“I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE; no one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). The incarnate Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the only one through whom we have access to God, to live the divine life in this world and in the age to come. Many Christians take this to mean that, unless one is explicitly a believer in Christ, he cannot be saved. What, then, of those who have never heard of Christ? What is to become of them?
The Lord gives us the answer in His parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46). Here, we are told, that when the Son of Man comes in his glory “all the nations will be gathered before Him” (v. 32). “The nations” here translates the Greek term ta ethnē, which in the Scriptures generally refers to the Gentiles, those who are not Jews. Jesus’ hearers would know that those being judged here are the Gentiles, the mass of peoples who were not believers in the God of Israel.
The Lord’s teaching about true believers is recorded in Jn 5:24: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” Those who have put on Christ and live in communion with God through Him already share in the divine life. Those who maintain their union with Christ will continue in that life after death.
In Matthew’s parable Jesus is speaking about the judgment of nonbelievers. People are separated, some on the right and others on the left. Those on the right are described as righteous because they fed, clothed or welcomed Christ; those on the left are condemned because they did not. Neither group recognized Him, but those on the right simply did to the least what they thought was right. And for this they were proclaimed as “blessed of my Father” (v. 34).
In light of this parable the Church’s teaching has been that those who do not know Christ yet follow their conscience in doing good to their fellow-man are blessed. As the Fathers of Vatican II declared, “For they who without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation” (Lumen gentium #16).
People who seek to close heaven to nonbelievers often quote the risen Jesus’ words on sending forth the apostles: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16). Those who hear the gospel preached to them have the opportunity to accept or reject it.
What about those who have rejected a distorted image of God, perhaps gained second-hand from a negative experience in the Church? Are they truly rejecting Christ? Today there are many baptized who have lost their faith. Some have even requested that their names be removed from the baptismal register, “the Book of Life” (Byzantine baptismal rite). Are they condemned?
Whatever their fate on the last day, it is not for us to condemn them! We may the reason they lost their faith! The anonymous author of the fifth-century Incomplete Commentary on Matthew writes, “Just as someone who is wearing splendid clothing avoids every filthy object lest it by chance get dirty, so everyone who receives God in his heart and spirit ought to be careful so that he does not contaminate God, knowing that if God has been contaminated among us, He will remain uncontaminated in His own nature” (Homily 14). The God rejected by many is one “contaminated” because of our actions. If anything we should pray for those who have rejected Christ as well as for those who have never known Him.
The Parable and Us
If feeding the hungry is so important that it saves people who never knew Christ, what can it do for us? Among other things, it can help free us from the grip of materialism so prevalent in our consumer society today. We “must” have the latest, the fastest, the most attractive – otherwise we have somehow failed. If nothing else, feeding others takes us out of ourselves and connects us with others in a very basic way. And, according to the Gospel, it joins us to Christ Himself.
The life of Christians who take this parable seriously is very different from that of those who are in the thrall of greed. Recently a New Orleans couple was thinking of adopting a disabled newborn. They told a local reporter, that the “reasons against” column was the longer; the “reasons for” were shorter. But it was topped, Royanne said, by the scriptural injunction in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Catherine Doherty, the late founder of the Madonna House communities was raised in Russia before the Communist takeover. She describes how this parable was lived in her home:
“My father was in the diplomatic service, so he entertained all the diplomatic corps at our home in Petrograd one evening. Big deal: tea and wonderful trays of cakes, and 250 people. Suddenly the butler opened the door and said, ‘Christ at the door, sir.’ Well, the French ambassador’s wife dropped her cup; she had never heard anything like that.
“My father and mother excused themselves from the 250 VIPs and walked into the next room. There they found a wino at the door. My father bowed low to him and opened the door. My mother set the table with the best linen and served him herself with my father’s help.”
Catherine herself was about nine at the time and recalls asking, “Mommy, can I serve the gentleman?” Her mother replied, No, you were disobedient last week; you can’t serve Christ when you are disobedient.”
“Now that’s my background,” Catherine wrote in her autobiography. “That’s how we were taught.”
Acting in the spirit of this parable need not be so courageous. In his 57th homily on Matthew St John Chrysostom notes that we are not asked for much. “Mark how easy are His injunctions. He did not say, ‘I was in prison, and you set me free; I was sick, and you raised me up again;’ but, ‘you visited me,’ and, ‘ye came unto me.’” Making sandwiches for a homeless shelter or delivering meals to an elderly neighbor are not monumental or heroic actions, but they can number us among the blessed if done in the spirit of Christ.
Almsgiving along with prayer and fasting in a spirit of repentance are the mileposts on our Lenten journey to Pascha. The spirit in which we fulfill them shows us how close we are to living the life of Christ in our world… or how far.