The first reading from Tuesday’s Mass is Paul’s farewell speech to the presbyters (priests) of the early Church. Here is a skilled bishop and pastor exhorting others who have pastoral roles within the Church. Let’s examine this text and apply its wisdom to bishops and priests as well as to parents and other leaders in the Church.
Paul’s Farewell Sermon – The scene is Miletus, a town in Asia Minor on the coast not far from Ephesus. Paul, who is about to depart for Jerusalem, summons the presbyters of the early Church at Ephesus. He has ministered there for three years and now summons the priests for this final exhortation. In the sermon, St. Paul cites his own example of having been a zealous teacher of the faith who did not fail to preach the “whole counsel of God.” He did not merely preach what suited him or made him popular; he preached it all. To these early priests, Paul leaves this legacy and would have them follow in his footsteps. Let’s look at some excerpts from this final exhortation.
From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me … and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus … But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem … But now I know that none of you to whom I preached the kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again. And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God … (Acts 20:17-27 selected).
Here, then, is the prescription for every bishop, priest, deacon, catechist, parent, and Catholic: we should preach the whole counsel, the entire plan of God. It is too easy for us to emphasize only that which pleases us, or makes sense to us, or fits in with our world view. There are some who love the Lord’s sermons on love but cannot abide his teachings on death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Some love to discuss liturgy and ceremony, but the care of the poor is far from them. Others point to His compassion but neglect His call to repentance. Some love the way He dispatches the Pharisees and other leaders of the day but suddenly become deaf when the Lord warns against fornication or insists that we love our spouse, neighbor, and enemy. Some love to focus inwardly and debate doctrine but neglect the outward focus of true evangelization to which we are commanded (cf Mat 28:19).
In the Church today, we too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines and emphases: life issues here and social justice over there, strong moral preaching here and compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks, the other side says, “There they go again!”
We must be able to say, like St. Paul, that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy, it is also the responsibility of parents and all who attain any leadership in the Church. All the issues above are important and must have their proper places in the preaching and witness of every Catholic, both clergy and lay. While we may have particular gifts to work in certain areas, we should learn to appreciate the whole counsel and the fact that others in the Church may be needed to balance and complete our work. While we must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, within doctrine’s protective walls it is necessary that we not shrink from proclaiming and appreciating the whole counsel of God.
If we do this, we will suffer. Paul speaks above of tears and trials. In preaching the whole counsel of God (not just your favorite passages or politically correct, “safe” themes), expect to suffer. Expect to not quite fit in with people’s expectations. Jesus got into trouble with just about everyone. He didn’t offend just the elite and powerful. For example, even His own disciples puzzled over His teachings on divorce, saying, “If that is the case of man not being able to divorce his wife it is better never to marry!” (Matt 19) As a result of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, many left Him and would no longer walk in His company (John 6). When Jesus spoke of His divine origins, many took up stones with which to stone Him, but He passed through their midst unharmed (Jn 8). In addition, Jesus spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving one’s enemies, and preferring nothing to Him. He forbade even lustful thoughts, let alone fornication, and insisted we learn to curb our unrighteous anger. Yes, preaching the whole counsel of God is guaranteed to earn us the wrath of many.
Sadly, over my years as a priest, I have had to bid farewell to many congregations. This farewell speech of Paul is a critical one I use to examine my ministry. Did I preach even the difficult things? Was I willing to suffer for the truth? Did my people hear from me the whole counsel of God or just what was “safe”?
What about you? Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are a clergyman, when you move on; if you are a parent, when your child leaves for college; if you are a youth catechist, when the children are ready to be confirmed; if you teach in RCIA, when the time comes for Easter sacraments—can you say you preached it all? God warned Ezekiel that if he failed to warn the sinner, that sinner would surely die for his sins but that Ezekiel himself would be responsible for his death (Ez 3:17 ff). Paul can truthfully say that he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them because he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. What about us?
We must proclaim the whole counsel of God, not just the safe or popular things, not just what agrees with our own politics or those of our friends. We must present the whole counsel, even the hard parts, even the things that are ridiculed. Yes, we must proclaim the whole counsel of God.
The first reading from last Sunday’s Mass features an excerpt from St. Peter’s first sermon. The contents of the sermon are very similar to others recorded in the Acts of the Apostles by Saints Paul and Stephen. What is interesting is that these ancient sermons break almost every rule (written and unwritten) of modern preaching! Consider the clip from yesterday and not the areas highlighted in red:
Peter said to the people: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence when he had decided to release him. You denied the Holy and Righteous One and you asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did; but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer. Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.” (Acts 3:13-19)
Apparently, St. Peter never got the memo that no invective is ever to be used, that it is a bad idea to use “you” instead of “we” and “us,” that suggesting people are ignorant or even acting in ignorance is insensitive and demeaning, that instead of telling people to repent of their sins and be converted they should be affirmed and welcomed. Peter accuses them of unjustly handing over one who was holy and righteous and preferring a murderer to Him. They were too dull or ignorant to accept rather than deny the Lord’s testimony; they put to death the very author of life.
St. Stephen does something similar:
You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did. Which of the prophets did your fathers fail to persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One. And now you are His betrayers and murderers— you who have received the Law ordained by angels yet have not kept it (Acts 7:51-53).
Jesus spared His listeners little when describing their sinful drives:
The Jewish people gathered in the Temple area said to Jesus, “We are not illegitimate children,” they declared. “Our only Father is God Himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on My own, but He sent Me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth …. The One who glorifies Me is My Father, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ You do not know Him, but I know Him. If I said I did not know Him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know Him, and I keep His word” (John 8:40ff).
Yikes! Such fire-breathing preachers would never pass modern preaching class let alone be ordained in a modern seminary setting. Yet Peter’s sermon drew 3,000 converts and Stephen, though stoned for what he said, snared (or at least prepared) a pretty important convert: Saul of Tarsus. Jesus of course has had billions of converts!
There is an old preacher’s joke that says, “Peter preached one sermon and got 3,000 converts. I have preached 3,000 sermons and have not gotten one convert.” These ancient sermons and evangelizing tactics might not be in line modern notions, but they produced abundant fruit.
To be sure, cultural norms should not be wholly ignored. We live in times where “sensitivity” is insisted upon. Although I would argue that we have become far too thin-skinned, simply defying the current cultural norms may not be a great strategy in the short term.
In the long run, good preaching should mold culture and cultural expectations. We who would preach should have a role in reintroducing the biblical concepts that are often lost today. We need to reacquaint people with truths and realities. We must bring back words that have been lost: death, judgment, Hell, sin (venial and mortal), repentance, conversion, accountability, and consequences. We must move from mere abstractions and generalities and speak clearly to the moral issues of our day: abortion, physician-assisted suicide, fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, pornography, greed, unforgiveness, envy, deceit, and malice.
In my own experience, people are at first surprised—even shocked—to hear of these things again after a long absence, but they adjust quickly. Many are even glad to hear clarity from the pulpit again. Speaking to sin is the bad news that points to the good news and renders it even better. If we don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.
The kerygma (preaching content and style) of the early Church is often overanalyzed. Its basic message is quite simple:
“You’ve got it bad and that ain’t good, but there’s a doctor in the house and His name is Jesus. He is the longed-for Messiah and Lord. If you will admit your need and invite Him into your life through faith and the sacraments, He will go to work and save you from the mess you are and the mess you have made!”
The earliest sermons honestly, even colorfully, laid out our miserable state. Even we who like to think we’re “good people” do some foolish and sinful things. We can be obtuse; we can have the wrong priorities. We can be just plain mean at the drop of a hat. We do have it bad, and deep down we know this and that it “ain’t good.” In that state, the mercy of the Lord can seem glorious and the medicine of word and sacrament can be precious.
Yes, the ancient sermons break all the modern rules. Perhaps you notice, though, that they were at the helm of a growing Church, and in contrast, we are suffering steady erosion. Despite our claims to be relevant, sensitive, and welcoming, we fail to connect with people and keep them. Many do not find our message compelling, relevant, or helpful. Maybe the ancients knew something that we have forgotten: “If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.”
In the Gospel this Sunday, the Lord gives three important principles for a disciple. He also teaches on the concept of being worthy of Him. We tend think of being worthy as acting in a way that meets a certain standard, but the Greek word for “worthy” involves more than merely external behavior, important though that is. To be worthy of the Lord is to ascribe worth and give proper weight to who He is and what He teaches. Let’s take a look.
I. The priority of a disciple – The text says that Jesus said to His apostles, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”
The Lord could not be clearer: we are to love Him more than we love anyone or anything else. There is to be no person or thing in our life that has greater importance than the Lord. So fundamental is the priority of our love and obedience to Him that it eclipses even the most fundamental relationships in our family. Our love and honor for our parents is very important; it is mandated by the Fourth Commandment: Honor your Father and your Mother. And yet, even it cannot overrule the most fundamental of all the commandments, the First Commandment: I am the Lord your God, You shall have no other gods before me.
Therefore, even the love and respect owed to parents and the love that parents should have for their children cannot be preferred to the love and obedience we owe to God. If a son or daughter, even while still a minor, were to hear a parent instructing him or her to disregard a clear teaching or commandment of God, the child would have to respond, “Sorry, Mom, Dad, but I love God more. I cannot obey you in this matter.”
The same is true for any other relationship. If a spouse, a sibling, a boss, or a government official were to try to compel us to act contrary to God’s truth and commands, the answer must always be the same: “I’m sorry but I cannot comply; I love God more. Even if I suffer at your hands as a result, I cannot and will not comply.”
The love of Jesus, who is Lord, supersedes every other love, respect, or honor due to others, be they persons, philosophies, nations, or political parties.
Truth be told, many Christians manifest greater allegiance to political parties, careers, and the opinions of men in general than to the Lord and His Church. Many prefer worldly thinking to what the Lord teaches. Many cave in and compromise to what others demand of them in order to ingratiate themselves to others, to gain access, or simply to preserve a false peace. Silencing the Gospel is never a recipe for true or lasting peace.
II. The Profundity of a Disciple – Jesus speaks strongly and says that such people as this are not “worthy” of me. As noted above, we tend to measure worthiness externally, by whether we live up to expectations of us. While this is proper, it overshadows the more internal dimensions that are the deeper part of being worthy.
The Greek word translated here as “worthy” is axios, and which is related to weights and scales. Most literally the word means “drawing down the scale,” and thus implies weighing as much or more than something else.
Internally, the concept of being worthy of the Lord here is that we assign a greater weightiness in our life to Him than to the passing treasures and trinkets of the world. We are to ascribe greater “worth” or “worthiness” to Him than to anything or anyone else. We take the Lord seriously. His teaching is to weigh on us and to carry a weight in our life. This internal disposition of being worthy of God produces the external behaviors that are worthy of Him.
The Lord paints a kind of picture for us to show that if we love anyone or anything more than we love him, the scales are tipped wrongly; we are not ascribing enough weight or worth to Jesus and are thus living in an unworthy way.
As we “size things up” in life and weigh the true importance of things, remember this: No person, no political party, no boss, no person at all who seeks our money, time, loyalty, or acquiescence ever died for us. None of them can ever save us, for none of them is God. If we esteem anyone or anything more than we do Him, then we are weighting His Blood and His saving love too lightly.
III. The passion of a disciple – The text says, … and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Every disciple must be willing to take up his cross; if he does so, there is ample reward. The Lord originally offered us paradise, but Adam and Eve wanted a better deal. Welcome to that better deal: Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, suffering is a reality. But suffering, by God’s gracious mercy, is also redemptive. The Lord teaches us that we must join our cross to His. Taking up the cross is a way of “losing” our life in the sense that it often diminishes our enjoyment of this earthly existence. But in dying to self and to this world, we find our true life: God and the things He offers!
It is interesting to note that we are often willing to take up crosses for worldly gain. We work hard for a paycheck or to earn a college degree. Why not then for the Lord? An old song says, “No cross, no crown.” The Lord asks of us no less than what the world demands for its trinkets. The Lord teaches that rewards far greater than worldly trinkets come with the cross He instructs us to take up. The Lord’s insistence on the need for the cross is not unreasonable, yet many of us bristle. Although we will gladly spend several years and a lot of money in order to obtain a college diploma, going to Church on Sundays or giving up some of our favorite sins is viewed as unreasonable, or just too much trouble.
In effect, the Lord demands that we take him seriously, that we give weight to His words and to His promise. If we dismiss His words lightly then we are not worthy of Him, if we do not give proper weight to His words then we do not take Him seriously. This is a bad idea because He who mercifully summons us now to His truth will one day be our judge.
Be worthy of the Lord. Give sufficient weight to what He says. Respect and obedience are the proper virtues for a disciple who accords worth (weight) to the Lord’s teaching and acts in such a manner.
IV. The prize of a disciple – The text says, Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.
The Lord promises reward if we get our priorities and passions right, if we welcome His word and give weight to what He says and who He is!
Even now, we can enjoy the fruits of God’s Word as we listen to His prophets and see our life change. In welcoming the Word in my life, I have seen many positive changes. I am less anxious, more patient, and more loving than before. I have greater wisdom. I have seen sins and sinful attitudes reduced and graces come alive. Word and sacrament have had their effect; accepting the prophecy of the Church has given me a prophet’s reward. How about you?
Further, the Lord says that He will reward every work of mercy by us, which is in effect a small share in the cross. We pray that God will forget our sins, but it is said that God will never forget the good things we have done and will never be outdone in generosity.
The Lord does not demand the cross without pointing to its reward. The cross ushers in the crown. Do you believe this? Do you take the Lord seriously? Do you give weight to and count as worthy the Word that He speaks to you?
The first reading from today’s Mass is Paul’s farewell speech to the presbyters (priests) of the early Church. Here is a skilled bishop and pastor exhorting others who have pastoral roles within the Church. Let’s take a look at this text and apply its wisdom to bishops and priests as well as to parents and other leaders in the Church.
Paul’s Farewell Sermon – The scene is Miletus, a town in Asia Minor on the coast not far from Ephesus. Paul, who is about to depart for Jerusalem, summons the presbyters of the early Church at Ephesus. Paul has ministered there for three years and now summons the priests for this final exhortation. In the sermon, St. Paul cites his own example of having been a zealous teacher of the faith who did not fail to preach the “whole counsel of God.” He did not merely preach what suited him or made him popular; he preached it all. To these early priests, Paul leaves this legacy and would have them follow in his footsteps. Let’s look at excerpts from this final exhortation.
From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me … and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus … But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem … But now I know that none of you to whom I preached the kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again. And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God (Acts 20:1-38, selected).
Here, then, is the prescription for every bishop, priest, deacon, catechist, parent, and Catholic: preach the whole counsel (the entire plan) of God. It is too easy for us to emphasize only that which pleases us, or makes sense to us, or fits in with our world view. There are some who eagerly receive the Lord’s sermons on love, but cannot abide His teachings on death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Some love to discuss liturgy and ceremony, but not the care of the poor. Others point to the Lord’s compassion, but neglect His call to repentance. Some love the way He dispatches the Pharisees and other leaders of the day, but suddenly become deaf when the Lord warns against fornication or insists that we love our spouse, neighbor, and enemy. Some love to focus inwardly and debate doctrine, but neglect the outward focus of true evangelization to which we are commanded (cf Mat 28:19).
As a whole, we in the Church today too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines: life issues here, social justice concerns over there; strong moral preaching here, compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks, the other side says, “There they go again!”
Like St. Paul, we must be able to say that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy, it must also be true for parents and all who attain any leadership in the Church. All of the issues above are important and must have their proper places in the preaching and witness of every Catholic, both clergy and lay. While we may have gifts to work in certain areas, we should learn to appreciate that others in the Church may be needed to balance and complete our work. We must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, but within doctrine’s protective walls, it is necessary that we not shrink from proclaiming and appreciating the whole counsel of God.
Make no mistake about it: if we do this we will suffer. Paul speaks above of tears and trials. In preaching the whole counsel of God (not just your favorite passages or politically correct, “safe” themes), expect to suffer. Understand that you will not quite fit in with people’s expectations. Jesus got into trouble with just about everyone. He didn’t offend just the elite and powerful. For example, even His own disciples puzzled over His teachings on divorce saying, If that is the case of man not being able to divorce his wife it is better never to marry! (Matt 19) In the case of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, many left Him and would no longer walk in His company (John 6). When Jesus spoke of His divine origins, many took up stones with which to stone Him, but He passed through their midst (Jn 8). In addition, Jesus spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving your enemies, and preferring nothing to Him. He forbade even lustful thoughts, let alone fornication, and insisted that we must learn to curb our unrighteous anger. Yes, preaching the whole counsel of God is guaranteed to earn us the wrath of many.
Over my years as a priest, I have had to bid a sad farewell to several congregations. This farewell speech of Paul’s is one I use to examine my ministry. Did I preach even the difficult teachings? Was I willing to suffer for the truth? Did my people hear from me the whole counsel of God, or just the parts that were “safe”?
How about you? Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are a member of the clergy, when you move on; if you are a parent, when your child leaves for college; if you are a catechist, when the young people are ready to be confirmed; if you teach in RCIA, when the time comes for Easter sacraments. Can you say that you preached it all? God warned Ezekiel that if he failed to warn the sinner, the sinner would surely die for his sins but Ezekiel himself would be responsible for this death (Ez 3:17 ff). Paul is able to say that he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them, because he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God.
We must proclaim the whole counsel of God; not just the safe parts, not just the popular teachings, not just the parts that agree with my views and those of my friends. The whole counsel, even the things that are ridiculed—The Whole Counsel of God.
Many people today put Hell in opposition to the love of God, but Jesus combines them. Here is an important truth: No one loves you more than Jesus Christ, yet no one spoke of or taught on Hell and Judgment more than He did. He gave warning after warning and told parable after parable, practically shouting about judgment and the reality of Hell.
No “heresy” of our day is more widespread or pernicious than the denial of hell, its existence, and its sad frequency. I use quotes around the word only because I, as a simple priest, do not have the power to declare formal heresy. However, “heresy” in a broader, more descriptive sense simply means picking and choosing among revealed truth. Confronted with truths that are in some tension (such as God’s justice vs. His mercy or human freedom vs. God’s sovereignty) the “heretic” chooses one and throws out the other in order to resolve the tension. Orthodoxy says “both” but “heresy” picks one and discards the other.
With respect to the teaching on Hell and judgment, the “heretic” cannot reconcile God’s love and mercy with the reality of Hell and eternal separation from Him.
Yet the Lord of Love, Jesus, spoke of these more than did anyone else. The problem is in us, not in Jesus and not in the Father.
We simply refuse to obey what is taught and to accept that because we have free will, the choices we make ultimately matter. We have been bewitched by the fairy tale ending that everyone “lived happily ever after.” We deny that the sum of our choices constitute our character, and that our character ushers in our chosen destiny. We refuse to take responsibility for the fact that we make choices that build over time and which we will one day never be able to renounce. Instead we blame God and call Him (who sent His own Son to save us) the bad one; we say that He is responsible for whether we go to Hell or not.
Meanwhile God is pleading, “Come to me. Come to me before it is finally time to rise and close the door!”
Bottom line: either God is love and we are free to choose Him or not in our own act of love, or God is a slave driver and no matter what we go to His Heaven and live with Him forever. In other words, freedom means choice and choice permits us to say “no” to God. Therefore, there is Hell.
We need to be sober about this; Jesus certainly was. He warned and warned and warned; He pleaded and pleaded and pleaded. He knows whereof we are made; He knows how stubborn and stiff-necked we are, that we don’t like being told what to do. Yes, Jesus sadly observed that many—indeed “most”—prefer Hell to serving in Heaven (cf Matt 7:13 inter al).
We must overcome our smug presumption that salvation is a done deal and hear the pleading of our Messiah and Lord, Jesus. We must allow Him to warn us in love, we must allow Him to ignite in us a holy, even servile, fear in order to sober us and draw us to be serious about the work necessary to save us.
In service of this plea, I’d like to present a collection of “warning texts” as a sort of antidote to this “heresy” of modern times. Note that these are only some of the passages I could have used. Please feel free to use the comments section to add to my list. I will publish a final version once I’ve finished collecting any input. As I hope this compilation will show, those who deny Hell or its possibility must reject a huge number of biblical texts in order to do so.
Let us all realize this basic truth: No one loves you more than Jesus does, yet no one warned of Judgment and Hell more than He did, no one. Allow the Lord to wed these ideas in your mind. Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling, O Sinner, come home! Do not buy into the modern “heresy” of universal salvation. Jesus did not teach this; neither did the Apostles, His appointed spokesmen and successors in ministry. Do not try to overrule or correct Jesus. Just accept what He taught and listen in love and faith. Hell is real. We need a savior, but He needs our “yes.”
Here then are many texts that warn of Hell; most of them are right from the mouth of Jesus. These quotes are available in PDF format here: Texts on Hell and Judgment.
Texts on Hell and Judgment
The first two passages are from the Old Testament, and exemplify the prophetic tradition into which Jesus will draw.
Is 35:8And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.
Is 66:24And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.
Matt 3:12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.John the Baptist speaks here.
Matt 5:22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. Even unrighteous anger, unrepented of, can bring forth Hell. We tend to justify our anger; God does not. He warns that we cannot cling to it and still walk into Heaven.
Matt 5:29If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.We make light of sin, but the Lord does not. He is not saying that we should mutilate ourselves, but rather that it is more serious to sin than to lose our eye, foot, or hand. We do not think this way, but God does. He warns us that our most serious problem is not our physical health or finances or any other passing problem; our most serious problem is our sin.
Matt 6:14-15For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.This is a pretty clear warning that we must allow God to give us the gift of mercy and forgiveness or else we cannot enter Heaven. Blessed are the merciful, for (only) they will obtain mercy.
Matt 7: 13Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”Do you understand this? More are lost than are saved. This is a mysterious text in terms of its sweeping quality. Why would God permit this? But it is a text whose meaning is clear: most are lost. Hear Jesus’ pleading and be sober about how stubborn and stiff-necked we can be.
Matt 10:28Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.Jesus is talking about Himself and calling us to a holy fear.
Matt 11:23And you, Capernaum! You won’t be lifted up to heaven, will you? You’ll go down to Hell! Because if the miracles that happened in you had taken place in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.Don’t think that just because you’re a member of “the club,” you’ve got it made, you’re in. Indeed, for those who have heard and seen, more is required, not less.
Matt 12:36But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. Yes, we will have to give an account even for the gossip we make light of. Lord, have mercy!
Matt 13: 24-30Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters, ‘First, collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”So there is a day of judgment; not now, but it will come.
Matt 22:1-14 (Parable of the Wedding Banquet)Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.”It is the shocking parable of a king who, in the end, accepts the “no” of the invited guests. As for the wedding garment, remember that it is provided by God (cf Rev 19:8). The refusal to wear the robe of righteousness is on us, not on God.
Matt 23:33You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?
Matt 24:36-51 (The Day and Hour Unknown)But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Beware of presumption and making light of sin!
Matt 25:1-13 (Parable of the Ten Virgins)At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.The groom delays, but not forever!
Matt 25:26-30 (Parable of the Talents (conclusion))His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”We will have to reckon for what we have done and what we have failed to do with our gifts.
Matt 25:41-46 (Sheep and Goats (conclusion))Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.Reward or loss, you decide.
Mark 9:42–48 (Giving Scandal)If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.”Those who lead others to sin are going to have to answer to Jesus for what they have done. Do not doubt this. Pray that all repent prior to the day of reckoning!
Luke 8:17For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. You cannot hide from God.
Luke 12:42 (The Day and Hour Unknown)Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, “My master is taking a long time in coming,” and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. This is a warning against presumption.
Luke 13:22-30Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed, there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”Hell and exclusion are quite real. Jesus is pointing to fear here. Some call fear “unhealthy,” but Jesus is willing to use it if it will bring forth repentance.
Luke 16:19-31 (Lazarus and Dives)There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”Contempt and indifference toward the poor is a damnable sin. Note, too, that the rich man does not change after death. He is locked into his patterns. He does not ask to come to Heaven; he wants Lazarus sent to Hell. He still does not recognize Lazarus’ dignity; he still sees him as an errand boy. After death, the rich man is miserable, but he cannot and will not change. This teaching on our fixed character after death explains why Hell is eternal: because we will never change.
John 12:48-50If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say. In effect, we bring judgment upon ourselves. We might wish to blame God, but at the end of the day, we show by our own disposition that we are not fit for heaven and would not be happy there because it is the full realization of many things we either detest or scoff at (e.g., love of the poor, forgiveness of our enemies, chastity, worship of God).
Rev 22:12-16“Look, I am coming soon!” says the Lord. “My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” Jesus speaks here in vivid terms of sinners as dogs and cowards. Pay attention: the “Mister Rogers” version of Jesus is not the Jesus of Scripture.
Jesus commissioned the Apostles to preach, teach, govern, and sanctify in His name. Therefore, in hearing them in the following texts, we hear the voice of Jesus.
Heb 12:14Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.Only those open to God making them holy can endure the bright lights of the Kingdom of God.
Heb 13:4Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.Pay attention, modern age, which has shredded marriage at every turn.
James 2:12-13Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Help us to show mercy, Lord, for the measure we measure to others will be measured back to us.
Romans 2:3-11Do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.We are judged by deeds, not by prerogatives or by being “better” than someone else.
1 Cor 6:9Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men. Although the modern world makes light of sexual sins, God does not. He warns that these sins render us incapable of enduring the bright lights of Heaven because we “prefer the darkness” (cf John 3:18).
1 Cor 9: 26-27Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. If even Paul realized he had to be sober, why not us?
Phil 2:12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Some call fear unhealthy, but God is willing to appeal to it.
Gal 5:19-21The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Not inheriting Heaven means going to Hell.
Eph 5:3-7But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore, do not be partners with them. Once again, God says that sexual sin excludes us from the Kingdom of God. We go to Hell if we die unrepentant, because it shows that we prefer the darkness and cannot stand the light.
Today I would like to present excerpts from a stirring sermon that St. Augustine delivered to the priests and people of Hippo. In times like these we must all be reminded of the need to preach the Word of God even if the recipients of that word revile us, labeling our very proclamation of love “hate speech.” This is not new; St. Augustine calls us to be resolute and to preach the Word of God in season and out of season. This encouraging message is particularly appropriate for clergy and for all might grow discouraged. Augustine’s words are shown in bold print, while my commentary is in plain text.
[The Lord says:] The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. In one way or another, we go on living between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves …. The sheep moreover are insolent. … And in light of these present dangers we ask your prayers [From a sermon on pastors by St. Augustine, Bishop (Sermon 46, 14-15: CCL 41, 541-542)].
Whatever the specifics of St. Augustine’s era, the difficulty of clergy today is to preside over a flock that on the one hand is pursued by the raging wolf of hostile and scoffing secularism, and on the other is robbed of strength by dissension from within. While a hostile world is to be expected, internal dissension is not and is thus even more painful.
In contentious times such as ours, the poison of the world infects the flock and some of God’s own people begin to take up the voice and demeanor of the wolf. In certain times and places, a priest who strives to disclose the errors of the world will be resisted and scorned, referred to as intolerant or hateful. Even some of his own parishioners will resist him and spread talk among the flock that he is not a good priest for the times or for his parish. He will be dismissed by some as out-of-touch or be discounted as “too political.” Some may even walk out as he speaks about controversial issues that are referred to as political but are in fact moral: abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage,” and so forth. Others may write letters to the bishop criticizing him. And while the scoffing of the world is expected, the insolence of the flock is even more discouraging.
Thus St. Augustine says here, “We ask your prayers.” Some priests can fall prey to hostility in sinful ways. Some may give way to anger, which can infect evangelical joy. They will engage in mere argumentation and fall prey to indiscriminate sermonizing. They go from being the Church militant to being the Church belligerent.
More common, and usually more deadly, is when a priest reacts by withdrawing from the battlefield altogether and no longer preaching on any topic considered controversial. He does not seek to correct the straying sheep because it might make them angry, and he is not willing to bear the emotional burden of this resistance or to brave the stormy waters of controversy in order to call to them.
Silent pulpits are all too common today. A priest who is silent from the pulpit may tell himself that he is protecting his people’s feelings by not upsetting anyone. In reality, though, he more comes to resemble the false shepherds denounced by Jesus, the ones who do not really care for their sheep but rather run when the wolf approaches.
The effect on the flock (and the world) is devastating, because Catholics, who are called to be light in the darkness, have come to resemble the darkness. Catholics are indistinguishable from the general populace in terms of our views on the most critical moral issues of our times. Even Catholics who have not caved in to all aspects of the cultural revolution are often ill-prepared to make a defense for the hope and truth that is in them.
Augustine calls some of the sheep “insolent.” The Latin root of the word lends it a meaning of being unaccustomed to something. Thus one who is insolent scoffs at what he does not understand. The straying sheep are often insolent as a result of poor catechesis.
Ignorance of the faith in the pews, along with pressure from a culture that loudly and effectively proclaims its views, present an enormous challenge to pastors. Without persistence and fortitude, many of our clergy can become resigned to mediocrity and inaction.
Thus the urgent request of St. Augustine on behalf of all clergy: “We ask your prayers.”
Augustine then goes on to set forth a model of a shepherd’s heart for his sheep (especially the straying ones) that all clergy should emulate.
The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. “Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. “If I am straying,” he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?” You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost, I wish to find you. “But I wish to stray,” he says, “I wish to be lost.”
Yes, with the help of others a good priest seeks out the lost, the confused, and the broken. Many will say that they are not ours or that we should leave them alone. Others will say, “If you don’t approve of what I do and consider me lost and a sinner, why do you want me?” But it is precisely because they are lost that we seek them.
We do not “disapprove” of sinful behavior so that we can sinners off, but so that we can summon them, restore them to the flock from which they have strayed. Why would one search for what is not lost? It is what is lost that is sought. Our disapproval of sin (regardless of how others choose to interpret it) is no different than a doctor’s disapproval of toxic behavior that can lead to cancer; he will caution us to avoid such behavior and to come to him for healing if the cancer has already set in.
Sadly, many today base their fundamental identity in sinful behaviors and interpret our searching for them as an offense, rather than as an act of loving concern.
St. Augustine captures their attitude well: “But I wish to stray, I wish to be lost.” He then he sets an answer that summons us to perseverance:
So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says, “Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome.” … I dare to say, “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.” For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: “The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought.” Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ.
This is a powerful reminder to every priest and every Christian. Do not lose your zeal for souls. Do not give up. Preach till the day you die, whether your words are welcomed or not.
And even should you lose your zeal, never forget that the Lord has not lost His. We will all report to Him one day to render an account of our lives. Priests, above all, must be stirred to zeal. And if our own love for God and for souls should flag, at least let a holy fear of the day of judgment move us!
Love is the better motive, but failing that, may we be moved by the fear of the Lord and of the day we shall be called to account for our ministry. Further, we must not fear the anger of men more than the indignation of God should we fail Him in the goal for which He ordained us.
Steeled and motivated by this, Augustine concludes with a stirring summons to resolve:
I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost!
Amen. Stir in us, O Lord, a zeal for souls. Give us your own love and strength. May we desire souls with your very desire for them!
As a priest I am called to preach and teach, and as such I must look to Jesus Christ as my model. In this I refer to the real Jesus of Scripture. Too many people today have refashioned Jesus into a sort of “harmless hippie,” an affable affirmer, a pleasant sort of fellow who healed the sick, blessed the poor, and talked about love but in a very fuzzy and “anything goes” manner. But absent from this image is the prophetic Jesus, who accepted no compromise and called out the hypocrisy in many of His day.
Thus I must look to the real Jesus of Scripture. The real Jesus clearly loved God’s people, but on account of that love could not suffer some limited notion of salvation and healing for them. Rather, He zealously insisted that they receive the whole counsel of God. He insisted that dignity for them that was nothing less than the perfection of God Himself (cf Mat 5:41).
As a teacher, Jesus often operated in the mode of the prophets. Prophets have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Truth be told, we are all in both categories. We must be able to accept the Jesus who one moment says, “Blessed are you,” and the next adds, “Woe to you.” Jesus the teacher and prophet will affirm whatever truth there is in us, but, like any good teacher, He will put a large red “X” beside our wrongful answers and thoughts.
Yet despite Jesus’ often fiery and provocative stance, the scriptures speak of his renown as a preacher and the eagerness with which many heard Him.
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).
Sent to arrest him the temple guard returned empty handed saying: No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).
And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).
And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).
But even Jesus could have a bad day in the pulpit. In Nazareth, they tried to throw him off a cliff for suggesting that Gentiles might have a place in the Kingdom (Lk 4:29). In Capernaum, many left him and would not follow him any longer because of His teaching on the Eucharist (Jn 6:66). In Jerusalem, the crowd said that He had a demon because He called Himself “I AM” (Jn 8:48). And thus Jesus warns all who would teach and preach: Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).
And thus Jesus was a complex preacher and teacher. He was no mere affirmer; He often unsettled and troubled people, even as He consoled and comforted at other times.
Let’s consider some of the qualities of Jesus as a teacher and ponder the sort of balance that He manifests. It is a balance between His love for us, His students, and His zeal to tolerate no lasting imperfection or error in the pupils whom He loves too much to deceive. These qualities of Jesus as a teacher are presented in no particular order. Some are “positive” in the sense of being aspects of His kindness and patience. Others are “negative” in the sense that they illustrate His refusal to accept anything less than final perfection in us.
I. His authority – The Scriptures often speak of the “authority” with which Jesus taught. For example, Scripture says of Jesus, he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Mat 7:29). For indeed the teachers of Jesus’ time played it safe, quoting only reputable authorities in a wooden sort of way. But Jesus taught with authority.
The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia, meaning to teach out of (one’s own) substance, to speak to the substance of what is taught. Jesus would often say, “You have heard that is was said … But I say to you” (cf Mat 5 inter al). And so Jesus spoke from His experience of knowing His Father and of knowing and cherishing the Law and its truth in His own life. He brought a personal weight to what He said. He “knew” of what He spoke; He did not merely know “about” it.
This personal authority was compelling and, even today, those with this gift stand apart from those who merely preach and teach the “safe” maxims of others but do not add their own experience to the truth that they proclaim. Jesus personally bore witness in His own life to the truth He proclaimed; and people noticed the difference.
How about you? You and I are called to speak out of the experience of the Lord in our own life and to be able to say with authority, “Everything that the Lord and His Body, the Church, have declared is true because, in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested it and come to experience it as true and transformative!”
II. His witness – A witness recounts what he has seen and heard with his own eyes and ears, what he himself knows and has experienced. Jesus could say to the Jews of his time, If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word (Jn 8:55). He thus attests to what he personally knows. He is not just reciting facts that others have said.
In a courtroom, a witness must attest to what he has seen and heard for himself. If he merely recounts what others have said it is “hearsay.” A witness can raise his right hand and say, “It is true, and I will swear to it. I have seen it for myself.”
And thus Jesus could witness to what He had heard and seen, of His Father and of us.
It is true that we cannot witness immediately to all that Jesus could, for He had lived with the Father from all eternity. But, as we make our walk, we can speak to what the Lord has done in our life and how we have come to know Him in conformity with His revealed. Word.
III. His respect for others – The Latin root of the word “respect” gives it the meaning “look again” (re (again) + spectare (to look)). Frequently in Scripture, especially in Mark’s Gospel, there appears the phrase, “Jesus looked at them and said …”
In other words, Jesus was not merely issuing dictates to an unknown, faceless crowd. He looked at them; and He looks at you and me as well. It is a personal look, a look that seeks to engage you and me in a very personal way. He is speaking to you, to me. His teaching in not merely for an ancient crowd; it is for you and for me. He looks to you, and He looks again. Are you looking? Are you listening?
Do you look with respect to those whom you are called to teach, or to the children you are called to raise? Do you engage them by your look of respect and love?
IV. His love and patience for sinners – Jesus could be very tough, even exhibiting impatience. But in the end, He is willing to stay with us in a long conversation. One text says, When Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them at great length (Mk 6:34). Yes, He teaches us at great length; He stays in long conversations with us. He knows that we are dull of mind and hard of heart, so He persistently and consistently teaches.
Do we do that? Or do we quickly write people off? Jesus had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who, frankly, was quite rude to Him at first (John 4). He had a long conversation with Nicodemus, who was also at times resistant and argumentative (Jn 3). He had a long conversation with His Apostles, who were slow and inept.
How about us? Are we willing to experience the opposition of sinners, the resistance of the fleshly and worldly? Do we have love and patience for those whom we teach? I have met some great Catholics who were once enemies of the Faith. Someone stayed in a conversation with them. What about us?
V. His capacity to afflict and console – Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” but just as often said “Woe to you.” Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. All of us fall into both categories. We need comfort but are often too comfortable in our sins. A true prophet fears no man and speaks to the truth of God.
Thus for a true prophet (as Jesus was) there are no permanent allies to please and no permanent enemies to oppose. The determination of every moment is based on conformity or lack of conformity to the truth of God. Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah” (Mat 16:17). And He gave him the keys to the Kingdom and the power to bind and loose. But in the very next passage, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mat 16:23)
No true prophet or teacher can say, “Correct,” or “Blessed are you” every moment, because we all fall short of the glory of God! Jesus had absolute integrity when it came to assessing everything by the stand of God’s truth and Word. Do we?
VI. His parables – Stories are an important way to teach. A story that registers with us will rarely be forgotten. It is said that Jesus used more than 45 parables; some are full stories while others are just brief images. He used parables to link His sometimes complex teaching to everyday life and to plant a seed of truth for our further reflection.
What stories and examples do you use? Teachings that consistently fail to make use of these risk being seen as merely abstract and can easily be forgotten.
That said, parables are somewhat like “riddles.” They admit of various understandings and interpretations. A good parable leaves its listener wanting more, seeking a definitive interpretation.
For example, a movie will sometimes have an ambiguous ending, stirring hopes for a sequel that will provide more information. Some stories and parables are compact and definitive. Others are open-ended and ambiguous, craving for an ending.
Consider that the parable of the Prodigal Son is not really finished. It ends with the Father pleading for the second son to enter the feast. Does the son enter, or refuse to do so? This detail is not supplied. That’s because you are the son and you have to supply the answer. Will you enter? Or will you stay outside sulking that if the kingdom of Heaven includes people you don’t like you’d just as soon stay outside.
Parables are powerful, but for various reasons. Learn stories and learn to share them!
VII. His questions – Jesus asked well over a hundred questions in the gospel. Here are just a few: “What did you go out to the dessert to see? “Why do you trouble the woman?” “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you say this of me on your own, or have others told you of me?”
Good teachers ask questions and do not rush to answer every question. A question is pregnant with meaning; it invites a search. The “Socratic method” uses questions to get to the truth, especially on a personal level: “Why do you ask that? “What do you mean by this?” “Do you think there are any distinctions needed in your claim?”
This method makes a person look inward to his attitudes, prejudices, and presumptions. Good teachers ask their students a lot of questions; questions make us think.
VIII. His use of “focal instances” – Jesus does not propose to cover every moral situation a person might encounter or teach every doctrinal truth in an afternoon.
For example, many today say that Jesus never mentioned homosexual acts and concludefrom His silence that He must therefore approve of them. Really? He also never mentioned rape. Do you suppose that He approves of rape? Further, He did speak of homosexual acts, through His appointed spokesmen (the Apostles), and thereby condemned them.
But no teacher can cover every possibility, every sin, or every scenario. So Jesus uses “focal instances,” in which He illustrates a principle.
This is most commonly done in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where, to illustrate the principle that we are to fulfill the law and not merely keep its minimal requirements, He uses six examples or “focal instances.” He speaks to anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love of enemies, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And in Mathew 25:31ff, the Lord uses the corporal works of mercy to illustrate the whole of the Law.
These are not an exhaustive treatments. of the moral life. Rather, through the use of illustrations, the Lord asks us to learn the principle of fulfillment and then apply it to other instances.
Good teachers teach principles, since they cannot possibly envision every scenario or situation. Having instructed their students in first principles, they can trust that their students will make solid decisions in many diverse situations.
Good teachers teach students to think for themselves, not in isolation, but in ongoing communion with the principles learned, and through dialogue with authorities when necessary for assistance and accountability.
IX. His use of hyperbole – Jesus uses a lot of hyperbole. It is easier, He tells us, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven (Mk 10:25). If your eye scandalizes you, gouge it out (Mat 5:29). There was a man who owed ten thousand talents (a trillion dollars) (Mat 18:24). It would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a great millstone about your neck than to scandalize one of my little ones (Mat 18:6).
Hyperbole has memorable effect. It’s hard to forget effective hyperbole. Who of us can forget Jesus’ parable about a man with a 2×4 coming out of his eye who rebukes his neighbor for the splinter in his? I often tell my congregation, “Go to church or go to Hell,” which is my way of saying that missing Mass is a mortal sin.
One of my seminary professors once signaled me that I was giving an incorrect and heretical answer to a complex theological issue. He did this by saying, “Charles, you are on the edge of an abyss.” I stopped immediately and gave the correct and orthodox answer!
Good teachers use hyperbole at the right moments.
X. His use of servile fear – Jesus made frequent use of “fear-based arguments.” He warned of Hell, of unquenchable fire, and of the worm that does not die. His parables feature of a lot of summary judgements wherein people are found unprepared, are excluded from Heaven, or are cast into darkness. One parable ends with a king burning the town of those who failed to accept his invitation to his son’s wedding banquet (Mat 22:7). Another has a king summoning those who rejected him to be slain before his eyes (Lk 19:27). Jesus warns of the wailing and grinding of teeth. He also warns of a permanent abyss between Heaven and Hell that no one will be able to cross.
Many today are dismissive of fear-based arguments. But Jesus used them; He used them a lot. So Jesus never got the memo that this is a poor way to teach. It is true that, for the spiritually mature, love can and does replace the need for fear-based arguments. But, frankly, many are not that mature, and a healthy dose of fear and the threat of unending regret is often necessary.
We ought not to exclude, as many do, the voluminous verses in which Jesus warns in vivid language of the consequences of repeated, un-repented sin. He is not playing games; He is speaking the truth.
To teach as Jesus did is to include warning of judgment and of Hell.
XI. His anger and zeal – Jesus does not hesitate to express His anger and grief at the hardness and stubbornness of many. One day He said, You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matt 17:17) And in Mark’s Gospel we read, And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was furious and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them” (Mk 10: 13-14). Another day, in the synagogue, Jesus was angry at their unbelief: After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).
Yes, Jesus memorably cleansed the temple and drove out iniquity there. He engaged in heated debates with the Jewish leaders and with unbelievers. He did not hesitate to call them hypocrites, vipers, liars, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets.
Here, too, is a teaching moment that renders what is taught memorable and meaningful.A parent who never reacts with anger risks misleading his child into making light of or not being serious enough about wrongdoing, disrespect, or stubborn unrepentance.
We must be careful of our anger. We do not have the kind of sovereignty over it that Jesus did; neither are we as able to see into people’s hearts as He was.
But there is a place for anger, and Jesus uses it—a lot, actually. Anger signals an important teaching and rebukes a lighthearted response.
XII. His refusal to compromise – There was in Jesus very little compromise about the serious teachings of doctrine or those issues related to our salvation. He said that either we would believe in Him or we would die in our sins (Jn 8). Jesus also said that He was the only way to the Father and that no one would come to the Father except through Him. He declared that no one who set his hand to the plow and looked back was fit for the reign of God. Jesus said that no one who would not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him was worthy of Him. We are told to count the cost and decide now, and we are warned that delay may be a deadly thing.
Much of this is countercultural today, a time of uncertainty, in which there is an inappropriate sort of pluralism that thinks that there are many ways to God. Many insist on a softer Christianity, in which we can love the world and also love God. Sorry, no can do. A friend of the world is an enemy to God.
Jesus teaches His fundamental truths in an uncompromising way. This is because they are truths for our salvation. Following these truths vaguely or inconsistently will not win the day. Some disciplines need to be followed precisely.
To teach as Jesus did involves insisting that the fundamental doctrines of our faith be accepted fully and wholeheartedly.
XIII. His forgiveness – Forgiveness may not at first seem to be an obvious way of teaching. But consider that teachers often have to accept that students don’t get everything right the first time. Teaching requires a patient persistence as students first acquire skills and then master them.
A good teacher does not compromise the right method or the correct answer; He assists students who fall short rather than immediately excluding them. In an atmosphere where there is no room for error, very little learning can take place due to fear.
Again, forgiveness does not deny that which is correct; it continues to teach what is correct. Forgiveness facilitates an environment in which learning can thrive and perfection can at last be attained.
Jesus, while setting high standards, offers forgiveness, not as a way of denying perfection but as a way to facilitate our advancement by grace and trust.
XIV. His equipping and authorizing of others – Good teachers train new teachers. Jesus trained the Twelve and, by extension, other disciples as well. He led and inspired them. And He also prepared them for a day when He would hand on the role of teacher to them. We who would teach need to train our successors and inspire new and greater insights.
Teach me, Lord, by your example, to teach as you taught and to preach as you would have me preach.
It is generally presumed, at least among those who believe in God and the afterlife, that everyone naturally wants to go to heaven.
But of course, “Heaven” is usually understood in a sort of self-defined way. In other words heaven is a paradise of my own design, the place is perfect as I think perfect should be. Yes, for most people, their conception of heaven is merely what they think it should be, and this usually includes things like: golf courses, seeing my relatives and friends, there are my own self-selected pleasures, and the absence of struggles such as losing a job or saying farewell.
Thus, the heaven that most people have in mind is a designer heaven it and is built on the rather egocentric notion that whatever makes me happy is what heaven will be.
The problem with this thinking is that heaven is not of our own design, or merely what we think it should be. Heaven is the kingdom of God and all of its fullness. In heaven are fulfilled and realized all the values of the kingdom of God, values such as mercy, justice, truth, love, compassion, chastity, forgiveness, and so forth.
Further, heaven is consistently described in the Scriptures in liturgical terms, as a place, and a reality rooted in praise and worship. It is a place of prayer and adoration. In all of this is our true happiness, the heart of heaven is to be with God forever, and to be caught up in the beauty of his presence and of his truth.
And heaven, is thus a place that is not merely happy in human terms, but is truly happy on God’s terms. Regarding the liturgical vision of heaven, and the values realized, experience and fulfilled there, it will be noted that many things on the list do not at all appeal to many people. Frankly, many people are dead set against things like the love of enemies, forgiveness, and chastity. Many to find the Mass, and all Church liturgy to be boring and irrelevant.
Imagine showing up at the gates of heaven only to discover that its heart is essentially the liturgy, and that is daily fair is not only hymns, candles, incense and praise, but also chastity, love, forgiveness, mercy and compassion, etc.
Many are averse to such things and even find them odious. God will not force such souls to inherit what they hate. Thus they are free to make other arrangements for eternity. Surely God must regret this deeply, but he has made us free and summoned us to love, and thus he respects, even reverences, our freedom.
But all this reflection, reminds us that heaven is something we must learn to love. It is like many of the finer things in life. Its appeal may not be immediate and obvious, but, having been trained in its ways we learn to love it very deeply.
It was this way for me and classical music. Its appeal was not immediately obvious to me, I was more enamored of driving rock beats and toe-tapping dance music. But gradually, through stages, classical music’s subtlety, beauty and intricacy began to speak to my soul, and I became more sensitive and aware of its majestic beauty. I learned to love symphonic music, and the magnificent patrimony of Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony. And OH how it speaks to my soul now.
And so it is also of my soul with God and the things of God. Early in my life, my rebellious flesh was only averse to God and the parameters of his Kingdom. But now I have grown deeply to love the Lord, and appreciate the beauty and the wisdom of his truth. Yes, I am learning to love heaven. I love God, and the things of God, and the people God loves.
So it must be for us all, that we learn to love heaven. And for this purpose, the Lord left us His Church, like a caring mother, to teach us and lead us to learn to love the things of God, and of heaven. He also left us a sacred liturgy as a great foretaste, and his Word as a kind of blueprint describing what he loves and the architecture of the kingdom of love and truth. The Saints too blaze a trail ahead of us show us the way. In all of this God gives us a kind of pedagogy of the heavenly Kingdom and a healing remedy for our darkened intellects and hardened hearts.
But make no mistake, we must learn to love heaven, to love God and the things of God. And here we speak of the true God and the real heaven not a fake God, not some idol we have constructed for ourselves, but the true God and the true heaven which is his Kingdom and all his fullness. We must avail ourselves of his many helps and learn to love him and his kingdom.
If we think it is only natural to love heaven, we must become more sober. The fact is we have very obtuse spirits. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We tend to love that which is destructive and harmful. And even knowing that it is harmful we still tend to be attracted to it. We tend to esteem that which is foolish and passing, and to glamorize evil. We tend to call good or no big deal what God calls sinful. Yes, we are obtuse and up to 180 degrees out of phase with the Kingdom
GK Chesterton observes astonishing facts recorded in Scripture and Tradition:
The point of the story of Satan is not that he revolted against being in hell, but that he revolted against being in heaven. The point about Adam is not that he was discontented with the conditions of this earth, but that he was discontented with the conditions of paradise. (New York American, 12-15-1932)
If Satan revolted against heaven even while still in heaven and Adam preferred something to paradise while still in paradise, how much more should we be sober over the fact that we who have not yet seen paradise or heaven can easily despise or hold of little value the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Add to this that we live in a world that is utterly upside down, a world where we are not rich and what matters to God, a world which obsesses over passing and trivial things and pays little mind to eternal and heavenly things. Learning to love heaven can mean some pretty radical things. It means often being willing to be 180° out of phase with the world’s priorities and preoccupations.
To draw free of this and learn to love heaven requires an often painful journey on our part. And many are simply unwilling to make it, or to live out of phase with the world. Perhaps for this reason the Lord recorded with sadness, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Mat 7:13-14). Perhaps too we can understand why we need a savior: we are not only obtuse, but frankly not all that bright, and we like sheep tend to be wayward. Only with difficulty are we even willing to be shepherded.
Yes, we must make a journey and learn to love heaven,
Perhaps, to conclude, we might ponder a couple brief details from Simon Peter’s life. At the lakeside Jesus asked Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus was seeking an agape love (ἀγαπᾷς με). Peter, with uncharacteristic honesty, at that stage, answered the Lord indicating he had only brotherly love (κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε). The triple dialogue seeking agape love ended with the Lord’s respectful acceptance that Peter had but brotherly love.
But the Lord also promised one day Peter would find agape love, one day Peter would finally learn to love heaven and the Lord above all things, above all people, above his very self. How? He had to make the journey and learn to love heaven.
And indeed, the Lord prophesied: When you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will lead you where you do not want to go. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God (Jn 21:18-19)
But in order for that to happen, the world would have to be turned upside down for Peter. Peter would have to learn to see the world 180° differently than he did that day at the Lakeside. Of this we need to turn our lives over 180° GK Chesterton again writes very beautifully as he meditates that Peter was crucified upside down:
I’ve often fancied that [Peter’s] humility was rewarded was rewarded by seeing in death the beautiful vision of the landscape as it really is: with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills and all men hanging on the mercy of God. (The Poet and the Lunatics Sheed and Ward p. 22)
Yes, learning to love heaven means learning to see the world as it really its, and to seem to the world to be upside down. But God’s ways are not our ways, his priorities are not our priorities. We have a lot of learning to do. At the end of the day heaven will not change to suit us (if it did it wouldn’t be heaven any more). So we must be changed for it, we must learn to love it even if that means being crucified upside down.
Help us Lord to desire heaven, to learn its ways, to learn of you and love you above all things.
N.B. The Chesterton insights came to me from a a fine book called The Complete Thinker by Dale Ahlquist.