Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Good News about Judgment Day

First, if you're reading this, the good news is that Judgment Day has not yet arrived, so you have time to prepare for it! This spiritual readiness is something that Jesus was not embarrassed to call us to. In fact, if you have been paying attention to the daily Gospels for the last several weeks, you may have noticed that Jesus seems to have insisted a bit on being ready for Judgment Day. It's the theme of several of his punchiest parables —the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the servants on call for the master's return (from, significantly, a wedding)—and unusual images (the sudden onset of labor pains; the Son of Man as "thief in the night"). "Be ready, for you do not know the day or the hour when your Lord will come" (cf. Mt 25:13).

So we have time, at least today, to prepare to meet the Lord. And that is an enormous grace.

In the powerful parable that inspired Michelangelo's Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46), the Son of Man comes "in his glory" and "all the nations are gathered before him, and he will separate them from one another..." using the most simple criteria of all: How did each person treat "the least" of Christ's brothers and sisters? "You did it for me... you did not do it for me." Fortunately for most of us life itself offers plenty of opportunities serve Jesus in tiny, ingloriously daily ways.

In the words of the parable, "all the nations" will face the same test. There may be a hint here that the test of salvation is not credal faith but concrete love, and that this is the criterion for "the nations", in other words, the Gentiles, those outside the covenants. Souls will not be subjected to an exotic review of regulations or graded on ability to maintain a perfect score when it comes to Sunday Mass or nine First Fridays. These are genuinely worthwhile sacred commitments, and in the case of Sunday Mass a serious obligation for all Catholics, but if they do not stir us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, or care for the sick we will be told to take the last place (if that) and watch the procession of the charitable "enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy" (Is 55:11).

Thankfully, since Judgment Day has not yet dawned we have time to take the lesson to heart and let the grace of the sacraments we receive transform us into recognizable images of Jesus.
*Based on his early life, nobody could have predicted this.

But that is not the only "good news" I want to write about. The really good news about Judgment Day is that God only judges us when our story is complete. He does not halt us at random points on the journey of life to issue a "Pass/Fail." He knows that the one who at first vociferously rejected his message or mocked his commandments may turn out to be the most passionately devoted of all believers, maybe even martyrs. (History certainly offers many surprising examples.*)

That does not mean that any and all sorts of judgment are out of place. We cannot write anyone off (that would be judgmental indeed!), but that does not mean we cannot use good prudential judgment when it comes to how we deal with a person whose behavior can be problematic. It would be irresponsible, for example, to get in a car driven by a person who is habitually reckless or who often drinks to excess. In such a case, we are not judging the person, but the behavior. Personally, I would not have gone to a dinner party with the unconverted Charles de Foucauld; that might have been the 19th century version of a date with Harvey Weinstein. On the basis of the person's habitual behavior, I would make the prudential judgment that it would not be wise to stand too close. How he stands before God is known to God alone, who sees the whole arc of the person's life. Even for Harvey Weinstein and company, that is sacred ground upon which we dare not tread.

The Apostle Paul seems to have regularly found himself on the receiving end of negative judgments and downright cattiness, especially on the part of the Corinthians. Were they making acceptable prudential judgments?

In Paul's case, the Corinthians were evaluating his ministry on the basis of superficialities: his less-than-impressive physical presence, his unsophisticated rhetorical style, even his refusal to accept monetary compensation for his preaching... From these, they wrote Paul off as a non-accredited wanna-be apostle. Their propensity to judge on the basis of externals made the Corinthians gullible to all sorts of false teachings, as long as these were presented by persons with the right kind of style. (The debonair Charles de Foucauld would have found an enthusiastic welcome among them.)

Finally Paul had to remind the Corinthians, "Judge nothing before the appointed time, when the Lord comes"; "the one who judges me is the Lord" (1 Cor 4:5, 4). That means that any definitive sort of judgment issued during this life is ultimately "rash judgment," not only because we can never know another person's interior dispositions (degree of knowledge, freedom, etc.), but because God already sees how this particular moment of his, her or my life can work mysteriously for the good. Indeed, our belief in Providence is that God makes all things work out for his greater glory.

And that is Good News!

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