When the Lord returns, what should we be doing? We might answer, “something religious that would show our piety.” But what should that be? Likewise, the Church has set aside the blessed time of Great Lent to concentrate on the “spiritual.” But what is “spiritual?” What qualifies as “spirituality?” What should be included in our Lenten “piety?”
The parable of the Last Judgment we will hear next Sunday gives us a surprising and thought-provoking answer about a discipline that we might forget. It is the last of three parables in Chapter 25 of Matthew, which are set within Jesus’ prophecy of the tribulation at the end of the world (Chapter 24) and the plot of the religious authorities to kill Jesus (Chapter 26).
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
The first of these stories is the Parable of the Ten Virgins. These ten maidens waited anxiously to greet the Bridegroom when he came. But he was delayed. Finally, at midnight they heard the shout, “The Bridegroom is on His way!” Five young women rose to trim their lamps and meet the Bridegroom. But the five foolish virgins have neglected to take extra oil for their lamps. They were almost burning out, and they had to go buy more oil in the marketplace. But while they were away, the Bridegroom came, and they were shut out of the wedding feast.
This story is so poignant that we might overlook the question, “What is the oil that we must store up before the Lord, the Bridegroom, returns? The Orthodox Study Bible notes that in Greek, the word “mercy” and “oil” is the same. So in the story’s allegory, the oil represents “works of mercy” (OSB fn. on Mt. 25:1-13). In the same vein, St. John Chrysostom teaches that we should store up deeds of charity before the coming of our Lord. Chrysostom explains that the poor are necessary for our salvation. He states if God “should take them away… the great hope of our salvation should be taken away” since we would have no one to serve. Therefore, Chrysostom concludes we should not spend our possessions on “luxury and vainglory” but on the needs of the poor (Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew).
The Parable of the Talents
The second story is the Parable of the Talents. In this parable, the master goes into a “far country,” leaving his servants as stewards of various amounts of money. If the “talent” was a unit of measurement that of about 75 pounds, and if what was weighed was gold and silver, the amounts would be staggering. (Remember, this is a parable.)
The two faithful stewards doubled the large sums of money entrusted to them, though we don’t know how. But when the master returned, he commended them, gave them more responsibility, and said, “Enter into the joy of your Lord” (vs. 23). But the last steward was afraid of the master’s wrath and hid the talent he was given and returned it to the master without any gain. Whereupon the master ordered that his talent be given to another and cast the wicked servant into the “outer darkness” (vs. 30).
The word “talent” in English first appeared in the 12th century and meant a unit of measure, as seen in the parable. However, over time the word became a special ability or aptitude, and many churches have developed the teaching of stewardship as the wise and faithful use of time, talent (that is, ability), and treasure. But in the context of our chapter, “talent” must be interpreted in association with the works of charity. In other words, our “talents” are what we possess that we should use to serve the poor.
The Parable of the Last Judgment
The unifying theme of charity comes to the climax in the last parable read on the doorstep of Lent. The structure of this parable is discrimination like the separation of sheep and goats. Now on the earth,, sheep and goats may be mixed together. In fact, neither group recognized that they have been serving (or they have not been serving) Christ in the person of the poor.
But now, the difference between the two is realized. The first two parable has led to this climatic insight. The criteria for judgment at the return of Christ is not the amount of prayer, confession, worship attendance, aestheticism (spiritual disciplines), reading of the Bible and church fathers, etc. It is one thing: the care of the poor and needy.
Why should this be the criterion for judgment? The answer is the source of the love of the faithful. Their caring is an expression of God’s love dwelling in them. 1 John puts it, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). And again… “Whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” (OSB 1 John 4:12). On the other hand, 1 John says, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). Thus, the faces of the hunger, homeless, sick, and imprisoned are a test of the love of God within.
Note that it was from the foundation of the world that God had prepared the inheritance for those who ministered to Him by serving the poor (vs. 34). However, God had no desire to condemn those who did not feed, clothe, or visit the poor. The King sent them to the “everlasting fire” that He had prepared for the devil and his angels (vs. 47).
The Unity of Chapter 15 and Its Parables
We find this emphasis on active loving compassion in how the Gospel writer ties the three parables together. In all three, the faithful gain entrance into the Kingdom. In the Parable of the Virgins, the vigilant maidens went into the wedding feast with the Bridegroom” (vs. 10). In the Parable of the Talents, the Lord invited the faithful stewards to “Enter into the joy of your Lord” (vs. 21 and 23). And in the Parable of the Last Judgment, the righteous who ministered to the poor will inherit the Kingdom (vs. 34) and “go…into eternal life” (vs. 46).
On the other hand, the door of the wedding feast was shut against the unprepared virgins (vs.10). The unfaithful steward was “cast into outer darkness” (vs. 30), and the uncaring “goats” were cursed to go into the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels (vs. 41), that is “into everlasting punishment (vs. 46). In summary all those who ministered to the needy and suffering in their lifetime were ushered into the Kingdom whereas those who did not care for the poor were left out of the Kingdom and consigned to a place of fire and punishment. All the compassionate received the same invitation into the Kingdom, while all the uncaring suffered the same fate of punishment.
The Scripture’s Emphasis on Ministry to the Poor
We might overlook the discipline of charity because the ministry to the poor may not seem to be a “spiritual” thing. Yet our chapter suggests that without it, our spirituality is in vain. James teaches that we must not only cultivate a feeling for the poor, but we must act on the feeling and do what we can to meet their needs. The apostle writes, “if a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (OSB James 2:16). And again, the apostle writes in 1 John, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).
What Is a God-pleasing Fast?
What, then, is a God-pleasing fast? Surely it must include charity. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?” (OSB Isaiah 58:6). And again, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? (OSB Isaiah 58:7).
This insight gives a clearer purpose for our Lenten disciplines. We seek to be free of our passions so that we might freely love and serve our neighbor. In this vein, the Prayer of St. Ephraim asks, “Take from me the spirit of… But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. And Augustine suggested that fasting is inseparable from charity when he said that “Fasting and almsgiving are the two wings of prayer.”
To See Christ
If we want to be prepared for the Lord’s return, if we want to follow Him in the journey to Calvary, if we want to come closer to Him this Lent, then where will we find Him? The clear answer of the Parable of the Last Judgement is that we can see Christ in the persons of our fellow humans, especially those who are hungry, homeless, strangers, in prison, and sick.
So from what should we fast this season? Should we not add callousness, indifference, and neglect of those who need our mercy and kindness? According to the Parable of the Last Judgment, an essential discipline of the Great Fast is the down-to-earth “spirituality” of ministering to those whom God has provided for us to help and serve.