Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tolerance and Justice

A while back I observed a man losing his temper at a stranger. It was clear that he was upset about something, though I did not know what it was at first. Standing back, but wanting to be available to help if needed, it became obvious that things were beginning to escalate so I quickly called 911. It turns out that he was upset because the stranger had chosen to walk on the other side of the street from him. Yes, that may have been a bit too extreme, but that is the kind of society we live in.

What is it that gets you upset? Is it something similar--a personal offense? Or maybe it is someone cutting you off while driving, or even an unkind word from a co-worker? Think about it for a moment, and then ask yourself: is your response actually justified? We live in a culture that gets a lot of things mixed up, and this is one more of them. No, I am not speaking about personal offenses, but rather about our priorities. In other words, do you get upset at little things, and yet still let big things slide? Most people today get furious at those things that they should just let go, and they tolerate those things that should get them upset--we have it all mixed up.

In the gospel reading for Mass today we find James and John asking Jesus if it is OK for them to destroy His enemies. This is something we read about often in the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments), but we usually do not like to speak about it. James and John were not losing their tempers. After all, they did stop to ask Jesus if it was OK: "Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?" James and John saw an injustice and wanted something to be done about it, and they resorted to a typical type of response that was common in the first century. Their Lord has been insulted and they were bothered by it.

Now, we have to ask: were the Apostles overreacting? Jesus had been rejected by the Samaritans; the very people He had been trying to help. James and John only wanted justice and righteousness, but they were still rebuked by Jesus. It was not, however, because they wanted justice. Rather, it was because they were too quick to respond with justice, and they forgot Jesus' desire to show mercy and allow people to have time to repent (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). How do you respond when people insult the Lord and His ways? Do you have any response at all or do you just stand back and quietly let it go?

We know that Christ does not just ignore sin, but He does allow us to choose to come to Him, and this is what He was doing with the Samaritans. It is almost as though the Lord tells the Apostles, "Yes, the Samaritans were wrong, but your response is not going to help. You will only drive them away from God. We do not respond to rejection with anger, but with humility. We respond by praying for them and recognizing that we too need God's grace to stand."

So then, James and John were right in wanting justice, but wrong in forgetting the place of mercy. We cannot criticize them for their passion; they were completely right in wanting Jesus to be honored and respected. Some things are not supposed to be tolerated (regardless of what modern society tells us). We have to ask ourselves, however, whether we are equally passionate about righteousness, in such a way that we are bothered when people reject Christ. All too often people think lightly about heresy and blasphemy (it is almost as though they think these two categories no longer exist).

Tolerance is not always a virtue. What is it that you are tolerant of? Is it really the same kind of thing that God is tolerant of? Being upset is not always a bad thing (there are many things in the world today that should upset every Catholic). We should be asking the Lord to help us tolerate what He tolerates, and to be passionate about the same things that he is passionate about, and we should do this each and every day. In other words, seek justice and righteousness, but do not seek it with revenge in mind; seek it for the glory of Christ and seek it in humility.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Justice and Mercy

"The God I believe in is all love and kindness, there is none of this judgment that you speak of." This is what she said, and I was quite sad to hear it. Sad, because the way that we view God reveals much about our devotion to Him, and if someone views God as a lenient grandfather more than a loving father, then that person does not likely have much motivation for holiness. After all, if God always forgives everything (and never disciplines anything) then why should we bother obeying Him?

It was a discussion on a certain sin that is prevalent in our society today, and I had mentioned the need for obedience to God, regardless of one's personal "lifestyle". The listener had no problem with the idea of obedience to God, she merely objected to the idea that "those out-dated morals" were still relevant in today's "enlightened age". The rest of our particular discussion is not germane to this post. What I am concerned with today is merely how we view God.

The concept of a God Who loves without discernment and Who never judges anyone, regardless of how evil their actions may be, has been around for a while now. Unfortunately, it is completely out of touch with reality. There is not a single hint in Scripture (from Genesis to Revelation), nor in Church tradition that God's love leads Him to ignore sin. Hell is a reality, regardless of the fact that people do not like to hear about it. Have we made a biblical truth into a taboo subject? Although I have heard that few priests will mention either Hell or sin in their homilies these days, I keep thinking about the fact that I have to give account to God for what I preached about as His priest (Ezekiel 33:8).

No, this is not a hold-over from the days when I was a Baptist pastor--I was never much for the "fire and brimstone" sermonizing that some of my colleagues did back then. I fully believe in the love and mercy of our Almighty God, and yet, I do not believe that those are contradictory with His eternal justice (which is just as frequently spoken of in Scripture). Only within the context of the justice of God, and the reality of eternal punishment, can we ever appreciate and be thankful for the mercy of God.

I am not a prophet and do not have any special revelation from God that explains just what caused many Catholics to slip into an errant view of God, but it has happened. I pray it is not just a self-serving effort to ignore sin, but I suspect that some have fallen to this temptation. We easily give into the temptation to justify our sins so that we do not need to put any effort into overcoming them. Like the woman I knew years ago who did not want to go through chemotherapy so she kept looking for a doctor who would tell her she did not have cancer.

Jesus' mercy is one of my greatest joys in life. It is because of His mercy that I have been given so many wonderful blessings. He alone is responsible for all the good that has come to me and my family. We rejoice in His saving work for us. Yet, the fact that He is merciful, does not mean that He accepts sin but rather that He forgives sin. Were Jesus to accept sin, that would mean that we can keep sinning with no consequence (a heresy that the Church condemned long ago). Rather, Jesus forgives sin, and that means that we must come to Him repentant. We must be humble and contrite as we willingly turn away from sin. Anything else leads to eternity without God.

So, some may be upset at me for it, but a wrong view of God is a terrible "dragon" that needs to be slain in our lives; beware that dragon. God is mercy, yes; but His mercy does not negate His justice. He is still the Judge of all the earth. He is still the One to Whom we must all give account to. It is because of the fact that Hell is real that God's mercy is so wonderful. Were there no judgment (as my friend above claimed), then God's mercy would be pointless and insignificant. Let us rejoice in His mercy, both now and forever.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sin Is Sin; Always Was, Always Will Be.

Yesterday morning in Mass the text for the first reading was one of those that make many people squirm. I will admit it was not fun for me either. I certainly find no joy in talking about adulterers, prostitutes, or sodomites. Yet this passage from the book of First Corinthians was not skipped or ignored by the Church. As much as we may prefer not to discuss sinful sexual behaviors, we cannot ignore that they exist (and in record numbers today), and that the Church has declared them to be deadly. We read in First Corinthians:

Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God.

I am actually a bit surprised at this translation found in the New American Bible; which tends to be "light" on some of these challenging subjects. Yet, it comes right out and uses the term "sodomite" rather than something more politically correct like "homosexual" (which attempts to be a neutral euphemism). Whether we use technical terms, theological terms, or vague terms (like "those who choose a different life-style"), will reveal how we are approaching the subject.

The Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (the translation used in Ordinariate parishes), which is not very different from the NAB, says:

Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.

This merges the terms "boy prostitutes" and "sodomites" into "sexual perverts", thus highlighting the idea that sexuality is limited to God's order, and all else is a perversion. A while back I had a conversation with a Catholic about the subject of sexual morals. She was trying to convince me that "homosexuals" are perfectly fine in the eyes of God, and that I was a "cruel bigot" (her term) because I said that homosexual activity was a mortal sin. The Universal Catechism is clear on this point:

2357 . . . Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Not much needs to be said in this regard. The Church's position is undeniable. This, of course, does not mean that we are to be mean and hateful towards those who suffer with these "depraved" temptations, any more than we should be mean and hateful towards to who suffer from the temptation to overeat or to gossip. Grave sin is grave sin, and we cannot invent our own "canon" of the worst grave sins. Only God is Judge. Sexual sins are on the rise right now, and even if some of them cause us to feel disgust, we must recognize that God can redeem anyone who is willing to repent.

Here is where one of the big challenges arises for those who desire to remain faithful to what God has revealed through the Church. There are many who approve of (or actively engage in) sodomy and they want to make it openly known to the degree that they have no problem offending those of us who see their behavior as a "grave depravity" which is "gravely disordered". Yet, at the same time, we are attacked and hated if we merely state the position of the Church towards these acts. In other words, they can offend us all they want with their actions, but we are not allowed to say anything which they "feel" offended by.

I am reminded of a homily I gave a number of years ago that caused much more of a stir than I ever imagined it would. I'm pretty sure I was not any more "offensive" in what I said that day than in any other homily I ever gave, but it is clear that I "offended" more people the day I gave the Church's definition of marriage ("one man, one woman, for life") than any other homily.

Why is that? What is it about the very definition of marriage that offends so many people? Is it just because we do not want to be told what to do? Although that may touch on the subject, I think it is much more an issue of the fact that for a couple of generations people have viewed the purpose of marriage as providing one's own personal pleasure. Hence, when someone tries to limit the definition of marriage, he causes offense to those who do not want a limited definition (in order to allow the free reign of lust).

Many people (even Catholics) have forgotten that few things (if any) were created by God for the sole purpose of our own pleasure. Yes, some things provide pleasure, but there is usually a deeper purpose for those things and the pleasure is usually a mere bonus. Therefore, if society is focused on "me first" and "my pleasure before anything else" then society will be offended by proper definitions and clear terms. The only other option we have, however, is false definitions and vague terms, and this is not what God would have us do.

Therefore I am pleased that the Scriptures are clear and that the Church can give her definitions in a clear and understandable way. Yes, that means that sometimes we need to squirm (as I said above), but it also means that we can learn God's truth, and better understand what He desires of us. Sin is sin; always was, always will be. Righteousness is righteousness; always was, always will be. Thanks be to God that He enables us to tell the difference.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Wholly Other"

How unique is God? That may seem like an overly obvious question, but it actually has some very technical aspects that we need to consider before we answer it. I am sure that anyone who believes in God will say that He is unique; no questions asked. Yet, in what way is He unique, and how do we express that quality? Furthermore, we need to ask, how does our view of His uniqueness impact us personally and spiritually?

Mormonism teaches that God is unique in that He is merely greater than us. He is "greater" because He used to be like us, but has evolved and is now better, stronger, and faster (or something like that). Therefore, His uniqueness is matter of quantity--He is "more" than we are. This is heresy; no holds barred, clear, direct heresy. This is why Mormonism is not considered by the Catholic Church to be a genuinely Christian religion. God is not "like us" in this way that Mormonism claims; He never was, never will be, and He does not "evolve" or improve. He is eternal; "with Whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17).

How then, do we understand God? What is the right way to view Him? If His unique nature is not an issue of just being better than us, then what is it? Catholic theology for 2000 years (and Jewish theology before it) has said that God is "wholly other". His uniqueness is due to the fact that He is not a creature; He was never created. He is creator. If we draw a diagram, there is "God" in one area, and there is "creation" in another area; and though the two have interactions, they are not one and the same, nor do they overlap their existence.

Not everything in protestant theology is incorrect. There are many things that they agree with us on (many more than they disagree with us on). I recall something that I learned from a protestant theologian many years before I became Catholic which was a thoroughly Catholic truth. It could be stated simply thus: Creator and creature are two different things, and although Jesus unites us with God there is no sense in which man is to be confused with God. God is "wholly other" Who comes down to us in mercy. We cannot consider Him to be just a big one of us (like Mormonism does). He is truly "foreign" from creation.

All this is to say that God, as close as He comes to us in the person and activity of Christ, is still not a mere creation. He is not a "great-grampa in the sky" Who looks down on us and does what He can to help us out (that is akin to Mormonism, as we said above). Yet, there are many people, even Catholics, who have this view of God. Whatever their reason or intent is for believing this idea, they clearly want Him to be "more like us" than the traditional understanding of God allows.

Recognizing the unique difference of God in theology is important. Recognizing the unique difference of God in our lives, however, is even more important. Little children will not see the importance of this concept, yet we are told to move beyond the doctrinal understanding of children and proceed to maturity. Once we begin to grasp the amazing truth of the "otherness" of God, then we begin to see just how wonderful His grace is. In salvation He is not helping out his "buddies"; He is helping out those whom He created; those who are "foreigners" to His divine nature.

Our recognition of God's unique nature, is directly related to how we speak and write about Him. Do we talk about God like the "big grampa in the sky" (even if we do not believe that He is really like that?). Do we pray to Him like He is a Greek god (hopeful and helpful but not almighty), or do we pray to Him like He is the Sovereign Creator of the universe? There is a radical difference between writing "god" and "God"; they do not have the same meaning. This brings us to the use of language. I once heard a (well meaning) Christian refer to God as the "great big dude in Heaven". This shows a slight bit of respect, but no reverence whatsoever.

Calling God "you" instead of "You" or even "Thou" has an impact on our sense of reverence. Do we capitalize the words that refer to Him, showing that He is different from the rest of us? Our writing reveals whether we see God as just one more of us ("you") or as someone unique ("You")? And if He is unique, then just how unique is He? If He is completely unique, then "You" is not truly sufficient to distinguish Him. Once again, He is not just a "big" one of us. To express Who He is, we would need to go a step further than merely writing "You" and put it as "Thou". It does make a difference in our hearts, even if our modern obsession with "casual-ness" resists it.

This is why some translations of the Bible and many prayers still use the Old English "thee" and "thou" when referring to God. This is also why you will see in some places people still capitalizing the pronouns that refer to God (i.e. "He" rather than "he"). If we are to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and body, then we have to love Him with our words (written and spoken!). None of us (probably) would pray to God "Hey bud, how's it going?" Not only does it feel wrong, it just sounds crass. How we think about God relates to how we speak about Him, and all of this impacts our love for Him. After all, He made us, not the other way around.