The reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew 25:31-46
One of the joys of serving in the priesthood is that any given day can turn out to be an adventure. When the phone rings, you never know exactly what is coming. This week someone called the church thinking that we were Roman Catholic and asking me if I would come and perform “last rites” for someone who was dying. In our tradition of course, there is no such “last rites” but we perform the sacrament of Holy Unction for anyone who is sick, at any time, including on their deathbed. After talking to them I figured out that they were not Orthodox Christians and I told them that I was not a Roman Catholic priest but that I was willing to come and pray with them and anoint the man who was dying with another blessed oil. After all, I was not sure how long the man would live or if they would be able to get a Roman priest to visit in time. They agreed. I’m sharing all of this with you for a reason, as you will soon see.
I ended up at their home and I went in and saw the older man who was sick. He was asleep or unconscious, I did not know which. I did what I could do. I prayed for him. I asked God to forgive his sins. I anointed him with some blessed oil (not the Holy Unction). But ultimately I have no idea what kind of a life he had lived. He was preparing to stand before the throne of the judgment seat of God and there was only so much that I could do for him.
The time to prepare for our end is not just when we are on our deathbed or when we find out that we are very ill. The time to prepare for our end is every single day because we don’t know the hour and the day when we will go to meet the Holy King. On this the second to last Sunday before we plunge into the waters of Great Lent, the Church reminds us that we are all going to face the same fate. We are all going to pass through the path of death one day. So as a mercy, we are reminded that the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us exactly what is expected of us.
When I was in school we would always be nervous about upcoming tests. There were times when a test could blindside you. You felt as if you might see questions that you had not anticipated and for which you were simply not ready. But at times you would get a really kind teacher who would say “I’m giving you a test but these are the questions that will be on the test. Make sure you are prepared to answer these questions.”
In a way, this is what the Lord Jesus is doing in today’s gospel reading. He is giving us the questions to the exam. He is telling us exactly what is expected of us and on what we are going to be judged. He is not trying to spring it on us or catch us in some kind of a trap. He is trying to prepare us in the best way possible. But we need to be reminded that life is short and that something is expected of us. Have we fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the imprisoned? These are the questions on the exam. How will we answer? Only you can decide that for yourself.
Why do these things matter to the Lord Jesus? Why are they required of us? Because those who belong to God must be clothed with love. These act of mercy are some of the ultimate signs of love. And love is the sign that we know God and are part of His family.
As we are getting geared up for the holy fast, we are likely to focus on things that at the end of the day won’t be on the exam. We focus on coming to services and fasting and all of the other parts of Lent, but God won’t judge us on these. He has already told us what is on the test. “So why should we fast and attend the extra services?” One might ask. The answer is because these practices and disciplines force us to look outside ourselves and to they help us grow in love by the grace of God. The lenten struggles and disciplines that we are getting ready to undertake are there to stretch us past our comfort zone and to make us vessels that are able to carry God’s love and mercy to others through the work of the Holy Spirit. They are meant to help us be numbered among the righteous. They are meant to help us towards the goal that we all want, namely, our salvation.
The final exam is coming one day and we already have the questions, but how will we respond? Who will we be numbered with? Will we inherit eternal life? The Lord Jesus tells us that it will depend on whether or not we have shared the things of this life, our life, with those in need. Our food, our clothing, our comforting presence. May God number us among the righteous and may He reward us with the true and unending life. Glory be to God forever, AMEN.