Doing my morning readings, I came across an interesting thought from a priest, Fr. George Rutler. The thought was that we have a tendency to only accept the changes we want. When we encounter a change that does not meet out expectations, we tend to reject it. I think that’s a good insight. We tend to get irritated when things don’t go our way, even when we seek to be doing God’s work.
Take for example, today’s First Reading. We see a beautiful response to God’s message sent through the prophet Jonah. The people of a city who oppressed Israel heard the message and repented of the evil done. But Jonah’s response (which takes place later in the Book of Jonah) is resentment. God sent him to warn Nineveh of a coming wrath, and then doesn’t follow through. Jonah wanted change, but the change he wanted was for Nineveh to be a smoking crater in the ground. Because God did not give him that change, he was angry with God.
We see the same thing during the earthly ministry of Our Lord. The people wanted a Messiah who was going to establish Israel as a kingdom, putting down the oppressors. They also wanted to be personally recognized for their adherence to the law of Moses. But instead, Jesus reached out to sinners, encouraging them to repent and rejoicing in their change of heart. He also warned those who did adhere to the law that they needed the same change of heart that the notorious sinners had. He called on people to love and forgive those who did wrong to them.
Our Lord brought change, but it was not the change the people of Israel wanted so the people did not accept it, or even recognize it (John 1:10-11).
It’s certainly food for thought today. We might look at the Bible and think that “those poor Jews just didn’t get it, but we would never make the same mistake.” But I suspect we are continuing to make the same mistake. Whenever the Church teaches something we like, all is fine with the world. When the Church speaks against the sins we oppose, we feel vindicated. But when the Church speaks about the sins that strike close to home, suddenly the Pope is an idiot and the bishops are liberal/conservative ideologues trying to push political agendas.
We never seem to recognize that change isn’t just for the other person. Sometimes, we are the ones that need to change. We may not have flagrant opposition to the Church teachings on abortion or “same sex marriage,” that the Obamas, Clintons and Pelosis of the world have. But do we have other areas where we disagree with the teaching of the Church and call that disagreement “not important?” Do we think that only the other political party has policies that are wrong? In other words, are we willing to accept God’s changing our hearts through the teaching of the Church? Or will we only accept the teaching of the Church when we agree with it?
For example, consider the Pope’s call for finding new ways for reaching out to those who are separated from the Church, and how to bring them back in. How many have been scandalized because he did not instead denounce them and tell them they would go to hell if they didn’t toe the line? How many have been scandalized when he spoke about the dangers in certain attitudes towards capitalism instead of denouncing socialism?
Or how many people were scandalized by Vatican II and the intent to explain the teachings of the Church to a world which no longer understand them? The expressing the need to peacefully exist with those who do not share our faith while trying to evangelize? How many people look derisively at Muslims and call the Church dialogue with them “Chrislam.” Some of these people even want the Pope to call a Crusade against Islam in response to the atrocities of ISIS!
We need to recognize that sometimes the Church, with her authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18), sees a different approach as best serving the mission of Christ. For example, the case of St. Tarasius. The Patriarch of Constantinople in the 8th century AD, he was faced with a government which was nominally Christian and led by men who did not live according to the moral teaching of the Church. (sound familiar?)
Then, as now, the people in government rejected the teaching of the Church, and tried to impose its will on the Church (this was the time of the Iconoclast heresy). Nowadays, the issues are abortion, same sex “marriage” and the contraception mandate. Back then, it involved a case of the emperor (Constantine VI) wanting sanction to divorce and remarriage—namely divorce his own wife and marry his mistress. St. Tarasius refused to be a part of it:
St. Tarasius answered the messenger, saying: “I know not how the emperor can bear the infamy of so scandalous an action in the sight of the universe: nor how he will be able to hinder or punish adulteries and debaucheries, if he himself set such an example. Tell him that I will rather suffer death and all manner of torments than consent to his design.” The emperor hoping to prevail with him by flattery, sent for him to the palace, and said to him: “I can conceal nothing from you, whom I regard as my father. No one can deny but I may divorce one who has attempted my life. She deserves death or perpetual penance.” He then produced a vessel, as he pretended, full of the poison prepared for him. The patriarch, with good reason, judging the whole to be only an artful contrivance to impose upon him, answered: that he was too well convinced that his passion for Theodota was at the bottom of all his complaints against the empress. He added, that, though she were guilty of the crime he laid to her charge, his second marriage during her life, with any other, would still be contrary to the law of God, and that he would draw upon himself the censures of the church by attempting it.
[Butler, A. (1903). The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (Vol. 1, p. 466). New York: P. J. Kenedy.]
When the emperor did divorce and remarry, causing scandal and encouraging others in government to follow his example, St. Tarasius did not excommunicate him, despite the urging of some. As Butler’s account tells us:
But Tarasius did not think it prudent to proceed to excommunication, as he had threatened, apprehensive that the violence of his temper, when further provoked, might carry him still greater lengths, and prompt him to re-establish the heresy [Iconoclasm] which he had taken such effectual measures to suppress. Thus the patriarch, by his moderation, prevented the ruin of religion, but drew upon himself the emperor’s resentment, who persecuted him many ways during the remainder of his reign. Not content to set spies and guards over him under the name of Syncelli, who watched all his actions, and suffered no one to speak to him without their leave, he banished many of his domestics and relations.
How many of us would write him off today as a heretic and a sympathizer with those who wanted to change Church teaching? (Some secular accounts portray him as being silent because he condoned the behavior of Constantine VI—again, sound familiar?) Sometimes the change we want is not prudent and the bishops entrusted to guiding the Church have to make a decision which is unpopular to us.
I think that ultimately this brings us to the considering of Christian obligation. By Our Lord’s own command, we are to seek out and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). He didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). This may be hard for us to accept when we wanted a different change than the one God gave us (see Jonah 4:1-3). Thus we have a choice. We can follow Christ’s teaching and His Church's, even when it takes us in a direction we don’t want to go, or we can act like Jonah and the Pharisees, refusing to accept what we do not want.
But if we do reject the Church making decisions which best fit teaching to this present generation, we may find we are rejecting God (see Acts 5:39).