Mercy, Humility, & Hell-Fire

Mercy as concern for the other is prominent in Jesus’ Judgment

Last Sunday’s Gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King is Matthew’s Last Judgment account. I have to admit I’m partial to that text because, prior to the 1969 Calendar Reform that inserted Christ the King as the last Sunday of the liturgical year, there was a kind of eschatological continuity between the final weeks of Ordinary Time and the first weeks of Advent. While putting the Solemnity there makes sense—the “Kingdom” is not a thing but a Person, and the Last Day will bring us into either relationship with or alienation from that Person—the eschatological sense of the text is somewhat diluted by the readings that the reformers of the Lectionary chose for the feast. The Gospel for Christ the King in Year A (this year) was Matthew’s account of the Last Judgment. Years B and C are Passion-related. (Of course, their argument would probably be that Christ’s Kingship must be understood in conjunction with His Passion, an understanding at odds with Jewish Messianic expectations with which Jesus had to struggle to get His Apostles to give up.)

There are three themes worth considering in last Sunday’s Gospel that rarely get addressed. Two are virtue-related: mercy and humility. One is hellfire-related.

Mercy as concern for the other is prominent in Jesus’ Judgment. The sheep and goats—the good and evil—are separated. Each, then, is judged on the basis of the corporal works of mercy (minus “bury the dead”). The practicality of love expressed as mercy is emphasized by repetition of those deeds four times: twice by Jesus, who judges according to one’s attention to or neglect of them, twice by the humans judged, who inquire about the Lord’s Judgment.

Here, in fact, we see the intersection of all the virtues. Love of God involves love of one’s neighbor: one cannot love the God one cannot see and ignore the neighbor one can (I John 4:20). Faith requires the good works of love of neighbor. What kind of faith is it that leaves the neighbor bereft of practical assistance while wishing him good luck (James 2:16)? Here, we even see the fulfillment of Jesus’ own promise that a glass of cold water will not be forgotten (Mt 10:42).

While Jesus emphasizes the virtue of mercy driven by fraternal charity, he also touches on humility. After pronouncing judgment on the sheep and goats, the recipients of that judgment question the Lord. But, while superficially their inquiries look similar, they are worlds apart.

The just are motivated by humility. Has the Lord been too generous to us? When have we done all the things to Him that He praises us for? All we did was give some food to a hungry person, a drink to a laborer on a hot day, some old clothes to a homeless person, stopped by a nursing home or hospital every now and then. What’s the big deal? In humility, they seem to think that what they did was “normal” or perhaps “not very important.” But the God who rewards ice-cold drinks doesn’t forget.

The evil are motivated by self-justification. If we had seen Jesus hungry, we would have fed Him. If He was thirsty, we certainly would have given Him the choicest beverages. If He was naked, we would have decked Him in choicest raiment. Etcetera. But we never saw Him, so how is He blaming us for negligence?

As Fr. George Rutler once observed, a defining characteristic of the damned is speaking in the subjunctive: “If” this and that. Dante captures this well in Inferno, canto V, when two damned carnal souls address him: “If the King of the Universe were a friend…”

The King of the Universe is a friend, but the damned want that universe known on their terms of good and evil, a temptation from Eden that finds its last echo on the Last Day in the self-justifying complaint of the goats whose “charity” might encompass Christ but not necessarily His brethren. Theirs is not humility. The humble sheep, though they did important things, do not exalt them. The proud goats feel aggrieved, swindled for being blamed that their charity was narrow and so are cheated out of beatitude, which must clearly mean God is unjust.

Finally, a remark on hellfire: Upon pronouncing condemnation on the goats, Jesus sends them off “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Hell is presented as the state and consequence of the rebellion of Satan and his minions. Their rejection of Love could only have that outcome because, as the Psalmist asks, “where can I hide from Your love?” (Ps 139:7). Indeed, hell is the contorted state of the vain quest of trying to find some place within creation where God is not present. We can either be warmed by love or burned by it, but the Divine Ardor cannot be quenched (Song of Songs 8:7).

God clearly did not “prepare” hell for man, any more than He made death for him (Wis 1:13). God created man for Himself, for relationship with Him. It is when man sought to be independent of relationship with God, to be “un-Godly,” that he made himself a sharer with Satan’s fate. No being is so autonomous, so capable of “defining the meaning of the universe” as to carve out a part of that created universe from which God is excluded. It is the “ungodly” – whether angelic or human – who “brought death on themselves by the things they have said and done (v. 16). Bizarrely, “they yearn for death as if it was a friend” (v. 16) but, of course, such is the mystery of evil.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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