23rd Sunday of the Year
“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.” Ezk 33:7
Of all the tasks which belong to God’s prophets in the Old Testament, none was more demanding, indeed more frightening, than the role of acting as God’s watchman over His chosen people. The role of the military watchman in their civic life was less daunting really than that of the prophetic watchman, for all that watchman had to do was to stay awake and warn the population when some physical threat was approaching, an army of the enemy, a roving band of marauders, perhaps even a devastating storm. This kind of monitoring required good common sense, good eyes, a strong voice, and an ability to stay alert at all times. But the civil watchman was actually in the reverse situation from the prophetic watchman in at least one sense, that is, in the way the fulfillment of his duties was greeted by the population. If he was a good watchman, that is, if he warned the people in a timely way of danger, he was treated like a hero and praised by all, while only if he failed to warn the people of impending danger in a timely fashion was he ever going to be, derided, rejected, even condemned.
This is quite different from the situation of the prophetic watchman in the Bible. If the prophet warned the people in a timely fashion of impending danger to them, due to their failure to obey God, he was very often going to be treated with derision, persecution, and contempt, as if he himself were the enemy. This is the reason why men like Jeremiah express dismay at times that God had chosen them to be his prophet, because they knew that being. His watchman was at times going to make them very unpopular, and at times even place their very lives in danger. Some prophets actually were put to death, and Jesus reminds us of this during his confrontations with the leaders of Israel which led to His own death.
The reason the prophetic watchman was treated so harshly is important for us to understand. The prophet was sent by God to warn the people in a timely fashion that they were in mortal danger due to their infidelity to the Law and to God. But what angered the people was that the real danger that threatened them was proclaimed was coming not directly from an external enemy, but from themselves, from their own moral evils or spiritual infidelity, which threatened their salvation as individuals and their very existence as a people. Even when the warning spoke of an external enemy that would reek havoc on the people, the warning always subordinated that external physical threat to the moral and spiritual degradation of the people as primary cause. Thus the external threat was seen as more of a consequence of their actions, and a punishment for their moral and spiritual depravity. In other words, the prophet had to proclaim that they were their own worst enemy, that their own depravity was the root cause of their civic and political decline which in turn opened the door to their enemies attacking them and bringing down on their heads the consequences of their own depravity.
It was a hard message to accept, and the reaction of the people was often violent. The truth is that individuals and nations are blinded by their own actions, and rarely can see the truth of their depraved situation. The conversion of Nineveh by Jonah is a rare example of a prophet’s warning meeting with national repentance, and there is a great significance in the fact that this was a pagan nation and not God’s chosen people, and this significance is not lost on the sacred writer, nor on Jesus who points to this specific example to warn Israel about the terrible consequences of their rejecting Him. His message like that of Jonah included the warning that His rejection would lead to the destruction of their civil and political institutions, which it eventually did within the next Century.
Now it is important to see that Jesus was put to death not by some misunderstanding of Him or His Gospel, but because Je stood in the line of the prophets as watchmen for Israel and was the final warning from God. Jesus from the beginning called for repentance and conversion and warned of the consequences of His being rejected, that the Jewish nation as a whole would suffer terribly, the innocent along with the guilty. That is always the case, that the corruption of national institutions even by the few, by corrupt leaders, political, intellectual, and religious, brings suffering to all. The innocent suffer because they are part of the nation in decline, a nation in rebellion against God, against his sovereignty, His laws, and his Word.
Now Jesus stood in the line of the prophets in this one regard, but he transcended that whole line in other ways. He was the message not just the watchman, and he warned the people not to save Himself, but solely to save them. The prophets might well act out of self-preservation when they warned the people. For they knew that if those they warned failed to convert then “...he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” But when Jesus acted, he acted out of pure charity, for as Paul reminds us, and this teaching is based on Jesus in action: “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Jesus acted not to save Himself but to save us sinners.
The Church always has to exercise this same prophetic role of the watchman in imitation of Jesus, and she has to so for the sake of Love, not to save her own life, but to save man and to save his human institutions, his civilization, his world. The Church is bound by Charity to preach the moral law and the whole truth about man, our fallenness, our desperate need of redemption, for repentance and conversion. This duty is needed today as much or more than ever before. If The Church preaches and teaches the whole truth about our condition and need for reform and repentance, then she too will be rejected by many, even persecuted by some. But if love of God and love of man is at the core of her mission, which always includes this prophetic role as watchman, then she cannot remain quiet, or sidelined, or silent in the face of the manifold moral evils and the spiritual decline that grip our society.
Today more than ever Holy Mother the Church must speak the truth, that evil is not good, and good is not evil, and that neither good nor evil are merely subjective determinations of human intellect, will or conscience. She must speak this truth always with charity, with understanding of the often invincible ignorance that accompanies and causes this moral depravity and spiritual emptiness, and the often not so invincible ignorance. But regardless of anyone’s purely subjective responsibility or lack thereof, the evil that results is still absolutely real and destructive of individuals, families and family life, society and its fundamental institutions. And this societal degeneration that results from individual and sometimes collective moral and spiritual depravity threatens man and the world today as perhaps never before. The collapse of human institutions will bring, and is already bringing, untold suffering to the guilty and the innocent alike, and this suffering will only increase until man repents and turns back to God and his laws.
In 2001, after the terrorist attacks in September, a few protestant ministers suggested that these barbaric acts were a divine warning and even a punishment for America’s moral decline. It was perhaps insensitive in its timing, and somewhat simplistic, but I could not help but think about Jesus’ own words when he recalled the tower that collapsed and killed 19 people in Jerusalem:
Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them –do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” [Luke 13:4]
Of course, Jesus was not saying that this was strictly speaking a punishment, but surely he saw it as an omen, a warning, that like these innocent people who died in that accident, many more innocents would die, and a much greater and preventable upheaval in society would follow as the consequence of His rejection. His acceptance would have surely prevented the destruction of Jerusalem by the power of God, while His rejection meant the dissolution of the little that remained of the once great civil life of Israel. Perhaps what the protestant ministers really meant to say was similar, that the attack was an omen, could be seen as a warning that we need to change our way of life, return to God and His law, or worse things would surely follow in the future, not because God willed it but because the social order was disintegrating. But even if that was their intent, and they had said even just that, I feel confident that the reaction would have been pretty much the same: how dare anyone call into question the morality and spiritual state of this country.
Shortly after the attack. I happened to see an interview with the hated mastermind of that attack, and I was struck by his moral justification for this barbaric act. He replied cleverly. How can Americans condemn this attack on civilians as immoral, he asked, when they have always morally approved the action of their government in dropping two atom bombs on civilian populations to obtain a war objective. His question has to be answered, and I don’t think it’s easy to do so for most Americans even today. There is no longer any question that the target was deliberately a civilian population and that the purpose was to strike terror into the Japanese population and leaders in order to end the war quickly, and hopefully to save more lives than were lost in the bombings. But this decision and action involved a true case of the end justifying the means, a conscious decision to kill tens of thousands of non-combatants, and not as collateral evil only tolerated in the destruction of a true military target that directly posed a military threat to our armed forces. The goal was to kill non-combatants, men, women and children and not destroy a military threat in those cities, but in order to literally terrorize the Japanese into a quick surrender and avoid even more casualties from continuing the invasion of a nation that historically did not understand or accept unconditional surrender. As a nation, we have never faced that issue squarely, but a terrorist has now told us that our justification is one justification of his terrorism. What I have just written would not be accepted by most Americans, especially most military, and I would be condemned and ridiculed for such an argument
This end-justifies-the means morality has taken deep root in our society, and is at the root of the culture of death that is taking hold in our midst today. I believe it took root when we as a nation decided that any means was justifiable to end a brutal war. As a result, today our nation easily justifies killing 4000 children a day in the womb, often because they are simply inconvenient and the end justifies the means. We tolerate killing the aged more and more, because they are increasingly seen as useless or burdens in some cases, or because they are unhappy and request it themselves in others. Again, the end justifies the means. We try to create embryos, clones of human beings for good medical purposes. The end justifies the means. We tolerate pornography for the sake of freedom of speech, hand out prophylactics to teens for safe sex since we say they will refuse to abstain: the ends justify the means.
All of this end-justifies-means morality and the consequent decline of religious faith and spiritual life portends much greater suffering and destruction in the future than occurred in the twin towers. The twin towers of society, objective morality and spiritual life, are being knocked down day in and day out, and the future can already be seen in snippets of the news: children, some of those who make it beyond the womb, being abused and brutally killed; children killing parents in rare cases still, but parents killing children by the millions, year in and year out. These are indeed omens, like the twin towers perhaps, and the Church must fulfill her prophetic role like Christ, with Charity to be sure, but with unbending fidelity to the Truth. We have to have great compassion in all this, because much of this decline is the result of the most massive distortion of truth in human history. But we have to speak the truth nonetheless, because true charity demands it. We should be able to tell the Bin Ladens of this world why any attack on innocent life is wrong, but how can we in the face of our acceptance of abortion and euthanasia? Here is our only answer, if only if we first convert and follow the way of the Lord for, Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.