is distributing is one way to help us come in contact with our fellow human beings as we reflect on our own spiritual needs.
As we approach another Great Lent, let us do so with the solemn joy, the Bright Sadness, that this season is intended to invoke in each of our hearts. Spend the time to prayerfully reflect on which side of the King you will be standing on at the time of the Final Judgement. There should be no reason why any faithful Christian should fear that day, for the Judge—Christ our God—has shown us the way into eternal life. By putting into daily practice, a habit of demonstrating love for those who are the hardest in our society to love, we are preparing ourselves for that great day when we may be counted in the righteous flock of our Good Shepherd.