God, though Lord and architect of
the whole world, who made and set in order each single thing that is,
was something more than loving towards mankind, he was long-suffering
as well. So he has always been, and is still, and ever shall be: merciful,
kind, slow to anger, and true. There is none so good as he. (Epistle
to Diognetus, ch. 8.6-7.)
THATS ALL VERY FINE, O unknown writer of the Epistle to Diognetusour
gloomy heart repliesbut God is also a judge, is he not? Hes
not going to put up with us forever. There is going to come a time of
reckoning when he will separate the wheat from the chaff!
Godlover or judge? Life-defining consequences follow from our answer,
life-defining for ourselves and, potentially, life-defining for all who
come across our path.
This year we are reading the Gospel of Matthew at Mass. It is Matthew
who provides us with the drama of the great judgment (Mth 25:31-46). But
Matthew also gives us a picture of a very loving and long-suffering Jesus.
Perhaps we can gain some light from Matthew.
Matthew tells us of John the Baptists puzzlement as he saw Jesus
acting quite differently from the way John himself had been expecting
him to act. Jesus was going about healing people, encouraging them and
telling interesting parables. The blind recovered their sight, the lame
walked, lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised to
life, and the poor had good news brought to them. John had been telling
the people that the Messiah who was coming would be the Messiah of the
end-time Judgment Day, bringing the wrath of God down on the brood
of vipers, burning the chaff in unquenchable fire. Jesus, on the
other hand, sent word to John that he was the Messiah-healer, restorer
of life, shepherd of the marginalised as described in Isaiah (Mth 11:2-5;
cf. Is 26:19; 29:18).
So, Matthews gospel assures us, Jesus was a loving Messiah and a
long-suffering Messiahthe writer of the Epistle to Diognetus was
writing Gospel truth. But Matthew also records that the Son of Man will
occupy the seat of judgment at the end time, and this fact has often made
a deeper impression down the ages than the truth of the loving God.
We need to understand what, according to Matthew, the judgment will be,
and on what we will be judged. Matthew presents divine judgment as an
enacting of judgment. God, as Judge, vindicates the cause of those who
have been overlooked, neglected and discriminated against. He sees that
justice is done at last to the victims of injustice.
And Matthew presents our personal judgment as happening all our lives
long. We are judged on whether we follow Jesus, and how closely and well.
When it comes to the Last Judgment we are judged on whether we have been
merciful. Did we practice works of mercy: did we feed the hungry, clothe
the naked, welcome the stranger and visit the sick and those in prison?
In short, Matthew shows us that, in God, loving and judging produce the
same effects for those who have been unjustly treated, while those who
have not been merciful have every cause to fear the judgment.
It is absolutely clear, no matter what way we read the Gospels, that Jesus
revealed a loving God, a patient God, a long-suffering God.
Jesus moved gently. He relied on people being attracted to him and his
message. He did not force anyone or punish anyone who fell short of a
certain standard. He simply told his story, offered what he had to offer,
and let people respond as they felt moved to respond
or not. He respected
the liberty of all he met, accepted them where they were at,
and encouraged them to take whatever was the next step on their journey.
It was not his way to load people down with a package of beliefs to be
held and observances to be adhered to. He gave people the chance to get
to know him and his ways and be attracted to follow him more closely.
For that, people needed time. And Jesus was patient: he let them take
the time they needed.
His patience was most admirable with his own chosen disciples. How often
they were uncomprehending, obtuse, doubting, hesitating. Even when he
came to his final commissioning of them to make disciples of all
nations, some of them still hesitated (Mth 28:17).
All this is written for our encouragement. We know that God needs to be
patient with us or we are done for. We need to be daily healed, restored,
enabled to endure and live again simply through our contact with our God
in prayer and the celebrations of the Sacraments, and through our immersion
in the Church community of Gods people.
And we need Jesus to be patient with our unbelief. Who does not hesitate,
find something incomprehensible, have problems with what is presented
to us as the Catholic faith, the way things are to be done, the demands
and expectations placed upon us if we are to be good Catholics?
We need time and spaceto ponder over, wrestle with and try to make
a little more sense of, some aspects of Church teaching and practice.
For want of time and space we bracket things off, as it were, leaving
them in suspended animationelements of doctrine and orthodox praxis.
If God is patient, long-suffering and extraordinarily loving with us,
he is the same with everyone. And that realisation must impact on our
pastoral responses in many ways.
One of our most frequent laments is that so many of our fellow-Catholics
do not at all, or rarely, share the liturgical celebrations that we find
so uplifting, prayerful and nourishing. All through the Western world
this lament is heard, and studies are being published that give statistics
and projections. In Europe they speak of de-christianisation.
In Australia that term is hardly appropriate since we never were a Christian
nationrather, we are a nation whose population includes and has
always included many Christians. But the challenges are much the same
in Australia and in Europe.
As far back as 1975 Pope Paul VI taught of the need to begin again at
the beginning in telling the Good News to people of our day. He wrote
that a new missionary effort is needed, this one not to the pagans
of other lands, but to the people of the First World. What is needed is
a first proclamation of the Gospel such as is addressed to
people who have never heard it: people, for instance, who have been baptised
but whose contact with the community more or less ended there, people
who have a certain faith but very little knowledge of its foundations,
people who feel the need to know Jesus in a more adult way. Pope Paul
advised the use of an almost indefinite range of means in
these situations of first proclamation. (Paul VI, On Evangelisation in
the Modern World, 51-52.)
Paul VI was saying, in rough translation, that we need to know where
people are at and enter into dialogue with them by whatever path
is appropriate. As Jesus did! Paul VI would have us go gently, as Jesus
Paul VI, he too, was speaking Gospel truth. The Jesus we read about in
Matthews gospel will have us act towards everyone, whether they
maintain any observable link with the Church community or not, with the
same gentleness and patience that he showed.
We must be patient and gentle with everyone else, as Jesus is. And we
must be patient and gentle with ourselves, too, as Jesus is. Then we need
have no fear of the Judgment of the end-time.
Barry Brundell MSC, Editor.