Facing Death and Judgement
Rev. Fr. Luke A. Veronis
Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Webster
Recently I spoke with a 62 year old woman who is dying. Several months ago her doctors told her that she has six months to live due to a rare form of cancer. Of course, this woman is extremely sad at her prospects. Yet she is preparing herself for what may happen much sooner than she ever dreamed about. She is making her funeral arrangements. She called me up to talk about the funeral service. She’s confronting the likelihood that she will die soon. Obviously, life takes on a radically new perspective when confronted with such reality. Some people might think of some bucket list of superficial things they want to do before they die, yet she seems to be cherishing every moment she can spend with her children when they visit her, and with her family and close friends. She seems to be quite sober in her preparations for death.
For many people this scenario may seem too morbid to think about. Jesus Christ, however, places such a reality in front of His followers throughout the Gospels. Be prepared. Be ready. Stay vigilant in our preparation for our final encounter with God. This is why the Fathers of the Church had a saying to “keep death in front of you every day.”
The Last Judgment, sometimes called the story of the Sheep and Goats, from Matthew 25 deals with the topic of preparing for our own end, and the judgment that comes with it. Jesus warns His followers that if we don’t prepare for death, the judgment of God will come upon us in a sudden and unexpected way. Yet, Christ is trying to help us because he cautions us ahead of time what His judgment will be. It’s like God telling us we will have a final exam, but first he tells us exactly what the questions will be.
“I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and in prison, and you came to visit me. For whatever you did to the least of my brothers or sisters, you did to me.”
When we come face to face before God after our death, He will look over our lives and remind us how we have treated other people, how we have responded especially to those in need. Have we reached out with concrete acts of love, with random and conscious kindness, with disciplined charity, with joyful generosity – because when we reach out specifically to the marginalized of society, we are reaching out to Christ Himself.
As followers of Jesus, He calls us to love others with tangible acts of love, and not only to love those who love us or to love those we think “deserve” our kindness. The beauty of this parable is that the righteous who helped those in need didn’t really think they were doing anything special, just as the condemned who didn’t reach out to those in need were shocked to hear Jesus say that they didn’t take care of His needs. Who we offer our acts of love and kindness to shouldn’t depend on what we think of the people in need. Christ calls us to be filled with His love and then to automatically share His love to whoever is hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in need.
Let me repeat this. No where do we see God telling us to offer love to those we think deserve it. We don’t need to analyze and determine whether we should help the other – our acts of love need to be spontaneous acts springing from a heart full of the love for God! We don’t need to judge why one is in prison, why one is hungry, why one is naked. Maybe they made some mistakes or poor choices in their lives. One day they will give an account before Christ for themselves. We don’t need to act as their judge.
“For the Christian believer, every human person is to be respected inasmuch as he or she bears the divine image within,” says Archbishop Anastasios of Albania. “The obligation of every conscientious Christian is to demonstrate respect for the divinely derived dignity of every other person with sincere love, irrespective of what that person believes or if that person believes at all. The cultivation of such a conscience within the spaciousness and freedom of God’s children remains the exceptional contribution of the Church.”
Here lies the heart of the Gospel and all the teachings of Christ. We know that the greatest commandments are to love God and love one another, but today we realize that such love can never be simple theory. Instead, these two loves intersect with one another in concrete actions. In fact, through these actions we come to understand that love for God and love for the other are one and the same, precisely because God lives within each person.
“I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was alone in prison and in the hospital, and you visited me. For whatever you did for one of these least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Christ doesn’t say, “You didn’t solve the problems of world hunger,” but simply “I was hungry and you fed me.” Jesus didn’t comment, “You couldn’t heal my illnesses,” but simply “I was sick and you visited me.” He didn’t complain, “I was in prison and you didn’t free me.” No, instead, He judges us because we didn’t do what was within our ability – a simple visit.
May we all remember that life is brief and fragile, as my 62 year old is realizing. None of us know the day or time we will come face to face with Christ through our death, but we do know very clearly what He will ask us at our final judgment. “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was alone in prison and in the hospital, and you visited me. For whatever you did for one of these least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Let us go out and strive each day to see Jesus Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters and to reach out to them in love and compassion and mercy.