By Fr. Glenn Jones:
“Well, at least I’m not as bad as X!”
Such is heard not infrequently from people defensive about some negative trait or action(s) of their own. But that’s kind of a pathetically low bar to hurdle; one can always find an example worse than oneself. After all, compared to Hitler or Vlad the Impaler, most of us look pretty good! But, imagine engraven on your future headstone: “At least he wasn’t as bad as X!” Not much of a recommendation.
And yet, we all draft our own real epitaphs. We can posture all we want, but people that really know us know the truth—or the lie—of it. Who has not been to some awards ceremony, or even certain funerals, in which the subject was being praised to the skies, and yet among the crowd were knowing glances and smirks of those who knew the person best? And even if successful in fooling everyone on the planet, we recall Jesus: “…nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known,” (Matthew 10:26) … known, if not by us, certainly by God.
Now, in the daily Mass Gospel the other day, Jesus spoke of the day of judgment: “…there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken [to Heaven], the other left. And there will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken, the other left…” (Luke 17:34-35)
Now, we priests and other ministers often hear complaints about our preaching: “You’re being too hard—not emphasizing enough God’s love and mercy!” … or, on the flip side: “You’re too soft—not emphasizing enough the reality of Hell and condemnation for sinners!” Well … both emphases—moderated—have their place and importance, because Jesus and the apostles—and all the early fathers of the Church—spoke likewise of the final reality: eternal joy of life w/ God; eternal sorrow without Him.
In scripture, both carrot and stick are given us as dual reinforcing motivations to help us stay firm on the path of Godliness and to resist temptations which assault us daily. Wise St. Francis of Assisi understood this well, and spoke of the body and its passions as “Brother Ass”—a stubborn mule, hard to control. And so the carrot of eternal life we dangle before the mind’s eye, while with the stick of the danger of eternal condemnation we, jockey-like, pop Brother Ass on the rump to keep him moving forward.
Nonetheless, we know that God longs much more to show us love through mercy rather than chastisement through justice. But the choice is always our own. “Before a man are life and death; he is given whichever he chooses.” (Sirach 15:17) And life is found by following the ways of goodness … the way of God.
“Oh, Father, there you go being mean again!” No; just truthful, with desire of salvation for all. But both Heaven and Hell are realities which we need remember when accepting or rejecting God and the good at crossroads of moral decision—each day, each hour, and even each moment of our lives.
Now, today many ridicule/despise religion in general, and frequently Christianity in particular. Very often even Christians reject the clearest scriptures and traditional faith, claiming that past religious leaders didn’t understand things like WE understand them, and that each person is the highest religious authority for himself. In that we come to the purest idolatry: that of self—a greatest of dangers, for when one is his own moral judge, nothing is necessarily off limits. It becomes “What I consider good is good for me!” …regardless of what God teaches, reminding us of the Creation Story of Genesis with the serpent convincing Eve not to do as God says, but rather what she discerns in her own self-interest apart from God.
But God does not change, and He is the source of any and all Good. As the letter to the Hebrews says: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings…” (Hebrews 13:7-9) … knowing that no instruction by God is without importance and purpose—the purpose of keeping us on the path of Good.
But as is often mentioned here, we are not to judge another’s soul, but to counsel, to guide, to witness to truth and to the good, remembering that Jesus doesn’t tell us NOT to do so, but reminds us to remove any log from our own eye first. And we must be wary of becoming pharisaically haughty—presuming on our own goodness and despising others, as Jesus’ parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax collector of Luke 18 points out. Such temptation is a constant danger, digressing to the attitude: “…this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed!” (John 7:49)
But are we called to “grade” behavior, or to teach? To push down, or to lift up? To dispirit, or to inspire? To condemn, or to set free? One doesn’t expect a grade schooler to master quantum theory; why, then, expect someone unschooled in truth to follow truth … especially when inundated daily with exhortations to rebel against truth?
So, let us have patience with those who are “weak in faith” as Paul says: “…we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15) For God Himself has patience with all, not wishing that any be condemned, but that all come to eternal life.
So, for an epitaph, there can be little better for a Christian—or for anyone—than the true remembrance: “He walked before the Lord in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and did what is good in His sight.” (cf. 2 Kings 20:3)
Editor’s note: 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.