Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2018
Fr. Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish
We hear it all the time – that there is some kind of opposition between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament was a wrathful, vengeful God – smiting the enemies of Israel and punishing the chosen people when they were unfaithful to the Covenant. Jesus, on the other hand, in the New Testament, reveals the face of the Father, a face of tender mercy. He eats with sinners and welcomes the outcast. He forgives the sinful woman and praises the pagans who exhibit great faith. How do we reconcile what appears to be a God who expresses anger and wrath on one hand with the God who is kind and merciful? Does God have a split personality? One time he is angry and jealous and at other times he is gentle and infinitely patient? God is love. God is tender mercy. So these differences we see and judgments that we make about God are really our projections on God – projecting human emotions onto God – our emotions that are fleeting and always changing. But God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is love. His love is eternal and unchanging. So what appears as anger to us, or absence to us, or punishment to us, is simply a different expression of God’s love. When things go “badly” for us – when things went badly for God’s people – God in a way is purifying and cleansing his people, loving them in a way that at the time they couldn’t understand.
In the first reading from the Book of Chronicles, we hear some of the history of a particularly difficult time in the history of Israel. “The princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord’s temple.” They were worshiping false gods (the gods of the nations) and even bringing those gods into the temple. And how does the Lord respond? “Early and often did the Lord… send messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.” But this love was rejected. The prophets God sent were mocked. The people ignored the warnings, “until the anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.” Then the enemies of Israel, the ones they cozied up to, trusting them more than God, turned on them, burnt down the temple, destroyed Jerusalem, and carried off those who weren’t killed into slavery into Babylon. So this is the wrath of God. How do we understand it? When God respects our freedom and allows us to live with the choices we make, to experience the consequences of our decisions, this is what the scriptures calls the wrath or the anger of God. When we are given the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to come to the realization ourselves that our choices are not the best, when we learn from experience that our ideas and efforts are not what will bring us happiness, that is what scripture calls the wrath of God. That God permits us to suffer that way, is that contrary to a loving God?
Perhaps a contemporary example that many of us can relate to would be the example of the elderly person who insists on staying in his or her own home by themselves when they physically can’t take care of themselves anymore. They refuse help. They ignore the warnings from family members and the advice of their doctors. So when the person falls and breaks a hip or worse, were the children and family members who gave the warnings being unloving? Were they being spiteful and wrathful by respecting the decision of the elderly person? Not at all. God, like those family members, when the person falls, rushes to help, and is waiting for the person to face reality and come to the decision on his own that it is time to move on – to move to a better place. In this light, the “bad things” that happen to us, become expressions of mercy when they wake us up to reality and to our need for God – when they help us re-evaluate our situation and our perspective on things.
After working for this public relations firm for nearly a year – this was my first real full-time job – in public relations, I began to become burned-out. I was frustrated, becoming increasingly less productive, and unhappy at work. My boss noticed and called me in for a meeting. He asked if I was OK. He asked one of the other associates to help me out a little more. I wasn’t happy, but I thought if I just worked harder and got through this rough patch, things would get better. I didn’t want to quit. I wasn’t a quitter. I always succeeded through hard work. This shouldn’t be any different. But things didn’t get better. And then one day, the head of the firm called me in and told me this wasn’t working out. He was supportive, but it was time for me to move on. I was devastated. I was fired. I was two years out of college and was fired from a job with a respected firm in the career path I wanted to follow. I’m sure I cried and had no idea what I would do next, but soon after I felt an almost immediate relief – like a big burden was lifted off of my shoulders. I took time to re-evaluate what I wanted to do with my life, began to do some volunteer work, saw a counsellor, read a lot, and prayed a lot. It was in this time that the seeds of my vocation to the priesthood began to sprout. I look back at that firing as a great mercy, and am thankful for that boss for letting me go. It became an opportunity for me to really ask the question about what was important in my life and what was I looking for. It was a time of purification. God was with me, but I couldn’t see him at the time because my focus was on other things. I was preferring other things to God, but that event, that “fall” if you will, helped me to see the light, and come to live in the truth. Now I can see as St. Paul says, that God is rich in mercy, loving us even in our transgressions. Our salvation is a grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” We are not saved from our works – by working harder, but by his mercy. The Gospel too reminds us that God so loved the world… he did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” He does this by respecting our freedom, respecting what we prefer. He doesn’t condemn, but we condemn ourselves by preferring the darkness over the light.
Lent is a time to remember the mercy of God and to become more and more open to his presence – to hear his voice and call to conversion in the events that happen in our lives. God is not angry at us like we get angry at persons and things. He loves us and doesn’t abandon us. What happens is not random or accidental. Let’s look at Jesus exalted – lifted up on the Cross, and be confident that it is from the cross that his mercy flows.