By Fr. Glenn Jones
No doubt we all shake our heads at the news once in a while … or maybe daily … or maybe even whenever we open a news website. Scanning the news this weekend, one might have caught a couple of stories that would have elicited such disbelief. First, two young men arrested for shooting at a state police officer while evading a traffic stop. Uhhhh … not the brightest idea, lads. Secondly, a young-ish man sentenced to 45 years in prison for the torture and murder of a middle-aged homeless man, apparently believing his victim had stolen some money and marijuana.
The Gospel in the Catholic Mass this weekend suits such revelations perfectly: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matthew 16:26). One might rephrase: “What advantage is there in sacrificing all for nothing.”
Jesus in this quote, of course, was not speaking so much of the temporal plane of existence as of the spiritual and eternal realm. Yet the analogy fits … quite starkly. Here were three young men whose lives could have been full of promise and reward and happiness had they only possessed the wisdom and foresight—perhaps even the ability for such, depending upon early development—to more realistically balance risk against reward. But, now, in exchange for a momentary thrill of rebellion and revenge, they will likely spend the vast majority of their lives incarcerated … ever on alert to the dangers inherent in that existence. Every minute … hour after hour … day after day … year after year. Other than the chilling slam of prison gates upon entry, the never-relenting catlike alertness of prisoners is what strikes most acutely when visiting such facilities. A poor bargain, indeed.
And yet, there is apparently no shortage of those who risk everything and succumb to such poor risk/reward choices, as the population of prisons attests. Scripture highlights our human tendency toward such poorly-considered decisions from the very beginnings of the Bible in Eve and Adam succumbing to the tempting lies of the serpent (Genesis 3), resulting in their ejection from Paradise into the comparative “prison” of the world.
All throughout the Bible we see poor choices due to greed, power and lust most frequently…as it has been throughout human history. For example, the books of 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings recount King Saul’s murderous jealousy for his power, David’s adultery and murder, Solomon’s self-ruining idolatry, and worst of all, the Gospel’s Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ for a mere bag of silver … all of these inevitably leading to terrible distress and sorrow, and examples of our thoughtless—even heartless—temptation to self-gratification. But Evil always baits his hook with lies, yet rarely failing to fill his Styxian scow: “This affair will be pleasurable and never discovered”, “This embezzlement will be hidden”, “Nobody will find out I stabbed her in the back to get ahead.” Thus St. John writes: “Do not love the world or the things in the world…For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)
Despite its untrendiness, the majority of Christians (along with most other major religions, together making up well over half the world’s population) continues to believe in eternal consequences for one’s own actions. While there is much internal debate about what merits everlasting reward or ruin, there is agreement on this: the former is worth all to attain, while the latter worth all to avoid.
We often find that conscience itself can be a veritable Hell when we seriously violate that which we know is good and right. A conscientious person knows this well—ceaseless remorse over betrayal or God and neighbor being an unquenchable fire in itself. The New Testament often describes Hell as unsavory at very best—“eternal” or “unquenchable” or “lake of” fire the most frequent descriptors. Whether one believes that as a physical reality or spiritually-eternal misery (like prison), the very clear message is that it is to be avoided regardless of the cost.
Thus it seems opportune to revisit a favorite verse of Blaise Pascal, who here is speaking of the Christian faith and eternal reward, but whose advice extends even to the atheist in the wisdom of making good choices which edify not only the actor, but recipients and witnesses: “Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side [of wise and moral choices]? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have sacrificed nothing.” (Penseés, 233)
And so, also from the Catholic Mass this weekend: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2). To steel us in our determination, Paul also reminds: “…let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)
“If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice…Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him. For great is the wisdom of the Lord…his eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every deed of man. He has not commanded anyone to be ungodly, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.” (Sirach 15:15-20)
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.