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Vol 38 No 4

God–Lover or Judge?

Leslee Sniatynskyj

Cormac Nagle OFM

Brian Lewis

Frank Fletcher MSC

Brendan Byrne SJ

Michael Trainor


Kevin Mark


God–Lover or Judge?

‘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.)

THAT’S ALL VERY FINE, O unknown writer of the Epistle to Diognetus—our gloomy heart replies—but God is also a judge, is he not? He’s 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!

God—lover 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 Baptist’s 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, Matthew’s gospel assures us, Jesus was a loving Messiah and a long-suffering Messiah—the 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? (Mth 25:31-46)

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 God’s 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 space—to 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 animation—elements 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 nation—rather, 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 did.

Paul VI, he too, was speaking Gospel truth. The Jesus we read about in Matthew’s 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.