23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
The theme of the watchman is quite prominent in both the first reading and Gospel today, and this certainly presents a challenge for everyone in a position of responsibility for the Christian community. In ancient civilizations, watchmen were deployed to help protect the city and the lives of its citizens from enemies. In the first reading today, the prophet Ezekiel is appointed by God to be a watchman for the House of Israel, and, as such, he is to speak for God and warn the man God finds wicked to change his way or die for his guilt. In a broader sense, Ezekiel was sent by God to warn the Israelites who they were going astray from God’s law that their rebellion against God would lead to their spiritual death.
But we should also notice that God warns Ezekiel just how great his responsibility is as God’s watchman: “[If] you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” Whereas, “if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his [evil] way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.”
Now Jesus taught this same grave responsibility of the Church’s shepherds, as watchmen, when he spoke in a parable about wicked shepherds who, who, unlike Jesus the Good Shepherd, flee when the wolves come to attack His flock. These appoimted shepherds who fail to be His watchmen will also be held responsible for the death of the flock. In other words, some of the sheep will spiritually die because of their sins, but the shepherds who are appointed by Christ as spiritual watchmen by Christ, will also die spiritually for failing to warn those going astray to abandon their evil ways and save their souls.
The responsibility of the shepherd as watchman, then, is indeed awesome and entails a grave responsibility both to warn the straying sheep as well as to defend all the sheep entrusted to his care from those who would lead them astray into rebellion against God and His laws. Nothing, then, is more important for the true shepherd’s own personal salvation than carrying out the responsibilities of the watchman, for what is at stake is the salvation of Christ’s little ones for whom He died that they might have Eternal Life.
Now one Church Father commented that while many shepherds enjoy the honors and power of the office entrusted to them by Christ and Hs Church, some of these same shepherds have less concern about fulfilling the grave responsibilities of their office, and especially the grave responsibility of the watchman. For instance, When Henry the VIII declared himself the Supreme Head of th Church in England, only one bishop in that whole country, St. John Fisher, stood fast and defended his flock at the cost of his own life. The rest of that nation’ hierarchy failed to defend their flocks against that royal tyrant’s blasphemous usurpation of the spiritual office conferred by Christ on Peter and his successors alone, and thus the true Church was lost to England and many souls died apart from the true Church.
Thus, the appointment of Ezekiel and the appointment of those whom Christ calls to be His shepherds carries with it a tremendous responsibility for those appointed to such a weighty office. So awesome is the responsibility of the Shepherd ordained by Christ to be a watchman, that it led St. Augustine to tell his people that being a Christian, with them, gave him great consolation and joy, while being a shepherd for them was a cause of great anxiety in his life because of the added responsibility he had before God to be a faithful watchman. St. John Chrysostoma deliberately avoided episcopal appointment for years for the same reason. This responsibility/accountability is also a burden for all priests, to a lesser though still serious degree, but our bishops and our pope bear the highest responsibility and accountability. And it is for that reason that we pray for them at every Mass by name, precisely because of the awesome accounting they must render one day to God as the watchmen of His flock.
However the privileged role of watchman is not limited to the clergy who shepherd the local communities of the faithful. Being a watchman is also a role for all others who bear responsibility for a part of of God’s faithful. For instance, we can think of those who hold the positions of authority over whole communities of religious, or those who act as local superiors in individual religious houses. They too must be vigilant to safeguard the faith of the portion of God’s people they serve and watch over as their religious superior.
And similarly, Christian parents also have the serious role and responsibility of the watchman, for they are true shepherds over the precious family unit that God has entrusted to their care. It is especially significant in this regard that Vatican II referred to the Christian family as the “domestic Church,” that is, as a microcosm of the larger family of God that we call the Catholic or universal Church.
So, all Christian parents are given a great role and responsibility directly by God with whom they have cooperated in the establishment of their marriage and family. God has entrusted a small but very important portion of His flock, this individual family and its children, to the care of loving parents, who must see themselves as God’s delegates and watchmen, with the same responsibility and accountability before God for their small “domestic church” that the ordained bear for the larger portions of Christ’s Church.
Thus parents have a serious duty to watch over their children and to see that they know the ways of God, the ways that lead to eternal life, to heaven and eternal happiness, and to warn their children about the evil ways that lead to unhappiness, spiritual death, and ultimately to Hell. This requires great prudence and great love and great respect for their children’s natural freedom and social nature. It obviously doesn’t mean trying to totally remove one’s children from our sinful world, since all Christians have a duty to evangelize it, but rather to teach them how to live Christian lives in the midst of a world with so many spiritual temptations and traps. This duty involves teaching them about God’s commandments and about those traps that the world will lay for them, trying to enslave them by its false doctrines, values and morals.
Of course, one can never be sure that one’s children will listen to sound teaching. They may well go their own way and adopt the ways of the world one day rather than the way they learned in their home and their Church. But, as with Ezkiel, the task of the watchman is fulfilled by being faithful in warning, teaching, and also encouraging their children. The ultimate result will be determined by the interplay of each person’s freedom and the way they cooperate or fail to cooperate with the grace of God. The watchman warns and teaches; but only God’s interior grace can enable that warning to take root. Nonetheless, the better children are taught, then we can hope that even if they drift away one day, they will always have this sound teaching of their home to return to when they discover that the world is not what they hoped it was and its promises of happiness are false.
So, while it’s a great responsibility that parents have, God has not left them alone in fulfilling it. They are part of the larger Church, and the teaching efforts and sacraments of the Church are always at their disposal, if only they will take advantage of these powerful helps. Parents, like priests, must find their help in prayer and study, and recognize that God has not asked them to do this without His help. Sometimes we act as if everything depends upon us, and that can lead to over-reaction to the power of the world, as if God’s grace cannot overcome the influences of the world, so long as we do our part as watchmen.
Finally, that are certain things that are critical for having a greater influence as watchmen over one’s children without becoming wardens over them.
Firstly, parents must start their religious formation and education while they are young, even as infants, introducing them to God as their Father, to Jesus as their Savior, to the Holy Spirit as their guide, to Mary and the Church as their Mother. and to their Angel whom Jesus said watches over them even while adoring their creator. There is no great secret to all this. Their religion must grow up with them, and the supernatural must become a normal part of their daily life. If you reduce God merely to the object of a Sunday obligation, do not expect that your children will listen to you, as they grow older, when you try to tell them how God expects them to live.
Secondly, there is an old adage that the family that prays together stays together; and that truth needs to be reintroduced in an age when families are literally coming apart because the members are all too busy for a family life. How do you assure the unity of your marriage and the unity of your family? For the believing Christian there is a clear answer: by making Christ the the center of your unity. In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul teaches that Jesus Christ is the one in whom “all things hold together.” He is the center of the whole creation, holding it all together. Should not married couples, then, make Christ the center of their unity, of the unity of their marriage and their family, to hold it all together.
This is the truth we all must learn anew: God has to be the center of everything, or things inevitably fly apart. Jesus must not only be in our Churches, but He must also be present in our homes as well. But how can this happen, you ask? Today’s Gospel gives a strong hint: “where two or three are gathered together in my name,” says Jesus, “there am I in their midst.” Yes Jesus is present in the family that prays together, in His name, and not just when a death in the family occurs or some tragedy strikes. He must be welcomed daily, at our meals, in the evening for a short time, or for the family Rosary or even a part of the Rosary, prayed together, where two or three or the whole family is gathered to pray in His name. How rich our families will be, if Jesus is the first member of our family.
Prayer, then, is clearly the most important practice for being a successful watchman, a true shepherd of the family entrusted by God to Church leaders and to parents. Prayer will open the way to instruction, to admonition, to encouraging, all accomplished in the spirit of God’s love. So why is it that most Catholic families don’t pray together, even at meals. Is it that we really don’t have the time? We make time for other much less important activities, like the TV or recreation. Why then do we not make time for the most important thing for the health of our families? Do we feel embarrassed somehow to pray with our children, or with our spouse? Why? Is it perhaps because God is not the center of our life, or because we have let prayer slide for so long a time that now it doesn’t seem “natural” anymore. Some people are embarrassed to go to the doctor because they have avoided a physical for so long, but you know what happens if we let a disease go for too long – it maims or even kills us. Jesus is also the good physician of our souls; and it’s never too late to turn to him in prayer. When the storm is battering down our house, we naturally pray together, why not before the storm hits?
If we would be a good watchman, then, first we must stay awake and beware of the world and its traps. Next pray together, make God, make Jesus the Lord the center of your family life from the beginning. Teach your children His truth in season and out of season. Make the Lord the One whom you thank for all the good things that happen; the One whom you always feel comfortable with in asking for the needs of your family; the One whom you readily adore and ask forgiveness from when you have done wrong. There you have the formula for successful marriages and family life. It’s not really all that complex is it: make God the center, and God will do what you cannot, so long as you honestly try to do what you can. That’s the adage Our Mother the Church has always lived by and taught to her children.