Metaphors of the Last Judgment


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 19, 2023

In view of the very familiar Judgment Sunday Gospel reading from Mt. 25 (and how very often we try to excuse ourselves from its plain message), I would like to offer what may be a slightly different perspective. I want to start with a thought-provoking quote from Fr. Richard Rohr about an unpleasant subject: hell. It is provocative, for sure, and yet, in view of the Gospel it makes a great deal of sense.

"...hell is not what we've pictured it to be but simply a much-needed metaphor (found in most religions) for the ultimate tragedy of not choosing life and love."
We choose whether to be sheep or goats. It is not chosen for us. In other words we choose heaven or hell and we do it nearly everyday of our lives. Every time we ignore a person in need we choose hell over heaven. Hell is very much a self-centered state of mind as heaven is a state of mind that is loving, compassionate, and self-sacrificial. This is the doorway to repentance which means quite literally to change one's mind from narcissism to charity.

What then constitutes the path of "life and love?" Jesus tells us as plainly as can be. The only question that we will be asked on Judgment Day (whatever that metaphor implies) is, "Did you love well?" How will we answer?

Jesus tells us what matters most to God. It is simple. Not obscure, very concrete. He wants us to care about what God cares about. The Lord gives us a short list: feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and welcome strangers. It is meant to cover all those in distress whatever might be the cause. The kicker is that the Lord identifies himself with them. "As you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me." The Lord visits us in the guise of the suffering people around us. St. John reminds us of the same when he writes, "You cannot love God whom you can't see if you do not love your neighbors whom you can see."

"A new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you," Jesus said and to make sure we don't narrow down whom we should love to our family and friends, he says that doing good only to those who love us and not to strangers and enemies, has no value.

So, here I offer a quote from Simone Weil that sheds light on what these verses mean. "To die for God is not proof of faith in God. To die for an unknown and repulsive convict who is a victim of injustice, that is proof of faith." At. Isaac of Syria goes dramatically further when he writes that the heart of a true Christian weeps for the demons. Do you see how love does not kneel to the boundaries of our tragically dualistic minds.

I am often reminded of what someone told me long ago, "You only love God as much as you love the people you hate the most." That puts a fine point on it, I think. Learning to love and practicing love is the whole point of the Christian life. It is put to the ultimate test when coming face to face with an enemy. An enemy is not just someone who threatens us physically, but all those we fear or despise for it is we who have made them enemies in the first place. St. Paul also chimes in writing to the Roman church, "love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love fulfills the Law." (Romans 13:10))

Now, of course, I must point to a deeper meaning. The author John Sanford leads into his interpretation of mt 25 by disecting the parable of the Woman and Her Lost Coin. He quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa when he writes that the coin in the Parable is inside of us saying, "the coin is 'in one's own house, that is within oneself.'" St Gregory continues writing with greater specificity, "By that coin the Parable doubtless hints at the image of our King, not yet hopelessly lost, but hidden beneath the dirt." All true mystics in every tradition I have studied reaches the same truth our Lord taught, "The kingdom of heaven is within you."

Here is the deeper, metaphorical and hidden meaning. The hungry, the naked, the sick and imprisoned, and the stranger are inside of us. Here is John Sanford's take on it from his excellent book THE KINGDOM WITHIN.

"There is a stranger in us - a naked, needy, hungry portion of ourselves, a lost brother or sister of our soul - to be reclaimed by being accepted consciously and allowed expression in life. In doing so, we bring Christ into our lives. Christ himself is in the lost part of our souls, for by including "the lost coin" we constellate our wholeness."

Unconditional love must extend limitlessly both inside and out if we are to love as Christ loved, with all his heart, soul, mind and strength God, neighbor, and self. Spirituality in general and Lent in particular is about authentic self-care as much as it is about caring for others. One leads to another. Without one the other cannot be.

Here is one more quote from Simone Weil, "Compassion directed towards oneself is true humility." Lent is most certainly not a time for self-hatred and wallowing in guilt and shame. Lent's first and final lesson is that the Lord wants us to let go of all that negativity and rest our weary minds. Faith is not holding on, it is letting go. And please remember that the love we show others is in direct proportion to the love we show ourselves.

If we do three things during Great Lent, let it be these three: to look intently inside ourselves for the lost coin, to serve others outside our comfort zone in a sincere and authentic fast from defensiveness, fear, and selfishness, and to detach from all things that take the place of God in our lives. Let's learn the difference between heaven and hell and choose wisely, not once-for-all, but moment by moment and forever.