Students of Scripture know that Jesus preached more than 40 parables. Some of these thematic tales, like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, are rather lengthy. Others, like the Pearl of Great Price and the Treasure Hidden in the Field, are quite brief.
During this season of the liturgical year, the Service of the Word at Sunday Mass begins to proclaim those parables that focus on the eschatological conclusion to salvation history, that is, the end of the world, the general judgment. Recall the workers who had to account for the 10, five or single gold coins entrusted to them until the master would return. Remember the happy lot of the leprous Lazarus and the sad plight of his wealthy neighbor. Consider the fig tree that was cursed because it bore no fruit. Do not forget those alert servants who minded their business until their employer arrived home. Ponder the five prepared virgins who were all set for the ultimate wedding feast and the mindless virgins who found the door barred. Do not overlook the guest without the wedding garment who was tossed into the street. And, of course, Christ’s most celebrated end of the world narrative is undoubtedly the parable of the sheep and the goats, the former being warmly welcomed, the latter being harshly dismissed.
In spite of this legacy of warnings about the gravity of the end times, the prospect of final judgment and any thought of ultimate justice have almost disappeared from the modern Christian mind. Saturday afternoon lines at the confessional are a vague memory. Funeral liturgies have devolved into celebrations of life during which the deceased’s flairs are praised, flaws are ignored and faith is immaterial. A good number of Catholics unashamedly deny the existence of hell, citing the seeming incompatibility of God’s infinite mercy with eternal damnation. This contemporary indifference to the moral nature of the universe contrasts greatly with the liturgical, devotional and catechetical experience that most of our ancestors in the faith endured. Death, judgment, heaven and hell were very real prospects for most, perhaps all, previous generations of believers.
Until recently the Catholic faithful were not spared the thought of judgment and justice even at the tenderest moments. It might be helpful for latter day Catholics to ponder briefly the chilling prospects that our grandparents and great-grandparents faced when a loved one passed on. The old offertory hymn at a Requiem Mass read in part: O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory: deliver the souls of all the faithful dead from the pains of hell and from the deep pit; deliver them from the mouth of the lion; that hell may not swallow them, and that they may not fall into darkness.
The Rite of Commendation included these words: Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that awful day, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved, when you will come to judge the world by fire. I tremble, and I fear the judgment and the wrath to come, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved. The day of wrath, that day of calamity and misery; a great and bitter day, indeed. Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that awful day. Deliver me, O Lord, when the heavens and the earth shall be moved, when you will come to judge the world by fire. Standing at the coffin, the priest prayed: O God, great and all knowing, all powerful judge of the living and the dead, before whom we are all to appear after this short life, to render an account of all we have thought, said, and done, let our hearts be deeply moved at this sight of death, and let us be mindful of our own frailty and mortality. Let us always walk in your wisdom and in obedience to your commandments with your help so that when we ourselves depart this world we may experience a merciful judgment and rejoice in everlasting happiness. After a pause, he added: Enter not into judgment with your servant, O Lord, for in your sight no man is justified, unless you pardon all his sins. Let not, therefore, we beseech you, the hand of your justice be heavy upon him whom the earnest prayer of Christian faith commends to you, but by the help of your grace may he escape the just judgment and punishment which he may deserve.
It is little wonder that the Apostles in this Sunday’s Gospel ask Jesus whether those to be saved are few in number. The certainty of judgment and the inevitability of justice were real for the early disciples and for most generations of Christians as indeed they should be for us!