“”...For a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask of the Lord.”
Years ago, a neighbor visiting a parishioner’s home noticed our parish bulletin hanging on the fridge. The bulletin cover declared in bold letters, “Sunday of the Last Judgment.” Fascinated and somewhat troubled by the reference, the neighbor asked, “how do you know?”
Our annual liturgical preparation for Great Lent includes the reading of the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25). We should know, reflect upon and strive to apply the parable’s lessons to our Christian lives, individually and corporately. Indeed our ministry to others, including “the least of the brethren” with whom Christ identifies Himself, is essential to the mission of the Church.
Great Lent clearly and relentlessly drives home the challenge of Christian ministry. And as our “school of repentance,” the Church teaches us that true repentance begins not merely with a self-examination that itemizes our sins but assesses our motivation by discerning what exactly it is that provokes sin in our lives.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we can likely echo the words of Saint Paul as he confessed, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). This is a convenient excuse suggesting that we are without self-control—which, by the way, is one of the fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22,23). It means that though our intentions may be good, there’s something within us that incites us to do otherwise—like obeying the devil’s voice whispering in our ear. But can this be a valid argument for our “good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ”?
Why, then, do we appear to insist that there are many ways to justify our sins, that there are numerous extraneous forces that cause us to sin? Why shouldn’t Almighty God cut us as much slack as the American legal system? We could even cite a number of contemporary precedents in our appeals to defend ourselves.
We could use the “insanity defense.” We sin because we’ve lost good sense and have become rather fond of acting foolishly. This defense is an ancient one. Saint Anthony the Great said, “the time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will rise up against him, saying that you are mad, because you are not like them” (Saying 25).
We could use the improbable “Twinkie Defense,” a term coined by the media suggesting that a defendant suffers diminished capacity as a result of depression caused by increased consumption of unhealthy and sugary foods. We sin because we eat poorly, get depressed and take out our aggression against others. (Doesn’t fasting help overcome this?)
We could use the more recent “Affluenza Defense”—basically an updated version of the parable of the rich fool (see Luke 12:16+). It’s defined as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more” and refers to “an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of financial privilege.” We sin because, in chasing the American dream, we invariably use and abuse people and stuff without a hint of remorse.
A “dream team” of lawyers could go a long way in presenting our defense, right!? Not! There are only two possible options in Christ’s judgment of each of us, as He reveals in Matthew 25:31-46. There’s either sheep or goats, right hand or left hand, eternal punishment or eternal life. There’s nothing in between and no recourse to endless appeals. As we sing in one of the pre-Lenten hymns, “No cunning argument or skill in eloquence can deceive Thy judgment seat. False witnesses cannot pervert Thy sentence, for in Thy sight, O God, every secret stands revealed!” Case closed. This is how God’s justice will ultimately prevail.
What we need to do—what Great Lent especially seeks to inspire us to do—is to strengthen our will and (re)gain self control. This is essentially the aim of all the extra prayer, worship, fasting and almsgiving of Great Lent. Yes, our focal point is always Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Yes, our focus in Lent is His voluntarily laying down His life on the Cross for the life of the world and its salvation. And yes, we believe “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
Having thus testified to what we believe, however, incites the question: “What must I do?” Matthew 25 provides a checklist answer and, who knows—it may also be used as a “sacred scorecard.” Rather than try to justify and defend our sins, our resources would be better invested in ministering to Christ through others.
Remember the adage: “The best defense is a good offense.”