What brings us close to the Lord? What separates us from him? These are the two questions posed and answered (with some surprises!) in the epistle (1 Cor 8:8-9:2) and gospel readings (Matt 25:31-46) for this Meatfare Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment.
Let’s look first at the epistle. In 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle is addressing Christians who were worried about whether they could eat meat that was being sold on the market: in those days it was common for food to be sold publically after it had been consecrated in pagan worship ceremonies to false gods. St. Paul restates for his congregation a Christian version of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God the LORD is one,” Deut. 6:4), applying the word “God” to the Father, and the word “LORD” to Jesus. There is only One God, incarnate in our Lord Jesus Christ, and all things were created by him. In the past, God’s people had been instructed only to eat kosher, but now all foods have been cleansed! Because of Jesus, who fulfilled the TORAH, eating what was once prohibited cannot hurt those who know the LORD. But the actions of Christians, Paul explains, CAN hurt others, whose conscience is not robust.
The Church has benefitted from the revelation to St. Paul and the other apostles of our loving and holy Lord, who made this world and declared it to be “very good.” That same knowledge of God that gives us the freedom to eat everything also should give us deep love for our brothers and sisters. We may, then, be free, as was the Lord Jesus, but it is better to practice self-denial in a case where someone might lose his or her faith by our freedom.
In our context, food is not offered to idols. But during the fast we might actually scandalize others, appearing self-righteous or bound by legalism if we are ungracious at their homes. We are free to fast—but also free to practice economia for the sake of those who do not understand the benefits of fasting together with the Church, if it is not possible to keep the fast perfectly without a fanfare. For it is not the food itself, but our obedient action, in echo of the Lord who “did not please himself,” that brings us into line with the deeper work of God.
The Old Testament, though unaware of the freedom of the new covenant people, gives us intimations of these truths. Remember the wisdom and kindness of Joseph who, even in Egyptian slavery, did good to his oppressors and not only to his brothers. Remember the witness of Daniel and the three youths, who did not eat according to the Gentiles, but who also did not let their abstinence be a source of scandal, for they served the pagan King. Only when they were called to worship an idol did they stand upon their principles—as should we! The Old Testament holds within its stories the same principles—to mirror God, not to put a stumbling block in the way of unbelievers and to care about the effect that we have on others, even strangers.
The gospel reading, Matthew 25:31-46, also concerns coming near or being estranged from God. It is important to notice that this is a parable, and that a parable is not intended to be read in the same way as an extended piece of theological teaching. A parable usually contains within it a surprise, and one or a few main points. In the Orthodox community, we rightly apply Jesus’ parable to ourselves, and read it as a call to be found among the sheep, those who give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, welcome to the lonely, and comfort for those in prison. That is to be our character, a costly generosity that gives good things to all, as the heavenly Father does. If our actions do not match what we purport to believe, then, we are told, our faith is in vain (James 1:27).
The day of judgment and the importance of sincere faith is also amply witnessed to in the Old Testament. The Jewish community often longed for “the Day of the Lord,” assuming that in it God would condemn all the Gentiles and rescue them from oppression. But the prophets reminded them that they, too, had a responsibility, and that judgment would apply to them, as well. Fr. Ted Pulcini suggests two OT readings to help us understand the Day of Judgment, Joel 1:13-2:13 and Isaiah 26:20-27:13. These passages are full of colorful language, reminding the reader of the thoroughness of God’s judgment: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:1-2); “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Yes, says Joel, return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2: 12-13).
Despite the sobriety of these passages, God is not trying to frighten us into outward proper actions. Rather, we are called to discern the character of God, who is both just and merciful, abounding in love. We are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through the guidance of Scriptures and the fathers, to be transformed so that we take on God’s own character—out of such a character, fruitful actions come. And it works the other way around, too. And as we show kindness to others, our very characters are changed. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, after judgment, God’s plan for his people is that they will “take root, blossom, put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit.” (Isaiah 27.6) Indeed, God’s truth will be known everywhere, says the prophet, and people will stream to Jerusalem to see and worship the true God. Our God is just, but also merciful.
Though the parable of the goats and sheep serves as a warning, reminding us that there is a day of reckoning, there is a startling element within it. Jesus envisages in his parable for us that Day when those who are among the “nations” will be carefully separated one from the other. Remember that in Jesus’ time, the term “the nations” (ethnē) referred to those outside of Israel, who did not know the true God. Indeed, those whom the judge addresses in the parable seem also not to know the Son of Man—“WHENEVER did we see you?” they ask. But God has seen THEM—and recognized in their actions hearts that respond to need. These are therefore hearts that are open to God’s own character, to the way that God works in this world. Such pagans may only seem to be goats, not a part of the flock, but God looks upon the heart.
Let us be careful as we think about this. The parable is not teaching that it does not matter what people believe, and that by action alone we find God’s favor. Rather, Jesus is contrasting those who by their actions demonstrate a solipsistic stance to life with those who show themselves to be open to God. The person who helps those in need, those whom Jesus calls his “brothers,” may prove to be fit to inherit the kingdom. Remember, we are as Christians to rule alongside Jesus, and so we too are to be just and merciful!
The parable, then, is similar to St. Paul’s words in Romans 2:13-16 concerning Gentiles who do not know God’s law because they have not been nurtured in Judaism, but who by their lives show that they instinctively honor what it true. Like Paul, Jesus reminds us that there are those who act according to the light that they have—a light that can only come from the Lord, the same Lord who gave all for us in his life, death and resurrection. This, too, is grace, and God knows those who will come to him!
Thus, we see even in this parable of judgment the immense care of God for his creation, as he searches the hearts even of those who do not explicitly follow him, as he identifies deeply with his brothers and sisters, and as he blesses. Though we do not, until the NT, see the Gentiles turning to the Lord as a whole, there are hints of that wonderful time to come in the Old Testament as well. Consider the role of Gentile women in the ancestry of the Lord (cf. Matthew 1’s genealogy). There is Rahab, who, because of what she heard of the Lord’s glory, helped the Hebrew spies (Joshua), and Ruth, who insisted that her mother-in-law Naomi’s God would be her God. Here are examples of righteous pagans who were open to God’s actions, and played a key role in the story of salvation.
And so things are not always as they seem on the surface. There are those with whom God is dealing and with whom he will deal that we do not recognize as Christians—all is not yet accomplished! Our God searches the heart, and knows. Our business is not to hinder these people when we meet them, and to take God’s warnings to ourselves. And so, let us on this Sunday in preparation for Great Lent, turn with humility and gratitude to the one who is both completely truthful and completely loving. His gaze we see upon us through the icon of the Pantocrator, with the two “looks” of our Lord—searching and loving! There is a Day coming—and so we must be constantly in preparation, whether we use our freedom or take on the role of a servant, whether we eat or do not eat. Following Christ, we take every opportunity to show God’s goodness to others, and daily allow the Holy Spirit to reveal to us those things that require transformation. What brings us close to God? What keeps us at a distance? The time of great Lent is a good time to be thinking of these things. Ultimately it is we ourselves who both draw near and keep aloof, and God uses multiple ways to urge us to constantly open that door-handle to our heart that is within our own grasp. His will is, by his Spirit, to be with us always, changing us from glory to glory.
“Wherefore, O Lord of glory, be compassionate toward us, and make us worthy to be of those who love thee; for thou art good.”