Orthodox Christian




W H E N Thou, O God, wilt come to earth with glory, and all things tremble, and the river of fire floweth before the Judgment Seat, and the books are opened and the hidden things made public, then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and deem me worthy to stand at Thy right hand, O most righteous Judge.

(1 Cor 8:8-9:2, Matt. 25:31-46)

Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther

Today’s epistle reading comes out of advice given to new Christians who had asked whether they should take part in banquets held by heathens in their temples.  Paul is concerned to show that freedom has responsibilities.  The question is not just whether or not we may eat food which may be from a non-Christian source, but how we make our choices generally.  Eating sacrificial food  - as opposed to praying with heathens – is a matter for careful thought: 

‘Food… cannot bring us in touch with God: we lose nothing if we refuse to eat, we gain nothing if we eat.  Only be careful that you do not make use of this freedom in a way that proves a pitfall for the weak.’  

Paul is asking what effect the activity may have on a Christian – or indeed a heathen – who may not understand what is being done:

‘his own conscience  … may encourage him to eat food which has been offered to idols.  In this way your knowledge could become the ruin of someone weak.’  If your example leads to the bad choices of others, you may cause them to sin; and ‘it would be Christ against whom you sinned.’  

So Paul adds – with his usual strictness – 

‘That is why, since food can be the occasion of my brother’s downfall, I shall never eat meat again…’  

The point is that love  - agape - must be the criterion for our choices. 

But Paul then moves to the statement of his apostleship. 

‘I, personally, am free: I am an apostle and I have seen Jesus our Lord.  You are all my work in the Lord.  Even if I were not an apostle to others, I should still be an apostle to you who are the seal of my apostolate in the Lord.’   

Paul claims that his ministry to the new Christians of Corinth and his witness before the whole community of Corinth – Christian and heathen – proves that he is an apostle, taking Christ into the corners of the earth, and the value of his work with the Corinthian Christians is the proof of that fact.  Even a small number of Christians can be the Church, and the teaching which their priest gives to them may prove his priesthood just as much as his teaching to a large congregation.  The life in Christ is a matter of quality; it is quality, not quantity, which matters.  It is not so much a question whether we fast on Wednesday and Friday but whether our control of our habits makes us better Christians. 


Today’s gospel reading brings to mind the Old Testament idea of the end of life. The final joy comes from the Father and fulfils his purpose.  The curse was never intended to be man’s reward.  Like the two parables before this one in Matt. 25, there is in this a division, with one group being rewarded, and the other being punished.  The criterion is this: has a person shown mercy to those who are in need?  In Matthew, Jesus is shown raising the question of righteousness – living a good life in faith and with mercy.  He has said that unless people are more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven (5: 20).  He has said that this quality of life is shown by actions, not words (7: 20).  He has said that the Son of Man will repay all for their actions (16: 27).  He has made clear that it is not the conduct which the Pharisee emphasized when he prayed in the Temple – keeping the formal rules of religion – but the purpose of those rules, the spirit within those rules, and the spirit of the man himself.  Is the believer truly loving: merciful, big-hearted (9:13; 12: 7)?  Do we show mercy to the powerless – and do we show mercy therefore to Jesus in those around us?  If we do, we show mercy to Jesus himself (18:5). 

There is a magnificent picture, a king’s banquet.  The sheep are separated from the goats.  We are the ‘rational sheep, the reason-endowed sheep’ and the idea is that sheep are really more productive than goats.  Sheep choose grass, but goats devour everything. They are worth less and they damage more. They make deserts out of lands where plants need to be developed if they are to sustain life and the soil itself.  So we are not meant to be destructive consumers, but producers of value; and the great thing is to give a human response to those who are cut off from human kindness. 

The king will give the heritage of the kingdom to those who have been the reason-endowed sheep. 

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’  

The gospel goes on to say that ‘the virtuous will say to him in reply, 

“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” 

And the King will answer, 

“I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me”.’ 

The reading adds that the goats – the greedy ones – will be told “in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me”.  And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.’ 

Christians ought to care for their brothers and sisters, and to act productively: producing benefits for those who are in need, and strengthening them by example as well as by material contributions.  The God who comes out of Jesus’ teaching is the God of righteousness, for whom love is the fulfillment of laws and prophecies.  And at the end of our life, it will still be the one fact which makes the difference. Not have we been powerful and famous, but have we been loving? If we are good, we act with loving kindness, and thus we show Christ Incarnate among us: suffering with us, suffering for us, redeeming us by love. 

So important is it to see Christ in others, that the next chapter of Matthew begins with these words: ‘Jesus had now finished all he wanted to say…’ For us as we approach Lent, the Last Judgement is also the first one we must make.  Will we be merciful and show mercy?  Will we discipline our heart to love?  When we begin the Creed, the deacon calls to us ‘ Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess…’ And the people replies ‘The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity, One in essence and undivided.  May our faith indeed be integrated through love.  For if it is not, we cannot produce value and transfer value to the world; and we cannot be Orthodox Christians to the only standard which matters – our life in Christ. 

© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.

2 March 2003

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