In last Sunday's Old Testament lesson, from the prophet Isaiah, we heard the familiar sentences, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, / neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. / For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways/and my thoughts than your thoughts." This morning our Old Testament lesson, from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, takes up the same theme, but with a different meaning and outcome. To be sure, God's ways are accounted to be different from those of humankind, but instead of being reverenced as higher, they are execrated as being lower. God's ways, the House of Israel says, are not just. To say that God is not just, which is closely related to the charge that God is not righteous, is akin to saying that He is a fraud and a sham, for a divine attribute is perfection in justice. Let us remember that the highest honor that can be bestowed by the people Israel is that a man or a woman is "righteous." Yet, as the scene opens in our reading, we find the house of Israel demanding, of all things, justice .... from God! They cry out for their day in court. And so our attention turns to the courtroom. The plaintiff turns out to be God's people, and the defendant turns out to be God.
God replies to this charge by rehearsing elementary case law:
"When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it;
for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die. Again, when a wicked man turns away from
the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life."
"Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.
Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and
get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?
For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God;
so turn, and live."
We are reminded of Festus, the Procurator of Judea, who succeeded Felix. He would have released St. Paul from prison preferring no charges against him, yet Paul demanded to be tried before Caesar:
Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered,
"You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go" (Acts 25:12)
I recall a professor of medieval literature during my college years who told the class that the final exam would be comprehensive, that it would cover all thirteen weeks of the semester (at which a few groans were heard). But, he said, should your score an "A" in the final exam, then you have earned an "A" for the course. This is a course in medieval literature," he explained, "not an obstacle course. I just want you to know that you have mastered the material. I am not concerned about quizzes along the way, or whether you had a bad day or two. All I care about is that you understand this subject."
What we hear in our passage from Ezekiel would be equivalent to a student from that same class objecting: "Oh, no! I think your quizzes have been unfair! I want a strict accounting of every grade during the semester!" Yet, God, like my charitable professor, is want to rise above the details, caring only about the main subject, which is life and happiness with Him. But the House of Israel seems to be wholly fastened upon fine points of law, not a more general view of life. God's reply — "I will judge you!" — in that sense, is decided by Israel, not by God: "If it is strict accounting you that want, then strict accounting you shall have." And here we recall the words of Jesus: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again" (Mt 7:2).
In this imaginary courtroom,
a great mystery opens before us:
that mysteriously we set the terms of our own judgment.
The judgment with which we judge shall be applied to ourselves.
Why, the Final Judgment,
as God makes clear to the House of Israel
as Jesus repeatedly makes clear throughout the Gospels.
if each of us shall be judged according to our own terms,
then it follows from this that each of us will be judged
in a different Final Judgment.
It would be as if each student in my medieval literature class sat for a different final exam.
Upon hearing this, no doubt various would students would cry out,
"That's not fair!"
setting up a harmony with the House of Israel.
For that is their charge:
God is not fair.
Let us swim out into the deepest waters this morning, out where we find phrases like "Last Four Things." St. Philip Neri wrote that "Beginners in religion ought to exercise themselves principally in meditation on the Four Last Things." So there is warrant enough for our swimming far out beyond the usual ropes and lifeguard restrictions. Our swim, indeed, has already begun.
The first meditation is that the Last Judgment is not a General Exam, but rather an individual and intimate experience. There will be no vast crowds of people, both living and dead, standing in wait; no noisy herding of sheep and goats. There will be no tribunal of murmuring officials staring at us as we stand in attention before the rail of justice, with the great Judge Christ presiding. No. Each of us will be alone with the Lord Jesus in the greatest intimacy we can possibly imagine.
And this realization gives rise to the second meditation, which is when all this will happen. To answer this, we must remember that God does not dwell inside time. He is eternal. God sees all points of time simultaneously. For Him the End of the Age has already taken place. And our Last Judgment, individual as it is, will occur for each of us at our death.
At this point in our several meditations, we are able to solve a longtime riddle. If we are all to sleep in our graves until the Last Judgment, then how are we able to bid the prayers of our blessed loved ones who have gone to the greater life? How are we able to petition the saints who are already in light? How might we experience a visitation from a family member who has already gone to Heaven? The answer is that, like Lazarus the beggar who is ensconced in the Bosom of Abraham, we are judged at our death because the sequential timeline that bound us on earth has vanished.
The third meditation we have already considered this morning: the the kinds of questions that will arise are set by each of us, not by God. In fact, every day of our lives we have been establishing the questions that will be asked and the subjects that will confront us.
The final meditation is by the far the most startling: we will be our own judge. I hope that we are not entirely startled, for our readings today prepare us for this unusual, yet to-be-expected, reality. Perhaps it will help to remember that Heaven and Hell are not places, but rather states of being. And contrary to the beliefs of many of the faithful, Purgatory is not a duration or a place, much less a prison camp where one pays his or her debt to society. It too is a state of being.
The great theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar — in my opinion, one of the two greatest theologians of the twentieth century (along with Pope Benedict XVI) — said that at our death, we will look in the face of the Lord Jesus, and there we will see our lives in every significant detail. He alone knows the whole truth about us, for, sadly, we are inclined to lie to ourselves. He alone loves us with a perfect love. Perfect love; perfect vision; perfect recollection; perfect justice. Seeing ourselves as we really are — no longer filtered or colored or embellished by our rationalizations and justifying narratives. This blinding clarity, Balthasar writes, is a consuming, purging fire. Here is the state of purgation. To see ourselves in this perfect clarity, which could only be possible in the face of God, we will be humbled, even mortified. And if, at this moment of mortification, we are truly contrite, then we open the door to life, to the life God has always set before us, even from our birth. It is, and has been all along, His kind of life, His rule of life, His holiness. And we are free at this moment to make it our own, to be free of the past, free from the prisonhouse we have built from the heavy stones of our past wrong choices and regrets.
Like the thief on the crucified Christ's right hand, we have the opportunity to own the state of our life, no longer hiding secrets and dissembling, no longer pretending to soundness and wholeness, but desiring now only clarity and honesty and accuracy — to be near to God Who alone is whole. Taking this opportunity, we enter into Paradise, "this day," as the Lord Jesus promises. If, however, we are prideful and insolent, stubborn in our lies and continuing in pridefulness and pretense, like the crucified thief on Jesus' left, we shall die for our iniquity, (to borrow the words from our passage in Ezekiel).
But we must read these words very slowly and carefully, lest we we misunderstand. In the end, this judgment is entirely ours, on our terms. It is not about being punished for things we did. It is about who we are. So close upon Michaelmas (this past Friday), let us consider this: God made only two orders of creatures that are moral and, therefore, have the freedom to choose between good and bad. All the other creatures are sub-moral, if you will. They cannot distinguish moral life. Theirs is a food-chain existence. Only humankind and angels have received the gift of moral life and of freedom. And the situation of the angels stands as an important cautionary tale for us.
You see, some angels chose to love and serve God, to embrace His commands and to walk in His holy ways. They are Heaven. For Heaven is not a place to which they have gained entrance. Heaven is themselves and all who are like them. It is a state of being, a fellowship, if you will. By contrast, the angels who decided, like the House of Israel or like Eve, that they preferred to do things their way, to establish their own justice (which is the what the forbidden fruit signifies) and to order the world according to their values, these angels are Hell. Their minds, their spirits, their lives are an unending Hell, eternally separated from God.
The Last Four Things are as simple, and as profound, as that. The great question is who are we? Or as Jesus asks, "Who do you say that I am?" If you are able to see Him, to see His identity, His reality, to be right there with Him on His wavelength, then you are in His fellowship. If you do not see Him, though He has given His angels charge over you all of your life, though He has knocked upon the door of your heart night and day, then perhaps you will, in your selfish fog, stumble into the catastrophe of crucifying God.
The words, "You shall die for your iniquity," mean that the life divorced from God, which one that is freely chosen, already is what it is — a living death. Not a penalty, not a later outcome, but a living, breathing state of being. If this is our choice, then this is our state of being, our element, our fellowship, our identity, our eternal home.
God invites us to be with Him,
now and every day,
to love His kind of life and to walk in His holy paths.
He enjoins all of us,
Forget all that is past!
Start a new life!
If we have embraced the culture of death,
together with its habits of mind, lifestyle, and way of being,
be assured that all of this will fade.
as the the prophet Isaiah would say.
Or as Ezekiel has said,
"I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God;
so turn, and live" (Ez 18:32).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.