The first reading at Mass today (Saturday of the 11th week of the year) is from Second Chronicles; it details the reforms of King Joash and then his sad decline. Joash’s grandmother Athalia, a worshipper of Baal, was Queen of Judah and proved to be much like her mother Jezebel; she rose to power by having every possible competitor murdered, including almost all of her grandchildren. But Joash had been hidden away and so escaped her bloody rampage. Once he come of age, he was declared king by the high priest Jehoiada in a coup against Athalia. The wicked Athalia was killed during the coup. King Joash began reforms and restored the Temple and the proper worship of Yahweh.
When reading the elaborate stories of the kings of Israel in First and Second Kings, and First and Second Chronicles, it is easy to be bewildered by all the names, complex events, intrigue, and corruption.
Basically, they tell the story of a nation, blessed by God and called to manifest His glory, that turned time and time again to sin, including the worship of idols. Despite warnings from the prophets, the Israelites stubbornly refused to repent. Consequently, the once-blessed nation declined into weakness. The Ten lost tribes of Israel in the north went first, conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. And even after seeing this, Judah (in the south) remained stubborn and was eventually conquered by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.
This story is all too familiar to us who live in a blessed nation, once deeply (though imperfectly) rooted in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures but now casting aside its roots. What will come of us if we do not repent?
Consider the sad tale told in today’s first reading.
I. The Solace – After the death of Jehoiada, the princes of Judah came and paid homage to King Joash, and the king then listened to them.
The story opens with a brief description of solace and unity in the aftermath of King Joash’s reforms. With the wide cooperation and generous contributions of the people, the Temple has been rebuilt and proper worship of God restored. For a brief moment the nation is in relative peace and unity, centered on God.
II. The Sin – [But] they left the temple of the LORD, the God of their fathers, and began to serve the sacred poles and the idols; and because of this crime of theirs, wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem.
Idolatry returns. They go back to worshiping the Canaanite gods, the Baals. Why? Perhaps they supposed that prosperity would be more likely if they burned some incense to the local gods. But on a deeper level, the Israelites were enamored of the ways of the Canaanites and sought to imitate them. For indeed, the Canaanites lived lustily and often opulently. So did the Egyptians and other ancient cultures whose ways the ancient Jews too easily admired and sought after.
Surely this sounds familiar. Even now, most Catholics and Christians look and sound more like the secular world than like the Lord who rescued us. So deeply do we pine for glamour, power, and the lusts and priorities of this world!
The text says that wrath came down upon Judah and Jerusalem. What is wrath? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. As such, wrath is more in us than it is in God. God is not moody; He does not suddenly become grouchy. He does not change—we do. As our sins darken our souls, the bright light of God seems harsh and painful. As sin accustoms us to iniquity, holiness seems hard, even hellacious. But the problem is in us, not in God. Wrath is our problem, not God’s.
This explains how a child in the womb, once thought a great blessing, is now seen by many as a threat that must be terminated. This is why chastity and lifelong marriage seem unrealistic to many in the modern secular mindset. But God is not harsh or wrathful; His Law is not impossible. It is we who are soft, so accustomed to darkness that the light seems too harsh. But God is not the angry and wrathful one, we are. A wrath, even a hatred of holiness has come upon us. Therefore, as a culture, we cling to our idols.
III. The Shout – Although prophets were sent to them to convert them to the LORD, the people would not listen to their warnings. Then the Spirit of God possessed Zechariah, son of Jehoiada the priest. He took his stand above the people and said to them: “God says, ‘Why are you transgressing the LORD’s commands, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have abandoned the LORD, he has abandoned you.’”
Why, America, do we cling to our sins so that we cannot prosper? Why do we insist on our own ways so stubbornly that we demand the right to kill our own children and our elderly? Why do we destroy our marriages and families through divorce, redefinition, and promiscuity? Why do stand by and watch the very pillars of our culture and its future collapse? Why?
God did not leave ancient Israel without prophets, and He has not left us without them either. Today we gather together to prophesy, to speak for God. As we march today praying, we appeal to the consciences of everyone who sees and hears us. And we say, as we must, that this is wrong. Abortion is wrong. It kills our children and gravely harms their mothers. This must end. Come to your senses, America! Abortion is not health care, because a patient always dies. Abortion is not pro-woman, because half of the millions of its victims are female. Let us not abandon the Lord, lest He abandon us, handing us over fully to our own sinfulness!
Yes, we prophesy today, as we must, on this and many other issues.
IV. The Stubbornness – But they conspired against him, and at the king’s order they stoned him to death in the court of the LORD’s temple. Thus King Joash was unmindful of the devotion shown him by Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, and slew his son. And as Zechariah was dying, he said, “May the LORD see and avenge.”
In a shocking turn of savage wickedness, Joash the great reformer, kills the son of the very man who had saved him from being murdered and restored him to rightful power.
But the Lord does not leave unavenged any unrepented sin. We must seek the conversion of all before the Day of Judgment. Stubborn unrepentance will not go unanswered. The Book of Hebrews says of that day,
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment … For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:26-31).
Our call for repentance is not merely an angry shout; it is a merciful call to seek the Lord while He may be found and to call on Him while He is still near (see Isaiah 55:6).
V. The Significance – At the turn of the year a force of Arameans came up against Joash. They invaded Judah and Jerusalem, did away with all the princes of the people, and sent all their spoil to the king of Damascus. Though the Aramean force came with few men, the LORD surrendered a very large force into their power, because Judah had abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers. So punishment was meted out to Joash. After the Arameans had departed from him, leaving him in grievous suffering, his servants conspired against him because of the murder of the son of Jehoiada the priest. He was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.
A nation that God had blessed has now so thoroughly blocked its blessings that a force of just a few men is able to conquer it, toppling its king and local leaders and making the nation a vassal of Assyria. The text says this happened “because Judah had abandoned the Lord.” Joash, the king who once brought about great reform, saw death, because he had murdered the innocent prophet Zechariah.
America, what about us? Increasingly, we are abandoning the Lord.
How does abandoning the Lord weaken a nation? How can a nation be strong which no longer looks to God for a common moral vision? How can a nation have a unified culture without a common cultus (faith) to which all look with a reverent obedience and holy fear? How can a nation be strong when its families are weakened by divorce, sexual promiscuity, and sexual confusion? If our families are not strong, our communities are not strong. Weak and divided communities cannot constitute a strong nation tied together by loyalty and a common vision. Today, we seldom show the resolve and unity necessary to stave off our enemies, be they foreign aggressors or the moral evils within us. Often we cannot even agree on what is evil or on what is the cause of our malaise. We are becoming, like ancient Judah, an easy target. The words addressed to ancient Israel are increasingly appropriate for us: If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all (Is 7:9).
Joash suffered death for his murder of the innocent. How can we as a nation forever escape judgment for our own shedding of innocent blood through abortion? God lamented the behavior of ancient Israel: The people have forsaken me and have profaned this place… they have filled this place with the blood of innocents (Jer 19:4). On your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor … yet in spite of all these things you say, “I am innocent” (Jer 2:34). And Jesus warned Israel about the shedding of innocent blood, Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all (Luke 11:50-51).
Today’s reading is a sober reminder that no nation can stand or remain strong which sheds the blood of the innocent and calls it a legal right. America, we cannot forever evade the effect of our sins, especially those directed against those who are most vulnerable. We cannot find peace by shedding the blood of innocent children. We cannot remain strong and blessed if we do not return to the Lord and walk humbly with Him.
We march today in love and concern. We commend ourselves to the consciences of all who will see and hear us. We seek to make clear that what is called a “clinic” or a “women’s healthcare center” is in fact a place where thousands of innocent unborn children will have their lives ended.
Heal our land, O Lord. A great darkness has enveloped us. The darkness grows ever deeper as the effects of our sins multiply. Send a miraculous grace to heal our land. Help us who march today to reach others with the seed of truth!
The old hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” succinctly presents the truth of today’s first reading:
Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.
Decide well, fellow Christians, fellow countrymen. Decide well, America.