Thoughts on the first Reading for The Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thus says the Lord
You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel;
When you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me
If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die,”
And you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked one from his way,
The wicked shall die for his guilt,
But I will hold you responsible for his death,
But if you warn the wicked,
Trying to turn him from his way,
And he refuses to turn from his way,
He shall die for his guilt,
But you shall save yourself.
There is currently a much-reviewed book by Daniel Mattson titled “Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay,” which catalogs his journey from that damaging and disappointing behavior into a heart-filling relation with Jesus Christ. Mr. Mattson’s journey is his own, but his engagement with the Catholic Church speaks volumes. A ‘cradle’ Catholic, Mattson attended Catholic schools for twelve years, during which he recalls being taught only two unchallengeable moral propositions: the evils of poverty and the goodness of open immigration.
While his moral formation was being neglected, Daniel was being subjected to the great heresy of the twentieth century, that omnipresent putting of the cart before the horse, the teaching that Christ died to make the world a better place, so that everyman can be good without God while we perfect the natural order and build the good life. This overlooks the fact that such charitable works as Christians do are not merely natural but move out of the living relation with Christ in the sacraments and prayer. As Saint Paul put it, “If you give all your goods to feed the poor but do so without charity, it does you no good at all”
In the long run Mattson found the power of Christ to conform every soul to the truly good life that comes from heart-obedience to Him, but along the way he was told by priest number one not to worry and then by priest number two he was counselled to acceptance of his sins, but he finally found priest number three who told him with the gentleness of the Good Shepherd, doing these things is a soul-destroying sin, living with wrong inclinations is a sorrow that may be joined to the suffering of Christ, and in the end, Daniel, in Jesus you are free. You do not have to behave in this way or feel guilty because you are marked by the great rebellion, you may have a particularly burdensome flaw, even one that attacks the very structure of life, but it is yours to carry in Christ’s name.
What Daniel Mattson learned has wider much wider applications. Politics always fails; some corner of the Church is always corrupt, and every marriage can turn unsatisfying and disappointing for a time. In our culture the only thing easier than getting an abortion is getting a divorce. It is easier to speak of Daniel Mattson’s overcoming because it involves actions that are always intrinsically disordered. The more complicated difficulties involved in divorces and annulments are best left to moral theologians and diocesan tribunals. But this can be said. Tolkien once wrote that Christian marriage is a sacramental contract between sinners, survivors of a shipwreck called original sin. It is a school of charity calculated to bring both partners to heaven by the self-denials and putting-up-withs that love requires. The Church has always maintained the great Pauline image: Christian marriage effects an indissoluble bond uniting two persons as one flesh, reconstituting the relation that was, in Christ’s words “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).
Among the gifts of Christ to every soul are restraint and optimism, the belief that one is not, like the Romans of the Hellenistic age, subject to unknown and uncontrollable forces, the stars or fatal necessity, or in modern terms unconscious or conscious impulses, but that by grace every Christian can master Satan’s destructive plans and avoid his works and move daily along the path that leads to the realization of every good destiny in God. This is a great thing, a source of happiness and peace, and Daniel finally found it thanks to a priest who told the truth.
We now live in an ecclesiastical culture that at least on the surface seems to lack the faith that an ordinary Christian can deny himself and take up his or her cross, homiletic favorites still being acceptance, sentimental love, and rootless kindness, and, yes, the elimination of poverty, a project Our Lord foreswore, to the detriment of the Benedictines and others who believe God prefers it. And indeed while there is much awareness of God as a sentimental presence there is less interest in His justice, the eternal, glorious rightness, that is the form of His love into which He is leading us. Just as the love that is the Holy Spirit lifted creation out of chaos in Genesis, that same informing love can lift every soul out of the destructive disorder of sin, not, we are assured by wise teachers, through a sudden illumination but by an inexpungible grace that works in us day by day.
Perhaps part of what seems to be a widespread doubt that the ordinary Christian can take up his cross is rooted at least in part in the difficulty priests and people find in fighting free of the psychological image of man fervently encouraged by the Freud-bedeviled generations of the fifties and sixties, a theory now fallen from grace in favor of better living through chemistry. One prominent feature of the Freudian model is the grave doubt that man can ever by grace transcend, even imperfectly, the persistent itches of concupiscence, rooted deep in the unconscious, fulfilling the duties conscience requires in ordinary life, when the inclinations fueled by desire or greed or sloth say otherwise and with this the corollary that some natural therapy will suffice to heal the soul. These notions trickling down into the current context sap Christian profession of its nobility, of its ability to meet the challenge of lifting the heart above the horizon of the ordinary by quietly acceding to the all-too-human desire of Catholics to have the name without the substance. Contributing as they do to the pusillanimity of our age as well as to the loss of souls, these ideas encourage neglect of the great truth that the love of the Holy Spirit will not let us go until He has formed Christ in us, which is all too often not the stuff of popular Christianity. And along the way such neglect of the high calling of Christ denies to millennials and other morally-bored citizens of the modern world a shot at the one great adventure, well known even to Aristotle, developed with beauty but without power by the Stoics, perfected in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount: the ability to become pleasing to God so that we can enter His courts with praise. “For of what use is existence to the creature,” asked the great Athanasius, “if it cannot know its Maker?”
The prophets such as Ezekiel were the great religious authorities in Israel. They were filled with God’s Spirit so that they left prophetic markers announcing the coming of the Messiah. God’s own advice to the prophet Ezekiel comes as a warning that if he fails to turn Israel away from sin, he will be guilty of the deaths of those sinners whose fate he has ignored. Telling people things they do not want to hear is pleasant for no one. Most of us can duck and run; declarative truth-telling about large moral matters is never easy and is not frequently required in the course of ordinary Christian witness. Being a prophet belongs to those called to it. It is a burden that even the best of the Hebrew prophets regretted. Jeremiah in particular complained that the Lord had tricked him into a position that made him a laughingstock in Jerusalem. Yet if those persons on whom the Spirit comes with the vocation to warn, if they fail to teach and expect the best, they risk taking upon themselves the deaths of the souls whom they have failed to direct in the right way. Theirs is a hard task in a world that wants the truth no more than did the citizens of the City of David in the seventh century before Christ. Those who bear that burden deserve our prayers that they not let go the eternal truths under the wearing, persistent pressure of “the world.”
And there is the other side of God’s warning to Ezekiel. In the words of the apostle James:
My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (4:19).