At the Masses last Sunday I mentioned at the beginning of my homily that I will try preaching from the pulpit instead of from the center of the sanctuary with the wireless microphone to see if that makes hearing by the parishioners easier. The jury is already in on the issue as so many parishioners told me after Mass that they could hear every word. I guess I’ll just have to get used to the pulpit which is, I admit, where I should be in the first place – that’s what pulpits are for.
Last weekend’s First Reading and Gospel challenges Christians to be people who both say they will do the will of God and then actually do it – it requires both. I spoke about the prophet Ezekiel’s rather straight forward, blunt talk on behalf of the Lord which stated,
“When the righteous person turns away from their righteousness and commits iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.
Again, when the wicked person turns away from the wickedness they have committed and does what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.”
Upon further reflection from actually preaching I am always mindful that there is so much more to be unpacked from the scriptures than the things one could say about them in a single homily. One of the beautiful treasures of God’s word is that it continually speaks to us and contains so much more than a single thought or teaching for our lives because it is a living word. It is rich, multi-faceted, deep and abundant in truth and meaning. The readings from last Sunday – the 26th Sunday of Year A – are a perfect example of the ‘more’ of sacred scripture.
The Ezekiel reading sets the tone for Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and elders of the people as a direct challenge to how they saw themselves. If prostitutes and despised tax collectors might enter the kingdom of God ahead of these religious representatives of Israel, Jesus is clearly referring to them as the second brother in the Gospel who said he would go into the vineyard and work for his father, but didn’t go. Plainly Jesus is accusing them of saying but not doing. However, it is important to note that Jesus, while he is turning the tables on the Pharisees, is not saying that prostitutes and tax collectors will be saved to spite the religious leaders, rather only those unrighteous ‘sinners’ who repent and come to a conversion of heart will have saved their lives. It is flatly wrong to assume that Jesus was saying sinners who remain sinners all their life until death, unrepentant, will enter the kingdom of heaven.
This is a most important point, I think. Why? Because in a politically correct world we make every attempt to import that same brand of correctness to the Gospel of Jesus. This presents Jesus as a silly sort of god who just can’t help himself but to forgive everybody, whether they come to Him or not in repentance. As Ezekiel says in verse 28, “because that person considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they have committed” they were forgiven and their eternal lives saved. In the Church we know this as conversion; changing from one kind of being and life to another in opposition to the first. Jesus died so that this conversion might be possible. He didn’t die just so everyone, no matter how they lived their lives on earth, would automatically enter heaven upon death, otherwise, why be good, why be moral, why care for anyone else outside of myself? Repentance is necessary.
Earlier on in the 3rd chapter of Ezekiel, (v.20) the prophet addressed the same exhortation to those who were shepherds (priests) of the people:
“It may be that a righteous man turns away and does wrong, and I let that be the cause of his downfall; he will die because you have not warned him. He will die for his sin; the righteous deeds he has done will not be taken into account, and I will hold you answerable for his death. But if you have warned the righteous man not to sin and he has not sinned, then he will have saved his life because he has been warned, and you will have saved yourself.”
The ‘priest’ in all of us who are baptized in Christ calls us to do the same in the lives of those we love. The particular ministry of ordained priesthood of which I am a recipient through God’s calling compels me to do the same but to a whole congregation and all people living within the boundaries of this parish, Catholic or otherwise. As a priest I hear all the time the lament of parents and siblings whose children or family members no longer practice the faith. They don’t go to church, may or may not have had their children baptized and are raising their children to do the same. The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that we have an obligation to speak to them, to pray for them, to ask God’s grace to work in them toward conversion. Yet if we mind our own business and say nothing, the prophet says we are held responsible because we didn’t tell them. And why didn’t we tell them? Perhaps because we were afraid of what they might say or think about us or that they might distance themselves from us or avoid us. We are worried about ourselves and not them.
I am reminded of the brilliant words found on a Catholic blog many months ago as someone came to my defense against the article written about me in the Toronto Star. The article concerned the Examination of Conscience that I had sent through our elementary schools to parents inviting them back to the practice of faith, entering through the door of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In defending me as ‘doing my job’, one commentator so aptly wrote:
“The call of the conscience is very unpleasant indeed, but then again, so is the strident noise of the fire alarm, and we don’t normally complain about it when it saves our lives. So do we really value our spiritual lives the same way?”
Isn’t that the point? Do we value our spiritual lives and those of the people we love enough to try to bring them back to Christ? Or are we more concerned about any chance of offending them?
Much food for thought as we listen to the prophets who pointed to Jesus – the One we must listen to and imitate.
St. Luke ends his Gospel with Jesus’ last words before ascending into heaven: “And that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations…”. (Fr. Charles)