|Detail, The Sermon on the Mount, William Brassey Hole, c. 1900.|
Fr. Charles Irvin
Diocese of Lansing
The danger to our hearts and to our eternal life with God in heaven lies in our ensnarement in the values of this world –power, wealth, fame, and the glitter of this world’s treasures, treasures that are by no means safe and secure in our hands. Setting our hearts on them means that we are not setting our hearts to what is truly lasting and of great value. Setting our hearts on them means that we give scant attention to God’s love for us, a love which God expresses in today’s first reading: Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even if she should forget, I will never forget you.
I am frequently puzzled by preachers who project God as vengeful, full of anger, wrath, and ever ready to punish us at any opportunity. I have come to recognize that we can find whatever version of God that we want to find in the Bible. Moreover I realize that much of the vengeance that can be found in those preachments is the result of human manipulation for political and selfish purposes. Look around you, watch the news, read the newspapers, pay attention to advertising– you need little more confirmation of my observation than this. The result is that all kinds of people use God as an excuse for doing the very things that Jesus taught us we should not do. But the sad fact remains that the average person is more motivated by fear than by love. Ask yourself this question: “How many bad decisions have I made because they were grounded in fear and not in love?”
God is a God of justice and justice requires a certain restoration in which we suffer the consequences of our actions. Crimes ought not to go unpunished. But restorative justice is not vengeful. Usually sins bring with them their own punishment. But vengeance? I am reminded of one occasion when Jesus, on His way to Jerusalem and was rejected by the citizens of a Samaritan town. St. Luke reports it as follows:
When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him; but the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9: 51-55)When you stop and consider it, the punishment of those Samaritans was that they denied themselves of the healing and loving presence of God in Christ. While His disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven upon them, Jesus would have none of it. Their punishment did not have vengeance on top of it. Our Blessed Lord did not come down from heaven to reveal a vengeful God.
We need to see that God’s chastisements are designed to bring us to repentance and a return to union with Him. An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth is an expression that was found in cultures surrounding the Jews. Retribution is not in God’s thinking. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is clearly not found in the heart of Jesus. He is interested, very interested, in finding that we treasure His love in our hearts and that we are willing to forego the attractions of this world in order to secure that “pearl of great price.” Repentance and reconciliation are many times necessary for us in order to return to union with God in our hearts and souls. When it comes to repenting we need not fear. His heart calls to our heart. Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I, God declares, will never forget you.
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Jesus tells us. This teaching ought to give us pause and prompt us to do some serious reflecting. If our hearts are filled with worldly visions and values we put our souls, our inner selves, into mortal danger, the danger of ignoring what God offers us, namely eternal life with Him in heaven. God brought us into being, into a life that has purpose. We are purpose-made to live in happiness with God forever in heaven. Whether or not we will live in heaven with God in eternal happiness depends on the choices we make here in this life. It is of the greatest importance, then, to see that God is not a wrathful and vengeful God; rather we need to see and understand that God is friendly, and wants us to be happy. He did not make us for His wrath, He made us for His love.
We have choices to make, choices that bring with them enormous and everlasting consequences. Satan is busily at work trying to convince us that we are unworthy and that in our unworthiness a God of vengeance is going to strike us down, so why bother with God at all? We face problems, sometimes problems that seem to be unbearable. Satan busily tries to convince us that God simply doesn’t care, that He’s not a friendly God, that He’s a punishing God, and that religion is therefore useless nonsense.
I do not believe that God intended for us to live in fear. Jesus taught us over and over to allow love and compassion to guide our every move. This fundamental message from the Bible is reinforced by the beauty in the world and in the universe around us. I believe that God intends for us to live hope-filled lives of joy, and to share that hope and joy with as many people as possible.
There are moments when we all experience God’s goodness in His creation, in the heavens above, in the great and majestic mountains, in beautiful lakes, on rivers, and in forests. There are moments when we experience the glories of nature crying out and pointing to the glorious and beautiful goodness of God. Jesus calls us to see that when He cries out: Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow without doing any work, and without running around in circles, yet I tell you that even King Solomon in all of his glory was never dressed as beautifully as these flowers.”
In few weeks from now we will be surrounded by Easter Lilies in celebrating Christ’s resurrection from the dead. How appropriate that we should remember to stop worrying! These beautiful flowers, along with all of the budding, blooming creation of spring, are evidence that God is friendly and he wants us to be happy. So be happy. Repent, convert, turn away from the miseries of sin, and set yourself on the path to real happiness.
There are treasures in heaven, treasures beyond anything we can imagine or value. How foolish to live life here without ensuring that we will die in God’s good graces and in His loving embrace. The attraction of things here below ought not so capture our souls that we give no attention or thought to what awaits us in the next life. The worldly are wrong because all their decisions are based on what pleases us only in this life. They are wrong because they sell short the reason we have life in the first place, and the goal we have in living as God would have us live. Their vision is totally focused on the things here below, things that are quickly passing. Their vision blinds us to the things that await us if we respond to God’s invitation to live in love with Him now so what we can be happy forever living with Him in heaven.
No man can devote himself to two masters. We must not love the things of this world to the exclusion of the love of God. St. Augustine observed that we are, each one of us, filled with longings, yearnings, and a deep-seated hunger. Said he: “O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”
So, then, in your heart of hearts, what are you seeking?