There’s an old Johnny Cash song that is rooted in today’s Gospel, a song that says,

You can run on for a long time, But sooner or later God will cut you down. Go tell that long tongue liar, go and tell that midnight rider, tell the rambler, the gambler, the back-biter, tell em that God’s gonna cut em down, sooner or later God’ll cut em down.

Now of course these verses of the song go right to the end point of judgement. But there is more to the story, a story of offered mercy and patience, but in the end there is a judgment.

We live in times that are dismissive of judgment, or that the judgment will result in anything but instant entrance to glory.

Today’s gospel contains a kind of necessary balance that speaks of God’s patience and care now, but also speaks of the day of reckoning, the day of judgment that must finally come when our decision is final and also adjudicated by God, and there will be no turning back.

Let’s look at this Gospel in two main parts:

I. The Proclamation of the Problem - The Gospel opens with the following lines:

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!

In effect what Jesus is saying is that is so easy for us to focus on the sins of others and fail to discern our own need for repentance and mercy. Before God we are all beggars, all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf Romans 3:23). Every one of us is in need of boatloads of grace and mercy. And while we may rightly distinguish that there is a difference here on earth in the sanctity of a Mother Theresa and the wretchedness of Hitler, yet before God we are all far short of the glory and holiness of God. We are all beggars.

Sin surely does have its effects in the lives of others and we are not asked to be blind to that. There is important truth in learning from the example of others, and we can learn form good example as well as bad example. But the point is to learn! We miss the point if all we do is stand around when someone suffers the effects of sin and say, “My, my my, God don’t like ugly!” Well then, if that be the case, what about the ugly in us? What about our own sin?

And thus to our all-too-eager question, “What about them O Lord!?” Jesus replies, “What about you? Stay in your own lane and work on your issues and leave their final fate to me. Judgement and punishment don’t just come others, if you don’t watch out, they will come to you as well.” And just to make sure we get it the Lord adds: [And] I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!

In effect, the Lord tells us to get serious about our sin and what it can do to us. The most serious problem in life is not the manner of our death, or even that we physically die. The most serious problem we face is not Pilate, or any political misfortune; it is not falling towers or any physical threat; it is not financial setback, or suffering, or losing our job, or losing our possessions. The most serious problem we face is our sin.

Now we don’t think like this. We minimize the maximum and maximize the minimum. We get all worked up about lesser things, and often completely ignore greater things. We are forever worked up about passing things like health and money, and give little heed to the things of eternity and to getting ready to go and meet God. Let our physical health be threatened even for a moment and we are instantly on our knees begging God for deliverance. But let our sins pile up and sinful drives be eating at our very soul and we take little notice and have little care to be delivered from things that are far more serious than mere cancer.

The Lord says, If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body cast into hell (Matt 5:30). Pay attention, the Lord is saying that it is more serious to sin than to lose my right hand.

Again, we don’t think like this. If I were to lose my right hand I would lament this day for the rest of my life. The very thought of losing my hand gives me stabbing grief. But then why don’t we think of our sin this way? See how obtuse we are? See how distorted our priorities are?

One day the Lord looked at a paralyzed man and decided to cure his most serious problem. And thus he said to the quadriplegic, Your sins are forgiven. Could his sins have been more serious than his paralysis? Yes!

And thus the Lord warns us that we ought to be more serious about our sins lest we perish, not merely losing our earthly life, but more so, our eternal life. . The very fact that the solution to our problem required the death of the Son of God, indicates that we are evidently in worse shape than we think and that without our repentance and the magnificent mercy of God, something far worse than having a tower fall on us, or our enemies kill us might happen. Elsewhere the Lord says: I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Lk 12:4-5). Now, to be sure, the Lord does not counsel here a cringing and avoidant fear, but a respectful fear that is willing to be serious about judgement day, and realize that its effect is eternal unlike the passing quality of any earthly encounter.

Having portrayed the problem and underscored its seriousness both here and in other places, the Lord them reminds us that he is willing to help us to get ready with his grace and mercy. And, hence, he sets forth a process in which we must cooperate, for the day of judgment will surely come. Lets look at the Process.

II. The Portrayal of the Process - And thus the Lord tells a parable that sets forth the process in which we are currently engaged, a process of patience and mercy but leading ultimately to the finality of judgment. Note the following steps:

1. ASSESSMENT - There was once a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard and when he came in search of fruit on it and found none said to the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this tree and have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?

Faith is a fruit bearing tree. It is to bear the fruits of love, of justice, of the keeping of the commandments. Now the Lord looks for these fruits and often, through our conscience and by his Word, and He assesses if such fruits are present.

Many claim to have faith, many claim to be fruitful in what the Lord seeks. But, as owner of the field, it is He who sets the terms. We are not a judge in our own case. It is the Lord’s on-going work to assess our progress and and fruitfulness and it is he who has the right to determine if the necessary fruits are present.

Yet many today in this proud age claim the right to assess their own status, and many make bold proclamations that God would not “dare” find in them anything substantial to be lacking. And in presumption many declare themselves to be safe, fruitful and righteous.

But this is not for us to say. In the parable it is the owner, the Lord, who makes the assessment. And note that in this parable he proposes that something significant is lacking.

And yet, some interlocutor, here called the gardener, but let us call her the Church, asks mercy and time. And as we shall see such mercy and time is granted along with necessary supplies (grace) to help accomplish what is sought, namely the fruit of faith. And this leads us to stage two in the process.

2. ASSISTANCE - The text goes on to describe the prayers and requests of the gardener, in this case Mother Church: Sir leave it for this year also. I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. It may bear fruit in the future.

And thus we see that the Lord, the owner of the garden not only grants the request but will also be the one to supply the necessary helps to draw forth the fruits patiently awaited.

Indeed, the Lord sends us help and graces in so many ways:

  1. He speaks in our conscience, has written his law in our hearts
  2. He gave us the law
  3. He sent us prophets
  4. He punishes our wrong doings to bring us to repentance. Before I was afflicted I strayed. But now I have kept your word. (Ps 119:67) And again,  But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:10)
  5. Sent us his Son!
  6. Who established the Church
  7. And gave us the grace and the Sacraments
  8. And It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [That we be] no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Eph 4: 11-17)

Yes, see how much God has done for us! He has graced us in every way and entrusted to the Church, in answer to here pleas, every necessary grace to bear fruit. And now he patiently awaits. Looking to return again to seek the fruits that are necessary for those who claim to have saving faith, fruits that are necessary to be able to endure the day of his comings, fruits which are necessary that we have the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14)! Indeed we cannot see or endure his presence without the fruit of holiness by his grace. For as Scripture says, Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or Who may stand in his holy place?Only he who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4). And only God can accomplish this. But he who made us without us will not save us without us, and thus we must, by his grace, renounce our sin and accept his grace.

3. ACCEPTANCE - The parable ends simply with this line:  If not you can cut it down.

The word “acceptance” is chosen carefully here, for judgement is not so much God’s decision, but rather, is his acceptance of our decision to bear fruit or to refuse to bear fruit, to accept or refuse his offer of the bearing the fruits of faith such as chastity, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, love of the poor, appreciation of the truth and so forth.

The day of judgement amounts to the day when God accepts our final choice. Our judgment is not so much a passing of sentence on us but is rather the recognition of the final and absolute choice we have made.

Mysteriously it would seem that there comes a day when change for us is no longer possible. What we are remains fixed forever. Even as we get older we note how it is harder to change. We are like concrete that sets, and becomes ever harder. We are like pottery which begins moist and malleable but when subjected to the fire has a shape that is forever fixed.

And thus the Lord teaches us to be serious about sin and about the day of judgement. For now there is mercy and every grace available to us, thank you Jesus! But there comes a day when our decision is finally called, and forever fixed.

The Gospel today teaches beautifully of God’s patience, but ultimately of our need for mercy, (we are all beggars before God), and warns us that our decision will finally be called. Yes, there is a Day of Judgement and it closes in on us all.

Talking about how we sang “Kum bah ya” etc., will not suffice. St. Paul also warns in today’s second reading against presumption and of us trying to serve as a judge in our own case:

Our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. (1 Cor 10:1:ff)

For now there is mercy! But there comes a day of ratification, of judgement, when the question is called and the lasting answer is supplied, not so much by God as by us.

Be careful, your flesh says, “No worries!” But the Lord says “Repent!”

This song by Johnny Cash rooted in the image from today’s parable warns:

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time,
run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Well, you may throw your rock
and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light.

Go tell that long tongue liar,
go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler,
the back biter
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down

17 Responses

  1. Jeannie says:

    …”judgement is not so much God’s decision, but rather, is his acceptance of our decision to bear fruit or to refuse to bear fruit, to accept or refuse his offer of the bearing the fruits of faith such as chastity, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, love of the poor, appreciation of the truth and so forth.”
    —Every word, my boldness dictates, is a stepping stone to heaven filled with much grace, much prayer, and my gratitude to God for your being His obedient gift-giver. Thank you, Monsignor.

  2. Deb Thurston-ocds says:

    Sang it, brother.

  3. Sandra Lipari says:

    Great article Monsignor! …again. A great scholar and teacher most positive outlook and perspectives of God always, suggests also that “judgement” a scary horrifying word that stops most in their tracks sending adrenalin so quickly few take the moment to truly assess, but IF we are truly reading it, the word “judgement” is YET another invitation by God! YES… ultimately, there shall be the END, but in the meantime… you have TIME! GOD INVITES don’t MISS the invitation of the BEST parent.

  4. RichardC says:

    Amen. Speaking of the wrath of God, I came across this passage in the Book of Leviticus that supports the view that the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation is the city of Jerusalem (Leviticus 26: 18-33):

    “[18] But if you will not yet for all this obey me: I will chastise you seven times more for your sins, [19] And I will break the pride of your stubbornness, and I will make to you the heaven above as iron, and the earth as brass: [20] Your labour shall be spent in vain, the ground shall not bring forth her increase, nor the trees yield their fruit.

    [21] If you walk contrary to me, and will not hearken to me, I will bring seven times more plagues upon you for your sins: [22] And I will send in upon you the beasts of the held, to destroy you and your cattle, and make you few in number, and that your highways may be desolate. [23] And if even so you will not amend, but will walk contrary to me: [24] I also will walk contrary to you, and will strike you seven times for your sins. [25] And I will bring in upon you the sword that shall avenge my covenant. And when you shall flee into the cities, I will send the pestilence in the midst of you, and you shall be delivered into the hands of your enemies,

    [26] After I shall have broken the staff of your bread: so that ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and give it out by weight: and you shall eat, and shall not be filled. [27] But if you will not for all this hearken to me, but will walk against me: [28] I will also go against you with opposite fury, and I will chastise you with seven plagues for your sins, [29] So that you shall eat the flesh of your sons and of your daughters. [30] I will destroy your high places, and break your idols. You shall fall among the ruins of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.

    [31] Insomuch that I will bring your cities to be a wilderness, and I will make your sanctuaries desolate, and will receive no more your sweet odours. [32] And I will destroy your land, and your enemies shall be astonished at it, when they shall be the inhabitants thereof. [33] And I will scatter you among the Gentiles, and I will draw out the sword after you, and your land shall be desert, and your cities destroyed.”

    Now, the Book of Revelation has three sets of seven chastisements, the scrolls, the trumpets, and the bowls, (the wrath of God is 777), whereas this passage has four sets of seven chastisements. However, if we recall that Jesus says that the days of chastisement had been shortened, as otherwise, no one would survive. Indeed, no would survive if parents ate their own children, as in the fourth set of seven chastisements. Remembering that makes the passage from Leviticus fit in with Revelation. The point is that the four sets of seven chastisements are directed at the Israelites.

  5. Fred says:

    The Homilist at this morning’s Mass said something to the effect that in the Garden our first parents did not have the benefit of being divinized as we who were born after Christ’s earthly existence. Were Adam and Eve only able (I guess if they hadn’t sinned) to have a preternatural existence as opposed to a supernatural one? And if this is the case, it doesn’t appear to me that they would have had the benefit of a love of God as great as the faithful who leave this life in a state of sanctifying grace. Elucidation?

  6. chris awo says:

    Monsignor thanks for your writeup. It could not have come sooner.

    May the Lord keep us all (especially me) from the lust and desire for forbidden things.

    O Lord do not confront us with sudden death; O Lord give us time to repent; O lord give us the spirit of repentance; O Lord give us the spirit of penance.

  7. Aloysius Duque says:

    One of the best, Msgr….

  8. Cynthia BC says:

    Today’s Gospel is timely given that poor man in Florida, swallowed up by that sinkhole underneath his house. I heard someone exclaim: Whatever did he do to deserve THAT? Surely a hellish end, to literally be swallowed by the earth!

    Perhaps he was more deserving than his neighbors of such a fate, perhaps not. There are many other sites ripe for sinkholes, but when and where they may appear isn’t predictable. What happened on Friday is a clear and stark reminder that we could be cut down at any time, even while we are sleeping soundly in our beds.

  9. maurice says:

    There is a beautifull passage from St Catherine of genoa in her treatise on purgatory
    allowe me to copy/paste it here

    When I look at God, I see no gate to Paradise, and yet because God is all
    mercy he who wills enters there. God stands before us with open arms to
    receive us into His glory. But well I see the divine essence to be of such
    purity, greater far than can be imagined, that the soul in which there is
    even the least note of imperfection would rather cast itself into a
    thousand Hells than find itself thus stained in the presence of the Divine
    Majesty. Therefore the soul, understanding that Purgatory has been ordained
    to take away those stains, casts itself therein, and seems to itself to
    have found great mercy in that it can rid itself there of the impediment
    which is the stain of sin.

    No tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understand, the grievousness of
    Purgatory. But I, though I see that there is in Purgatory as much pain as
    in Hell, yet see the soul which has the least stain of imperfection
    accepting Purgatory, as I have said, as though it were a mercy, and holding
    its pains of no account as compared with the least stain which hinders a
    soul in its love. I seem to see that the pain which souls in Purgatory
    endure because of whatever in them displeases God, that is what they have
    willfully done against His so great goodness, is greater than any other
    pain they feel in Purgatory. And this is because, being in grace, they see
    the truth and the grievousness of the hindrance which stays them from
    drawing near to God.

  10. Mark says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    I had fallen into the presumption that all I had to do was ask for forgiveness and God would give it, even at the same time I was thinking of doing the sin again. I returned to the sacrament of penance after a hiatus of 30 years and after giving a true reckoning of my sins, through a painful opening of my heart did I realize how wrong I was, before I could stop myself from admitting sin after sin they just flowed from my heart. It was the first real self evaluation of my sins in my entire life, brought on by a very patient priest that guided my heart to open, through the grace of Jesus at my side.

    I rise to everyday with these words “Lord Jesus Christ I am Mark, I am a sinner and I pray you have mercy on my soul”. I am a sinner and I confess my sins often and I feel the burden of my cross ease ever so lightly, but willing take the burden from others if so called to do so.

    I have a hard time when people tell me I am more devout than they are, and that I will be saved. I tell them that we all have our cross to bear, my sins are no more worse than theirs, my road no less harder to travel and God is the only one that can give me salvation, only through his grace are we saved. I invite them into a closer relationship with Jesus through daily prayer, Mass, confessing of sins and spending time in Adoration.

    However I am uneasy with their false praise of my devotion as this can only lead to my false assumption that they are right. How is this handled?

    You are filled with his light and I will pray for you and those in the Holy Orders.

  11. Becca says:

    Thank you for this homily. This is so needed. It has one of the quotes that God always wants me to hear: “he who made us without us will not save us without us” I get this one over and over.

  12. MitisVis says:

    Very well spoken.

    You may enjoy this version

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkLdmayneGM

  13. Gloria Schotten says:

    A lot of folk think that God is this big ‘ole sugar daddy’in the sky, he understands !( Philippians 2:12, Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling ) This says it all! What I like about you Monsignor, tell it like it is.
    Gloria Schotten.

  14. Noek vanBiljon says:

    I don’t think of God “as this great ole sugar daddy in the sky”. I see him as jealous (that’s what he says or that’s what the book says he says) and jealousy is not a very endearing quality. He is also very dangerous because he is all powerful and when he gets jealous he gets very angry and he kills.

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