Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Pardon my grammar. I am just making a point. I choose not to add the objective “m” at the end of my question. It is “me” who decides who I am – or even whether I am. End conversation. 

Isn’t this pretty much what we have come to? No common ground. Your “truth” and my “truth.” The more I assert mine, the more you assert yours until speech becomes shouting, shouting screaming and screaming violence. Short fuses sell cheap these days, and they are getting shorter and shorter.

Last Sunday’s Gospel really should come as no surprise. Jesus himself says to his disciples, in effect, I have come to burn it all down! The Prince of Peace says he will bring division and cites specific family relationships that will be disrupted (cf. Lk 12:49-53). In full prophetic mode, Jesus almost seems to condone confrontation and conflict, something that may shock the sensibilities of those who dismiss holiness (godliness) as quiet, passive or too tolerant. What do we make of this incendiary outbreak of offense, passion and defiance? Far cry from the “I’m okay, you’re okay” of pop psychology and feel-good religion. If division is the theme of Christ’s preaching, how does it jibe with the “All are Welcome” that some churches pridefully proclaim?

The parables are not short of language of division and divine judgment: the separation of the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25: 31-46), the weeds allowed to grow but only for a time and then to be rooted out (Mt. 13:24-30), the “great chasm” that separates the rich man from the beggar Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31). Read them and weep. The old God often deemed wrathful, it seems, burns in the heart of Christ himself. Is Jesus mad at us? Then whatever became of God’s mercy?

I doubt God is mad at us. I mean, I don’t know, but were that the case, who of us stands a chance? There seems no point in God even telling us. Why not just end the world sooner and get it over with? Jesus must have some other point in mind. Many find in the life of Christ parallels with Jeremiah. Not by chance, the First Reading last Sunday contains passages from that prophet (Jer. 38:4-6, 8-10). Briefly, people complain to King Zedekiah that Jeremiah is “demoralizing” soldiers, uninterested in the welfare of the people, so they want to throw him out. Literally. He gets tossed into a muddy cistern. You see the parallel? Like Jeremiah, Jesus denounces toxic patterns that lead to death. Ultimately, his death for us. What might they be?

Let me pose an example. Suppose you head out like a tent preacher on a soapbox and announce in a public space the social teaching of the Church? You boldly speak out against abortion, sexual activities that reject the generation of children, assisted suicide, the death penalty, racism, economic disparities, armed violence, industrial pollution of the environment — how long do you think it would be before you run into opposition or are silenced?

Note that I have cited examples transcending political sides — our teachings do not take sides! — but all of which are grounded in the social gospel. I even get letters from Catholics when clergy sermonize (too much or too little) on any one of these topics! To preach and teach them, thereby challenging or even angering some, does it mean you are mad at or excluding anyone? 

Like many prophets, Jesus calls out behavioral patterns that block the road to human well-being, to salvation, to eternal life itself. Like someone who suddenly turns on the switch in the proverbial dark room where people are engaged in actions up to no good, the light exposes their immorality. Who exactly is more likely to be getting mad here: the one who turns on the light or the ones whom the light exposes? And is it God, the bearer of light, or those engaged in the dark behavior — the debauchery, the corruption, the cover-up — who are being unwelcome?

Hidden patterns in our lives that are destroying us can be found in many forms, shadows that take shape so stealthily at times that they surprise us when they erupt into rage or violence. We have seen this spill out onto the streets: unemployed men, losing self-esteem, turning to substance abuse as medication, diminished in the eyes of families who need their support, resorting to crimes, ending up arrested and imprisoned. Caught up in such vicious cycles are victims of domestic violence and its corollary, sexual abuse, vulnerable to human trafficking, as are many patrons of the enablers at Planned Parenthood and self-styled “health care” providers, who never question how the mother became pregnant or who is abusing her. 

Those of us at the earlier stages of this descent into hell may not at first be aware that the “little murders” of envy, jealousy, lust, greed, self-pity and their progeny, gossip, cheating, over-indulgence in sensual pleasures and similar idols, are weakening our moral and spiritual defense systems. Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to give in to it.” Nice try! How do we acquire immunity to a vice by becoming its slave? In the end, we are consumed by it. Should God not find this outcome intolerable? Should Jesus not want to break down these destructive patterns in the lives of the people he comes to save, even if he has to express his saving love in dramatic terms, like a raging conflagration — or a crucifixion? Is it God who is mad at us, or we who get mad at God, for daring to rescue us from ourselves?

Prophets whom God sends us in the course of history remind us of our errant ways. They make us uncomfortable, challenging our false narratives. To the extent that we have become mired in them, we tend to resist all the more, finding the message intolerable because it demands too much change from us or, as we might sanitize it today, from our “lifestyle.” Is it not likely that the nuclear personal and societal rage that seems to detonate out of nowhere at times only unveils the cover of our flimsy defenses — the lies we tightly cling to that a sinful world feeds us about ourselves — and that we fear the burn of the truth that so swiftly exposes them? 

Okay, I’ll say it again, correctly this time: who’s mad at whom? One of my favorite scriptural quotes is: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rm. 8:31). I guess an implied rhetorical response might be simple: no one. Or maybe, no one except ourselves! God has power over everything and everyone — except the human (and angelic) will, for God created us free. Creatures created in the image and likeness of God can indeed resist the loving, saving will of God by choosing some form of damnation. Can we blame our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for putting up such a fight for us, even if he gets himself killed in the process? Yes, his death and resurrection are the fire he longed to let loose on the world, and we should not be surprised to feel its heat and fury if our lives need to be transformed by it. As a wise old man once wrote: “For in fire gold is tested, and the chosen, in the crucible of humiliation. Trust in God, and he will help you; make your ways straight and hope in him” (Sir. 2:5-6). He was prophetic!