Asking God to Be "Fair" Is Very Dangerous – Better Try Mercy!

In the first reading from Mass on Friday of this week God answers the question of his “fairness” in dealing with us:

You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if the wicked, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. (Ezekiel 18:25-28)

It is a rather dangerous thing demand that God be fair. How easily we can declare of many circumstances. “That’s not fair!”  But when it comes to the Lord, a little friendly advice is helpful: Be VERY careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair we’d all be in Hell right now. As it is, God is merciful and none of us have ever really gotten the punishment we deserved. Notice that God answers the accusation that it is unfair for him to punish the sinner in a twofold way:

1. Your Choice – If a person sins and does not repent of it he will die (i.e. descend to hell). But that is his choice to stay in sin and thus incur the cosequence that he dies spiritually and cannot see eternal life. It is our choice that is determinative of this.

2. Choose Mercy! God also answers with a sort of plea that we call on his mercy instead. God is a God of the second chance. And, rather than give us the fairness we seek in a misguided way, we bids us call on his mercy, repent and he will hear and save us. For if a person repent he will live! Scripture says elsewhere: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?‘ (Ezekiel 33:11). Again, God our savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). And again, The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

If you want God to be “fair,” that is, to use strict justice,  cannot you see that we are all in very serious trouble?  In the end it is only his grace and mercy that will ever see us through. We ought to have enough humility to banish notions of fairness in our relations with God. Mercy is the only way we stand a chance. Kyrie Eleison!

Picture above from (right click on photo for URL)

This song says, “You’re the God of the Second Chance.”

God’s Love For Us Is Crazy! A Meditation on the Gospel for the 24th Sunday of the Year

Crazy! – The three parables of today’s lengthy Gospel challenge our conventional thinking. All three of them are quirky and describe people doing things that we most likely would NOT do. In fact all three of them, especially the first two, seem crazy. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep and the woman of the lost coin do? No one, really. Likewise the Father in the Story of the Prodigal Son breaks all the rules of “tough love.” His forgiveness has an almost reckless quality. No father of Jesus’ time would ever tolerate such insolence from his sons. It just wasn’t accepted. So all three of these parables, at one level, are just plain crazy.

But that is one of the most fundamental points Jesus seems to be making here. The Heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain “crazy.” I do not mean it is irrational by using this word, but it does stretch the limits of our human thinking. Neither do I intend irreverence by using the word “crazy.” Permit a preacher’s hyperbole so that we can enter into the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. It cannot be understood or really explained in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is “amazing” in that it goes completely beyond my ability to comprehend. It transcends merely human concepts. Thank God! If God were like us we’d all be in trouble, frankly, we’d all be in Hell.

Let’s look at each Parable. The Gospel texts are too lengthy to reproduce here. But you can read the whole of it here: Luke 15

1. The Parable of the Lost Sheep– The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one who is lost. Would a shepherd likely do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. Perhaps if the lost sheep were near at hand he might venture over the next hill. But the average human shepherd would cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Many of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave ninety-nine to search for one. Some people try and make sense of this parable by appealing to possible shepherding practices of the First Century. But this seems to miss the point that God’s love is extravagant, personal, and puzzling. In the end, it would seem that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even “more” when we stray. He intensifies his focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous, possibly enabling. But don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

2. The Woman and the Lost coin– A woman loses a drachma. It is a small coin. Not worth that much really, perhaps one day’s wages for an agricultural worker. In modern terms less than $100. Not insignificant, but not really huge amount either. She sweeps diligently for it. So far, this seems reasonable. I’d probably look around a while for a missing “Benjamin” ($100 bill). But then it gets crazy. She finds it and rejoices to such an extent that she spends most, if not all of it, on a party celebrating the found coin! Crazy! But that is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. Some commentators try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value as part of her dowry or ceremonial head-dress of ten coins. But here too, over analyzing and trying to explain or make sense of it may well miss the point. This woman is crazy because God is crazy. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

3. The Prodigal Son– A young son, entitled by law to a third of the Estate (since he was the younger son) tells his Father to drop dead. He wants his inheritance now. The old man isn’t dying fast enough. Incredibly the father gives it to him! Crazy! No father in the ancient world would ever tolerate such irreverence and insolence from a son. The Father is a nobleman (land owner) and could hand his son over to serious retribution for such dishonor. The son leaves his father and goes off to “a distant land” where he sinks so low, he is looking up to pigs. He comes to his senses, rehearses a speech and returns to his father, hoping only to be a hired worker.

But here’s where it gets even crazier! The Father sees him a long way off (meaning he was looking for him). He does something a nobleman would not do: he runs. Running was considered beneath the dignity of a nobleman since it would imply he was either a slave on an errand or a fugitive running. Further, in order for a person to run in the ancient world, they had first to gird the loins of their garments. Since the garments were long flowing robes they had to be “hiked up.”  Otherwise, the legs would get tangled in the garment and the person would trip. But for a nobleman to show his legs was considered an indignity. Get the picture? This nobleman, this father, is debasing himself, humbling himself. He is running and his legs are showing. This is crazy. Do you know what this son has done? Done he deserve this humble love? No! This father is crazy! – Exactly! The heavenly Father is crazy too. He actually loves me and humbles himself for me. He even sent his own Son for me. Do you know what I have done….what you have done? Do we deserve this? No! It’s crazy.

The second son is also a handful. When he hears of the party for the wayward brother he refuses to enter. Again this is unthinkable in the ancient world for a son to refuse to report when summoned by a father. What does the father do? He comes out and pleads with him! Again, crazy! Unthinkable. No father in the ancient world would ever permit a son to speak to him in the way this second son spoke. The son basically calls him a slave-driver who issues orders and refuses to enter the party that his father is hosting. He says he’d  rather celebrate with his friends than with his father. But (pay attention here), the goal in life is not celebrate with your friends. The goal in life is to celebrate with the Father in heaven.

This father is crazy. He is crazy because God the Father is crazy. Do you know what it is to refuse to do what God says? And yet we do it every time we sin! The heavenly Father should not have to tolerate this. He is God and we are creatures. If he wanted, he could squash us like a bug. But he does not. The father in this parable is almost “dangerously” merciful. Shouldn’t his sons learn a lesson here?  Shouldn’t he punish them both for their insolence? Yes, all our human thinking kicks in. But God is God, not man. There are other scriptures that speak of his punishments. But in the end, none of us get what we really deserve. The point of Jesus here is that God is merciful and his love is crazy. It makes no human sense.  His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.


Going Deeper with the Parable of the Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is often read by many in a rather single manner to mean that we ought to be more generous to those in need or that we ought to not neglect those who suffer. Perhaps too, that racial and ethnic boundaries must be overcome as we broaden what it means to consider some one a neighbor.  All of this is fine enough, there are plenty of social justice themes at work here to permit such a reading and they ought not be neglected. But as is always the case with scripture, there is more at work here than the merely obvious interpretation. In effect the whole passage before us goes a long way to show some of the deeper drives we have regarding the pride and self-righteousness, along with a stubborn tendency we have to reduce holiness to something “manageable” and merely human. Let’s take a look.

1. There was a scholar of the law  who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  (Luke 10:25) – On the face of it this question is absurd. It is rooted in self-justifying notions. What must I DO to obtain eternal life….The simple fact is that we cannot save ourselves. We do not have the resources to obtain eternal life. No amount of human flesh power could even come close to paying the debt we owe. We do not have a rocket ship powerful enough to fly to heaven. We have no ladder tall enough to climb there. The lawyer’s flawed question sets him up for a series of misunderstandings about salvation and the absolute need for grace. Because he thinks that eternal life is somehow in his power to obtain it he looks more and more foolish as the interaction goes on.

2.  Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”  He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”  (Luke 10:26-28) In way Jesus is humoring him and drawing him out. The man has suggested that salvation is in his power to accomplish. So, in effect Jesus says to him, “Since you think such a thing is possible, explain to me how you think so with your legal background.” The lawyer quotes the great Shema, the summary of the whole law contained in Deuteronomy 6. Now there is nothing wrong with the Law, and so Jesus says, “You have answered rightly.” But what IS wrong is thinking that this law is within my own unaided flesh power to keep. To love God with our whole heart, mind, being and strength is a remarkable call that should not be taken lightly or reduced a few ritual tokenary things. The honest truth is that most human beings do not love God this way and NO human being apart from grace even stands a chance of getting close. The human mind and heart apart from grace have been so wounded as to make such a law unattainable. The fact is not only do human beings (apart form grace) not love God with their whole heart, they barely give him leftovers. The usual human approach is to serve myself and the world and then, from whatever is left, I’ll throw a few scraps to God. I’ll pray, if I have time left over at the end of my busy worldly day. I’ll read scripture if it doesn’t interfere with my watching of the sports event or soap opera. I’ll put money in the collection plate after I pay my mortgage, Sears bill, magazine subscriptions and see what is left over. I’ll follow the teachings of God so long as they don’t interfere with my politics or worldview. So God barely gets leftovers from most people and that includes many who describe themselves as religious. For us to think we, by ourselves,  are really going to pull off loving God with our whole heart, mind, being and strength or even come close is absurd on the face of it. And we haven’t even considered loving our neighbor yet! Jesus answers the lawyer (probably with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek) “Do this and you will live.” 🙂  He might as well have told him to leap a tall building in a single bound or to define the universe and give three examples. Does the lawyer really have any idea what it means to “do this?!” Surely not, as we see next.

3.  But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) And now we surely have reached the endgame of legalism and trying to be justified by our own flesh power. In effect the Lawyer says, “OK, if I have to love my neighbor as myself, let’s keep the meaning of neighbor as minimal and manageable as possible.” In other words if there are too many neighbors running around, with the requirement that I love them as myself, I might not be able to pull the thing off. So let’s dumb down and minimize what and who is meant by neighbor. This is what the flesh does. It salutes God’s law but doesn’t really take it seriously. The usual tactic of the flesh is to argue about meaning (e.g. the famous, “That depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is.”) and then to minimize the observance as much as possible by all sorts of legalistic minimalism. Hence the lawyer seeks to quibble over a precise definition of “neighbor” and keep that category as small and minimal as possible. He has to do this because he wants to accomplish the Shema on his own, by his own merit and power.

4. Jesus doesn’t take the bait and goes on to tell the well known parable of the Good Samaritan. With it he devastates the concept of a small manageable notion of neighbor. Neighbor cuts across national, ethnic, religious and political boundaries to encompass…..everyone. Jesus will not accept the reductionist demands of the flesh and its legalism.

5. He also sets aside another form of reductionism in the parable, that of religious reductionism. A priest and Levite pass also and refuse to help to victim by the roadside. Perhaps they were afraid, perhaps they had concerns about blood which would render them unclean and unfit for Temple duties. But whatever their reasons they also represent the human tendency to think we can buy God off by religious observances. If I go to Church, pay my tithes, and say a few prayers I can check off the “God box,” consider myself righteous and to have met all my duties. It becomes all too easy to walk past the needy, to walk past injustice, to tolerate evil, to remain silent and protect my hide and ego and all the while think God won’t mind because I sat in the pew last Sunday. This is just another form of reductionism and the Lord’s parable makes it clear that he is not impressed. We can’t buy God off. We ought to be in Church every Sunday, financially support the word of God, pray and so one. There is no excuse for not doing these things. But they are not the end of faith, they are the beginning of faith. If I really sat in the pew last Sunday to any real effect that I cannot walk on past the needy, ignore injustice, tolerate evil or remain silent in the face of error.

6. Thus in the end the love of God and neighbor are expansive loves that go beyond the ability of the unaided flesh to do. Without the healing of grace we are simply too selfish, greedy, egotistical, thin-skinned, resentful, envious, bitter, lustful and revengeful to even come close to loving God and our neighbor the way that is described. We have to stop playing games with God’s Word and stop trying to explain it in a way that makes it manageable. God’s word means what it says. And, with our unaided flesh it is impossible to fulfill it.

7. What then are we to do? Seek lots of grace and mercy. This parable is about more than caring for the poor. It is also about the absolute need for grace. Only with tons of grace and mercy do we even stand a chance in coming close to what the Shema sets forth. Only God can really give God the love he deserves. Only God can really love the poor as they ought to be loved. That is why we have to die to our self and allow Jesus Christ to live his life in us. He does this through the sacraments fruitfully received, through faith mediation on his Word and through prayer. Those who faithfully attend Mass and regularly receive communion worthily, those who confess their sins frequently and fruitfully receive the graces of that sacrament, those who faithfully and thoughtfully meditate on God’s Word, begin to experience a transformation that enables them to love. They receive a new heart and a new mind, the heart and mind of Christ. As Christ lives in them they see the Shema come alive, they begin to love God above all things and their neighbor as their very self. And it is not they who do it. It is Christ who does it in them.

8. What must I do to inherit eternal life? I must decrease and Christ must increase (Jn 3:30). I must die so that Christ may live in me (Gal 2:19-20).

The audio version of my homily is here: Going Deeper with the Good Samaritan

This song says, “When you see me trying to do good, It’s just Jesus in me….Loving my neighbor like a Christian should, It’s just Jesus in me.”

Praying for a Broken and Humble Heart: A Meditation on Love of the Sinful Woman (Luke 7)

The Lord links our love for him in terms of our awareness of our sin and our experiencing of having been forgiven: But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)

I. The Pharisaical Problem – He said this in the house of a Pharisee named Simon. Now the Pharisees had reduced holiness to the observance of a rather precise and technical code of 613 precepts. Many of these were minor observances such at the purifying of jugs and cups, following a “Kosher” diet, and observing a myriad of Sabbath rules. Others were more weighty, involving fasts and prayer observances, paying tithes etc. But I hope you can see the absurdity of reducing holiness to a code of a mere 613 precepts. Jesus often excoriated the Pharisees for their intricate observances of the minute details while they neglected weightier matters of justice and failed to love others, see them as brethren or lift a finger to help them find God. Instead they were famous for simply writing off others with scorn and regarding them with contempt. Their arrogance troubled Jesus greatly.

At the heart of their self deception was the notion that they could be righteous on their own, that sin was something that did not touch them. They were “self-righteous.” That is, they considered themselves to be righteous on their own and that by simple human effort they had eradicated sin and were free of it. Again, it is hoped that you can see the absurdity of this. But notice that the delusion first involved a severely dumbed-down notion of holiness, reducing the matter to 613 rules. Then, if you try and put a little effort, presto – you’re “holy,”  righteous, and without sin.

The Sadducees, the scribes and other Temple leaders also had similar minimalist notions. A rather memorable interaction took place between Jesus and one of the Scribes in Luke 10. They were discussing the Commandment to Love God and your neighbor as yourself. In effect the Scribe, like a true lawyer, wants to minimize the whole thing and keep the commandment manageable so as Luke reports: But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”(Lk 10:29). Notice, he wanted  to justify himself. This is want is meant by the notion of self-righteousness, to be righteous by my own power. But in order to pull off the self justification he first needs to make the loving of one’s neighbor more minimal and manageable. So he enters into a negotiation of sorts with Jesus to dumb down  the whole thing. Jesus does not take the bait but goes on to tell his famous Parable of the Good Samaritan which teaches that my neighbor whom  I must love is an expansive category that leaps beyond, family, local community, even nation. But here was the Pharisaical, tendency also shared by the Sadducees, Scribes and Temple Leaders: I can be holy on my own, I can be without sin if I just follow a set of rules. If that is the case, who needs a savior? Who needs Jesus? Who needs God to save him? It is the law which saves and all I have to do is follow it in the narrowest and most restricted sense and I am sinless. Or so they thought.

II. Our Personal Participation in the Problem  – Now, before you rush to scoff at the Pharisees be careful on two counts.

1. The Pharisees were a large religious group in Israel and like any large religious group there were varying interpretations and experiences of the Pharisee philosophy. Not every one was as cartoonishly absurd in their thinking as I have described. Some were however (e.g. in Luke above, and Simon the Pharisee in today’s Gospel) and all the members of the Pharisee movement had the tendencies described due to their minimalistic notions of holiness.

2. But more importantly don’t rush to scoff because we have ourselves  have become very Pharisaical in modern times. There is a widespread tendency today to exonerate ourselves from sin or at least to diminish any notion that we are a sinner. We have done this in several ways.

First, we have been through a long period in the Church where clergy and catechists have soft-pedaled sin. Talking about sin sin was “negative” and we should be more “positive.” After all if we talk about sin too much “people might get angry or hurt and we want our parish to be a warm and welcoming community.” Or so the thinking goes.

Second, there is the tendency to evade responsibility. “I’m not responsible, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two…..I need therapy, I went to public school etc. .”  This may be true but it does not mean we have no sin.

Third, and perhaps the most Pharisaical thing we have done is to reduce holiness to “being nice.” All that matters in the end is that we’re “nice.” Go ahead and shack up, fornicate, skip Mass, dissent from any number of Biblical and Church teachings, have numerous divorces, and be unforgiving of your family members (after all that’s a “private” matter). But as long as you’re “generally a nice person” everything is OK.  At least the Pharisees had 613 rules. We have only one: “be nice.”  Now here too I do not say this of everyone. But in a very widespread way we are like the Pharisees, completely out of touch with our sinfulness and desperate need for God’s mercy. “What me a sinner? – How dare you! I am basically a good (i.e. nice) person” as though that were all that mattered.  Or so the thinking goes. And let a priest or deacon get in a pulpit and talk tough about sin to some congregations and watch the letters go off to the Bishop or the priest be called negative.

III. Our Prescribed Perspective – In today’s Gospel Jesus tells a Parable about two people who had a debt which neither could repay. Note carefully, neither could repay. That is to say, both were sinners and neither one can save them self of be righteous on their own. The debt is beyond their ability. One had a large debt, the other a smaller one. It is a true fact that some on this planet are greater sinners than others. Moral equivalency is wrong. Mother Teresa was surely more holy than Joseph Stalin. (Nevertheless, even Mother Teresa had a debt she couldn’t pay and would be the first to affirm that she was a sinner in need of God’s great mercy). Now since neither of the people in the parable  could repay they both sought mercy. Who is more grateful? Obviously the one who was forgiven the larger amount.

The paradoxical font of love – But pay attention to the way Jesus words it: “Which of them loves him [the creditor] more?” (Lk 7:42). The one who love more is the one who is forgiven more. This is why today’s dismissal of sin is so serious. In effect we deny or minimize our debt and the result is that we love God less. Notice that, while many sectors of the Church have soft-pedaled any preaching about sin and emphasized a self-esteem message, our Churches have emptied. Only 27% of Catholics go to Mass in this country. It is worse in Europe. Obviously love for God has grown cold. As we have lost touch with our debt, we have less love for  the one who alone can forgive it. We no longer seek him and we love him only tepidly and in a distant manner. Jesus says it plainly (and it would seem with sadness):  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)

Pray for a broken and humble heart, a heart to know the astonishing debt of our own sin. It is a paradox but it is true: we have to grasp the bad news of sin before we can rejoice in the good news of forgiveness and redemption. Before we can really love the One who alone can save us, we have to know how difficult we are to love. You and I must pray for the grace to finally have it dawn on us that “The Son of God died for me….not because I was good or nice, but because I was bad and in desperate shape.” Only when we really experience this mercy is our heart broken and humble enough to really love the Lord.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47)

I am mindful of an old Gospel song that says, “I really Love the Lord! You don’t know what he’s done for me! Gave me the victory. I really love the Lord!”

Counting the Cost of Condemnation

The Gospel for today’s Mass is the well known Gospel of the woman caught in adultery.  In this Gospel the Lord reasons with the men of his day (and with us) that the severe justice they want to render to this woman may be an unwise stance as they themselves prepare for their own judgment.

Before we look any further at the details of this Gospel consider with me a few background texts that may help us to grasp better what Jesus is teaching. After each verse I will give a brief commentary.

  1. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt 5:7) Notice here that it is the merciful who will obtain mercy. It is those who have shown proper mercy that will be granted mercy on the Day of judgment. By implication, the severe and those who lack mercy will be judged severely by the Lord.
  2. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38) Here the text clearly states that if you or I use a severe standard of judgment, that same severe standard will be used by the Lord when he judges us. On the other hand if we are forgiving, merciful and generous then we can expect a merciful, generous and kind judgment from God.
  3. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of freedom, for  judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12-13) Here too James warns us by reminding us first of all, that we are going to be judged  by the Lord. Secondly, since we are free we are therefore responsible for what we do. Thirdly, since we are going to face this judgment in which we cannot pass off blame to others for what we have freely done we’d better realize that our judgment will be without mercy if we have not shown mercy. Ah but if we have shown mercy we stand a chance for mercy will triumph over strict judgment.
  4. For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Mat 6:14-15) This warning seems clear enough that if we want to find forgiveness on the day of judgment we had better seek the grace to forgive others.

All of these texts seem to teach a bold truth that we are actually able to influence the standard that the Lord will use on the day of our judgment. The measure we use for others will be measured back to us. If we have been merciful we will find mercy. But if we have been harsh, unbending, and unmerciful the Lord will use a far stricter standard by which to judge us. We need to be sober about this. We are storing up things for the day of judgment by the way we treat others. Now on to the Gospel.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees bring a woman caught in the very act of adultery. It is clear she is guilty of this offense. (However a curiosity exists. She was caught in the very act, so the man involved is also surely known. Where is he and why has he not be brought forward?  The Law of Moses also indicates that the man should be stoned). Now the accusers want to throw the book at her. They want the most strict punishment meted out. They want her stoned.

Jesus who as God knows all their sins must be amazed. Surely they cannot be serious in demanding this if they consider the day of their own judgment?! He bends down and traces his finger on the ground almost as though his finger was tracing back and forth as he read what was recorded of them in the book.  So he tries to reason with them and says, “Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone!”  Then he bends down again and continues tracing or writing on the ground. It is almost as though he were saying:

“Reason with me men, if you demand strict justice, if you insist that I throw the book at her, let’s first look and see what there is about you in the book. If she is to be judged strictly and without mercy then you too will face the same standard you demand for her. There are things in the book about you, serious things. Have you counted the cost of condemning this woman? Are you sure you want to go on demanding that I throw the book at her? Think about it men.”

One by one they go away starting with the oldest who are presumably less rash than the younger and may have more sins! Soon Jesus is alone with the woman. He does not condemn her but warns her not to commit this sin again.

So the message for us is clear. We will face judgment. Sober about that fact we need to count the cost of our being unmerciful, unforgiving and vengeful. The measure that we use for others with be the measure God uses for us. What kind of judgment are you preparing for yourself?  Be careful to count the cost.

It remains true that we must sometimes correct sinners and meet out punishment. Jesus is compassionate with this woman but he warns her not to sin again. Punishment is sometimes necessary and at times it falls to us to issue it. Perhaps we are a parent, a juror, or someone in a supervisory role. But before we rush to the most extreme measures we do well to show mercy and use lesser measures first. St. Paul has good advice: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should gently set him right. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted  (Gal 6:1) Gentle and clear correction is the best course, more significant punishments should be a later recourse. We must be careful not to be tempted to harshness, anger, lack of mercy and lack of love.

Count the cost. Condemnation comes at a high cost. Are you willing to store up wrath for the day of your judgment in this regard? On the other hand, gentleness, compassionate correction, and merciful love will also be reckoned to us if we show it to others. Do the math, remember judgment.







Be VERY Careful Before You Ask God To Be Fair

The first reading for today’s (Feb 3) Mass describes how David decided to conduct a Census (likely in order to draft men for the army). The text speaks of this as a sin and though David regrets what he has done yet still God exacts a punishment. But the punishment afflicts not David per se but over 70,000 who died from pestilence at the hand of God. It is another of those difficult texts in the scripture where we struggle to understand how God is not acting “unjustly.” Why would God punish people who had not committed the actual sin in question? So let’s roll up our sleeves  and wrestle with this text. It is similar to what we discussed when we considered the “ban” (Did God Command Genocide?) . As with many things Biblical there are often many different theories and explanations. We only have time to explore a few.

First the Story:

King David said to Joab and the leaders of the army who were with him, “Tour all the tribes in Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba and register the people, that I may know their number.” Joab then reported to the king the number of people registered: in Israel, eight hundred thousand men fit for military service; in Judah, five hundred thousand. Afterward, however, David regretted having numbered the people, and said to the LORD: “I have sinned grievously in what I have done. But now, LORD, forgive the guilt of your servant, for I have been very foolish.”…Gad [the Prophet] then went to David to inform him  [of the Lord’s punishment]. He asked:  “Do you want a three years’ famine to come upon your land, or to flee from your enemy three months while he pursues you, or to have a three days’ pestilence in your land? … David answered Gad: “I am in very serious difficulty. Let us fall by the hand of God, for he is most merciful; but let me not fall by the hand of man.” Thus David chose the pestilence….and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba died. But when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD regretted the calamity and said to the angel causing the destruction among the people, Enough now! …[And David} said to the LORD: “It is I who have sinned; it is I, the shepherd, who have done wrong. But these are sheep; what have they done? Punish me and my kindred.” (2 Sam 24:2-17)

And now some of the concerns, questions and some possible answers.

What was wrong with conducting a census? There are three possible answers to this question.

  1. David sinned by pride in numbering the men in his kingdom. The purpose for this was to raise an army. But God had given David no order to or reason to go to battle. It is rather David’s pride and ambition that he musters for battle.
  2. David violates the Deuteronomistic Code which forbade Kings to build military power for its own sake. The code referred to this as “multiplying horses” which is a euphemism for building a large army. Here is the pertinent passage from Deuteronomy: The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. (Deut 17:16-17). Hence the powers of a king must be limited but David has transgressed this planning to draft a large army without battle imminent. In so doing he abuses his power but taking large numbers of men from their families and from their farms and occupations.
  3. David sins by not trusting God. The need for a large army is rooted in a lack of trust that God can help him win either with a smaller army or can help him muster troops when the need arises. David’s planning for the future amounts to a failure to have faith in God.

Why did God punish the people who did no wrong? It hardly seems fair that 70,000 people should die for the sin of David alone. David has repented of what he did. It is true sometimes even after repentance we sometimes need to experience punishment, but is the punishment so severe and why is it directed at the people? And here is our central question: Is God being unfair? There are at least two explanations or answers.

  1. The People were not innocent. At the time of Samuel the people clamored for a king. Samuel told them that this was a sinful desire on their part for God was their King. Still they persisted in their demands and here is where we pick up the story:  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD.  And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”  Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.  He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots… He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.  He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. (1 Sam 8:6-19). Hence the people are not innocent in this. They had been warned. Among the warnings was a very specific warning that the King would abuse his power to raise an army. Now David had planned exactly this. It is right that they should share in the punishment for they had forsaken God as their ruler and now they would have to suffer under the bad decisions of the earthly ruler they preferred.
  2. This is a moral tale that the innocent frequently suffer as a consequence of our sins – One thing that cannot be avoided is that the innocent frequently suffer from the decisions that others have made. For example, parents may squander their money, or drink too much, or behave badly. The children suffer though they did not do it. A bad pastor can bring down a whole parish, A bad general can get troops killed. Unfortunately our lives are interconnected and we cannot escape the fact that others often suffer for our bad choices. This is a sobering fact that should help us amend our ways. But, sadly, we are often insensitive to how our sins hurt others. David’s sin has hurt others and this is an important moral tale for us to heed for we too hurt others by our sins.

But # 2 still leaves unaddressed the fact that what is depicted in this story that God carries out  is not merely the natural consequence of the bad choice of a leader. Rather it is God himself who personallycarries this out through his angels. What this likely reflects is a biblical focus on primary causality. God is the first cause of everything that happens. In modern times we tend to focus more on secondary causality. If I take a walk tonight the primary cause of the walk is not me, it is God. I am the secondary cause of my walk for I who move must first be moved by God. The biblical world was accustomed to see things in terms of primary causality. There is an old saying, “What God permits, he commits.” We are unaccustomed to see things this way and focus on ourselves and what we do as somewhat independent of God. It is a symptom of our anthropocentric age. We like to say when we observe bad things, “God did not do that, Hitler (or some other bad person) did that.” But honestly, everything that happens God “does” for he sustains all things and is the first mover of everything that moves. This sovereigntyof God interacts mysteriously with our freedom. Clearly the notion of primary causality (God) and how it interacts with secondary causality (Us) requires some sophistication (which we often lack today). God is sovereign and the cause of all but we are free and responsible. Hence God is the primary cause of this plague but David is repsonsible. And WE are responsible for what we do. And we must sober up to the fact that our bone-headed decisions can lead to great pain for others.

A Call to humility – In the end humility is called for when texts like these arise. From our perspective the cry too easily goes up: “That’s not fair!” But be VERY careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair we’d all be in Hell right now. As it is, God is merciful and none of us have ever gotten the punishment  we deserved. God punishes David and his people. Perhaps they deserved it, perhaps it is just a consequence of bad choice of a leader. But in the end God summons his mercy and ends the pestilence. In the end it is only his grace and mercy that will ever see us through. We ought to have enough humility to banish notions of fairness in our relations with God. Mercy is the only way we stand a chance. Kyrie Eleison!

This song says, “Lord I’ve sinned but You’re still calling my name.”

Authority to Forgive Sins

The Gospel for this Sunday is from John 20:19ff clearly shows him bestowing the authority to forgive sins to his first priests, the Apostles. He breathed on them and said, ‘Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them. Whose sins you retain, they are retained.’  This passage should not be lightly set aside. According to John it is the among the very first things that Jesus did after He rose from the dead. First he says, Peace be with you. Then he commisions them: As the Father has sent me so I send you. Well the Father sent Jesus to reconcile sinners with the Father. So these sent one (Apostles) would have the same power, to reconcile sinners. It is an essential hallmark of the Church that she be able to reconcile sinners through the ministry of priests. If you’re a good Bible believeing Catholic you ought to get to confession frequently. Afterall Jesus set it up this way himself. Now don’t go an reinvent religion. Just practice what Jesus set forth. Central to the practice of the true and Biblical faith is confession.

So here are some other resources to study moreon this:

  1. I have put together a PDF flyer on the Biblical roots of Confession and you can read it here:  Confession in Biblical
  2. I preached a sermon on today’s Gospel which covers among other things the Authority to forgive sins you can listen or right click to download here: Sermon on Divine Mercy Sunday
  3. Here is a two minute Video Apologetical primer on Confession:

God does not love us because we are good but because He is good.

 People stay away from the Church for many reasons. There are some who struggle with sins and a sense of unworthiness. Why would God be calling me? I am a sinner and I am not even sure I can give up my sin. If you are among those who may stay away for this reason, I wonder if you might consider watching this video. It is the end of a talk by Christopher Cuddy, a covert to Catholicism. He ponders our unworthiness to have received this call from Christ and encourages us to simply accept God’s love for us. God does not love us because we are good, we can only be good because God first loves us.

Christopher Cuddy is a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism