1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46
We live in a time when it is tempting to make everything about us. Even as we have the liberty to think, speak, and spend our money according to our desires, we are free to approach religion in the same way. Unfortunately, we are often so consumed with getting what we want for ourselves that we distort the Christian life into a self-centered enterprise of focusing only on our own spiritual state. When that happens, we become slaves of our own pride even as we fool ourselves into thinking that we are on the fast track to the Kingdom of Heaven.
On this Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Church calls our attention to the ultimate destiny of our souls. As we begin this last week before Great Lent, the Lord’s parable reminds us that the path to the fullness of eternal life in the Kingdom of God runs through our neighbors, especially those we are usually inclined to overlook, disregard, and perhaps even despise. How we treat the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the prisoner reveals the true state of our souls. How we serve our suffering neighbors is how we serve our Lord. Whether we truly share in His life is shown by whether His love and mercy are evident in our lives. If we truly participate in Him, the Savior’s virtues will become characteristic of us, for He has united humanity and divinity in Himself. And what is more characteristic of Christ than His self-emptying love for all of us who suffer the degrading consequences of our sins, both personally and collectively? By offering Himself fully on the cross, the God-Man sets us free from bondage to corruption and unites us to Himself as members of His own Body, the Church. He makes it possible for us to enter by grace into the eternal communion of love shared by the Holy Trinity. The ultimate judgment of our souls is whether we will embrace this sublime vocation or refuse it.
The point is not that we can somehow impress God or earn a reward by doing enough good deeds for others. It is not that we calculate in our minds that by serving our neighbors we are serving Him. It is, instead, that we embrace His healing of our self-centeredness to the point that we become radiant with His selfless love. The more that is true of us, the more we will offer ourselves to our neighbors and to Him. The more that is true of us, the more we will share a common life of love with our neighbors and with Him. That is what it means to be able to say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the key issue in the question of whether to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols was how doing so impacted others. He writes that “food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care, lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” To cause another to fall would be to “sin against Christ.” We read this passage on the last day when, according to the fasting discipline of the Church, we eat meat before Pascha. His words remind us that what is truly at stake in fasting is not merely a change in diet, but whether we use food in a way that enables us to grow in the selfless love of our Lord. When we abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods, we have an opportunity to gain strength to redirect our desires for self-centered pleasure to blessing our neighbors. That is because eating a humble diet should free up resources to give to the needy. It should not take long to prepare and the leftovers will keep for future meals, thus freeing up time and energy to be directed toward the good of our neighbors in so many ways. It should also teach us that we can live without getting what we want; contrary to popular opinion, it will not kill us to say “no” to our own preferences about what we eat.
Fasting is not an end in itself. It is merely a tool for shifting our focus away from ourselves and toward our Lord and our brothers and sisters. If we distort it into a private religious accomplishment that we use to show ourselves, others, and even the Lord how holy we are, we would be better off not fasting at all. This spiritual discipline invites us to share more fully in the self-emptying love of Christ as we turn from addiction to satisfying ourselves to freely serving others. That kind of love is essential for us to grow in union with them and with Him. It is a crucial dimension of what it means to participate in the deified humanity of the Savior Who offered up Himself in order to draw all people into the eternal life that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Many false substitutes exist for uniting ourselves to Christ such that we serve others as He has served us. Some may approach the fasting guidelines and other dimensions of Lent as legalistic acts the performance of which would satisfy God’s requirements. Others might insist that the height of the Christian life is making ourselves feel a certain way or following a code of behavior that justifies us in condemning others. As well, Christians of every generation have fallen prey to the temptation to use the faith to gain earthly power in one form or another. These distractions from true faithfulness all make the mistake of focusing on trying to get something for ourselves from God. They fail to see that our focus must be on Christ and those in whom we encounter Him each day of our lives, not on us. They do not recognize that the fundamental calling of the Christian life is to become like our Lord, Who offered Himself up for the salvation of the world. If we want to approach Lent in a spiritually healthy way that will enable us to participate already in life eternal, we must offer ourselves for the sake of other people.
The particular form of that self-offering will vary according to the needs of the people we encounter and our particular gifts and calling in life. Discerning the particular actions we should take will not be a matter of cold-blooded rational calculation, but of being so conformed to Christ’s character that we make our lives a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) through which the Savior’s healing of fallen humanity becomes active and evident in our lives. Instead of living as isolated individuals who define themselves over against one another, we will become persons in communion with Christ and all those who bear His image and likeness.
According to today’s gospel reading, this is the path to the eternal life of the Kingdom. Whether we pursue it will determine whether we have the spiritual health to behold the glory of the Lord as joyful, brilliant light or instead are so weak that we perceive only the burning torment of our own refusal to be transformed by His love. The difference will not be in our Lord, but in how we have responded to Him. During the coming season of Great Lent, we will all have the opportunity to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance. We must not pursue them, however, as our own individual religious accomplishments, but instead as humble steps to open ourselves to the grace necessary to become the kind of people who share so fully in the life of Christ that we spontaneously convey His merciful love to all His living icons, especially those we are most inclined to disregard. Since we are all a long way from fulfilling this calling, we all need the coming blessed weeks to grow closer to the Savior Who emptied Himself for our salvation on the cross in order to rise in glory on the third day. If we want to know the joy of His resurrection, we must offer ourselves to Him in the neighbors through whom we encounter Him each day. There is no way around this truth: How we serve them is how we serve Him.