It's not important how we picture God, but how God pictures us.
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.
The Ninth Sunday after the Holy Cross.
The Holy Martyrs Plato & Roman.
A Sunday Falling within Phillip's Fast.
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2:38 PM 11/30/2012 — This particular gospel lesson about the foolish rich man is always a favorite among preachers who like to blast their congregations with “hell, fire and brimstone” because it is a hell, fire and brimstone gospel passage. It reminds us that, sooner or later, we're going to be judged according to our deeds; and, if we're smart, we'll assume it's sooner and not later; for, as our Lord says, “not even the angels know the day.” It’s one of those inconvenient Gospel passages where a lot comes out in the wash, because it strips away the greeting card version of Christianity that many people have today.
For purely nominal Christians, particularly those who don’t practice their faith regularly, Christianity means little more than love and warmth and unconditional forgiveness, often expressed in the phrase, “Well, that doesn’t sound very Christian,” as if they have any clue what the Gospel says. In fact, I had a conversation with someone some time ago, who told me quite plainly that the reason he often skips from one church to another is because he is searching for a church that leaves him feeling uplifted and fulfilled. In other words, for him, the practice of his faith is simply to provide him with emotional support; little more than therapy, just without the price-tag. And so fond are some people of this therapeutic interpretation of religion that it never occurs to them to consider what our Lord has to say. In other Gospel passages Jesus talks about judgment day by saying: “...on that night two will be in one bed: one will be taken, the other left; two women will be grinding corn together: one will be taken, the other left.” In other words, some of us may not make it; our salvation is not guaranteed, but is dependent on what we actually do in this life. And some people simply can't deal with that. For whatever reason they refuse to believe it, and say things like, "I don't believe that anyone goes to Hell," which, if true, means that our Lord is a liar.
Blessed John Paul II said so many times, “There is no such thing as love separated from truth.” It's just like a kid who's flunking algebra class, and goes to his teacher on the day the marking period ends, and says, "But don't you want me to pass?" Of course the teacher wants him to pass; that has nothing to do with it. The truth is he hasn't earned a passing grade. And that was his choice, not the teacher's. The exact same thing is true with people who, by their rejection of the Gospel, have separated themselves from the love of God: God does not send them to hell; they find their way there all by themselves. The account of creation in Genesis couldn't be clearer; in fact, it's the whole point of the book: man chooses his own path. The Creator does not force him to go this way or that. God shows us a destination in the Scriptures, he gives us a GPS to tell us which roads to take through the Tradition and the teaching of the Church, he even provides service stations on the road in the form of the Holy Mysteries, just in case we get side-tracked along the way; but, he does not take hold of the wheel or put his own foot on the gas. We're driving the car, not him. Just like our Lord, himself, said in the parable about Lazarus and the rich man which we read a few weeks ago: as the rich man is burning in the fires of Hell, he calls to Abraham to send Lazarus as a messenger to his brothers, so they don't make the same mistakes, and what does Abraham say? “They have read the prophets, they should need nothing more.”
There comes a point in the life of every Christian where he has to decide which Jesus he's going to follow: the Jesus of the Gospel, or the Jesus he may have manufactured in his own mind. We can protest our Lord's stern warnings in the Gospel all we want and say, "I don't picture God that way"; but, ultimately, it's not important how we picture God, but how God pictures us. We can make up our own version of God in our own minds, but that's not going to change who God is. I can say, "The Christ I believe in would never allow anyone to go to Hell," but is the Christ I believe in real? That's an important question. And if I did said say something like that because that kind of milquetoast Jesus is easier to wrap my emotions around, would I not be doing exactly what St. Paul warns against, when he talks about the sinners in Rome “having exchanged the truth about God for a lie?”
Now, does this mean our judgment is to be pure recompense and retribution? Certainly not, because God is merciful. That's why he gave us so many helps which offer to us so many graces, the best example here being the Holy Mystery of Confession. The irony here is that the people who like to protest our Lord’s teaching about death and judgment are usually the same ones who haven't been to confession in years. Here is something that our Lord Jesus gave us, which he didn't have to give us, by which we can make ourselves right with God when we've sinned. And when someone decides he doesn’t have to go to confession, the only thing you can conclude is that he doesn’t want to be saved.
Clearly, it's our Lord's desire that we be prepared for our judgment. He wouldn't have said the things he did if he didn't want us to avoid Hell and attain Heaven, and he wouldn't have given us the tools that we need to do so if he wasn't interested in all of us being saved. But it's up to us to listen to what he says, and to use the tools he has provided.
Father Michael Venditti
* Due to the "Lucan Jump," the Gospel read today is that for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost. Cf. the note appended to the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.