Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Second Last Thing

When raising me, one of the kindest things that my father did was to repeatedly remind me that one day I would stand before the Throne of Judgment and answer for everything I had done in my life. This was something he kept constantly before his own eyes, and I remember him recounting more than once how he'd faced some occasion for sin, and the knowlege of his ultimate judgment deflected him from sinning.

The concept of final judgment is so unpopular these days that it's barely mentioned. Were it not for the enforced cycle of Scriptural readings for the Liturgy, I suspect that passages pertaining to judgment would barely be heard. The image of a God who judges doesn't fit well with the preferred modern image. (This is predictable, given that "judgmentalism" is one of the few mortal sins in the modern consciousness.) Since we see ourselves as all basically good people with good intentions, what's to judge? We far prefer the image of a friendly, welcoming God who awaits us on the other side of death with a pair of spiritual slippers, a big hug, and a hearty welcome. As far as all those passages in the Old and New Testament regarding a glorious Throne, and having to answer for every casual word, and being judged according to what we have done - well, we can just interpret those away as applying to others, or maybe just avoid reading them.

This tacit avoidance speaks louder than we imagine. If we are truly so noble and guiltless - "good person" being the popular term, as in "I'm not a bad person - I'm a good person, aren't I?" - then what have we to fear from judgment? The fact that it's not an image that we find comfortable looking at or pondering makes clear that deep down we suspect that maybe we aren't such "good people" after all.

That's why one of the classic Christian meditations has been on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Thinking about judgment forces us to face the gritty reality that maybe we aren't as good as we'd like to think. My father's consistent injunction to remember the judgment had to be a fruit of this habit, and it's been helpful to me through my life. I wish I could say it had kept me nearly sinless, but that isn't true. However, when I've struggled with sin, the knowledge that I would someday answer for my actions has strengthened my resolve to fight it. I'm sure that was part of my father's intention in teaching me as he did, and I hope I did as well with my children.

One thing that does stand out about The Judgment, if you think about accounts like Matthew 25: damnation was pronounced on the basis of what wasn't done. The sins of the condemned are sins of omission - not feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, and so forth. This flies in the face of our cultural fixation on being "good people" - which is defined as not doing overtly evil actions. Apparently avoiding evil isn't good enough for a holy God - the practice of charity is what's important. The sins of the rejected in Matthew 25 - as well as the rich man who let Lazarus die at his door and earned punishment for it - was the not doing the acts which charity demanded. That really makes me think. Just when I'm patting myself on the back because I think I'm disobeying less than I was last month, the reality of judgment smacks me in the face. How well am I doing in what really counts?

That's what pondering judgment does for us, or at least for me: it helps me to judge myself, so I might make necessary changes before it's too late. That seems to be the intent of the meditation - not to create fear-paralyzed peons trembling at the imminent prospect of standing before the Throne, but to help us consider our state soberly, and adjust our lives accordingly. That's what my father did. He didn't go about each day trembling in his boots at the prospect of facing the Throne of Christ. He trusted in God's love and forgiveness. But he never forgot what he'd have to answer for, and tried to live so as to have to answer for as little as possible.

I'm trying to do the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good post, thanks