Sober but Serene Themes of Judgment in the Spirituals

Julia Eckel, Smithsonian American Art Museum

I’ve often been impressed by the ability of old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of weighty matters like sin and judgment. During early November we are focused on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell) and November is also Black Catholic History Month. So, this seems like a good time to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate these topics.

It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent in recovering an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.

In a certain sense, the spirituals are unimpeachable, even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame preachers for announcing sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs that helped accompany both their work and their worship.

The spirituals were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it was surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it was they. Yet the spirituals are almost entirely devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and the need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.

If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?

Here are some lines from a few of the many spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:

  • I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.
  • Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
  • Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
  • Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds? Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? Oh where shall I be when it sounds? How will it be with my poor soul, Oh where shall I be?
  • Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
  • God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
  • Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
  • Noah, Noah let me come in!
    The doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fastened an’ de winders pinned
    Noah said, “Ya lost your track
    Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
  • Knock at the window knock at the door
    Callin’ brother Noah
    Can’t you take more?
    No said Noah cause you’re full of sin!
    God has the key you can’t get in!
  • Well I went to the rock to hide my face
    The rock cried out, no hiding place
    There’s no hiding place down here
    Oh the rock cried I’m burnin’ too!
    I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
  • Oh sinner man better repent!
    Oh you’d better repent
    for God’s gonna call you to judgment
    There’s no hiding place down there!
  • No signal for another train
    To follow in this line
    Oh sinner you’re forever lost
    When once you’re left behind.
    She’s nearing now the station
    Oh, sinner don’t be vain
    But come and get your ticket
    Be ready for that train!
  • Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass
    And die and lose your soul at last.
  • My Lord, what a morning
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake the nations underground
    Looking to my God’s right hand,
    When the stars begin to fall
    You’ll hear the sinner moan,
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the Christian shout,
    Oh, when the stars begin to fall!

Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.

Given all the reluctance to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.

I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the last judgment. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish.

In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ Fare You Well

I’m gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Dere’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Chorus:
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,

Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem coffins burstin’,
do you see dem folks is risin’
Do you see dat fork of lightnin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder?
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire?
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh! Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

Here are renditions of a few other spirituals:

How to Influence the Way the Lord Will Judge Us

This is the seventh in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Works of Mercy, Pieter Bruegel

In the past several posts, we have been considering the judgment that awaits us. Not only must we be ready in the ways we have described, but should allow our looming judgment to help our attitude today.

Scripture says, Always speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the Law that gives freedom. For judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful (James 2:12-13). Herein lies a way that we can influence the standard by which the Lord will judge us.

The key teaching from the Lord here is this: the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:38). This statement comes at the end of a long discourse in which the Lord summons us to be generous, forgiving, merciful, patient, and reluctant to condemn others severely.

Consider this a kind of “mathematics” of the Kingdom of God.

In effect, the Lord says, “Do the math. Realize that if you are merciful, you will be judged with mercy, but if you are harsh and critical, you will be judged by a harsh and critical standard. If you refuse to forgive, you will not be forgiven.”

Like it or not, this is the mathematics of the Kingdom of God. It does not mean that we earn salvation, but it does mean that we have a lot of influence over the standard by which we will be judged.

So, if you are going to need mercy and grace on that day (and we all are), it is good to do the math of the Kingdom and store up mercy and grace for that day.

One day, we will all answer to God. That day, as Scripture repeatedly teaches, is a day about which we should be sober. Sadly, there are many who give little thought to this truth and some who outright scoff at it.

Remarkably, we can influence the manner in which God will judge us, the standard he will use. Here we speak of the manner of God’s judgment. That is, whether He will be strict or merciful. We do not refer to the content. It is an obvious and axiomatic truth that God will judge our deeds. Hence, we should avoid wickedness and grave sins, and repent quickly when we commit such sins.

On the one hand, it would seem that we could have no influence at all on the manner in which we will be judged, for it would seem that God is no respecter of persons, and judges with perfect justice.

On the other hand, there are passages in Scripture that do speak of ways that we can influence the standard God will use, the manner of His judgment. Let’s look at four areas in which we can have influence and consider a few biblical passages.

Whether we show mercy to others

Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). James says something similar and develops it a bit when he says, Always speak and act as those were going to be judged under the law of freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. So mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12-13). Thus we are taught that by observing mercy and patience in our relations with one another, we will influence the manner in which we are judged.

Sometimes in life, particularly if we are leaders or parents, we will need to punish and/or assign consequences to those who transgress moral laws or legal limits. Passages like these do not mean that we should never accompany correction with punitive measures. Such a way of living would be unwise and could confirm people in bad behavior. Even when punitive measures are needed, though, it makes sense to be lenient when possible and to attempt less measures before firmer ones are employed.

It is also clear from these biblical texts that it is highly foolish to go through life with severity toward others, with a lack of compassion or a harsh and unyielding attitude. We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy at our judgment. Therefore, how misguided, how foolish it would be for us to be harsh and unmerciful toward others! For indeed, these text tell us that the merciful will be blessed and the unmerciful will be shown no mercy. Can you or I really expect that we will make it on the day of judgment without boatloads of mercy?

Now, therefore, is the time for us to seek to invoke the promise of the Lord: Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Whether we are strict or lenient with others

In a related text, the Lord Jesus says, The measure that you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Mark 4:24). If we hope for and need a merciful judgment, if we want a merciful measure or standard to be used, then we must do the same for others. The Lord makes it clear that He will use the measure or standard that we have used for others when He judges us. Have we been strict? If so, then He will be strict with us. Have we been merciful? If so, then He will be merciful to us. Be very careful before demanding that sinners and others who transgress receive the strongest penalties. There may be a time for such penalties, but it is not necessary that the most severe punishments always be used.

In John chapter 8, the Pharisees wanted to exact the most severe penalty (stoning) on a woman caught in adultery. Jesus reasons with them, telling them that before they demand that He “throw the book at her,” they might want to recall that there are a few things about them that are also written in the book. One by one they drift away, seemingly after considering the foolishness of their demands for the most severe penalty. They finally realize that the measure they want to measure out to her will in turn be measured back to them.

Whether we are generous to the poor

Luke relates the following text more specifically to our generosity: Give and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Luke 6:38). This leads us to a second area in which the Scriptures teach us that we can influence the day of our judgment.

After rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees for their severity and extreme legalism, Jesus says to them (who were obsessing about cleaning the outside of the dish), You fools, did not the one who made the outside of the cup make the inside also? But if you give what is inside the cup as alms to the poor, everything will be made clean for you (Luke 11:40-41). In the light of the theology of grace, this is a daring text. It almost implies that we can somehow “purchase” forgiveness. But of course it is the Lord Himself who says it, and He does not say that we can somehow purchase forgiveness. Surely, though, He does teach that generosity to the poor will in fact influence the day of our judgment.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus develops the thought, saying, I tell you, use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Lk 16:9). It is a complicated text, but Jesus seems to be saying that our generosity to the poor will surely gain advantages for us at the day of our judgment. Indeed, blessing the poor gives us powerful intercessors, for the Lord hears the cries of the poor. The picture painted here is of those poor welcoming us into our eternal dwellings.

Scripture elsewhere warns, If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be heard (Proverbs 21:13). Once again, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner, measure, or standard that will be used by God at our judgment. To the merciful, mercy will be shown. The generous will experience that their cries are heard, for they heard the cries of the poor. The Lord more than implies that those who have been generous to the poor will have powerful advocates praying and interceding for them on the day of judgment. Indeed, a number of the Fathers of the Church remind us that in this life the poor need us, but in the life to come we will need them.

Whether we forgive others

A final area to explore in terms of how we might have influence over the manner of our judgment is in the matter of forgiveness. Just after giving us the Our Father, the Lord Jesus says, For if you forgive others 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 (Matthew 6:14 – 15).

Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the terrifying parable of a man who had huge debt that was forgiven him by his master. When the man then refused to forgive his brother a much smaller debt, the master grew angry and threw him into debtors’ prison. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35).

So yes, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us, the standard He will use. While it is true that God will judge us by our deeds (cf Romans 2:6), the manner in which He judges us, whether with strictness or leniency, does seem to be a matter over which we have influence.

We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy, for if God judges with strict justice and strict standards, who can stand? We will all have much to answer for. All the more reason for us to follow the teachings of the Lord in His Scripture, so that we can be sure that on the day of our judgment, mercy and the grace of leniency will prevail in abundance. Do we want mercy? Then we must show mercy. Do we want a gentle standard? Then we must measure out gentleness. Do we want forgiveness? Then we must offer forgiveness. Recruit some intercessors for the day of judgment by giving to the poor. They will be the most powerful intercessors for us as we leave this life and go to our judgment.

Indeed, God has shown us how we can store up a treasure of mercy, waiting for us in Heaven at the judgment seat of Christ. There are some good lessons here to heed.

In the next article in this series, we will turn our attention to Heaven, another of the Four Last Things.

Here’s an amusing video illustrating that the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us:

Preparing for Judgment

This is the sixth in a series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

In the past two articles we have recalled the reality of the judgment that is upon us when we die and we have surveyed the parables in which Jesus urgently warns us of it. In this post we consider something of a plan to prepare for judgment.

You are going to die and you don’t get to say when. This should inspire a sober, urgent, and daily preparation for death and judgment. Yet too many people today are not serious about their spiritual walk. They’re running around as if life is just some big game. They’re not thinking about appearing before the judgment seat. They’re not praying. They’re not reading Scripture. They’re not growing in their faith. They’re are not going to Mass on Sundays. Many of them are stubbornly locked in very serious and unrepentant mortal sin. They are not going to be ready. To them, the message must be turn to Jesus. Repent. Give Him your life.

Obviously, the main point is to live a life of faith and, through ongoing conversion, to permit the Lord to do what is necessary to prepare us. The following description of the Christian life appears in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Four things follow: that we should pray, be obedient to the Scriptures, faithfully and worthily receive the sacraments, and stay united to the Body of Christ, the Church. To this must be added ongoing repentance and the will to allow the Lord to free us from the grip of sin. Consider the following reflection and four-point plan of preparation:

Rest – Prayer is resting in the Lord. Prayer as rest is a great “power-nap,” so pray every day. Some folks tell me that it’s hard to pray or that they don’t know how to pray. Well, do you know what you’re doing when you say that? You’re already praying! Don’t tell me; tell God. If that’s where you’ve got to begin with your prayer, say to Him: “Lord, I don’t like to pray. I struggle to pray. Prayer is boring.” Tell Him whatever you need to tell Him. Prayer isn’t reading words that somebody else wrote that you don’t mean. Prayer is talking to the Lord and telling Him what’s going on in your life. At its heart, prayer is paying attention to God.

Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, that calls me from a world of care. And bids me at my Father’s throne, make all my wants and wishes known. In seasons of distress and grief, My soul has often found relief, And oft escaped the tempter’s snare, By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!

Read – Read Scripture and only holy writings – We simply must read Scripture every day and study the teachings of the Church. Our minds will be polluted if we don’t cleanse them every day with God’s Word and the teachings of the Faith. Some people say that it’s hard to understand Scripture, but there are so many aids available: “My Daily Bread,” “The Word Among Us,” “Magnificat,” study bibles. Some folks even get the Word sent to their cell phones each day along with some commentary. Somehow, some way, get with God’s Word every day. We seem to find time for everything else; find some time for God’s Word.

The Word of God helps us to think more as God does, not as the world does. Our priorities improve and we begin to win the fight in the chief battleground: our mind. Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. It all begins in the mind. As Scripture itself says, we must be transformed by the renewal of our mind (see Romans 12:2). If you’re not winning the battle in your mind, you’re going backward and the abyss is approaching. Study Scripture. Be devoted to learning your faith.

Rehearse – Go to Mass every Sunday. Mass attendance and Church membership are essential for salvation. In the first place, God is worthy of our praise and adoration. To fail in our Sunday obligation displays an egregious lack of gratitude.

We also need to come to God’s house so that we can be instructed and then fed with the Body and the Blood of the Lord. Jesus says, If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). Some people say, “Oh, I watch the Mass on TV.” You can’t get Holy Communion through the television! People who don’t go to Mass are starving themselves spiritually and will not have strength for the journey.

If you don’t attend in person, you can’t get real fellowship. Fellowship is about more than coffee and doughnuts; it’s about mutual support and accountability; it’s about the love we are commanded to have for one another.

Go to Mass every Sunday. Receive Communion every Sunday, provided that you are in a state of grace.

Some say, “God doesn’t care if I go to Mass or not.” Yes, He does. He put it right in the Ten Commandments: “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.” We fulfill this each Sunday. When God puts something in the Ten Commandments, He is serious. Don’t mess around with the Ten Commandments. Missing Mass without a serious reason is a mortal sin.

Mass is the dress rehearsal for Heaven; it’s our training ground for what awaits. If you don’t even want to show up for the dress rehearsal, why should God trust you with the real thing? The fact is we are simply not able to endure the real Heaven unless we are well-rehearsed in its truths and purified by the sacraments.

RepentIf you are aware of any serious or unrepented mortal sin in your life, repent now and call on the Lord’s mercy. Go to confession; go frequently. Some folks tell me, “I’m in such a mess that I don’t know how to get out of it.” Go to the Lord and talk to Him about it. Say, “Help me, Lord!” But please, do not go on calling “good” or “no big deal” what God calls sin! The Lord says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37).

Upon hearing the call to repent, too many people today say, “I will not be told what to do. I will not be told what is right and wrong.” Be careful! The one thing that God can’t save us from is that kind of pride, because with it we don’t want to be forgiven. And so again I say to all of us: Repent—and be urgent about it.

No one loves you more than does Jesus Christ, and yet no one warned about judgment and Hell more than He did. Many people today are dismissive of judgment and Hell. They say, “Jesus would never do that.” But Jesus told us over and over again that there will be a judgment, and it’s not so much about what He decides but what we decide through the way we live our life. Jesus says this: Here is the judgment in question, that the Light has come into the world, but many prefer the darkness, because their deeds are sinful (Jn 3:18).

So there is a judgment coming. The Lord warns us in parable after parable. I simply ask you to be ready. In a future post we will talk more about Hell and why it exists. For now, though simply listen to what the Lord is saying. He teaches of a day of judgment, of the reality that “many” go to Hell, and of the need to call upon Him before our hearts are forever lost in pride and sin.

Tomorrow we will consider one final thing about judgment: the wonderful thought that we can have an influence on the standard with which the Lord will judge us.

Parables by Jesus on the Day of Judgment and on Our Need to be Ready

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

credit: Ashland CTC

Jesus was urgent in warning us to be ready for judgment. He did this in many ways, but most notably in the parables. In this post let’s ponder His teachings and hear His urgency.

Most casual readers of the Bible tend to view the parables as merely interesting, entertaining stories. While that is so, they are deadly serious as well; they powerfully portray the drama of human life, the need to make decisions, and the consequences of those decisions. The parables carry weighty messages and substantial warnings. Do not misconstrue their creative, pithy, memorable qualities as signs of superficial teaching.

Some of Jesus’ starkest warnings come in the form of parables. In them, the drama of human life in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14) is vividly proclaimed. Indeed, the parables are mostly about the drama and decisions of human life and the stance we take in the cosmic battle that rages around us. Our decisions point to our destiny. Of Jesus’ 37 parables, 20 are ones that remind us that our decisions can bring blessing or curse, rise or ruin, salvation or condemnation. Let’s review some of them, in order of increasing intensity:

  1. The rich fool (Luke 12:16–21): This is a parable of a rich man who hoards the surplus yielded by a bountiful harvest rather than being generous with it. God calls him a fool and claims his life that very night. In this parable Jesus warns us of the foolishness of living for passing, worldly things, cautioning that total loss is coming for those who are not rich in what matters to God.
  2. The wise and the foolish builders (Matthew 7:24–7; Luke 6:46–49): This is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount; in it the Lord describes the dramatic difference between those who follow His teachings and those who do not. Those who heed His Word are like those who build their houses on solid rock and are thus able to endure the storms that come. But the foolish, who do not heed His Word, are like those who build their houses on sand. For them, the result is total loss and destruction when the storm of judgment comes.
  3. The sower (Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:3–9; Luke 8:5–8): Though God sows the seed of His Word abundantly, some of it falls on the path, where it is consumed by birds. Other seed falls among thorns, which choke it off. Still other seed falls on rocky soil and withers due to the lack of roots. This is a dramatic warning to those who harden their hearts to God’s Word or who allow the soil of their heart to be thinned or choked off by the world. The warning is this: you will not bear the necessary fruit. Some seed, however, does fall on rich soil and it yields an abundant harvest. There is a dramatic difference in the results and it is rooted in the disposition of our hearts.
  4. The wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24–30): God’s field of wheat is threatened by the weeds of Satan. (This is a dramatic description of the two armies in this world.) Angry field hands propose pulling up the weeds, but the owner cautions that doing so might harm the wheat. He instructs them to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest. There is a harvest, at which time the wheat will be gathered in but the weeds will be thrown into the fire. So there is a day of judgment, though not yet. Although the drama must still unfold, the final verdict will ultimately be rendered.
  5. The barren fig tree (Luke 13:6–9): This is a parable about patience. In it, extra time is given to an unfruitful fig tree, but the day of judgment is set. If fruit is not found on the tree on that day, it will be cut down. This is the drama of our life: if we do not manifest the fruit of righteousness we will be removed from the Lord’s field.
  6. The dragnet (Matthew 13:47 –50): The kingdom of God (the Church) is compared to a dragnet, which captures all sorts of things. The drama unfolds when the net is hauled ashore and there comes the judgment. Only what is good is retained; that which is unclean and worthless is cast aside.
  7. The counting of the cost (Luke 14:28–33): In this parable, Jesus warns that discipleship is costly; some are not able or willing to finish once started. He uses the images of a building begun without the resources necessary to finish it and of a king going to war knowing that he is greatly outnumbered. Similarly, some will set off to be disciples but later realize that they do not have the resources or willingness to continue. Thus the Lord sets forth in this parable that discipleship is costly and that the warfare is real. The implication is that some are willing to accept the cost while others are not. The road to salvation is narrow and few find it. The narrow way is the way of the cross. Many turn back from it, preferring the wide road that ultimately leads to destruction.
  8. The unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35): A man who owes a huge debt to the king has it forgiven, but then refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow servant. The king then calls the man back and applies the same unforgiving standard to him that he used on his confrere. Thus the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us. Merciless is the judgment on one who has shown no mercy. Further, if we do not forgive the sins of others, neither will we find forgiveness from the Father. The choice to forgive and show mercy is a dramatic and crucial decision for us, one that will affect our final judgment in a powerful way.
  9. The prodigal son (Luke 15): A sinful son returns to and is reconciled with his father. But in a dramatic twist, the “obedient” son becomes bitter and refuses to enter his father’s house. Even more dramatically, the parable ends without us knowing whether or not the obedient son ever entered. This is because you are that son and you must decide for yourself if you will enter the Father’s house on His terms or stay outside, brooding that God doesn’t do everything on your terms.
  10. The dishonest steward (Lk 16:1-13): An unscrupulous steward has been discovered embezzling funds. In the end, though, Jesus praises his craftiness even though it is wrong. The point being made is that most sinners are far more dedicated to their world than Christians are to the Kingdom. This parable is another example showing that too many are simply not willing to fight for and with the Kingdom; they are thus lost as much through apathy as through wickedness.
  11. The rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31): In this parable, a rich man who has been insensitive to the poor ends up in Hell. Through this we are taught that such insensitivity is a damnable sin. In the great drama of his life, the rich man preferred to be wealthy in the world rather than to store up treasure for himself in Heaven. So hardened is his heart that even though he is now in torment in Hell, he does not ask to come to Heaven, but rather that Lazarus be dispatched to Hell to bring him water. In this, the rich man shows that he has not changed; he still looks down on Lazarus and prefers creature comforts to God and His kingdom. The rich man’s heart is hardened and so can ours be if we let sin, neglect, and insensitivity go unchecked.
  12. The wicked vineyard workers (Mat 21:33-41): The owner of a vineyard sends his representatives to collect his share of the produce, but the wicked workers beat some and kill others. Finally, they kill the owner’s son. Next the owner comes and submits them to a bad end. In the drama of this world, there are many who reject God’s call for a share in their hearts; they beat or even kill those who prophetically call them to give glory to God and to live holy lives. In rejecting His appointed prophets, they also reject Christ and will come to a bad end.
  13. The great banquet (Matt 22:1-14; Lk 14:15-24): A king holds a wedding feast for his son, but the invited guests are too involved in worldly affairs to bother coming, even to so great an event. The king grows angry and burns their town. He then goes off to invite others until the banquet is filled. There is one man in attendance who refuses to wear the provided wedding attire. For this, he is thrown into the outer darkness. Through this parable we are taught that while many are called, few are chosen. Our decision to accept or reject God’s invitation is critical. Either we accept it and enter the feast or else face a fiery end. Even those of us who accept must wear the robe of righteousness that God provides us or else risk being cast into the outer darkness. Our decisions are dramatic and they determine our destiny.
  14. The wise and the foolish virgins (Mat 25:1-13): Ten bridesmaids await the groom’s arrival. Five were wise and carried extra oil; five were foolish and thus unprepared when the groom arrived. The wedding went on without the foolish bridesmaids and when they finally returned, the groom said to them, “Depart from me; I know you not.” This parable depicts the drama of our lives. We must live in readiness. The oil of our holiness must always be replenished and be kept ready through prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and fellowship with the Church (Acts 2:42). Judgment day is coming. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
  15. The sheep and the goats (Mat 25:31-46): In a scene of the great judgment, the Lord welcomes the righteous sheep on his right to the glory of Heaven, but consigns the wicked goats on His left to the fires of Hell. While the passage emphasizes the corporal works of mercy and indicates that to neglect them is a damnable sin, the passage should not be taken to mean these will be the only matters adjudicated. Again, note how dramatic are the decisions in our life, including how we choose to care for the poor and needy.

The Lord repeatedly sets before us the great drama of human life and the importance of our decisions. Our choices matter and they build to a fundamental, final destiny. Thoughts beget deeds, deeds beget habits, habits beget character, and character begets destiny. This is the drama and dignity of our life.

Though consistently preached by Jesus in the parables and in countless other texts, this theme is rarely mentioned in preaching today. We preachers must change this if we are to announce the Gospel authentically. For those who hear and heed the message, blessings await. For those who stubbornly refuse or who sinfully neglect the message, doom awaits. This is the drama of every human life.

Here are two final passages; The first contains a warning, the second a blessing.

Jesus said, “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mk 13:33-37).

Therefore, you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing (Mat 24:44-47).

In the next post in this series, on Monday of next week, we will ponder some ways to be ready.

Pondering Judgment, One of the Four Last Things

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

We turn our attention now to the judgment that awaits us all. Scripture speaks in the Book of Hebrews speaks rather plainly to this day for us all:

It is appointed for us to die once, and after that to face judgment (Heb 9:27).

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:10).

Furthermore, the Father judges no one, but has assigned all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father (Jn 5:22-23).

The Gospel of Luke emphasizes the reverence we should have for Jesus and for His role as our judge:

But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear the One who, after you have been killed, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him (Lk 12:5).

There is a distinction to be made between our personal judgment and the general judgment of the whole world (e.g., Matt 24:31ff). In the general judgment, God’s truth and justice will be made manifest; all those who have loved evil will be seen by all for who and what they were. Further, every evil and foolish philosophy will be seen for the darkness it is. Today I will not be discussing this general judgment, but rather our personal judgment.

We need to attend to our own judgment and prepare for it by seeking God and His grace so as to be ready. St. Paul entrusts us to Jesus, who alone can save us from the coming wrath (see 1 Thess 3:13).

Indeed, Jesus was quite urgent and persistent in warning us of the judgment that is coming upon us. He did this in many ways, but most urgently in the parables.

In the posts over the next few days, we will be examining our certain and coming judgment. We will look at Jesus’ consistent warnings to prepare for our judgment. We will reflect on our tendency to be inattentive to our day of judgment. We will then ponder a way to prepare. Finally, we will consider how we can tip the scales of judgment toward mercy.

Today, let’s begin by pondering the text of the Dies Irae, which sets forth the biblical themes of our judgment as well as a plea for mercy. The context in this case is the general judgment, but its themes also apply in many ways to our personal judgment:

The hymn opens by referring to God’s “wrath.”  (I’ve written more on wrath here.) Wrath is a term used to describe the complete incompatibility of sin in the presence of the All Holy One, a sinner brought into the Lord’s presence. We have every reason to be sober that the awesome holiness of God will disclose all that is in need of purification. The hymn begins as follows:

Day of wrath and doom impending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending,
David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.

No one can treat this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. At the sound of the trumpet, the bodies of the dead will come forth from their tombs and all of creation will answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all:

Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth.

Death is struck and nature quaking,
All creation is awaking,
To its judge an answer making.

Lo the book exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded,
Thence shall judgement be awarded.

When the Judge his seat attaineth,
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Judgment shall be according to our deeds, whatever is written in the Book (Rev 20:12; Romans 2:6). Ah, but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy. And so our hymn turns to pondering the need for mercy and appealing to God for it. The hope for mercy is based on the grace of God, His mercy, His incarnation, His seeking love, His passion and death, and the forgiveness He showed to Mary Magdalene and the good thief crucified on His right.

What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding
When the just are mercy needing?

King of majesty tremendous,
Who does free salvation send us,
Font of pity then befriend us.

Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
Caused thy wondrous incarnation.
Leave me not to reprobation.

Faint and weary thou hast sought me,
On the cross of suffering bought me.
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?

Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
Grant thy gift of absolution,
Before the day of retribution.

Guilty now I pour my moaning,
All my shame and anguish owning.
Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.

Through the sinful Mary shriven,
Through the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope has given.

Yes, there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy. Pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary because now we can call on that mercy. In the end, it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. So the hymn calls on the Lord, who said, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37).

Worthless are my tears and sighing.
Yet good Lord in grace complying,
Rescue me from fire undying.

With thy sheep a place provide me.
From the goats afar divide me,
To thy right hand do thou guide me.

When the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded.
Call me with thy saints surrounded.

Lo I kneel with heart-submission.
See like ashes my contrition.
Help me in my last condition.

Now comes the great summation: Judgment Day is surely coming. Grant me, O Lord, your grace to be ready:

Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
from the dust of earth returning.

Man for judgement must prepare him,
Spare O God, in mercy spare him.

Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
Grant the dead eternal rest.

Can We Influence How the Lord will Judge Us?

The readings from Mass for the 24th Sunday of the Year were a continuation from the previous Sunday, when our Lord taught us of the requirement that we correct one another. Yesterday’s readings remind us that our correction must be done with mercy and humility. Failing to correct an erring or sinning brother is not mercy at all, but correcting in a harsh or mean-spirited way falls short as well.

As an extended meditation on yesterday’s Gospel let’s consider a kind of “mathematics” of the Kingdom of God. In effect, it says, “Pay attention! You will be judged by the same standard by which you judge others. So do the math and realize that you are storing up for yourselves a kind of standard by which I will judge you.”

The key teaching from the Lord in this regard is this: the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:38). This statement comes at the end of a long discourse in which the Lord summons us to be generous, forgiving, merciful, patient, and reluctant to condemn others severely.

In effect, the Lord says, “Do the math. Realize that if you are merciful, you will be judged with mercy, but if you are harsh and critical, you will be judged by a harsh and critical standard. If you refuse to forgive, you will not be forgiven.

Like it or not, this is the mathematics of the Kingdom of God. It does not mean that we earn salvation, but it does mean that we have a lot of influence over the standard by which we will be judged.

So, if you are going to need mercy and grace on that day (and we all are), it is good to do the math of the Kingdom and store up mercy and grace for that day.

We will all, one day, answer to God. That day, as Scripture repeatedly teaches, is a day about which we should be sober. Sadly, there are many who give little thought to this truth and some who outright scoff at it.

Remarkably, we can influence the manner in which God will judge us, the standard he will use. Here we speak of the manner of God’s judgment. That is, whether He will be strict or merciful. We do not refer to the content. It is an obvious and axiomatic truth that God will judge our deeds. Hence, we should avoid wickedness and grave sins, and repent quickly when we commit such sins.

On the one hand, it would seem that we could have no influence at all on the manner in which we will be judged, for it would seem that God is no respecter of persons, and judges with perfect justice.

Yet, there are passages in Scripture that do speak of ways that we can influence the standard God will use, the manner of His judgment. Let’s look at four areas in which we can have influence and consider a few biblical passages.

I.  Whether we show mercy to others

Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). James says something similar and develops it a bit when he says, Always speak and act as those were going to be judged under the law of freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. So mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12-13). Thus we are taught that by observing mercy and patience in our relations with one another, we will influence the manner in which we are judged.

Sometimes in life, particularly if we are leaders or parents, we will need to punish and/or assign consequences to those who transgress moral laws or legal limits. Texts like these do not mean that we should never accompany correction with punitive measures. Such a way of living would be unwise and could confirm people in bad behavior. Even when punitive measures are needed, though, it makes sense to be lenient when possible and to attempt less measures before firmer ones are employed.

It is also clear from these biblical texts that it is highly foolish to go through life with severity toward others, with a lack of compassion or a harsh, unyielding attitude. We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy at our judgment. Therefore, how misguided, how foolish it would be for us to be harsh and unmerciful toward others! For indeed, these text tell us that the merciful will be blessed and the unmerciful will be shown no mercy. Can you or I really expect that we will make it on the day of judgment without boatloads of mercy?

Now, therefore, is the time for us to seek to invoke the promise of the Lord, Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

II.  Whether we are strict or lenient with others

In a related text, the Lord Jesus says, The measure that you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Mark 4:24). If we hope for and need a merciful judgment, if we want a merciful measure or standard to be used, then we must do the same for others. The Lord makes it clear that He will use the measure or standard that we have used for others when He judges us. Have we been strict? If so, then He will be strict. Have we been merciful? If so, then He will be merciful. Be very careful before demanding that sinners and others who transgress receive the strongest penalties. There may be a time for such penalties, but it is not necessary that the most severe punishments always be used.

In John 8, the Pharisees wanted to exact the most severe penalty (stoning) on a woman caught in adultery. Jesus reasons with them, telling them that before they demand that He “throw the book at her,” they might want to recall that there are a few things about them that are also written in the book. One by one they drift away, seemingly after considering the foolishness of their demands for the most severe penalty. They finally realize that the measure they want to measure out to her will in turn be measured back to them.

III.  Whether we are generous to the poor

Luke relates the following text more specifically to our generosity: Give and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Luke 6:38). This leads us to a second area in which the Scriptures teach us that we can influence the day of our judgment.

Jesus, after rebuking the Scribes Pharisees for their severity and extreme legalism, says to them (who were obsessing about cleaning the outside of the dish), You fools, did not the one who made the outside of the cup make the inside also? But if you give what is inside the cup as alms to the poor, everything will be made clean for you (Luke 11:40-41). It is a daring text, in the light of the theology of grace, and almost implies that we can somehow “purchase” forgiveness. But of course it is the Lord Himself who says it, and He does not say we can somehow purchase forgiveness. Surely, though, He does teach that generosity to the poor will in fact influence the day of our judgment.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus develops the thought, saying, I tell you, use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Lk 16:9). It is a complicated text, but Jesus seems to be saying that our generosity to the poor will surely gain advantages for us at the day of our judgment. Indeed, blessing the poor gives us powerful intercessors, for the Lord hears the cries of the poor. The picture painted here is of those poor welcoming us into our eternal dwellings.

Scripture elsewhere warns, If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be heard (Proverbs 21:13). Once again, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner, measure, or standard that will be used by God at our judgment. To the merciful, mercy will be shown. The generous will experience that their cries are heard, for they heard the cries of the poor. The Lord more than implies that those who have been generous to the poor will have powerful advocates praying and interceding for them on the day of judgment. Indeed, a number of the Fathers of the Church remind us that in this life the poor need us, but in the life to come we will need them.

IV.  Whether we forgive others

A final area to explore in terms of how we might have influence over the manner of our judgment is in the matter of forgiveness. Just after giving us the Our Father, the Lord Jesus says, For if you forgive others 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 (Matthew 6:14 – 15).

Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the terrifying parable of a man who had huge debt that was forgiven him by his master. When the man then refused to forgive his brother a much smaller debt, the master grew angry and threw him into debtors’ prison. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35).

So yes, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us, the standard He will use. While it is true that God will judge us by our deeds (cf Romans 2:6), the manner in which He judges us, whether with strictness or leniency, does seem to be a matter over which we have influence.

We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy, for if God judges with strict justice and strict standards, who can stand? We will all have much to answer for. All the more reason for us to follow the teachings of the Lord in His Scripture, so that we can be sure that on the day of our judgment, mercy and the grace of leniency will prevail in abundance. Do we want mercy? Then we must show mercy. Do we want a gentle standard? Then we must measure out gentleness. Do we want forgiveness? Then we must offer forgiveness. Recruit some intercessors for the day of judgment by giving to the poor. They will be the most powerful intercessors for us as we leave this life and go to our judgment.

Indeed, God has shown us how we can store up a treasure of mercy, waiting for us in Heaven at the judgment seat of Christ. There are some good lessons here to heed.

Perhaps you might like to add, via the Comments section, some other ways that we can influence the standard that God will use to judge us.

Here’s an amusing video illustrating that the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us:

On the Sin of Rash Judgment, as Seen in a Commercial

judgement-susannah-sin

judgement-susannah-sin

One of the most commonly committed—yet least often confessed—sins, is that of rash judgment. The commercial below humorously depicts the sin and how wrong we can sometimes be.

In reality, the sin is not often humorous and can lead us to some very dark places. On account of rash judgments, we may harbor grudges, resentments, fears, and unjust anger. We may allow it to foster pride, feeling ourselves superior to others. We may even seek revenge based on misinformation or as a result of misinterpretation of others’ actions. And gossip is usually the daughter (or son) of rash judgment.

St. Thomas speaks of rash judgment in this way: When the human intellect lacks certainty, as when a person, without any solid motive, forms a negative judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter, it is called judgment by suspicion or rash judgment (Summa Theologica, Quest. 60, art 2).

Fr. John Hardon defines it in this way: Rash judgment is unquestioning conviction about another person’s bad conduct without adequate grounds for the judgment. The sinfulness of rash judgment lies in the hasty imprudence with which the critical appraisal is made, and in the loss of reputation that a person suffers in the eyes of the one who judges adversely (Modern Catholic Dictionary, John A. Hardon, S.J.).

The Catechism places rash judgment in the context of our obligation to preserve the good reputation of others:

Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty

of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way (CCC 2477-2478).

All this said, rash judgment is often committed out of weakness. Our minds are weak and we often lack the patience or determination to carefully discern the whole truth. Sometimes we commit this sin because of past hurts or the general climate of cynicism that permeates our culture.

On account of these roots in weakness, the necessary antidote is humility and an understanding that in most cases we do not have all the facts at our disposal immediately. In fact, there are many situations in which we may never have all the facts. In humility, we should presume benign intent in uncertain matters unless and until the facts indicate otherwise.

In today’s world of 24×7 information at our fingertips, we are encouraged to make quick judgments. News outlets often rush to provide “analysis” before many of the facts are known. When “experts” speak from the anchor’s desk, their statements can seem quite credible when, in fact, they are often little more than rash judgments.

Be very careful. Rash judgment, especially when shared with others, can do a lot of damage. It is not a sin to be taken lightly, even if it is often committed in weakness.

Perhaps, then, a little humor will make the point. In this commercial, a man with all the best of intentions appears to be guilty of the worst intentions. Enjoy.

Who is Really on Trial in Our Life?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI possesses a keen ability to summarize the ideas and problems of our times both cogently and succinctly. Consider the following assessment of our age that he made during a 2015 interview:

For the man of today…. things are, in a certain sense, inverted, or rather, man no longer believes he needs justification before God, but rather he is of the opinion that God is obliged to justify himself because of all the horrible things in the world and in the face of the misery of being human, all of which ultimately depend on Him (Benedict XVI, Interview with Jacques Servais, L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, March 2016).

This is quite a profound diagnosis of the hubris of our times. This hubris is apparent among both unbelievers and believers. While Benedict sets the problem in the context of the mystery of evil and suffering, my own experience is that the problem is wider than that. Many people don’t merely demand an accounting from God for the existence of evil, they also demand justification from Him for any teaching of His Scripture or the Church that does not accord with their views. The premise is that the teachings of Scripture and the Church must conform to modern notions or else stand convicted of being out-of-touch, useless, irrelevant, or even intolerant, harsh, and hurtful.

All of this is completely backwards. For any Catholic, it is the world and its views that should be on trial. God should not need to justify His teachings or render an account to us, rather it is the world that should be required to explain how its views do not contradict God.

Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit comes to us, He will convict the world in regard to sin (Jn 16:8). Therefore, every Catholic should have the world on trial, not God. We should demand that the world justify its views and square them with God’s teachings. Anything that does not agree with what God teaches is to be rejected by us, convicted of being erroneous and set aside in favor of God’s law and teaching.

St. Paul says, Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 5:21-22). In other words, square everything with the measure of God’s Word and reject anything that is contrary to it while retaining what is good.

Is this what most Catholics do? Sadly, many do just the opposite. The Word of God and the teachings of the Church are put on trial and convicted if they do not conform to worldly thinking, to what is currently popular. If one talks about a text that speaks a truth contrary to modern notions, there is a wide range of reactions: raised eyebrows; objections; scoffing; accusations of insensitivity, intolerance, or hate; demands for retractions and apologies.

This begs the question, “Who is on trial here, God or the world?” Yes, Benedict’s observation about our times stands true. Whereas we once sought grace to be justified before God, many now demand that God justify Himself to us.

In our hubris, we’ve turned the tables on God. It’s time to turn them back in humility. St. Paul reminds us who the true judge is to whom we must render an account:

It matters little to me that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For though I am not aware of anything against myself, I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor 4:5-6).

Make sure you’re on the right side of the judge’s bench.

This portion of Mozart’s Requiem says (translated),

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth
All before the throne it bringeth

When the judge his seat attaineth
And each hidden deed arraigneth
Nothing unavenged remaineth.