by Fr. Jack McArdle
It doesn't require any great theological exploration to accept the simple fact that, if Jesus came to save us, if he is the door to the sheepfold, if he is the only Way to the Father, that he should require something from us by way of accepting, believing, and acting on his instructions. 'If you love me, you will obey me.'
Judging, such as some form of judgement at death, or a general judgement at the end of time, must not be confused with our understanding of judging in the secular and legal sense. God doesn't send me anywhere when I die; rather does he eternalise the direction in which I now travel. The essence of judgement is in my own hands. Jesus says that he will not have to judge us, in that the words he has spoken will judge us.
If he had not come and spoken we would have an excuse for our sins. Many theologians argue that, even after the moment of death, when I am free of the body, and able to see myself relative to God, to others, and to the reality of my situation, that I will be given one last chance to say 'yes' or 'no'. This would answer the many legitimate questions about two thirds of the human race who know nothing about Jesus, or about his message; and about someone whose death is instantaneous, as a result of violence, for example, as against those who have every spiritual and medical care for a long time before death.
Whatever God's judgement will be, we can be sure and certain that it will be absolutely and totally just, and, if it were to lean in any direction, it will certainly lean towards the side of the sinner. If we say that God possesses all qualities in an infinite way, then we must accept that he is infinitely just. A general overview of the larger canvas could well envisage the possibility of something like this :In creation, God opened up an era of total and unconditional love. We rejected this, so, in Jesus, he opened up an era of total mercy and forgiveness.
Is it possible that this will be followed by a time of total justice, when each of us will reap the harvest of whatever we have sown? Even in this, I must hold to the belief that God's love and mercy will not have come to an end. Our hope has to be eternal, because it is invested in an eternal God.
There is some innate way in which the law of God is imprinted on our hearts. The most primitive tribe believed in a god, even if they adored the sun. They believed in an after-life, even if they called it the spirit world, Valhalla, or crossing the Jordan. When I was a child I had a dog that looked guilty whenever he did something wrong! When a person dies, one of the first things the attendant staff do is to close the eyes and the mouth. It is as if the eyes of the soul can see clearly now, and the voice of the heart can express the deepest words. I personally have no problem whatsoever with a God who would offer a final choice to the one who can now see things as they really are. I believe, however, that I just cannot presume on saying that final 'yes', if it has not been preceded by the many 'yeses' of daily living, loving, and service.
I know that it can raise questions about the total and absolute authority of God, but I believe that if Satan were offered such a final choice, he would refuse; because to repent would mean admitting that he was wrong in the first place, and I don't believe his pride could permit of such a thing.
Matthew's gospel, chapter 25, provides us with a fairly detailed discourse from Jesus on what is called the Final Judgement. For the religious person, it must appear to be scandalously materialistic! There are no questions there about church-going, religious experiences, or exercises of devotion.
The questions have to do with food, drink, clothes, compassion, and hospitality in general. There is quite a huge canvas background to this scenario. The sheep are those who follow the shepherd, and the goats are the ones who are driven, without any sense of loyalty. Judgement is described as separating the sheep from the goats. 'You are either for me, or against me. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no' Jesus had said at an earlier time. Goodness is seen as attitudinal, as a way of living, because those whom he commends are surprised; they lived and behaved that way, because that is the kind of people they had become.
'At the end of the day', says Jesus, 'you are but unprofitable servants, doing that which is your duty to do'. In this judgement Jesus is not rewarding the just, as if they have earned or merited something. Rather is he looking within their souls and proclaiming what he sees and knows to be there. 'Nathaniel, when you were under the fig tree I saw you' was a comment that surprised more than just Nathaniel at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry. Judgement is more about what Jesus means when he declares that all will be made public, all will be revealed. There is nothing hidden from the eyes of God, and, with our newfound vision, we will all be capable of seeing things as they really are.
Jesus said that he did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. I certainly don't think of this judgement as being a process of condemnation. I can accept that, even at this final moment, as with Satan, some people will still refuse the offer of God. God doesn't give me anything; rather he offers me everything, and I must always have the freedom to accept or reject. Even at that last moment, he would never deprive me of my free will.
Of one thing we can be sure. When we return to the Garden the Father will be waiting with open arms to welcome all of his prodigal children. Jesus uses many parables to teach us about this final round up of God's people. He compares it to a net that is cast into the sea. When the net is brought ashore, the fish are selected, and what is not fish is discarded. Is it possible that God will scoop up what is good in us, and dispose of the rest? Leonard Cheshire suggests the possibility of a meeting at the moment of death between the person I then will be, and the person God created me to be. Because my definition of love states that love is accepting another as that person is, I can trust God's love to accept me as I then will be.
Jesus speaks of a wedding feast, where one person showed up inappropriately dressed, and was quickly dismissed from the gathering. Because of his love for the poor, it is unthinkable that there is any implication here that the person was too poor to be dressed properly. Obviously, he knew how he should be dressed, and he also had whatever it took to conform to the norm. There is the implication of some sort of stubborn perversity that resulted in him bringing judgement upon his own head.
There is a doctrine called Eschatology, which has to do with teaching about death, judgement, hell, and heaven. One element of this is the following premise: all of this is here now, a present reality, but not entirely yet. In other words, the road to heaven is heaven, and the road to hell is hell, and I can open my heart and soul to God's judgement each and every day. It is more than just coming events throwing their shadow. The Jesus with whom I will come face to face at death is the very same Jesus I can follow each day, and to whom I can now belong. Jesus told the apostles that those who leave all things to follow him will themselves join with him in judging 'the twelve tribes of Israel'. If we are to absorbed into Jesus, to become one with him, there must surely be a possibility that we may be involved in the judging, if only of ourselves.
In our present journey, Jesus asks us not to judge, so that we may not be judged. He speaks of those who will pass to the fullness of life, without being judged. He prays to the Father to keep them safe, and he promises them that he will come to bring them, so that where he is, they also will be. I believe the final judgement will have more to do with the proclamation of the eternal victory of Jesus, rather than the condemnation of sinners.
I said in an earlier paragraph, of course, that we will still have our free-will, that we will still be free to make choices. We can only trust his Spirit to effect such a transformation in us, that, like Mary, it would not be in our nature to rebel against God. Mary was conceived without sin. I believe, however, that, even if she were not, her humility alone would have prevented her from ever being so arrogant as to challenge the Almighty God. Sin is pride, which leads to disobedience. We can trust Jesus to have removed this weed from among the good wheat of our souls, and, in the words of an old Irish song 'we will all be gathered in the great harvest of the God'.
I already quoted another old Irish saying, meaning that 'God spoke first'. In the judgement, the final word is with Jesus. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. 'It is not the will of your heavenly Father that any of you should be lost'. Isaiah speaks of the Holy Highway that is opened up in the desert. The redeemed will walk along it, singing songs of grateful praise, and of everlasting joy, as they return to Jerusalem.' The Book of Revelations speaks of heaven as the New Jerusalem. Throughout the Bible, Jerusalem is seen as the heartland of home. Jesus leads us to that home. This is pure and total gift. It is never something that can be earned or merited. I have only one claim and that is the life, the message, and the promises of Jesus Christ. In a literal sense, I stake my salvation on those promises.
In the Acts of the Apostles, there are several lengthy discourses about Jesus, all of which is loudly proclaimed as Good News. There are normally four parts in the message thus proclaimed: The Messiah has come; you killed him; he rose from the dead; and he will return in glory at the end of time. It is evident that this final and fourth part of the message is also seen and proclaimed as good news. The return of the Jesus they had lived with, and known, was indeed very good news. It was something they longed and prayed for, and, indeed, it is abundantly evident that they hoped and expected that this would happen in their own lifetime. The very last word in the Bible is 'Maranatha, come Lord Jesus'.
I can trust the Lord, in the words of Paul, 'to complete the good work he has begun in me'. The Jesus of whom I have written in this book is not someone I fear. 'Do not be afraid' is repeated many, many times throughout the gospels. John, in his first letter, writes 'God is love, and all who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them. And, as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the Day of Judgement, but we can face him with confidence, because we are like Christ here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love drives out all fear.
If we are afraid it is because of judgement, and this shows that his love has not been perfected in us.' I accept totally that all judgement belongs to Jesus, because, as he said, the Father had given him all authority in heaven and on earth. From what I know of Jesus, and because of my trust in his love, I will willingly present myself before him, knowing that, at the end of the day, it is all total gift. I certainly would much prefer to be judged by Jesus than by people! Because of the burdens of guilt and self-condemnation I have laid on myself along the road of life, I have no reason to even trust myself! I will end this by making my own that final cry of the Bible Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.