Taking the Best Road

Today’s reading comes from EZ 18:21-28

Oscar Wilde once wrote that “every Saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”.  He means of course that no Saint was born freed of sin, bar the Virgin Mother, and no sinner is completely void of redemption while he remains breathing.  Ezekiel’s words in these verses tell us the same thing: repent and enjoy God’s lavish mercy and love, or sin and incur the justice of God as death and destruction.

There are two questions put forth here: can a sinner repent and what will happen to his sins, and can a just man sin and what happened to his just actions and former life lived out in justice?  Ezekiel’s answer is: if a man repents of his sins then he shall live, and if a just man sins and dies in sin then he must suffer God’s justice upon him.  Fascinatingly, Ezekiel anticipates the people’s objection: “But that’s not fair! Why should a man who lived in sin all his life be forgiven while a man who lived all his life in justice be punished for a moment of weakness?!”  To this, the Lord responds that a thing is not done that which is not finished (factum non dicitur quod non perseverat).

Our entire life-span on earth is but a journey.  While we still draw breaths we are still trotting about on this journey.  Thus, when a wayward traveler realizes that he is heading the wrong way and corrects it so that he may reach the Final Destination, he must be said as having left the mistakes behind him and he may yet reach that Final Destination given that he continues on the right path.  However, if a traveler who has been following the right path makes a wrong decision at a junction and follows the wrong path, we can in no way say that he’s going to reach the Final Destination following the erroneous path that he is on.  Further, we cannot say that the good decisions that he’s made with regards to the right paths in the past should deliver him to the Final Destination despite him being on a path that does not currently lead there.

And so because a thing is not done that which is not finished, we must always be attentive to take the best road towards the Lord.  His justice is tempered with mercy to forgive the repentant sinner, but it is insufferable for the impious.  And impiety is our own doing, not God’s.

Imitating Jonah and the Ninevites

Today’s reading comes from JON 3:1-10

There are two phrases I that find quite disturbing in the English language and they are: ‘necessary evil’ and ‘the lesser evil’.  These phrases are often used to justify an evil action by looking toward some future good that the current evil action can produce.  For me, these are the kind of policies that the prince of darkness employs in order to ruin our call to holiness.  God’s policy contrasts to this: He works to extract what goodness there is left in the evil already done by extending His mercy towards the repentant.  This is how the wisdom of God differs so drastically from the slyness of the Devil.

The story of Jonah is a story of the failure of a prophet and success of a sinning nation.  Jonah is a prophet, and while we might see a resemblance of him to Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah insofar as he protests his calling, we are quickly directed towards his complete disregard for what God wants and acts according to his own will.  Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah may have deemed themselves unworthy and protested initially against their callings, they nevertheless took up their tasks.  Jonah, on the other hand, not only protests but attempts to run from his calling: the Lord directed him to go east to Nineveh and he took a ship west to Tarshish (Jon. 1:3).  The reason for his protest and flee is revealed near the end of the book: he doesn’t want Nineveh to be saved; he wants the people to be destroyed for their sins.

Jonah’s flee can provide us with two fascinating conclusions.  First, in answering the sailors as to who he is, Jonah reveals that he is a Hebrew and worships YHWH.  Yet, the irony is that while his tongue confesses his faith in God, the feet are busy disobeying Him.  Second, Jonah understands the basics of Israel’s profession of faith in God—that God is just and merciful—but he also wants to confine its applicability only to the chosen nation.  This of course is ironic since Jonah confesses that God is Lord over all Heaven and earth.

What is fascinating about God’s mercy as justice in the book of Jonah is that it is extended to the Ninevites, a group of Assyrians who were Israel and Judah’s enemies.  After all, it was Assyria who conquered Israel and exiled the people; it was also Assyria that laid siege to Jerusalem and wasted Judah’s forty-six cities.  Surely it could not be these enemies that God wants to be saved—and such was Jonah’s thought.  Yet, what emerges from these events is a God whose justice was dealt out as mercy when upon hearing Jonah’s “forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” the king of Nineveh and his subjects all repented.   True to Jonah’s profession that God’s sovereignty is universal, the Lord extends His mercy even to the enemies of Israel.  Yet, God’s mercy is not lavished indiscriminately; God’s mercy is given in response to true repentance.

Lastly, YHWH’s justice is tempered by His slow to anger.  God’s slow to anger is expressed by Jonah in his response to God in 4:2, and this is the reason why Nineveh was not destroyed sooner and given a chance to repent.  If it was up to Jonah, he would have had God’s justice swift and becoming when sin and disobedience have happened.  Ironically, Jonah could not see that he would have received some form of punishment for his disobedience when directed to head to Nineveh by YHWH.  Thus, when tempered by slow to anger, both Jonah and Nineveh enjoyed justice as it is poured forth in accordance with the divine will.

Let us then imitate both Jonah and the Ninevites in our repentance in approaching the Lord.  Humility begins when we accept our own shortcomings and allow the Lord to interiorly renovate us.

Happy Wednesday of the first week of Lent, friends.

The Wisdom of Humble Faith

Jesus’ condemnation of the self-righteousness of the people of his time in today’s Gospel reminds us of the wisdom of faith content by whatever provisions the Lord has chosen to give.  Unlike the Ninevites, who repented from their sins simply by the words of Jonah without witnessing any miracles, the contemporaries of Jesus refused to repent even though he was among them working miracles day in and day out.  While one group profited from the words of God delivered through a prophet, the other group turned from the Word of God and rejected his grace that would humble their hearts.  The faith of Nineveh accepted whatever little revelation God was willing present to it and received such revelation with great humility.  The faith of Jerusalem doubted all the revelation that God was granting them and rejected Jesus’ revelation with its pride.  Allow Alexander Pope’s Universal Prayer to guide our own faith life today so that, with the humility the Ninevites, we may receive whatever little the Lord chooses to reveal to us with humility in faith.

Father of all! in every age,
    In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
    Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!
Thou Great First Cause, least understood:
    Who all my sense confined
To know but this—that thou art good,
    And that myself am blind:
Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
    To see the good from ill;
And binding Nature fast in fate,
    Left free the human will.
What conscience dictates to be done,
    Or warns me not to do,
This, teach me more than Hell to shun,
    That, more than Heaven pursue.
What blessings thy free bounty gives,
    Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives,
    To enjoy is to obey.
Yet not to earth’s contracted span,
    Thy goodness let me bound,
Or think thee Lord alone of man,
    When thousand worlds are round:
Let not this weak, unknowing hand
    Presume thy bolts to throw,
And deal damnation round the land,
    On each I judge thy foe.
If I am right, thy grace impart,
    Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
    To find a better way.
Save me alike from foolish pride,
    Or impious discontent,
At aught thy wisdom has denied,
    Or aught thy goodness lent.
Teach me to feel another’s woe,
    To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
    That mercy show to me.
Mean though I am, not wholly so
    Since quickened by thy breath;
Oh lead me wheresoe’er I go,
    Through this day’s life or death.
This day, be bread and peace my lot:
    All else beneath the sun,
Thou know’st if best bestowed or not,
    And let thy will be done.
To thee, whose temple is all space,
    Whose altar, earth, sea, skies!
One chorus let all being raise!
    All Nature’s incense rise!

Repent and Return

We are reminded in today’s Gospel reading that the path towards God is often one that requires the carrying of crosses.  The world offers convenience and ease as temporary fulfillment for our permanent thirst.  These drinks require our returning to them over and over again because they do not fully satiate our thirst.  None of us are strangers to these drinks.  However, Christ’s words are clear: the way of the Lord is difficult and tough, but while the body aches the soul rejoices.  And just as St. Monica prayed and waited patiently for the young Augustine to turn from his wayward ways, God, our parent par excellence, remains in waiting for our return to Him.  Allow Ellen Gilbert’s words from Prodigal to be our own words to God and guide us back to Him this Lent:

Like a bird that trails a broken wing,
I have come home to Thee;
Home from a flight and freedom
That was never meant for me.

And I, who have known far spaces,
And the fierce heat of the sun,
Ask only the shelter of Thy wings,
Now that the day is done.

Like a bird that trails a broken wing,
I have come home, at last…
O hold me to Thy Heart once more,
And hide me from the past.

The Christian’s Hopeful Melancholy

Indeed, the wisdom of Augustine’s felix culpa allows us to understand that there is hope in a fallen world that seems hopeless.  And at no other time during the liturgical year are we reminded this more than on Ash Wednesday: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  In the these very words uttered is an unmistakable hope that every Christian clings on to: this returning to dust does not mark the end, but rather the very beginning of an eternal reality that has been awaiting him since he was first formed in his mother’s womb.  Praying, Repenting, and Fasting are ways that the Christian is called to prepare himself for this eternal reality.

Richard Crashaw’s A Song of Divine Love reflects so beautifully the hope of the Christian as he faces his return to dust.  On this Ash Wednesday, let us reflect upon Crashaw’s words along with this question: how am I preparing myself to meet my God when the day comes?

Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace
Sends up my soul to seek thy face,
Thy blessed eyes breed such desire
I die in love’s delicious fire.
O Love, I am thy sacrifice.
Be still triumphant, blessed eyes.
Still shine on me, fair suns, that I
Still may behold though still I die.

Though still I die, I live again,
Still longing so to be still slain;
So gainful is such loss of breath,
I die even in desire of death.
Still live in me this loving strife
Of living death and dying life:
For while thou sweetly slayest me,
Dead to myself, I live in Thee.