We have reached the final Sunday of the Liturgical Year which celebrates the Feast of Christ the King and in the Gospel today we are presented with the account of the Final Judgement. This is appropriate since that final great day will be the culmination of the whole of history, it will be what we have all been waiting and praying and working towards.
I was talking to a priest the other day who had just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He told me that at one point they had come across a Bedouin who was tending his flock. The flock was comprised of both sheep and goats but he said that it was impossible for him to determine which was a sheep and which was a goat. After a while he began to realise that the goats had more well-formed horns than the sheep, but to him that was about the only discernible difference.
Here in Britain, with our rather different breeds of sheep and goats, the two animals are quite distinct and easy to tell apart, but not in the Holy Land. The point is that this little insight helps us to understand why the separation of the sheep and the goats mentioned in out text today is so relevant when considering the Last Judgement.
Superficially it is hard to know the difference between sheep and goats. This corresponds to the reality we experience each day; it is hard to know who will be saved and who will be condemned. We all look alike and from the outside it is not possible to discern which of us would ultimately be classified as sheep and which as goats in the vision of the Last Judgement given to us in St Matthew’s Gospel.
Indeed, we have to conclude that it is virtually impossible to tell where a particular person will end up, because in order to do so we would have to look into the human heart. The only person who can do this is the Lord himself. It is only him who is qualified to be our judge since it is only he who can discern our motives and see into the secrets of our hearts.
This is just as well, because we human beings are not very accurate in the judgements we make. Even in such an advanced country as Britain our justice system is quite imperfect and we are all aware how easy it has been over the years for serious miscarriages of justice to arise. Clearly our merely human judgement is not to be relied upon and the only one we can depend upon to make the right judgements is the Lord of Life himself.
Justice needs to be tempered with mercy but in order to be able to dispense mercy one needs to be fully aware of all the facts and know the motivations of the individual, the kinds of pressures they are under and how they are able to cope with them. No human being could ever fully understand another person or know precisely what makes them tick. This is something that only God can do which is why he is the only one who is qualified or even capable of judging our actions.
The important thing to realise about the words of Jesus today is that he tells us precisely on what grounds we are going to be judged. However, he does not list the Ten Commandments or give us any other list of rules and then tick off whether we have kept them or not. No, what he says is that we are going to be judged on how merciful we have been. It is the depth of our compassion that is going to be under scrutiny on that day.
This is most fitting because on that great Day of Days we are, all of us, going to be desperately seeking God’s mercy. And Jesus is telling us that the amount of mercy we will be granted is going to be in direct proportion to the amount of mercy we have shown others.
The words Jesus uses are quite explicit, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’
This then is the basis of the Divine Judgement; how we have treated the hungry and the thirsty, whether we have welcomed the stranger, whether we have clothed the naked or visited the sick or those in prison.
Of course, in today’s world it is very difficult to visit someone who is in prison unless they send you a visitor’s pass, so I’m sure that there will be some leniency on that score. But it is worth noting that all these things are utterly practical. They involve us doing very simple and straightforward things such as visiting the sick and clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.
I am sure that there are many other useful things that we could include under these broad headings such as befriending the elderly, inviting a lonely person to lunch at Christmas, serving food in a night shelter or doing other voluntary work in the community such as listening to a child read in school or bringing patients down to mass in the Royal Hospital on a Sunday afternoon.
You will notice that the Lord is not telling us that the Final Judgement is going to be based on how we feel or even on whether we have said our prayers, important though that is. No, this judgement is solely going to be based on our practical actions and in particular how we have helped our neighbour.
Christ when he was asked which was the greatest commandment actually stated that there were two similar commandments: Love God and love your neighbour. Here we are being told that the judgement of our lives will be about whether we have loved our neighbour.
I suppose that because these two commandments are so closely related we are being told that by loving our neighbour we are actually loving God. I think that it might be on this basis that many atheists might get into heaven well before some believing Christians.