On Forsaking Fear by Remaining Ready—A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for this weekend (Luke 12:32-40) the Lord Jesus presents a “recipe for readiness.” He gives it to us so that we can lay hold of His offer that we not be afraid. He is not simply saying, “Be not afraid.” He is explaining how we can battle fear by being ready.

Christians today are often uncertain about what is necessary in order to be ready to meet God. Many also make light of the Day of Judgment, considering it all but certain that most of humanity will be saved.

Jesus does not adopt this position. In fact, He teaches the opposite. He consistently warns of the need to be ready for our judgment. Jesus does not counsel a foolish fearlessness rooted in the deception that all or even most will be saved. Rather, He counsels a fearlessness based on solid preparation for the Day of Judgment. Jesus tells us to do at least five things in order to be ready and therefore not afraid.

If we do not make these sorts of preparations, Jesus warns that He will come when we least expect and take away all that we (wrongly) call our own. Jesus says, But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap (Lk 21:34). The apostolic tradition says this of the unprepared: disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape (1 Thess 5:3).

Thus, while Jesus begins by saying that we ought not to fear (for the Father wants to grant us His Kingdom), He also warns that being free of fear is contingent upon embracing and following the plan that He sets forth for our life.

Let’s look at this plan and see how we can forsake fear by becoming and remaining ready. Jesus gives us five specific things to do that will help to ready us for the time when the Lord calls us. It is not an exhaustive list, for no single passage of Scripture is the whole of Scripture, but these are some very practical and specific things to reflect upon and do.

I.  Reassess your wealth. Jesus says, Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

In this passage, the Lord is giving us three teachings on wealth. He says that we ought to do these things:

        • Forgo Fear. In the end, it is fear that makes us greedy and worldly; we grab up the things of this world because we are afraid of not having enough for tomorrow. But what if we could receive the gift to trust God more and to know that He will give us our daily bread? He has given us the Kingdom; why wouldn’t He give us everything else? He may not give us everything we want, but He will give us what we really need. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be given unto to you (Matt 6:21). If we can just allow God to diminish our fear, we will be surprised at how easy it is to be generous with what we have rather than hoarding it.
        • Forward your Fortune. When we are generous to the needy and poor, we store up treasure for ourselves in Heaven. Treasure is not stored in Heaven by sending it up there in a rocket ship or a hot-air balloon. It is accomplished by generously distributing our wealth to others in wise and creative ways. I discussed this more fully in my homily last week (You Can’t Take It with You, but You Can Send It on Ahead). While it may not be appropriate to sell everything and go sleep on a park bench, the Lord is surely telling us to be less attached to and passionate about money and possessions, for they root us in this world. And where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.
        • Fix your focus. Our focus is misplaced because most of us have our treasure here in this world. Once we become less fearful and more generous, our obsession with worldly treasure subsides and our joy in heavenly treasure grows. This redirects our focus and puts our heart where our treasure really is and ought to be: in Heaven with God. Simplify! Be less rooted in this world; come to experience that your greatest treasure is God and the things awaiting you in Heaven.

Reassess your wealth. What is it and where is it? That will tell you a lot about your heart.

II. Ready yourself to work. The Lord says Gird your loins,which is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has work for us to do and wants us to get to it.

Surely, the Lord has more than a worldly career in mind. He has in mind things like growing in holiness, pursuing justice, and raising children in godly fear. The Lord wants us to work in His Kingdom. We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, the reception of the sacraments, obedience, and holiness.

The Lord has particular work for each of us based on our gifts. Some people are good teachers; others work well with senior citizens; some are entrepreneurs who can provide employment for others at a just wage. Some are skilled at medicine and the care of the sick; others are called to priesthood or the religious life. Some are called to suffer and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others do so in weakness; but all are called to serve, to work.

Work with what the Lord gave you to advance His Kingdom. Part of being ready means doing your work.

III. Read the Word. The Lord says, light your lamps.

On one level, the phrase “light your lamps” is simply a symbol for readiness (e.g., the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13).

But in another sense, a lamp is also a symbol for Scripture. For example, You Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105). We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

The Lord is teaching us that an essential part of being ready is being rooted and immersed in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. That makes sense, of course. Too many in this increasingly secular world are hostile to the faith. How can we think that our mind is going to be anything but sullied if we are not reading Scripture every day? How will our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world?

Clearly, being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.

IV. Remain watchful. The Lord says, And be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. … Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

There are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting that we might do when waiting for a bus: we just sit there and look down the street. There is another kind that is more active. Consider a waiter: he waits and watches actively; he observes and delivers what is needed immediately and notes what will be needed soon so that he will be prepared when the time comes.

There is also the eager sort of waiting that is much like that of a child on Christmas Eve. The child does not wait in dread for Santa Claus but in hopeful expectation.

Watchful and eager waiting are what the Lord has in mind. It is like that active waiting we do when we have invited a guest to our home. We joyfully prepare and place all in order.

To set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness (by God’s grace) and to remove all the clutter of worldliness from our life. Regular confession, daily repentance, simplifying our life,  and freeing ourself from worldly attachments declutters the house of our soul.

Have you prepared the home of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If not, you may experience Him as you would a thief. The Lord is not really a thief, for everything belongs to Him, but if we have not renounced our worldliness and greed and have not rid ourself of attachments to this world, then the Lord will come and take back what is His. He will seem like a thief only because we (wrongly) think things belong to us.

It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief!

V. Reflect on your reward. The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.

The Lord is clear that He has a reward for those who are found ready!

It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist, in which the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. He says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30). Today, food can be bought on the spur of the moment and eaten immediately, but in the ancient world one of life’s most pleasant things was a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of good friends and family.

The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of Heaven, where we will be with Him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.

Do you meditate often on Heaven and long for its rewards? One of the stranger things about people in the modern world, even some believers, is that they talk so little of Heaven. And while it is not a place any of us have ever been (so it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like), we should reflect often on the joy that awaits us there.

Part of being ready to go home to the Lord is to long for that day to come. When we want to do something, we prepare for it eagerly; we are motivated and we make sacrifices. We will more naturally do whatever is necessary.

These are five elements constituting a recipe for readiness. You’d better set your house in order ’cause He may be comin’ soon!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On Forsaking Fear by Remaining Ready—A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

What is the Wrath of God? A Study of a Common Biblical Theme

Blog10-13In Tuesday’s reading at daily Mass (Tuesday of the 28th Week) there was a reference to the wrath of God: The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). St. Paul goes on to set forth a host of social ills that result from the suppression of the truth, including the approval of homosexual acts, as evidence of a darkened intellect and debased mind (Rom 1:28).

But what is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in Scripture and is a subject we must treat carefully. On the one hand we cannot simply dismiss the concept as contradictory to the fact that God is love, but neither can we deny God’s wrath as unfit in terms of His love.

It seems worthwhile to consider some aspects of the very complicated reality of the wrath of God. There is not enough space to cover the whole topic in this post, but the comment section will stay open, as always, for your continued additions and subtractions. What are some ways that we can explain and understand the wrath of God? Let me propose a few.

The wrath of God is not merely an Old Testament concept. It is mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. For example, consider the following New Testament passages:

  1. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
  2. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18).
  3. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom 12:19).
  4. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things [e.g., sexual immorality] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient (Eph 5:6).
  5. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:9).
  6. The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath (Rev 14:19).

There are at least a dozen other New Testament texts I cite, but allow these to suffice. So it is clear that the “wrath of God” is not some ancient or primitive concept with which the New Testament has dispensed. And notice, too, that the wrath of God is not something reserved simply for the end of the world. It is also spoken of as something already operative in certain people.

So again, what is God’s wrath and how can we reconcile it with His love?  Consider some of the following images or explanations of God’s wrath. None of them alone explains it, but considered together, an overall understanding may emerge.

  1. Image: God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. We see this image of God’s wrath right at the beginning in Genesis, when God cursed Satan and uttered the protoevangelium (the first good news): I will make you and the woman enemies … one of her seed will crush your head while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). God is clearly angered at what sin has done to Adam and Eve and continues to have anger whenever He beholds sin and injustice. He has a passion for our holiness. God wants what is best for us. He is angered by what hinders us. Surely all sins provoke His wrath, but there are five that especially cry out to Heaven: willful murder (Gen. 4:10); the sin of the Sodomites (Gen. 18:20; 19:13); the cry of the people oppressed (Ex. 3:7-10); the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Ex. 20:20-22); and injustice to the wage earner (Deut. 24:14-5; Jas. 5:4) (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1867). In terms of sin, injustice, and anything that hinders the possibility of salvation, God has a wrathful indignation and a passion to set things right. This is part of His love for us. God’s wrath may be manifested through punishment, by disturbing our conscience, or simply by allowing us to experience the consequences of our sin and injustice.
  2. Clarification: God’s wrath is not like our anger. In saying that God is angry we ought to be careful to understand that however God experiences anger (or any passion), it is not tainted by sin. God is not angry the way we are. When we get angry we often experience an out-of-control quality; our temper flares and we often say and do things that are excessive, if not sinful. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums or to “fly off the handle,” to combine anger with an unreasonable lashing out. The way God experiences anger is not something we can fully understand but it is surely a sovereign and serene act of His will, not an out-of-control emotion.
  3. Clarification: God is not moody. God does not have good days and bad days, good moods and bad ones. Scripture seems clear enough on this subject when it indicates that God does not change. Consider this from the Book of James: Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning (James 1:17). The fact that God shows wrath does not mean that He has suddenly had enough or that His temper has flared, or that His mood has soured. God is. He does not change. As Scripture says, He is not variable. And this leads us to the next image.
  4. Image: The primary location of God’s wrath is not within God; it is in us. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of God’s wrath is this: God’s wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the Holiness of God. Sin and God’s holiness just don’t mix. They can’t keep company. Consider fire and water. They do not mix; they cannot coexist in the same spot. Bring them together and you can hear the conflict. Think of water spilled on a hot stove; hear the sizzling and popping; see the steam rising as the water flees away. If, on the other hand, there is a lot of water, the fire is overwhelmed and extinguished. But the point is that they cannot coexist. They will conflict and one will win. This is wrath: the complete incompatibility of two things. It is this way between sin and God’s utter holiness. We must be purified before we can enter the presence of God otherwise we could never tolerate His glory. We would wail and grind our teeth and turn away in horror. The wrath is the conflict between our sin and God’s holiness. God cannot and will not change, so we must be changed, otherwise we experience wrath. But notice that the experience is in us primarily and not in God; He does not change. He is holy and serene; He is love. If we experience His wrath, it is on account of us, not Him. Consider the next image.
  5. Image: It is we who change, not God, and this causes wrath to be experienced or not. Consider the following example. On the ceiling of my bedroom is a light with a 100-watt light bulb. At night before bed, I delight in the light; I am accustomed to it. But then at bedtime I turn off the light and go to sleep. When I wake up it is still dark (at least in the winter), so I turn on the light. Ugh! Grrr! Now the light is too bright and I curse it! Now, mind you, the light has not changed one bit. It is still the same 100-watt bulb it was hours earlier. The light is the same; it is I who have changed. But do you know what I do? I blame the light and say, “That light is too harsh!” But the light is not harsh; it is just the same as it was when I was happy with it. Because I have changed I experience its wrath, but the wrath is really in me. Consider the experience of the ancient family of man with God. Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the evening when the dew collected on the grass (cf Gen 3:8). They had a warm friendship with Him and did not fear His presence. After sinning, they hid. Had God changed? He had not, but they had, and they now experienced him very differently. Fast forward to another theophany. God had come to Mt. Sinai. As He descended, the people were terrified, for there were peals of thunder, flashes of lightning, clouds, and the loud blast of a trumpet. The people told Moses, “You speak to us, but let not God speak, else we will die!” (Ex 20:19) God, too, warned Moses that the people could not get too close lest His wrath be vented upon them (Ex 19:20-25). Now, again, had God changed? No, he had not. He was the same God who walked with them in the cool of the evening in a most intimate way. It was we who had changed. We had lost the holiness without which no one can see the Lord (Heb 12:14). The same God, unchanged though He was, now seemed frightening and wrathful.
  6. What, then, shall we do? If we can allow the image of fire to remain before us we may well find a hopeful sign in God’s providence. Since God is a holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:26; Is 33:14), how can we possibly come into His presence? How can we avoid the wrath that would destroy us? Well, what is the only thing that survives in the presence of fire? Fire itself! So it looks as if we’d better become fire if we want to see God. And thus it was that God sent tongues of fire upon the Apostles and upon us at our Confirmation. God wants to set you and me on fire with the Holy Spirit and in holiness. God wants to bring us up to the temperature of glory so that we can stand in His presence.See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.  But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years (Mal 3:1-4). And indeed Jesus has now come: For you have turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:10-11).

So there is a “wrath of God.” As I have tried to show, it is more in us than it is in God. But I will not say to you that there is no wrath in God. Scripture is clear in indicating that wrath does pertain to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how God experiences it is mysterious to us. We can say to some extent what it is not (as we did above), but we cannot really say what it is exactly. But far richer is the meditation that the wrath of God is essentially within us. It is our experience of the incompatibility of sin before God. We must be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and purified. Most of us will need purification in Purgatory, too. But if we let the Lord perform His saving work, we are saved from His wrath, for we are made holy and set on fire with God’s love. And fire never fears the presence of fire. God is love, but He will not change. So it is that love must change us.

One of the greatest cinematic depictions of the wrath of God occurred in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Nazis sinfully think they can open the Ark of the Covenant and endure the presence of God. What they get is wrath, for sin cannot endure the reality of God’s presence. “Enjoy” this clip:

 

Why Is the Road to Destruction Wide and the Road to Salvation Narrow? A Meditation on a Teaching by Jesus

blog.6.24In the gospel earlier this week, we read a warning from Jesus that too many people just brush aside:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 6:12-13).

I have commented on this blog at some length in the past on the serious problem of universalism (the notion that nearly everyone goes to Heaven). I will not create another whole post on that just now, but you can read one of those older posts here: Hell is for real and not rare.

But just to summarize, most people today have the teaching exactly backwards. Whereas Jesus says “many” are on the road to destruction and only “a few” travel the narrow road (of the cross) to salvation, most reverse what Jesus says and claim that many go to Heaven and only a few (if any) go to Hell. Don’t do that. Jesus is not playing games with us. No one loves us more than Jesus does, and no one warned us more of judgment and Hell than Jesus. And even though He doesn’t give percentages for each category, do not refute His words by trying to make “many” mean “few” and “few” mean “many.”

The question does surely arise as to why many walk the wide road to destruction and Hell. Is it because God is stingy or despotic? No. God surely wants to save us all (Ez 18:23; 1 Tim 2:4). The real answer is that we are hard to save and we must become more sober about that. We have hard hearts, thick skulls, and innumerable other traits that make us a difficult case.

If even a third of the angels fell, that ought to make us very aware of our own tendency to fall. This should make us more humble about our own situation. The fallen angels had intellects vastly superior to ours and their angelic souls were not weighed down with the many bodily passions that beset us. But still, they fell!

Adam and Eve, possessing preternatural gifts and existing before all the weaknesses we inherited from sin, also fell. Are you and I, in our present unseemly state and vastly less gifted than the angels, really going to claim that we are not in any real danger or are easy to save?

We need to sober up and run to God with greater humility, admitting that we are a hard case and in desperate need of the medicines and graces that God offers. He offers us His Word, the Sacraments, holy fellowship, and lots of prayer! We need not be in a panic, but we do need to be far more urgent than most moderns are about themselves and the people whom they say they love.

Consider some of the following ways we can be a hard case in terms of being saved (Disclaimer, I do not say all these things are true of you personally, just that we, collectively, have these common tendencies):

1. We have hard hearts and stubborn wills – While some of what this includes is specified more below, here is a good place to begin. God, speaking to us through Isaiah the Prophet, says, I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead is bronze (Is 48:4). He is talking about us!

2. We are obtuse in our desires – In other words, if something is forbidden we seem to want it all the more. St Paul laconically observes, When the commandment came, sin sprang to life (Rom 7:9). If something is harmful we want it in abundance, but if it is helpful we are often averse to it. We like our sweets and our salty snacks, but vegetables rot in the refrigerator. In the desert the people of Israel longed for melons, leeks, onions, and the fleshpots they enjoyed in Egypt. Never mind that they were slaves then. But when it came to the Bread from Heaven, the Holy Manna, they said, We are disgusted with this wretched manna (Num 21:5). We are obtuse, that is, we are turned outward toward sin instead of inward toward God in a Holy embrace. Jesus sadly remarked that judgment would go poorly for many because The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (Jn 3:19).

3. We don’t like to be told what to do – Even if we know we ought to do something, or to stop doing something, the mere fact that someone is telling us often makes us either dig in our heels and refuse, or else comply, but resentfully rather than whole-heartedly.

4. We are not docile – When we were very young we were fascinated with the world around us and kept asking “Why, Mommy?” or “Why, Daddy?” But as we got older our skull thickened; we stopped asking why. We figured we knew better than anyone around us. The problem just worsens with age, unless grace intervenes. St Paul lamented, For the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (2 Tim 4:3-5).

5. We love distraction and don’t listen – Even when saving knowledge is offered to us, we are too often tuned out, distracted, and resistant. ADHD is nothing new in the human family. God says through Jeremiah, To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen; behold, the word of the LORD is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it (Jeremiah 6:10). Jesus invokes Isaiah to explain why He speaks to the crowds only in parables: For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed (Is 6:10).

6. We are opinionated – We tend to think that something is true or right merely because we think it or agree with it. Having opinions, even strong ones, about what is right and true is not wrong per se. But if God’s Word or the Church’s formal teaching challenges your opinion, you’d better consider changing it, or at least making distinctions. The last time I checked, God is just a little smarter than you are. His official teaching in the Scripture and the Doctrine of the Church is inspired and you are not. Scripture says, All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way (Is 55:8). Or again, Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”? (Is 29:16) Or yet again, Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, “What are you making?” (Is 45:9) But still many go on with their own opinions and will not abide even the clear correction of God.

7. We have darkened intellects due to unruly and dominating passions – Our strong and unruly passions cloud our mind and seek to compel our will. Too easily, without training and practice in virtue, our baser faculties come to dominate our higher faculties, making unreasonable demands for satisfaction. And thus we love to tell ourselves lots of lies. We suppress the truth and our senseless minds become darkened ( Romans 1:21). The catechism says, The human mind … is hampered in the attaining of … truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful. (Catechism #37). And the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium 16, says, But very often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.

8. We are lemmings – We are too easily swayed by what is popular. We prefer ephemeral notions to ancient and tested wisdom. Tattoos, tongue bolts, and piercings are in? Quick, run out and get one! Whatever the fad or fashion, no matter how foolish, harmful, or immodest, many clamor for it. Let a Hollywood star get a divorce and soon enough everyone is casting aside true biblical teaching against it. The same goes for many other moral issues. What was once thought disgraceful and the stuff of back allies is now paraded on Main Street and celebrated. And like lemmings, we run to celebrate what was once called sin (and is still sinful from any biblical stance). Instead of following God we follow human beings. We follow them and the “culture” they create, often mindlessly. Yes, lemmings is the right image.

9. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. Many seem to abide all of this quite well and make quite a nice little home here.

10. If all this isn’t enough to show that we are a hard case, consider a “few” others. We are so easily, in a moment, obnoxious, dishonest, egotistical, undisciplined, weak, impure, arrogant, self-centered, pompous, insincere, unchaste, grasping, harsh, impatient, shallow, inconsistent, unfaithful, immoral, ungrateful, disobedient, selfish, lukewarm, slothful, unloving, uncommitted, untrusting, indifferent, hateful, lazy, cowardly, angry, greedy, jealous, vengeful, prideful, envious, contemptuous, stingy, petty, spiteful, indulgent, careless, neglectful, prejudiced, and just plain mean.

So if the road to destruction is wide (and Jesus says it is), don’t blame God. The road is wide for reasons like this. We are a hard case. We are hard to save. It is not that God lacks power, it is that we refuse to address much of this. God, who made us free, will not force us to change.

We ought not kid ourselves into thinking that we can go on living resistant to and opposed to the Kingdom of God and its values, but that then magically at death we will suddenly want to enter His Kingdom, which we have resisted our whole life. Jesus said that many prefer the darkness. Is it really likely that their preference will suddenly shift? Will not the glorious light of Heaven seem harsh, blinding, and even repulsive to them? In such a case is not God’s “Depart from me” both a just and merciful response?  Why force a person who hates the light to live in it? I suppose it grieves God to have to abide such a departure, but to force a person to endure Him must be even more difficult to abide. I am sure it is with great sadness that God accepts a person’s final “No.”

Yes, the road is wide that leads to destruction. It is wide because of us. The narrow road is the way of the cross, which is a stumbling block and an absurdity to many (1 Cor 1:23), who simply will not abide its message.

So, we ought to be sober about the Lord’s lament. We ought also to be more urgent in our attempts to secure our own unruly soul and the souls of those we love for the Kingdom. The blasé attitude of most moderns is rooted in the extremely flawed notion that judgment and Hell are not real issues. That is a lie, for it contracts Jesus’ clear word.

Why is the road to destruction wide? Because we are hard cases; we are hard to save. We ought not be unduly fearful, but we ought to run to Jesus in humility and beg Him to save us from our worst enemy—our very self. If you don’t think you’re a hard case, read the list above and think again.

https://youtu.be/dZM1mmcis-s

Purgatory – Biblical and Reasonable

Today is the Feast of All Souls. Today we pray for the souls of all the faithful departed in purgatory. It makes sense for us to reflect on the Doctrine of Purgatory and its roots. Please note that the following reflection on Purgatory is also in PDF form if you’d care to print out and share copies. You can get it here: Purgatory – Biblical and Reasonable

The Catholic teaching of Purgatory is one of the teachings of the Church that today many struggle to understand. Non-Catholics have generally rejected this teaching, calling it unbiblical. Actually, it is quite biblical and the biblical roots of the teaching will be shown in this reflection. Many Catholics too, influenced and embarrassed by the protests of non-Catholics have been led to downplay, question or even reject this teaching. The task of this reflection is to set forth the Catholic teaching on Purgatory as both biblical and reasonable. It is perhaps best to begin with a description of the teaching on Purgatory, then show it’s biblical roots. Finally it will be good to show why the teaching makes sense based on what God has said to us about holiness and heaven.

What is Purgatory? The Catechism says the following on purgation and Purgatory: All who die in God’s grace and friendship but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification so as to attain the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name “Purgatory” to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. (Catechism 1030-1031). Jesus declared that we must be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48, Rev 3:2). Other Scriptures also teach that we are called to ultimate perfection (e.g. 2 Cor 7:1; James 1:4) Further heaven is described in the Bible as a place of those who have been made perfect (Heb 12:23; Rev 21:27). The Church takes these promises of ultimate perfection and of heaven as the place of that perfection very seriously. If that perfection is not attained by the time of death then, before entering heaven, the Church understands from the Word of God that we must undergo a final purification that brings to completion the good work that God has begun in us (cf Phil 1:6). The need for purgation thus flows from the promises of God that we shall one day be perfect.

Exactly how this purgation (or purification) is carried out is not revealed explicitly. Some have used the image of fire based on certain scripture texts (e.g. 1 Cor 3:13-15, Isaiah 6:5-7; Malachi 3:2-3). However, as can be seen in the quote already supplied, the Catechism is careful to point out that the purification of Purgatory is entirely different from the experiences of Hell. Thus to summarize, Purgatory is a place and a process of final purification which the elect undergo after death, if necessary, before entering heaven.

A Biblical Teaching – Some have dismissed the Catholic teaching on Purgatory calling it unbiblical. It is true, the word “Purgatory” does not appear in the Bible, but neither does the word “Trinity.” Despite the fact that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible every Christian still accepts the teaching since the Scriptures contain the truth of the teaching the word conveys. It is the same with Purgatory. Though the word does not appear in the Bible, the teaching does. We do well then to examine some Bible texts and thereby learn that Purgatory is a Biblical teaching.

Consider the following passage from the Gospel of Luke:

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Settle with your opponent on the way to court, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will not get out till you have paid the very last penny.” (Luke 12:56-59)

The context of this passage seems clearly to be one of judgement, and in particular the judgement we will one day face. We may ask who is the judge? It is Jesus for Scripture says, The Father judges no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son (John 5:22). We may also ask, what is the “prison” referred to in this passage? We may instinctively think of Hell. But that could not be correct in this instance for the text clearly indicates that one will emerge from the prison after the last penny is paid. Hell is a place from which no one emerges (cf Mk 9:48, Lk 16:26 etc). Thus the “prison” cannot be Hell, surely it is not heaven. There must then be some place, after judgement, wherein an individual may be detained for a time and then released, after “paying the last penny.” Our Catholic tradition calls this place Purgatory. Though the Lord in this passage clearly urges us to settle our accounts before facing the judge, there does seem to be a chance to settle accounts later if this be deemed necessary.

Consider another passage from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation [of Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.(1 Cor. 3:13-15).

This is surely a complicated passage but again there seems to be a judgment scene described here. Each person’s work will be judged, his or her works will be tested by fire. Some shall receive reward. Others will suffer loss. Ultimately they are saved but “only as through fire” according to the text. Thus there seems to be a sort of purification accomplished for some. On the day of judgement what is imperfect or unbecoming will be burned away. Now this entry unto salvation “through fire” cannot be in heaven since there is no pain and loss is not suffered there. Nor can it be Hell since that is an eternal fire from which there is no escape (cf Matt 25:41). Hence there must be some place of purifying fire through which some pass in the life to come. Our Catholic tradition calls this Purgatory.

Consider yet another passage. In Matthew 12:32 our Lord says Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. This text implies that there is the forgiveness of some sins to be had in the world to come. But where could this place be? It cannot be heaven since there is no sin to be forgiven there (cf Rev 21:27). It cannot be hell since forgiveness is not granted there and there is no escape (Lk 16:26). Hence there must be some third place in the “age to come” where the forgiveness of sin can be experienced. Catholic Tradition and teaching calls this Purgatory. Here individuals in a state of friendship with God and faith in Him may receive forgiveness for certain sins committed in life and be purged of the injustices and effects of those sins.

There is also a teaching in Scripture from the Book of Maccabees: It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.(2 Mac 12:43-46) Although most non-Catholics do not accept Maccabees as a Book of the Bible it does give us historical evidence that praying for the dead was a Jewish practice. Christ nowhere condemns such prayers nor does any New Testament text dismiss such practices.

These scriptural texts have been reviewed to show that the Catholic teaching on Purgatory does have Biblical basis. The claim that Catholic teaching on this matter is “unbiblical” is thus unfounded. There is a biblical basis and foundation for the Church to teach that after death a purification is both available and in many cases necessary.

A Reasonable Teaching. – Not only is there a Biblical basis for the teaching on Purgatory, there is a an argument for the fittingness of this teaching based on Biblical teaching. In other words, the teaching makes sense based on the promises contained in scripture to those who have been called to be saints.

  1. Scripture teaches that Heaven is a place of perfect happiness where there is no more sorrow or pain, no more death, no more tears (cf Rev 21:23-24). The saints in heaven are perfectly holy and we are thus exhorted here on earth to Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). And regarding heaven Scripture says, But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 21:27) Christ also teaches us very solemnly, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48).
  2. Now this raises a question: What happens to those who die in a state of grace and friendship with God but are not yet perfect? Most of us will admit, if we were to die at this very moment, we could not honestly say that we are perfect. Even assuming that we are in a state of grace and friendship with God, we can likely see there are still some rough edges to our personality and that we still struggle with certain habitual sins and shortcomings. Likewise, most of us carry within us certain sorrows, regrets or misunderstandings from the past. Despite effort, we may have not been able to fully let go of these things. It is clear that we cannot take any of this with us to heaven. If we did, it would not be a place of perfect joy and total sinlessness.
  3. Obviously we must be purged of any final imperfections, sins, and sorrows before entering heaven. Every tear must be wiped from our eyes (Rev 21:4), every sorrow left behind, every wound healed. Only then will we be able to experience heaven. Ideally this takes place here on earth as we read in James 1:4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Yet many of us know that this process is seldom complete at death. Thus, presuming that we die in a state of grace and friendship with God, Christ will surely complete his work in us (for he is faithful to his promises) by purging us of whatever imperfections, venial sins, or sorrowful effects of sins that still remain. Further, all punishments due to sin are completed.

Thus, the teaching on Purgatory seems quite fitting based on the promise of Jesus that we would one day be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, lacking in nothing. If we die before this process is complete, then something must happen after death to transform us into the glory which we have been promised and to which we have been called. Catholic teaching and tradition assigns the term “Purgatory” to this process of completion and transformation.

Perhaps, in this light, it is good to conclude with a prayer and blessing from St. Paul: In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:4-6)

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.