The final preparatory Sunday of pre-Lent is the Sunday of the Last Judgement. Just as for the previous two Sundays the Church has set before us for our consideration two types, two ways of approaching God; so also this Sunday we are asked to consider two groups and their response to Christ, who is in the guise of the least of His brothers or sisters.
In this parable, the Glorious Second Coming of Christ and the gathering of the nations around Him is likened to a shepherd separating sheep from goats. The sheep are welcomed into the Kingdom of the Father “prepared for you from the foundation of the world”; while the goats are sent off to eternal fire “prepared for the devil and his angels.” The criterion for the separation is how each treated Christ--in the guise of the least of the His brothers or sisters.
One point of particular interest here is that neither the sheep nor the goats realize that they are caring for Christ when they do or do not care for their neighbors. Religious hypocrisy has no place. Selfish concern expressed as “charity” has no place in the Judgement. Only genuine love and care survive. And this is a big part of what Lent is about: repenting of false love and selfishness while nurturing genuine love for God and neighbor.
The hymns that we chant on this day remind us that fasting alone accomplishes nothing:
Dost thou fast? Deal not treacherously with thy neighbor.
Wilt thou eschew food? Judge not thy brother, lest thou be sent to the fire and be burned up like the wax.
Fasting is a tool; it is not an end in itself. The Fathers of the Church advise us to keep in mind that Satan never eats--he keeps the strictest fast. The goal of the forty days is to draw near to God, and fasting is a tool to help us do that. However, drawing near to God means attending to the suffering of those around you, for in ministering to these you are ministering to Christ.
While the focus of this Sunday is the final Judgment on the Last Day, it is important to remember that for Orthodox Christians, eschatological realities (realities of the Last Day) are also realities that we begin to experience and participate in even while we are in this life. Both Heaven and hell are in varying degrees “tasted” in this life. What this means for us practically is that the separation of the sheep and the goats referred to in Matthew 25 is not merely a parable about something that will happen in the future. It is also a revelation of what is constantly happening in the human heart.
In every human heart there are sheep and goats. Every human heart experiences impulses of compassion and impulses of contempt for those who suffer. And even now, the Judgement is taking place: sheep on the right, goats on the left. How we turn, what we do, the impulses that we nurture, all of this sorting of thoughts, feelings and desires is done before the Throne of the Great Judge, right now. This is why Jesus told us this parable: not that we would fear a surprise at the End, but that we would recognize what is already happening in our hearts and what will be revealed clearly on the Last Day.
The wearing down of Lent (the extra services, the fasting, the prostrations) helps us see our own heart. When we are weak, we see clearly our dependence on God’s help. When we are weak, we are less easily distracted by the unending busyness of the world. When we are weak, then we are strong, as the Apostle tells us. Lent teaches us that only by the strength which God provides to the humble will we be able to love even the least of His brothers and sisters.