Today’s scripture readings provide us with two apparently different conclusions. The first reading from the Book of Exodus concludes with the installation of the tabernacle. It would henceforth be in this place that God would specially meet His people. It would be at the Tabernacle that His presence would be felt strongly. “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because of the cloud that rested on it and because of the glory of the Lord that filled the tabernacle.” It would also be the way the Lord would guide His people for the rest of the journey through the desert. “At every stage of their journey, whenever the cloud rose from the tabernacle the sons of Israel would resume their march. If the cloud did not rise, they waited and would not march until it did.”
In the gospel too, we have another conclusion to the parables of the Kingdom of God. In the structure of St Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5-7, we have the Sermon on the Mount which presents the perfect ideal of the Kingdom of God. Chapters 8-10 concretize the kingdom of God in the miracles performed by Jesus, and chapters 11-13 expound on the hidden nature of the kingdom by means of parables. Appropriately, the end sums up the message of judgment illustrated in the parable of the dragnet, where the good would then be separated from the bad. After judgment, those not found worthy of the kingdom would be cast “into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”
At first glance, perhaps, we do not see the close connection between these two endings. Yet, both are very much related to the presence and the reign of God. The presence of God that filled the Tabernacle was a local presence in a place. The reign of God that Jesus preached in the New Covenant is not located in a place but in the hearts of all men and women. Whenever God reigns in our hearts, there God is present. There will be joy and freedom for those who live under the New Law of the Kingdom, because we have God ruling our lives. Unlike the Law of the Old Covenant, the New Law as summed up by the Sermon on the Mount goes beyond the Mosaic Law. It spells out the true spirit of the laws given to us.
In a real sense therefore, the kingdom of God is already present in different degrees in us whenever we open ourselves to the grace of the Kingdom. So the expectation of the kingdom cannot be relegated to the end of time. Rather, at every moment of our lives, we are either rejecting the life of the kingdom or living under the Spirit of the Kingdom. When we see the end of the kingdom in this perspective then the final judgment is not something to be feared but to be longed for. If we find ourselves fearful of the judgment as portrayed in today’s gospel, it is because we tend to interpret the parable of the final judgment literally, as if we are appearing before God to be judged, like in a human court, and then after receiving our due sentence, sent to hell or to heaven. Rather, the parable must be understood as a vehicle to make us realize that the decision for the fullness of life here and now will have an impact on our final decision.
From this perspective, the final judgment is not something to be feared. Rather, the judgment must be seen as the permanent establishment of the reign of God in our lives where there will be no more pain or sorrow. With His reign, there will be peace, joy and love forever. Where could this place be if not in the heart of God Himself? Heaven, a state of eternal bliss and joy and love should be where we all hope to arrive. Death is not a punishment but the passage to new life and the fullness of life.
For this reason, the psalmist declares, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord, mighty God! My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Blessed they who dwell in your house! Continually they praise you. I had rather one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere. I had rather lie at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.” We all have had a taste of this state of heaven, of living in the Tabernacle of God when we come before His presence in prayer, in intimacy and especially when we receive Him in the most Holy Eucharist. To dwell in the presence of God gives us a joy and a peace that no human being can give us.
But the fact remains that sin and God are incompatible, like light and darkness. You cannot have God and Satan. If we desire to come to the Lord, we need to purify ourselves in all sincerity. Of course, we know that perfection is not something within our will, but it depends on the grace of God. What is important is that we cooperate with His grace as much as we can. When we fail, we simply have to turn to our merciful God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, trusting in His mercy and coming to realization that our sins hurt God as much as ourselves and the people around us. So there is no reason to fear judgment because we know that God’s judgment will be tampered by mercy and forgiveness. Of course this does not mean that we become presumptuous of His mercy and continue to sin without a real desire for repentance. Without a contrite heart, we would then be consciously rejecting the kingdom of God, which is quite different from one who desires to live the kingdom life but on account of his weakness and ignorance fall into sin.
So what would our conclusion be like? Have you considered your conclusion at the end of your life? Is it going to be one of liberation, joy and satisfaction, knowing that you have lived your life to the fullest with a clear conscience before God and man? Would you be able to say with St Paul, “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:6-8)
St Paul could look forward to the fullness of the coming of God’s kingdom only because he had chosen to be with the Lord every day and every moment of his life. He was always living in the presence of God, in His dwelling place, whether he was awake or asleep, at work or at rest, in prayer or with people. We too can already have a share in this kingdom life to come when we live in full consciousness of His presence and love in a life of service, charity, forgiveness and compassion. This is what the Lord is asking of us.
Just as God was with His people at every stage of their journey by making His presence felt in the Tabernacle, signified by a cloud and fire, so too, we must allow His presence to guide us. At every stage of our life, we must rest and ponder the direction we are taking, like the people of God during the Exodus. We read that “if the cloud did not rise, they waited and would not march until it did. For the cloud of the Lord rested on the tabernacle by day, and a fire shone within the cloud by night, for all the House of Israel to see. And so it was for every stage of their journey.”
So too, Jesus urges us to respond rightly at every moment when He advised us, “Well then, every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old.” We must learn from our mistakes, from our past, whilst working towards the future. From the storeroom, that is, the past and the present, we must maximize the lessons from our failures and the good we have done. From the storeroom of our history and our faith, let us, whilst appreciating and valuing the past, also be receptive to the new ways the Lord wants to work in our lives. Forgetting our past will hurt us as much as living in the past, and forgetting the grace of the present moment coming our way will hinder us from allowing the future to take its full effect in our lives. By bringing the past, the present and the future together in Christ, we will gradually make progress in the life of the kingdom. As the author of Hebrews tells us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb 13:8)
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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