Jesus, Who Loves You, Warned Frequently About Hell

Many people today put Hell in opposition to the love of God, but Jesus combines them. Here is an important truth: No one loves you more than Jesus Christ, yet no one spoke of or taught on Hell and Judgment more than He did. He gave warning after warning and told parable after parable, practically shouting about judgment and the reality of Hell.

No “heresy” of our day is more widespread or pernicious than the denial of hell, its existence, and its sad frequency. I use quotes around the word only because I, as a simple priest, do not have the power to declare formal heresy. However, “heresy” in a broader, more descriptive sense simply means picking and choosing among revealed truth. Confronted with truths that are in some tension (such as God’s justice vs. His mercy or human freedom vs. God’s sovereignty) the “heretic” chooses one and throws out the other in order to resolve the tension. Orthodoxy says “both” but “heresy” picks one and discards the other.

With respect to the teaching on Hell and judgment, the “heretic” cannot reconcile God’s love and mercy with the reality of Hell and eternal separation from Him.

Yet the Lord of Love, Jesus, spoke of these more than did anyone else. The problem is in us, not in Jesus and not in the Father.

We simply refuse to obey what is taught and to accept that because we have free will, the choices we make ultimately matter. We have been bewitched by the fairy tale ending that everyone “lived happily ever after.” We deny that the sum of our choices constitute our character, and that our character ushers in our chosen destiny. We refuse to take responsibility for the fact that we make choices that build over time and which we will one day never be able to renounce. Instead we blame God and call Him (who sent His own Son to save us) the bad one; we say that He is responsible for whether we go to Hell or not.

Meanwhile God is pleading, “Come to me. Come to me before it is finally time to rise and close the door!”

Bottom line: either God is love and we are free to choose Him or not in our own act of love, or God is a slave driver and no matter what we go to His Heaven and live with Him forever. In other words, freedom means choice and choice permits us to say “no” to God. Therefore, there is Hell.

We need to be sober about this; Jesus certainly was. He warned and warned and warned; He pleaded and pleaded and pleaded. He knows whereof we are made; He knows how stubborn and stiff-necked we are, that we don’t like being told what to do. Yes, Jesus sadly observed that many—indeed “most”—prefer Hell to serving in Heaven (cf Matt 7:13 inter al).

We must overcome our smug presumption that salvation is a done deal and hear the pleading of our Messiah and Lord, Jesus. We must allow Him to warn us in love, we must allow Him to ignite in us a holy, even servile, fear in order to sober us and draw us to be serious about the work necessary to save us.

In service of this plea, I’d like to present a collection of “warning texts” as a sort of antidote to this “heresy” of modern times. Note that these are only some of the passages I could have used. Please feel free to use the comments section to add to my list. I will publish a final version once I’ve finished collecting any input. As I hope this compilation will show, those who deny Hell or its possibility must reject a huge number of biblical texts in order to do so.

Let us all realize this basic truth: No one loves you more than Jesus does, yet no one warned of Judgment and Hell more than He did, no one. Allow the Lord to wed these ideas in your mind. Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling, O Sinner, come home! Do not buy into the modern “heresy” of universal salvation. Jesus did not teach this; neither did the Apostles, His appointed spokesmen and successors in ministry. Do not try to overrule or correct Jesus. Just accept what He taught and listen in love and faith. Hell is real. We need a savior, but He needs our “yes.”

Here then are many texts that warn of Hell; most of them are right from the mouth of Jesus. These quotes are available in PDF format here: Texts on Hell and Judgment.

Texts on Hell and Judgment

The first two passages are from the Old Testament, and exemplify the prophetic tradition into which Jesus will draw.

Is 35:8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.

Is 66:24 And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.

Matt 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. John the Baptist speaks here.

Matt 5:22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. Even unrighteous anger, unrepented of, can bring forth Hell. We tend to justify our anger; God does not. He warns that we cannot cling to it and still walk into Heaven.

Matt 5:29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. We make light of sin, but the Lord does not. He is not saying that we should mutilate ourselves, but rather that it is more serious to sin than to lose our eye, foot, or hand. We do not think this way, but God does. He warns us that our most serious problem is not our physical health or finances or any other passing problem; our most serious problem is our sin.

Matt 6:14-15 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. This is a pretty clear warning that we must allow God to give us the gift of mercy and forgiveness or else we cannot enter Heaven. Blessed are the merciful, for (only) they will obtain mercy.

Matt 7: 13 Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Do you understand this? More are lost than are saved. This is a mysterious text in terms of its sweeping quality. Why would God permit this? But it is a text whose meaning is clear: most are lost. Hear Jesus’ pleading and be sober about how stubborn and stiff-necked we can be.

Matt 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Jesus is talking about Himself and calling us to a holy fear.

Matt 11:23 And you, Capernaum! You won’t be lifted up to heaven, will you? You’ll go down to Hell! Because if the miracles that happened in you had taken place in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. Don’t think that just because you’re a member of “the club,” you’ve got it made, you’re in. Indeed, for those who have heard and seen, more is required, not less.

Matt 12:36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. Yes, we will have to give an account even for the gossip we make light of. Lord, have mercy!

Matt 13: 24-30 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.  When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’  ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters, ‘First, collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” So there is a day of judgment; not now, but it will come.

Matt 22:1-14 (Parable of the Wedding Banquet) Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” It is the shocking parable of a king who, in the end, accepts the “no” of the invited guests. As for the wedding garment, remember that it is provided by God (cf Rev 19:8). The refusal to wear the robe of righteousness is on us, not on God.

Matt 23:33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?

Matt 24:36-51 (The Day and Hour Unknown) But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Beware of presumption and making light of sin!

Matt 25:1-13 (Parable of the Ten Virgins) At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. The groom delays, but not forever!

Matt 25:26-30 (Parable of the Talents (conclusion)) His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We will have to reckon for what we have done and what we have failed to do with our gifts.

Matt 25:41-46 (Sheep and Goats (conclusion)) Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. Reward or loss, you decide.

Mark 9:42–48 (Giving Scandal) If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Those who lead others to sin are going to have to answer to Jesus for what they have done. Do not doubt this. Pray that all repent prior to the day of reckoning!

Luke 8:17 For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. You cannot hide from God.

Luke 12:42 (The Day and Hour Unknown) Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, “My master is taking a long time in coming,” and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. This is a warning against presumption.

Luke 13:22-30 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’  “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed, there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” Hell and exclusion are quite real. Jesus is pointing to fear here. Some call fear “unhealthy,” but Jesus is willing to use it if it will bring forth repentance.

Luke 16:19-31 (Lazarus and Dives) There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Contempt and indifference toward the poor is a damnable sin. Note, too, that the rich man does not change after death. He is locked into his patterns. He does not ask to come to Heaven; he wants Lazarus sent to Hell. He still does not recognize Lazarus’ dignity; he still sees him as an errand boy. After death, the rich man is miserable, but he cannot and will not change. This teaching on our fixed character after death explains why Hell is eternal: because we will never change.

John 12:48-50 If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say. In effect, we bring judgment upon ourselves. We might wish to blame God, but at the end of the day, we show by our own disposition that we are not fit for heaven and would not be happy there because it is the full realization of many things we either detest or scoff at (e.g., love of the poor, forgiveness of our enemies, chastity, worship of God).

Rev 22:12-16 “Look, I am coming soon!” says the Lord. “My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” Jesus speaks here in vivid terms of sinners as dogs and cowards. Pay attention: the “Mister Rogers” version of Jesus is not the Jesus of Scripture.

Jesus commissioned the Apostles to preach, teach, govern, and sanctify in His name. Therefore, in hearing them in the following texts, we hear the voice of Jesus.

Heb 12:14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Only those open to God making them holy can endure the bright lights of the Kingdom of God.

Heb 13:4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Pay attention, modern age, which has shredded marriage at every turn.

James 2:12-13 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Help us to show mercy, Lord, for the measure we measure to others will be measured back to us.

Romans 2:3-11 Do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. We are judged by deeds, not by prerogatives or by being “better” than someone else.

1 Cor 6:9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men. Although the modern world makes light of sexual sins, God does not. He warns that these sins render us incapable of enduring the bright lights of Heaven because we “prefer the darkness” (cf John 3:18).

1 Cor 9: 26-27 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. If even Paul realized he had to be sober, why not us?

Phil 2:12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Some call fear unhealthy, but God is willing to appeal to it.

Gal 5:19-21 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Not inheriting Heaven means going to Hell.

Eph 5:3-7 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore, do not be partners with them. Once again, God says that sexual sin excludes us from the Kingdom of God. We go to Hell if we die unrepentant, because it shows that we prefer the darkness and cannot stand the light.

A Prophetic Description of Our Times from the Book of Wisdom

030214As part of our recent examinations of the current culture, today’s post considers the culture of death that we have increasingly become. We use as our interpretive key a text from the Book of Wisdom that prophetically interprets the overall times in which we are living. Over the thirty years that I have been reading this text in the Breviary, I have found that the pieces of its prophecy are continually falling into place. In my earlier years, I though the threats of persecution were overstated for the times; that is changing now and slowly I am seeing each element become more clear.

The passages that follow are from the first and second chapters of the Book of Wisdom. (The uninterrupted text can be read here.) My commentary appears in red.

But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death; considering it a friend, they pined away, and they made a covenant with death, they deserve to be in its possession. Thinking not aright …

Pope St. John Paul and Pope Benedict both spoke often of the culture of death. What is the culture of death? It is a culture in which death or the nonexistence of human beings is proposed as a solution to human problems.

Some express concern about overpopulation, pollution, and the straining of resources. Their solution? Death—in this case, the existence of fewer human beings through contraception. Is a child in the womb inconvenient or unwanted? Kill him. Is a child in the womb possessed of possible birth defects or likely to be born into poverty? Kill her. Is someone in the advanced stages of a disease, or old, or depressed, or suffering? Kill him or help him to kill himself. Has a heinous crime been committed? Find the offender and kill him. Even entertainment is saturated with violent and death-oriented solutions. In the typical adventure movie, the hero resolves the problem after 90 minutes of car crashes, blowing up buildings, and killing people; finally killing his opponent and marching off victoriously with the girl on his arm as the city burns in the background and the credits roll.

This is the culture of death: a culture in which death is proposed as a solution to problems.

And thus as the text says here, many today summoned death; considering it a friend. They champion contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. They call these things “friends” or “rights” and associate these deathly things with dignity and freedom.

The text also says that they think not aright. Indeed, after many decades of bloody wars throughout the world in the first half of the 20th century, and after aborting and contracepting in even greater numbers in the second half, many parts of the decadent West are beginning to experience the first waves of population decline. We are discovering that declining populations often cannot perform basic functions such as caring for the elderly and growing the economy. Declining populations lead to declining markets and a declining ability to supply many services.

Thus the text says, summoning death, they deserve to be in its possession. God’s judgment on the culture of death is to hand us over to it. Unless we repent soon we are doomed to become the death we summon, celebrate, and call a solution. The final solution will be exacted upon us.

Where did all this death-directed thinking come from? The text says simply that those who engage in it are “ungodly.” Life loses its meaning without reference to the life-giver, who is God. Suffering is also meaningless without reference to God; many today prefer death to even modest suffering.

We cannot separate the culture of death from the secularism and atheism that have largely produced and coexisted with it. Modern atheists are forever decrying all the deaths from religious wars. But the truth is that the death toll from secular and atheistic systems is far higher than the (admittedly disgraceful) death toll from religious conflicts. It is hard to overestimate just how bloody the 20th century was. The most conservative estimates put the number at 100 million deaths resulting from ideological and political motives. And this does not even count the dead due to abortion or those who never lived because of contraception. Faith, whatever its shortcomings, puts a limit on human schemes and solutions. Without God, man moves himself to the center and is a terrifying and despotic ruler, one who increasingly knows no limits and thinks himself unaccountable.

They said among themselves: Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass by us. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry, everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot.

And here is described the philosophy of hedonism, which sees pleasure as the chief purpose of human existence. The Greek word hedone means pleasure. Casting aside moderation (an important key to true happiness) and indulging every excess, our modern world knows few limits.

Most people today see happiness and pleasure not only as goals but as rights. As the text says, they believe that this is our portion, and this our lot. Even among the religiously observant there is often a strident rejection of the cross. Many dismiss the demands of faith by invoking God himself! “After all,” they say, “God wants me to be happy.” Almost any call to moderation or to the cross for some higher purpose (such as holiness) is dismissed as practically immoral. “How dare you interfere with my pleasure and happiness!”

The hedonistic cry of indignation goes up against every Church teaching that interferes with the indulgence of passing pleasures: “This is our portion! This is our lot!”

Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow.

In our time, social justice is “in.” However, the “social justice” that is extolled is a big-government solution that often actually oppresses the poor. Our intrusive government solutions break the normal bonds of family; many of the recipients of government welfare are single mothers. Under current welfare rules, it is often the case that a woman is better off financially without a husband.

In such a system, men among the poor are worse than useless—they are downright harmful. As such, they withdraw to the margins and are often pulled into joining gangs, engaging in criminal activity, or descending into addiction. However well-intentioned, our welfare programs often oppress rather than help, and there seems to be little ability or will to reform their worst and most oppressive aspects.

Nor do they regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

Disrespect for the wisdom of age and the experience of tradition has become rampant in modern times. Even in the Church, we threw overboard the wisdom of centuries during the 1960s and 1970s. The Church is always in need of reform, but severing our ties with the tested wisdom of previous generations was foolhardy.

Today, youth culture predominates: old=bad, young =good. Parents, especially fathers, are portrayed as buffoons and fools. Children are all-wise, hip, and clued-in.

Adults are too often obsessed with having young people like them. Many adults try to be like youths. They obsess about being youthfully thin and indulge in all sorts of fleeting fads. The power and vigor of youth is esteemed rather that the wisdom and mature reflection of age.

Then enter the euthanasia movement, which seek to help the aged by killing them. This false compassion brings into full light the culture of death’s notion of death as therapy, of killing as medicine.

Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father.

I have written at some length on the stages of persecution (Stages of Religious Persecution). For the purposes of this post, however, let us merely note the recent attempts by government officials to compel Americans to support same-sex unions. Some Christian bakers and photographers have been forced to either supply services to such “weddings” or to face penalties.  Some ministers are being threatened with legal action for refusing to perform these “weddings.” The sermons of some Houston clergymen were subpoenaed by city attorneys. (More is available here: Threats to Religious Liberty.)

This will only grow as more and more people find our existence as Catholics and committed Christians to be “inconvenient.” They will not “tolerate” (to use their word) our (reasonable) stance that much of what they propose is sinful and contrary to natural law. It is becoming increasingly possible for them to actively persecute us and legally punish us. Little by little, they are setting aside all pretense of “tolerance.”

This text is being fulfilled before our very eyes, even here in America where we thought we had constitutional rights. The steady erosion of religious liberty may soon lead to a major breach in the dam holding back the flood waters of more open and explicit oppression. For indeed, as the text says, the very sight of us is a burden to them.

Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hope for the wages of holiness, nor discern the prize for blameless souls; for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.

Yes, they are deceived and have been led astray; sin darkens the intellect. As St. Paul wrote, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:21-22).

Pay attention, fellow Christians, the presumption that we are dealing with reasonable people is set aside by this text; it describes them as blinded by wickedness. While it is not for us to attribute wickedness to every person who opposes us (and it would be uncharitable to do so), nevertheless we must be sober that the collective reality with which we deal is no longer rooted in reason; it is rooted in dark passions and sins.

Stay sober, my friends!

The Problem of Pretending in the Spiritual Life

hypocrisyThe Gospel for today’s Mass (Friday of the 28th Week) opens up some important insights on the problem of “pretending” in the Christian life. One of the difficulties in arriving at these insights is the understanding we have today of the word hypocrisy. To some extent, it seems to have lost its subtler distinctions and nuances. To most of us, hypocrisy refers to our deeds not matching our truest beliefs, to saying one thing and doing another. While this is part of hypocrisy, it is not the whole story. I have written more on that here: Hypocrisy is more than we think.

Today’s Gospel speaks to the subtleties of hypocrisy. Here is the full text:

At that time:
So many people were crowding together
that they were trampling one another underfoot.
Jesus began to speak, first to his disciples,
“Beware of the leaven—that is, the hypocrisy—of the Pharisees.

There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness
will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed on the housetops.
I tell you, my friends,
do not be afraid of those who kill the body
but after that can do no more.
I shall show you whom to fear.
Be afraid of the one who after killing
has the power to cast into Gehenna;
yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one.
Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins?
Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.
Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.
Do not be afraid.
You are worth more than many sparrows”
(Luke 12:1-7).

The Greek word that is translated as “hypocrisy” is ὑπόκρισις (hypocrisis). Its nominative form is ὑποκριτής (hypocrites), which most literally means “actor.”

Obviously, an actor is someone who plays a role. An actor who portrays Julius Caesar is not in fact Julius Caesar. In a certain sense, he is “pretending” to be Julius Caesar.

It is certainly fine for an actor to “pretend,” for a time, to be someone he is not. But in the spiritual sense, it is not good to act or pretend. When Jesus warns of hypocrisy, He is warning against pretending to be someone that we are not; or pretending to live in a world, in a time, or under a set of circumstances that is not in fact real.

With all this in mind, consider that the Lord warns us not to engage in hypocrisy. In effect, He is warning us not to pretend, to engage in fantasy, or to live in a make-believe world. This serves as the opening framework of all that is to follow in this Gospel.

And what does follow? Fundamentally, the Lord says that the pretend world denies the reality of judgment. He goes on to warn us that there is nothing that is concealed that will not one day be revealed, nothing that is secret that will not be made known. He warns that what we have said in the darkness is heard in the light and that everything we say or do is known to him (cf. Mk 4:22ff).

He then further warns us not to be worried by those who only have the ability to kill the body. Rather, He tells us that we should have greater fear of the one who after killing, has the power to cast into Gehenna.

Most people today live in outright fantasy. They deny or discount the reality that there will be a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. They simply gloss over the notion that they will have to render an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36), for what they’ve done in secret (Mk 4:22); that they will have to stand before Him who judges the intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12) and that nothing will lay hid from Him (Heb 4:13). In effect, they pretend. Pretending is acting; it is a form of hypocrisy.

When Jesus warned of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He was referring to their sense of self-righteousness. They thought that they had nothing to worry about because they were “good people,” unlike others around them. They had “checked off the God box.” They said their prayers, fasted on Wednesdays, and paid their tithes. On the day of judgment, they figured that they would just walk right on into Heaven.

Too many people today have this attitude of self-righteousness. They may invoke God’s grace and mercy, but they are not really willing to consider the fact that they may, by their own sinfulness, disqualify themselves. Perhaps they have been fortunate enough to avoid the shameful sexual sins of our day but have loved the poor and been merciful and forgiving. It is so easy to emphasize certain aspects of holiness while discounting others. This is acting; it is hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Too many brush aside the notion that they will one day have to render an account to the Lord. “Oh yeah, I know there’s a day of judgment, but God is love so everything will be just fine. Nobody is really going to Hell.” The common attitude today is that Hell is but a remote possibility and only for the worst of the worst; judgment is a mere formality and nothing to be too anxious about. Never mind that this attitude is in direct contradiction to the whole of Scripture! Most today live in outright heresy on this topic. (Sadly, some hold the opposite, extreme attitude: one of despair.)

The Lord says that we should beware of hypocrisy, careful that we’re not living in a pretend world. Regarding Heaven, none but the pure in heart can just walk up there. We should not be so quick to presume that we have the purity of heart to simply walk into Heaven. God is very holy, and Heaven is a place of the souls of just men made perfect (Heb 12:23). Jesus says, you must be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). This is reality; it is not “pretend.” But hypocrisy likes to “play act.” It thinks of holiness as a role to be played, a light matter in which a few lines are memorized. And the Lord warns against it.

When the Lord warns against hypocrisy, He is not merely speaking to the severe and pretentious religious leaders of the past; He is speaking to you and me. He is telling us to stop pretending, to stop play acting, and to accept that what He really wants is for us to change our lives. There is a real standard to meet, not just a pretend one. There is a real judgment to prepare for, not just a brief “play” to be performed before the throne of God. God is not playing games with us; He is not interested in the game of “Let’s Pretend.”

What St. Paul’s Example Can Teach Us About Authority

blog10-04In daily Mass we have been reading from second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. In it, St. Paul recounts his personal history and describes his authority. the reviewing the faith journey of St. Paul, who describes his personal history and also his authority in the second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. St. Paul’s story is interesting for three reasons.

  1. It can help to correct notions that some have that St. Paul’s ascended to the office of apostle (bishop) overly quickly, and affirm that he was not a “lone ranger apostle.” St. Paul was a man who was formed in the community of the Church for some length of time, and did not go on mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows an important aspect of being under authority and the prevailing need for fraternal correction within hierarchical structures.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation, and ascent to the office of apostle (bishop). Many have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references, assume that Paul went right to work as a missionary following his conversion. But this was not the case.

Near the time of his conversion, Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen, St. Paul had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Immediately following that encounter, he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias, who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19).

At that point, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went and for how long is not known. It is likely that he went there to reflect and possibly to be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Was he there for several years as some scholars propose or just a brief time as others do? It is not possible to say with certainty, but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect, and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of at least a year and perhaps as many as three years would seem reasonable. We can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus, joining the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While in Damascus, Paul took to debating in the synagogues. He was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah, that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him.

St. Paul then fled Damascus and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). He states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter because he had begun to teach and was gaining followers. Later, Paul would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles … so that I might not be running, or have run in vain (Gal 2:2). While there on this first visit, Paul stayed for 15 days, also meeting James.

After this consultation, he went home to Tarsus for a period of about three years. What he did during this time is unknown.

Barnabas then arrived and asked Paul to come to Antioch to help him to evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). He stayed there for about a year.

Paul made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor.

Upon his return to Antioch, Paul (Saul) was ordained as a bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). Thus, the leaders of the Church in Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on their mission. This is Pauls’ ordination and the source of his status as apostle (bishop).

Notice, however, that this sending forth happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we assume he spent in the desert, we are talking about 7-10 years during which Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and conferred with Peter. He was not a self-appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. Paul only undertook this going forth after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority We can see, therefore, that Paul was not a lone ranger. He did submit what he taught, first to Peter and later to other apostles and leaders (Acts 11 and 15). He states that to preach something other than what the Church proposes would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2).

Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority.

Here was man who went forth on his missions only after he was ordained and sent.

He appointed other leaders. As they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23).

Upon completion of their first missionary journey, they reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence, we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was no independent operator. He was not a self-appointed or self-ordained leader. He both respected authority and established it in the churches he instituted. He also made it clear to the Galatians and others that he had authority and that he expected them to respect it.

3. On true respect for authority. It is clear that Paul respected the authority of Peter; he conferred with him early on and later set forth the Gospel that Peter had preached. However, there is also this description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. Having authority does not mean that one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. There is an old saying about bishops: “When a man becomes a bishop he will never again have a bad meal and he will never again hear the truth.” Too many of us flatter those in positions of authority. In so doing, we tend to isolate them. They do not have all the information and feedback they need in order to make good decisions. And then when they make questionable decisions, we criticize them. Of course we seldom do this to their faces, instead speaking ill of them behind their backs while remaining largely silent or flattering to their faces. Thus the cycle continues and everyone suffers.

But here Paul stands, face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter, and accuses him of a moral fault. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles, but drew back from keeping company with them. As Catholics, we teach of the infallibility of the Pope, but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach.

Accountability in the Church demands that we learn to speak the truth to one another in love, even if the one to whom we must speak has authority. People are often hesitant to speak frankly to their pastors. Bishops are very often isolated in this way; even their priests often refrain from discussion issues frankly. In my archdiocese, I know that Archbishop Wuerl is very serious about consultation and he enjoys a vigorous airing of issues with the priest council and other consultative bodies.

Clearly, correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Paul is a little bolder here than I would be, but he also lived in a different culture than I do. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings, Jesus and the apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jewish setting was famous for frank and vigorous discussion of issues, debate that often included a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a gentler approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated this way: “Clarity with charity.”

Clarity – We show far greater respect for authority figures by speaking clearly and directly than through false flattery, inappropriate silence, or sinfully speaking scornfully behind their backs.

Charity – The need for clarity does not exclude an accompanying need for charity and proper respect for office and age. Sadly, I have found that those who wish to correct priests and bishops today often go to the other extreme: using bold, disrespectful, and even insulting language, name calling, and impugning their motives. Not only is this unnecessary, it is ineffective, especially in our culture today.

St. Paul demonstrates a sort of refreshing honesty with Peter: acknowledging his authority while respecting him enough to speak to him directly and clearly, to his face and not behind his back.

This video is a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the concluding remark (that Paul made it out of Roman prison and then went to Spain), but there are two traditions in this regard.

A Picture of the Spiritual Life from Job

blog929I am teaching out of the Book of Job for our parish bible studies. Consider the following insight by Job on the spiritual life:

God is wise in heart and mighty in strength;
who has withstood him and remained unscathed?
(Job 9:3)

At first glance, we might read this to mean that we don’t dare talk back to God or resist Him lest He punish us, but this would be a superficial interpretation. The text surely speaks more richly, of the spiritual life and the journey we must make with God.

It recalls a story about Jacob, told in the 32nd chapter of Genesis. Jacob is in the desert (often a place of testing and encounter) and is returning to make amends with his brother Esau, from whom is estranged. During the night Jacob has a mysterious encounter with God. The text recounts that he wrestles with a man, but is it a man, an angel, or God? Through the night, Jacob wrestles with this man. Even more mysteriously (if the “man” is God), the text says that Jacob “prevails,” or at least holds his own. To end the struggle, God disables Jacob by touching his hip. Out of respect, God then gives Jacob a new name:

Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome (Gen 32:28).

The name “Israel” means “he who wrestles (strives) with God.”

As a result of this encounter, Jacob would limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff for support. It was as if to say that he would have to learn to lean on God and strive with God rather than against Him. Injured or not, this would be a blessing for Jacob, a new and deeper stage in his walk with God.

And so Job rightly said, Who has withstood God and remained unscathed? Our spiritual life can be seen as this kind of struggle. God respects our freedom and is “glad” to engage us. At least we are willing to stay in a conversation with Him rather than running from Him or refusing to be engaged at all.

As for Job, Jacob, and countless others before us, so too for us. We will not emerge from this spiritual relationship with God unchanged or unscathed. This is because our life with God is no mere friendship, or only a source of consolation. God is Lord and Father, and He has a difficult work to accomplish in us, who (like Jacob) can be stubborn, prideful, and resistant.

As an example, consider how in this world the relationship between parents and children is one of love but also one that is filled with tensions. This is due to the nature of the relationship. Parents, in addition to giving good and pleasant things to their children, also have difficult tasks in their formation. Children must be disciplined and disabused of selfish or destructive behaviors. Children must be taught things that do not necessarily please them. Parents must often make demands on their children that summon them to greater things requiring sacrifice and effort.

None of this is easy—and neither is our relationship with God. Our relationship is not merely about pleasantries. God must work to break sinful, selfish, and harmful drives within us. He must often imbue us with teachings that go against our desires and priorities.

Are you willing to struggle and to strive with God? You will be blessed! No one goes away from Jesus unchanged. No one who has God for his true Father will be unchanged, or “unscathed” as Job puts it. Jacob limped and leaned on a cane for the rest of his life (as a sign of humility). How do you limp? Where are your healing wounds in the saving struggle with God?

The song in this video is a bit over the top; I don’t think Jesus was conflicted, as this song implies. But we often are. The struggle can be difficult, but stay in it!

Starstruck: The Marveling of Job as He Looked to the Night Sky

blog-9-28The first reading for today (Wednesday of the 27th Week) says,

The LORD alone stretches out the heavens.
He made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the constellations of the south;
He does great things past finding out,
marvelous things beyond reckoning
(Job 9:8-10).

Due to the light pollution common in our cities today, we urbanites really don’t have any idea what we’re missing when it comes to the night sky. Up until about a hundred years ago, the night sky was illuminated by billions of points of light; it’s a breathtaking display many moderns have never experienced.

My first and only real glimpse of the magnificent Milky Way was nearly twenty years ago. I was visiting a priest friend in rural North Dakota. It was mid January, the very heart of winter. The sky was cloudless, the temperature was just below zero, and the humidity was very low (thus, no haze). We decided to take an evening walk. Only an occasional street lamp lit the ground. As we got farther away from the town, about half a mile, I looked up and could scarcely believe my eyes.

“What is that?” I asked, “Are those clouds coming in?”
“What do you mean?” asked my friend, “There are no clouds.”
“What is all that then?” I asked, gesturing upward with my arm.
He smiled and replied, “Those are stars. That’s the Milky Way.”

On the one hand I astounded by the sight, but at the same time I felt a tinge of anger that I’d been deprived of such a view all my life. Is that what the ancients saw every night? This is what inspired the psalmist to write, The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows forth the work of His hand … night unto night takes up the message (Ps 19:1ff). This is what God meant when he told Abraham, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen 15:5).

Frankly, where I live in Washington, D.C. I can count the stars. But the true night sky is astonishing in the number of stars it contains.

An old hymn says,

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim …

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale …
While all the stars that ‘round her burn
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round our dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

If there is ever a widespread power outage in the greater Washington area, I pray that it happens on a cloudless night. If it does, I will ask my neighbors to join me outside and behold the gift above.

As Job beheld the stars and expressed his marvel, we moderns may think we know what he saw. But I have come to discover that most of us city dwellers really have little idea. The sky the ancients saw each night (and some in rural areas see even today) is more glorious than most of us could ever imagine: the stars in unbelievable numbers forever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”

Here are some pictures of the stars, set to an old Al Bowlly song:

The second half of the high-definition video below shows some wonderful views of the stars in the night sky. If your monitor is a good one, you might want to maximize the view, which displays nicely even on fairly large screens.

A Biblical Picture of Complacency and Its Tragic Results

blog-09-27The first reading from last Sunday’s Mass was a stunning and sobering analysis of the human tendency to be complacent. It also showed how this complacency is fueled by a series of denials that are listed in a tightly woven tapestry. Here is the passage, followed by some basic analysis.

Thus says the LORD the God of hosts: Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall!  Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.  They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with. (Amos 6:1.4-7).

The Diagnosis

The fundamental diagnosis is that many are complacent. To be complacent means to feel satisfied with the current state and to be disinclined to try to make things better. It is self-satisfaction accompanied by a lack of awareness of dangers or deficiencies. It is a kind of myopic condition in which one cannot see beyond one’s own situation to recognize the plight of others.

It is like the rich man who could not see beyond his feast to the starving Lazarus at his very door. Perhaps the meats where piled too high or the wine blurred his vision. All of this is a form of denial. Lazarus was still there even if the rich man couldn’t or wouldn’t see him.

And what of us? Is it possible that our possessions block our view as well? Are we possibly lost in the rooms of our 5,000 square foot homes? What does our life amount to? Do we spend most of our time and money pleasing ourselves? Are we rich in what matters to God or just in what pleases us? Are we aware of the sufferings of so many others? Though we cannot help everyone, whom do we help? Does the moral collapse of our country bother us?  What are we more upset about, that our children do not go to Mass or that our favorite sports team did not win? What makes us passionate and mournful, that 50 million children have been killed through abortion or that we didn’t get our own way in some matter?

Yes, woe be to the complacent. Woe be to those who life amounts to little more than pleasing themselves and living insular lives among their trinkets. Life has a funny way of closing in on them, for the world they ignore does not get better magically.

Indeed, no form of denial can ultimately last. The text announces woe because it does come eventually to the complacent; the ignored problems of others overflow into their insular world. Islands have a funny way of eroding when the tides of the sorrow of others rise.

The Drowsiness

Not only are they described as complacent, but as drowsy. They recline on couches and beds. They sleep through storms the way Jonah slept through the storm he had caused; the pagan sailors eventually had to rouse our Jewish prophet Jonah to “call on his God.”

Catholics today prefer to sleep though the ruinous storms in our culture. This, too, is denial. To be drowsy is to be sleepy and unware. All throughout our culture there is confusion, deception, and moral darkness. Many have fallen away from the faith and are in error and mortal sin.

Yet for most Catholics and most parishes it is “business as usual.” Spaghetti dinners, parish picnics, and raffles have their place, but in the midst of a great storm it is unforgiveable that we are not urgently seeking to save souls through clear instruction and unambiguous calls to repentance. Instead of being wide awake ourselves and summoning others to rise from their slumber, too often we resemble a sleeping giant or behave like the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, who slept while Christ was in agony.

Imagine, the Son of God was about to engage in the most pivotal battle of all human history and the apostles were asleep! Later, at the moment of crucifixion, all but one of them would hide. Things have not changed, my friends. Too many of us are asleep and are uninvolved in the crucial battle for souls.

The Decadence

The text says, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! The frugal and wise stewards of God’s gifts typically did not eat lambs and calves. Lambs were raised to be sheep so that their wool and milk could bless; only when they were older and nearing the end were they slaughtered for meat. Calves, too, were valuable and raised to be beasts of burden and perform other valuable functions; only when they were older and near the end of their useful life were they fattened and taken for meat. In those days, eating the meat of lambs and calves was a sign of waste and usually of decadence. The slaughter of young animals was only considered reasonable for the purpose of sacrifice to God.

Consider the insensitivity of decadence and waste; they are signs of grave excess. Yet this is quite common in our throwaway culture. And while many do strive to donate unneeded items and to recycle what can reasonably be recycled, so much is still wasted.

Consider, too, the root meaning of the word decadence: de (from, apart, or concerning) + cadere (to fall). The word describes how we figuratively trip over our excessive things. All this “stuff” preoccupies us and keep us from seeing beyond our trinkets and preoccupations to the wider world and what is going on. And here, too, is denial of our failure to see as we trip over our excesses.

The Distractions

The text says that they are improvising to the music of the harp. Permit such a text to mean that too often we pipe little tunes for ourselves, we distract ourselves with various distractions. “OK, so the euthanasia bill is being voted on next week. My son is shacked up with his girlfriend. None of my siblings attend Mass. But what’s on TV tonight? I wonder who’s posted on Facebook today?” We have distractions today that the ancients couldn’t have even dreamed of as they partook of their bread, circuses, and gladiatorial contests. All these distractions we have help us to ignore or deny the collapse and ruin around us.

The Drunkenness

Drinking wine from bowls! The ancient Greeks and Romans consumed food and drink so excessively that they would force themselves to vomit in order to be able to continue consuming. Lots of excess there! But most of our excess today in the realm of food and drink is for the purpose of anesthetizing ourselves.

Sobriety is painful in a sinful and fallen world. If we are sober we might actually know what is going on and feel some more responsibility. Because that is painful we embrace a sort of denial by medicating and tuning out. To be sober is to have a clear mind that is alert to what is going on. But being alert and aware can hurt—I might have to actually care about things, events, and people.

In a little wine there may be truth, but a lot of wine brings an altered reality, and many prefer it. It is part of the picture of complacency that one is tuned out and unware. It is easier to stare into the bottom of a glass than to look into the condition of others and soberly assess what is really going on. Bottoms up!

The “Doll Up”

The text says that they anoint themselves with the best oils; today, we us perfume, cologne, or aftershave. The notion is that to look good is better than to be good; it is just too much trouble to actually be good. The emphasis on appearances is just another way to deny or avoid confronting reality.

The Disconnect

All of this leads to the most central denial of all: They are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Historically this is a reference to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. For a brief time, the Southern Kingdom of Judah did embrace some reforms, having seen that the moral collapse of the North and her failure to heed the calls of the prophets for reform led to her demise. But the reforms were short-lived. Even acknowledging what destruction impenitence can bring, too many just to take to their couches. The clock is ticking toward destruction. “But never mind all that. What’s on TV tonight, and would you please bring me some more wine?”

The fact is, we should be greatly saddened by the moral collapse of our country. Many souls are being lost and hurtful errors are multiplying. The beatitude says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Mat 5:4). Who are those who mourn? They are those who see the awful state of many of God’s people: lost, confused, scattered, hurt, and on a path leading to Hell. Those who mourn are comforted (more literally, strengthened), to work earnestly for the salvation of souls.

Yet too many today do not mourn. Too many are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph. Few indeed will get off their couches to work to save souls and to spread the truth of the Gospel. The denial of the problem by now is too deep; their couches have claimed them.

The Destruction

The text says that the complacent will be the first to be driven into exile when the destructiveness of their ways sets in. Denial will no longer be possible as the couch is swept away in the coming storm. Denial of reality does not make it not exist. Judah, to whom this text was addressed, did collapse in 587 B.C. and the nobles led the parade into exile.

If we will not arise and drive back our enemies—Satan and his minions—if we deny that there is any problem, we will soon discover that reality has a strange way of being stubbornly there. It will either reach us here and now (if we are lucky) or on our judgment day (when repentance is no longer possible).

The Lord has painted a sobering but realistic portrait through Amos. Complacency and denial are very serious evils because of their capacity to lull us into ever deeper sleep. Be not deceived into continued moral slumber.

And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh (Rom 13:11-14).

Job and Suffering

Job's Tormentors' by William Blake
Job’s Tormentors’ by William Blake

We are beginning to read from the Book of Job in daily Mass. One of its core issues is the problem of suffering and why God allows it. If God is omnipotent and omniscient then how can He tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where is God when a woman is raped, when genocide is committed, or when evil men hatch their plots? Why did God even conceive the evil ones and let them be born?

The problem of evil cannot be answered simply; it is a mystery. Its purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. Scripture says that “all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes” (Rom 8:28). But how this is often difficult for us to see. Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic and senseless loss or has observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask why. And the answers aren’t all that satisfying to many.

As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers but few are forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind, questioning Job’s ability to even ask the right questions. In the end, though, He is God and we are not. This must be enough for us and we must look with trust to the reward that awaits the faithful.

One of the most perplexing aspects of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America as a whole, there is much less suffering than in many other parts of the world. And even here, some go through life strong, wealthy, and well-fed while others suffer crippling disease, sudden losses, financial setbacks, and burdens. And while a lot of our suffering comes from our own poor choices and/or lack of self-control, some of it seems unrelated. The most difficult suffering to accept is that inflicted on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no ill effects: parents who mistreat or neglect their children, those who exploit the poor or unsuspecting for their own gain exploited, etc.

Suffering is hard to explain simply or to merely accept. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. When interacting with those who are deeply disturbed by the problem of evil, a healthy dose of sympathy, understanding, and a call to humility will be more fruitful than forceful rebuttal.

A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. (Note that these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery) and they are humble for they admit of their own limits.)

  1. The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Although we only get a brief glimpse of the Garden of Eden, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of it and that Adam and Eve caused their entry, despite being warned that this would be the result of eating from the forbidden tree.
  2. Even in Eden the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So even in paradise the mystery of evil lurked.
  3. In a way, the tree and the serpent had to be there. We were made to love; love requires freedom; and freedom requires choice. The yes of love must permit of the no of sin. In our rebellious no both we and the world unraveled, ushering in death and chaos. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this fact came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth, the vast majority of it by my reckoning. The suffering caused by natural phenomena is also linked to sin—Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation rather than to serve in the real paradise.
  4. The link between human freedom and evil/suffering also explains God’s usual non-intervention in evil matters. To do so routinely would make an abstraction of human freedom and thus remove a central pillar of love. But there is mystery here, too, for the Scriptures frequently recount how God did intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, and to shorten famines and plagues. Why does He sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here, too, there is a mystery of providence.
  5. The lengthiest Biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job. There, God shows an almost shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and sets a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit to test Job’s faith and strengthen it. In the end Job is restored and re-established with even greater blessings; it is a kind of foretaste of what is meant by Heaven.
  6. The First Letter of Peter also explains suffering in this way: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7). In other words, our sufferings purify us and prepare us to meet God.
  7. Does this mean that those who suffer more are in need of more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that greater glory is awaiting them. The Scriptures teach, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:16-17). Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. Those who suffer more, but endure it with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
  8. Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering it will be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal when many who are last shall be first (Mat 20:16), when the mighty will be cast down and the lowly exalted, when the rich will go away empty and poor be filled (Luke 1:52-53). In this sense, it is not necessarily a blessing to be rich and well-fed, unaccustomed to suffering. The only chance the rich and well-heeled have to avoid this is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim 6:17-18).
  9. As to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering, we can only point to Christ, who did not exempt Himself from the suffering we caused by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.

I’m sure you can add to these points. Be careful with the problem of evil and suffering; there are mysterious dimensions that must be respected. The best approach in talking to others may be with an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with it. The “answer” of Scripture requires faith, but the answer appeals to reason. Justice calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we can see only a little. The appeal to humility in the face of a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist than would “pat” answers, which could alienate them.