Metropolitan  Anthony  of  Sourozh
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
(Matthew 25.31-46)

For some unaccountable reason this parable is quoted more than any other as an image of the judgement, a statement about its hopeless finality. Yet it tells us something essential, not about dying and doom or salvation, but about living: neither the sinners nor the just are asked anything by God about their convictions or their ritual observances; all the Lord appraises is the degree to which they have been human: 'I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.' Being human requires, however, imagination, a sense of humour and of occasion, and a realistic and loving concern for the true needs and wishes of the object — or shall we say the victim — of our care. Here is a story from the lives of the Desert Fathers to illustrate this point. After a full, brilliant social and political life at the court of Byzantium, St Arsenius retired into the desert of Egypt, seeking for complete solitude and contemplative silence. A lady of the court, who had been a great admirer of his, sought him out in the wilderness. She fell at his feet. 'Father', she exclaimed, 'I have undertaken this perilous journey to see you and hear from you just one commandment which I vow to keep all my life!' 'If you truly pledge yourself never to disobey my will, here is my commandment: If you ever hear that I am in one place, go to another!' Is not this what many would say to all those do-gooders whose virtue they are doomed to endure?

To me, the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats, is this: if you have been truly and wisely human, you are ready to enter into the divine realm, to share what is God's own, as Eternal Life is nothing else than God's own life shared by him with his creatures. 'Having been faithful in little things, we shall be given great ones'; having been worthy of the earth, we shall be capable of living the life of Heaven, partaking of the nature of God, filled with his Spirit. If we be good stewards in what was not our own (all the gifts of God) we shall come into what is our own, as is so powerfully shown in the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16.1-12).

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God's and people's love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to receive it, to accept it.

All too often forgiveness is offered, but we recoil from it: to our pride forgiveness sounds like an ultimate humiliation, and we try to eschew it by putting on false humility: 'I cannot forgive myself for what I have done, how could I accept to be forgiven. I appreciate your goodness, but my conscience is too exacting, too sensitive for me to take advantage of your kindness', and it is words like 'kindness' we would use, to make the gift which is proffered as insignificant as possible and our refusal as frustrating as we possibly can for our generous friend. Of course, we cannot, we should never forgive ourselves! It would be monstrous if we could; it would simply mean that we take very, very lightly the blow which we have dealt, the wound which we have inflicted, the pain, the misery, the hurt which we have caused. (And, alas! we do this whenever we are impatient at the sight of someone whom we have hurt and who seems to be pained 'beyond measure'. 'How long are you going to sulk? oh, stop crying! Have I not already said to you that I am sorry; what else do you want ?' Such phrases mean, if translated into plain speech: 'I have forgiven myself long ago; how much more am I going to wait for you to forgive me?'). God forbid that we should ever be able to forgive ourselves, but we must learn both never to allow this to happen and also to accept, to receive the free gift of another's pardon. To refuse to do so is tantamount to saying, 'I do not really believe that love blots out all sins, neither do I trust in your love.' We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and love divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power.

One should not expect to be forgiven because one has changed for the better; neither should one make such change a condition for forgiving other people; it is only because one is forgiven, one is loved, that one can begin to change, not the other way round. And this we should never forget, although we always do. Also we must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, but they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory.

True forgiveness begins at the moment when the victim of injustice, of cruelty, of slander accepts the offender as he is, for no other reason than the fact that he has come back, like the Prodigal Son whose father asked no questions, made no claims, set no conditions for his reintegration into the household. God's forgiveness is ours from the moment when God takes upon himself the burden and all the consequences of our fall, when the Son of God becomes the Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 52-53). It is emphatically not when we become a Saint! God has already granted forgiveness when he has said: 'I am ready to die for you: I love you.' This is also where forgiveness begins between human persons. If in a family crisis the offender simply comes back, too proud or too shy, or perhaps too cramped by fear, to say much, his redemption begins at the very moment when his family say to him: 'But we never ceased to love you; let go of your fear; we still love you — oh, the pain of it! now that you are back we shall all be healed.' And this, the person who is right can do and should do, because it is so much easier for him to do than for the person who is in the wrong; also because those who are right share with the offenders the responsibility of the rift, of the quarrel and must atone for it also. Theirs must be the first steps towards reconciliation. I remember a man of some standing who once came to see me and told me that a friend of his who claimed no small spiritual achievements had offended him: 'Who should go and make his peace with the other?' he asked. 'I cannot answer your question', I replied, 'as I cannot possibly set myself as a judge between you, but one thing is certain to me: the meanest of the two of you will wait for the other to make the move.' The great man said no word, but went forthwith to make his peace with his friend. Vanity had done what neither humility, nor wisdom, nor even simple friendship had been able to achieve. How sad . . . How different was the generous, loving, free forgiveness which the Father granted his Prodigal Son!

Yet, in neither case was forgiveness the end of all problems: in the faraway, strange country of dereliction, the rejected offender cannot but have learnt ways which are repellent to his family and friends: the smell of the swine may well still cling to the body of the Prodigal Son, and the habits of his wayward life will not vanish overnight; he will have to unlearn them gradually, possibly very slowly; he may, he is bound to have lost many of the more refined manners of his original surroundings; he will have to learn them again, slowly. And the family will be able to reintegrate, to regenerate and redeem him only to the extent to which its members will remember (not forget) his weaknesses, the flaws in his character, the bad habits acquired by him. But remember without resentment, without a feeling of superiority, without a feeling of shame, but with the pain of compassion, with that compassion which makes 'grace abound where sin is present'; with the will and a stern determination never to forget what there is that the beloved one should be shielded from — his natural frailty, his acquired weakness. Otherwise he who needs our healing and protecting help will be submitted to overwhelming temptation and become the victim of never-ending, bitter recrimination. To forgive and to put under probation are two very different things. To forgive means to accept the other 'as Christ has received us', to 'bear one another's burden' as he bears ours, simultaneously those of the victim and of the offender, loving joyfully, gratefully, the ones, loving the others sacrificially, with the joy of self-offering.

This is God's way. His Cross witnesses to his faith in mankind and in every single man, his unconquerable hope; this is his death becomes our life, and his Resurrection — Eternity itself for us.


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