It is, I believe, most fitting that the Church, in preparing us for Great Lent, follows the Sunday of the Prodigal Son immediately with the Sunday of the Last Judgment. Fitting because, like a diptych, it causes us to see the two parables together, in relation to one another, a seeing that should, perhaps, create within us a certain tension.
We don’t like tension that much. And in the American (meaning primarily Protestant) context, theologically speaking, I think it is fair to say that we abhor tension. We emphasize God’s mercy, grace, and compassion while downplaying Divine judgment. To put it plainly, we prefer the compassionate Father of the Prodigal from last Sunday to the King on His judgment throne of this Sunday.
This same tension is present in one of the most famous icons of our Lord, the Christ of Sinai (seen above). In the icon the right eye of the Lord looks at us with mercy and gentleness just as the right hand blesses. This is equivalent to the right side in the parable, the side of the sheep who inherit eternal life and the Kingdom prepared for them “from the foundation of the world.” The left eye of the Lord in the icon is stern, however, corresponding to the strictness of the Lord, searching us out, examining our thoughts, words, and deeds to see if what He finds within us corresponds to His Gospel commandments, held in His left hand.
Now, as I said, we don’t like tension that much. We would much prefer to get rid of it altogether and to just emphasize mercy and compassion, not strictness and judgment. But here’s the thing: the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats is precisely mercy and compassion - the mercy and compassion shown to Christ Himself in the person of the hungry, the poor, the naked, and the prisoner. This is the basis of the judgment in this parable. The sheep were merciful; the goats were not. The sheep showed compassion; the goats did not. The tension, then, - and we must see this - is not within God, or two different “sides” or faces of God, one strict and one compassionate. The tension is ultimately within us. It is the tension resulting from the fact that the mercy and compassion that we want from God is the mercy and compassion that we are so often hesitant to give to others, perhaps especially those we deem undeserving.
The Church, as we prepare for Great Lent, places these two parables side by side before us so that we can see that the compassionate father of the prodigal is also the hungry beggar, the naked poor man, the prisoner behind bars. We are, then, always and everywhere dealing with Christ. In seeking mercy and in showing mercy, we are dealing with Christ. The King on the judgment throne and the grubby beggar with his hand out? Both Christ. And the tension that we feel in hearing this is not a tension within God, as if there were really two sides of God, but rather a tension within us precisely because we are not yet like Him. We want from God what we don’t want to give to Him in the person of the poor.
Our lenten work is to overcome that tension through mercy, compassion, and love. May Christ our God give us mercy to show Him mercy in everyone we meet.
With love in Christ,