23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 10, 2000
First Reading: Isaiah 35:4-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 146: 7, 8-10
Second Reading: James 2:1-5
Gospel: Mark 7:31-37
In a homily one Sunday I asked the congregation to respond to the following question: Why do people choose good over evil? The responses were varied, and as I suggested when I posed the question, there ware probably no wrong answers. Some of the responses were:
“Fear of the wrath of God”
“If people have experienced evil, they have empathy and, therefore, choose not to do it”
“The only way into heaven is to do good things”
“We use Jesus as a role model”
“We have a sense or idea of our self-worth or value”
That was intended as a warm up. The real question I want to ask is rhetorical, and it is my single favorite question to ask in church. I have asked this one more than any other, because it is at the core of everything about our faith. What kind of God do you believe in? There is a scene in the Gospel where Jesus, wanting to know what people are saying about him, queries his disciples on what they hear. He asks who people say he is. They answer with: John the Baptist; Isaiah; one of the other prophets. None of these answers are good enough for Jesus, so he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, who always speaks for the twelve in the gospels, declares, “You are the Messiah” (cf. Mark 8:27-30).
Whenever that scene comes up in the Sunday readings, I point out to people that the question about who Jesus is has not been definitively answered, or perhaps more accurately, it has been definitively answered but not for all times. Every individual, every generation and all peoples must ask and answer that same question. Who is Jesus? We have the testimony of our scriptures, years of church teaching, tradition and history to help us with the answer. But if all we do is give back the same answer that Peter did without internalizing it, it is not the right answer. At least it is not our answer.
When that scene comes up, I also remind the congregation that there is an antecedent question. In one sense, maybe even more important than the one about Jesus. That other, antecedent question is, “What kind of God do you believe in?” Because if Peter was right and we accept his testimony that Jesus is the Son of God, it does not mean much until we first decide who God is. So, “What kind of God do you believe in?”
While it is a rhetorical question, it is not merely an academic one. When I think back to my days growing up, I recall a church that fortunately does not exist much anymore. We call it the Pre-Vatican II Church. Many years have passed since the Second Vatican Council. Still, there are many people who can remember and many more who know it from history. The kind of God that I came to know as a child was a God who loved professional baseball. Have you ever gone to the stadium and watched those fanatics who keep score? I eat hot dogs and peanuts and drink beer, and occasionally I see something exciting on the field. Other people keep score. That is what the pre-Vatican II God did. The God that I was taught to believe in was always keeping score on everybody. Some of us made it easy for Him. Every time that I stepped up to the plate of life, I expected to strike out. No pun intended, but I was taught that right off the bat, there was no hope for me. I was taught to fear God, to be afraid of God.
Fear is an interesting word in religion. Etymologically, it means to stand in awe and wonder before a greater power. Yet in our colloquial use of the word, it has degenerated to mean the same thing as being afraid. Therefore, when the opening prayer for mass says that we should serve the Lord without fear, it really means that we are to serve the Lord without being afraid. To fear the Lord in its original meaning, to stand in awe and wonder before the majesty of God, was a great thing. But to be afraid of God is something quite different. As a child, I occasionally heard about a God of love, compassion and kindness, but that was always in reference to the other kids, never to me. I grew up to believe firmly that hell was in my future. In fact, I think my parents would occasionally turn up the heater in my room so that I could get used to the rising mercury!
But then came the second Vatican Council and everything changed. The Council changed my notion of God and ultimately my notion of Jesus Christ. I bring this up because by now, most everybody who follows the news has heard about the recent document entitled “Dominus Iesus” issued by Cardinal Ratzinger. At issue is the claim that only the Catholic Church is the true means of salvation. A homily does not provide the time to go into the technicalities of the theological argument and what Cardinal Ratzinger is really saying. I do want to refer everyone to today’s Los Angeles Times. In the opinion section The Times published a response by Cardinal Mahony. Being a consummate politician, he is firm, but careful in his objections to Cardinal Ratzinger’s position. I am not a politician, and I tend to be less discreet. Let me say that Cardinal Ratzinger and I do not believe in the same God.
Now of course there is only one God, so yes we believe in the same God, but we do not believe in the same kind of a God. Our Gods are clearly different. Cardinal Ratzinger believes in the same kind of God that I was taught to believe in as a child—a God to be afraid of. A God who would send people to hell for doing one little thing wrong.
When I was growing up, the Church used unhelpful language about sin, when it differentiated sin between mortal and venial. These are not helpful terms. By way of example, if somebody missed mass on Sunday that was considered a mortal sin. If the person died that same afternoon, he was going to hell. He could have gone to five thousand Sunday masses in a row without exception, but he was going to go to hell for missing one. That kind of God is capricious and operates simply on whim. And that kind of God is not worthy of me. I am not saying that with my usual arrogance, I say it with deep conviction. That kind of God is not worthy of any of us. We usually think of it in reverse—that we should be worthy of God, but in reality it is the way I put it. A God who is capricious, who operates on whim, a God who is condemnatory is simply not worthy of us.
There is another God—a God who has always been there and some people in our community have always been in touch with this God. Yet it took the Second Vatican Council to rediscover this kind of God for the rest of us. It is the God we hear about in the gospels, the God that Jesus tells us about. It is a God of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, not a God of judgment, condemnation and capriciousness. To the extent that anybody can have a single favorite quote, I suppose that mine comes from T.S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. It is one that I have used before. Towards the end of the play, T.S. Elliot writes this remarkable line: “in the end the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” As a little child I guess I was very treasonous. I was afraid of going to hell so I would choose once in a while to do something good. I tried really hard to do good more frequently, but it just did not work. I would choose to do good simply because I was afraid of God. While choosing to do good is a good thing, if our reason is corrupted, then we are corrupted.
Admittedly, little kids need to be taught in various ways as they grow. When we are little, to choose something good because we are afraid of getting punished might work. That fear is one of the early stages of moral development, but is very unbecoming of an adult. To choose good over evil because we are afraid that some omnipotent God is going to strike us down reduces us to children rather than elevating us to adulthood. But this other God, the one that Jesus tells us about, the God of compassion, mercy and forgiveness, excluding no one, is just as certain a God. Therefore I can speak about my God with just as much certainty as Cardinal Ratzinger can speak about his. With just as much conviction I can say that my God, the God of Jesus, the God of the Gospels is the true God. There is a difference between these two visions of God.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s God, the God of the old Church, is much easier to believe in. There is no great challenge to believe in a God that is going to judge us and condemn us, and send us to hell if we do wrong. Belief in that kind of God makes it easier for us to choose good because we do not want to be punished. We do not want to be condemned. That is an easy God to believe in, or at least it is an easy God to follow.
A God who chooses to forgive everybody is a much harder to believe in and follow. If, in fact, God chooses to forgive everyone, including the worst possible sinner, then you and I no longer have a credible authority for not forgiving the people who offend us, much less seriously. We simply have no right. The human tendency is to strike out in revenge, to get even with somebody, and when we cannot, we take satisfaction in holding some sort of a grudge or excluding somebody from our lives, writing somebody else off. That is the human tendency and it is a tendency not challenged by the older kind God. Actually, belief in the older God lays a foundation for that tendency. The God of Jesus, on the other hand, takes away that security because the God of Jesus forgives everybody. That means we do not have a right to not forgive other people. Now that is a harder God to follow. It is a more challenging God and ultimately, it is the only God that is worthy of our allegiance; that is worthy of our praise; that is worthy of our following. But it is a harder God to believe in.
This God, rather than excluding people, includes everyone. He turns the human tendencies upside down. We cut people off and God throws out a net to embrace them. With this God, everyone goes to heaven. Peter was right. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Jesus Christ is the Savior and Messiah for the whole world. Jesus Christ alone is the way to salvation. As a priest, and as a follower of Jesus, I believe that. Jesus Christ is the one and only Savior, but Jesus Christ is bigger than my ability or Cardinal Ratzinger’s or even the whole church, to comprehend and contain.
If Jesus Christ is the Son of God as we profess with Peter, then it would be the height of arrogance and conceit for us to suggest we know everything, and that Jesus Christ can act only the way we want him to act. I am convinced that Jesus is acting in the Catholic Church. I see His presence, actions and his effect in our lives. But is that the only way that Jesus is acting in our world? Is Jesus not also acting in the Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran churches? Is he not also present to Hindus, Muslims and Jews? Jesus who himself was a Jew? The reading is taken right out of today’s scriptures. In the second reading James warns us against prejudice and bias. We see the wealthy person among you and attend to that person, while ignoring the poor among us. Or we see the healthy person and ignore the sick. Or we see the Catholics and ignore the Lutherans. We see the Christians and the hell with the Jews. No, James tells us that is not the way.
Then in the Gospel reading Jesus shows us clearly by example. The deaf and mute man that the people bring to Jesus today is not a Jew. Jesus could have said, “Sorry you’re on your own. You already have a very grave deal of difficulty gaining salvation because you’re not a Jew so I’m not going to do anything for you.” But instead Jesus says “Bring him in, bring him over here, I’ll take care of him. In fact, why don’t you people stay there, I’m going to take him off by himself and minister to him.” Then Jesus healed this man who was not a Jew. The God of Jesus Christ is not an exclusive God. He is an inclusive God. He writes nobody off, but brings everybody in.
It does not diminish us as a people of believers or as a church to suggest that other people too can be saved.
In fact, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, as encapsulated in the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, reaffirms that all people of goodwill go to heaven. Most importantly is a document called “Declaration on Religious Freedom”, and it is the single greatest contribution of the American Catholic Church to the Second Vatican Council. Most of it is the work of Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray. In that teaching, the church says all people of good will go to heaven. The same kind of thing that Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles, “Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). That God, the God we read about in Acts, the God that Jesus teaches us about, the God proclaimed in the Second Vatican Council, that is a God that accepts everyone. I take it a step further, admittedly. It is not just some people of good will nor all people of good will, it is all period that go to heaven.
What kind of God do you believe in? I believe in a God who reaches in to the depths of each of us and draws out what we are afraid of. The best that is within us, what God has placed inside of us, that which is her own divine presence, touches our fear and makes it possible for us to choose good for good’s sake. We have no reason to be afraid of God. We should not believe in a God who is only going to save some people. We have no reason to believe that God is going to condemn us and punish us for the things we have done wrong. There is enough punishment, indeed enough hell on earth without adding eternity into the mix. Rather, our God, by touching that divinity in each of us, makes it possible for us to know love and mercy. Our God is a God who loves and forgives even when we do not deserve it. That is the God of Jesus Christ, and at least for me, it is the only God worth believing in.