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Matthew 25: 31-46
Lying is a terrible sin. Solomon says that “a lying mouth destroys the soul” (Wisdom, 1:11) and Joshua ben Sirach says that a lie is “a foul blot on the character of a man” (Sirach 20:24 ). Lying is always connected to Satan whom Jesus calls the “father of lies” (John 8:44). Lying is prohibited by the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” yet how many of us lie every day, or if not every day, frequently? Usually we tell “little white lies” don’t we? Sometimes we tell whopping, ugly lies. Sometimes we lie to our loved ones. Sometimes we lie to our father confessor. Ordinarily we know when we are telling a lie. Even those who are habitual liars know when they are lying, right? But what about those times when we say something, perhaps we even say it over and over, yet we really don’t believe it? Let me give an example.
Every morning, every evening, and at nearly every divine service we confess our belief that the Lord Jesus Christ “shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.” We do that, don’t we? This is Article 7 of the Creed, the Symbol of our Faith. We will all sing it together later in this service. By repeating these words we are saying, in effect, “I believe that the Lord is coming back, and I believe that there will be a dread Last Judgment.” But many of us don’t really think much about the Last Judgment, we don’t think about the ultimate consequences for our sins. That’s what this Sunday is all about. It reminds us that we need to think about what we belive, and especially about our appearance before the fearful judgment seat of Christ. It reminds us too, that a big part of our judgment will depend not on what we said, but on what we did. Today’s Gospel makes it clear.
Brethren, we understand that our sins literally separate us from God, but which sins? Most of us know that breaking the Ten Commandments will separate us from God; Denying our faith, murder, stealing, lying, etc. But today’s parable wants to remind us that one of the standards of judgment is how we treat other people, how we consider other people, especially the poor and the needy.
Let me share with you some verses of Scripture:
"He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy." Proverbs 14:21
"He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." Proverbs 14:31
"He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done." Proverbs 19:17
The Great Fast wants us to repent. Repentance, metanoia, means to change our minds, change our thinking, change our attitude about who we are, what we do, and how we relate to others. God, through Isaiah tells us what a true fast must include, saying: “loose every burden of iniquity, untie the knots of hard dealings, set the bruised free, and cancel every unjust account. Break thy bread with the hungry, and lead the unsheltered poor to thy house: if thou seest one naked, clothe him, and thou shalt not disregard thine own relatives.
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall speedily spring forth: and thy righteousness shall go before thee, and the glory of God shall compass thee” (Isaiah 58: 6-8).
Our actions are far more important than our words. Pharaoh made many promises, both to God and to Moses, but he didn’t follow through. He didn’t really believe that God would make good on His promise of judgment. Great Lent wants to remind us to make good on our promises. The Lord Jesus said, "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' but do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). And what, exactly, is He telling us to do today? Our Lord is telling us to be the kind of people who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, show hospitality to foreigners, (which is what the Greek says), clothe those who have no clothing, to visit and comfort the sick and the imprisoned. In other words, the Lord expects us to be kind, compassionate, and merciful towards others, to truly reflect not only the image, but also the likeness of God.
This brings me to another important element of this parable. The Lord says: “And before Him shall be gathered all nations, and He shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left” (v 32-33). Why are the righteous called sheep and the unrighteous goats? Much has to do with their outward appearance and behaviour. St Cyril of Jerusalem said: “How does the shepherd make the separation? Does he examine out of a book which is a sheep and which a goat? or does he distinguish by their evident marks? Does not the wool show the sheep, and the hairy and rough skin the goat? In like manner, if thou hast been just now cleansed (by baptism) from thy sins, thy deeds shall be henceforth as pure wool; and thy robe shall remain unstained...By thy vesture shall thou be known for a sheep. But if thou be found hairy, like Esau, who was rough with hair, and wicked in mind, who for food lost his birthright and sold his privilege, thou shalt be one of those on the left hand.” Even more, sheep are gentle in demeanor, they love to stay close to their flock, and eagerly follow their leader. Goats tend to be aggressive, stubborn, and independent. They love to kick and butt with their horns in order to gain advantage. Sheep will only eat clean food, while goats are known for being voracious consumers of anything, whether clean or unclean. Finally, we have to look at their faces. The face of a sheep appears mild and kindly. The face of the goat has sharp features, two prominent turned-back horns, and a short, straggly beard. So the “likeness” of the sheep is the likeness of Christ, Who, as the Lamb of God, gave Himself up for the life of the world. The face of the goat reflects the “likeness” of Satan. Those who follow Satan, look and behave like him!
So, beloved, let us flee from the behaviour of the goats and seek to imitate the gentle ways of God’s sheep. Let us sing together with St Andrew of Crete: “Spare, O Savior, Thine own creature, and seek, as Shepherd, Thy lost sheep; snatch this stray away from the wolf, and make me a pet lamb in Thy sheep pasture” (Thursday of the First Week, Ode 8). Amen.