Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On Judgment and Misplaced Blame

JeremiahJeremiah prophesying to Israel

I’ve been working my way through the Book of Jeremiah and reflecting on his prophecies. God called on him to carry the word to His people that they were doing evil in his sight and, if they would not repent, God would punish them for their sins. The reaction of the people was anger towards Jeremiah, treating his words as if he was supporting Israel’s enemies and wanting to kill him on account of his prophecies.

It reminds me of St. Augustine, commenting on Psalm 129:

[#4] Why have they fought against me? Because “they could not prevail upon me.” What is this? They could not build upon me. I consented not with them unto sin. For every wicked man persecuteth the good on this account, because the good man consenteth not with him to evil. Suppose he do some evil, and the Bishop censure him not, the Bishop is a good man: suppose the Bishop censure him, the Bishop is a bad man. Suppose he carry off anything, let the man robbed be silent, he is a good man: let him only speak and rebuke, even though he doth not reclaim his goods, he is everything bad. He is bad then who blameth the robber, and he is good who robbeth!… Heed not that such an one speaketh to thee: it is a wicked man through whom It speaketh to thee; but the word of God, that speaketh to thee, is not wicked. Accuse God: accuse Him, if thou canst!


 Augustine of Hippo, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in Saint Augustin: Expositions on the Book of Psalms, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 8, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 611.

Just as Jeremiah gave God’s message to the Israelites about the urgent need to repent and received hostility in response, the Church speaks against the evils of this age and warns us that certain behaviors rebel against God and brings punishment. Just like the hostility given Jeremiah, the Church receives the same reaction. Israel suffered punishment for her infidelity. Jeremiah was not speaking against Israel out of malice nor because he sided with her enemies, but because God tasked him with bringing a message of truth and consequences. We do not know what God might do in response to our own infidelities, but we can’t say God hasn’t warned us.

I find it curious that the typical response to warnings against moral failings is to blame the messenger as if the fact that certain acts are evil was the invention of the one warning us of evil. His foes accused Jeremiah of treason when he warned Israel. They attack the Church as being homophobic, anti-woman, or legalistic when she warns the world. I think this misdirected anger is a form of denial. If we treat the warning as a “political opinion,” we can go on living our favorite sins and pretending what we do is OK with God . . . and then have the nerve to act shocked when God’s retribution falls on us.

God sent His prophets. Our Lord sends His Church. The mission is not condemning, but saving (John 3:17). Unfortunately, people think this means Jesus just gives out salvation without repentance. They forget that Jesus began His ministry preaching, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). Yes, God wants the salvation of all people. But He links salvation with repentance. If we will not repent, we will not be saved.

When we think about this, it’s clear that Israel blaming her prophets for the prophecy or Americans blaming the Church for her teachings miss the point in blaming them. They’re the messengers warning us that our behavior goes against the love of God. Our problem is with God. God wants a loving relationship with each one of us, but when our behavior goes against what God commands, we break that relationship—something that has serious consequences. In such a case, warning people that their behavior is separating us from God is not an act of hatred or treason. It is an act of love, warning us to step away from the danger.

The atheist, the non-Christian, and the non-Catholic might say “I don’t believe the Church teaches with any authority.” We must pray for those people and evangelize them that God give them the grace to believe. We must also pray for the grace so we don’t be a stumbling block for them, misleading them by our bad behavior. But for the Catholic to ignore the teaching of the Church is as foolish as the Israelite to ignore God’s prophets, and to be angry at the Church for warning us of our behavior is like Israel being angry at prophets for warning them of God’s coming wrath. It is foolishness where we will have nobody to blame but ourselves if we face God’s wrath instead of His mercy.

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