16th Sunday Year A - Homily 1

Homily 1 - 2005

Today’s first reading spoke insightfully of a God who cares for everything, whose sovereignty over all makes him lenient to all.  I think we can relate to that.  From our own limited knowledge of ourselves, we know that revenge and vindictiveness betray not inner strength but insecurity.

The recent actions of the London terrorists were evil acts of cold hatred or barbaric indifference.  They were cruel.  They were evil.  However, to call the terrorists themselves “scum, sub-human, unforgivable, to be eliminated at all costs” – that is, to dehumanise and to demonise the enemy, might sound strong common sense.  Yet I wonder if instead it is profoundly non-Christian - and hardly different from the attitude of the terrorists themselves who obviously in their own minds dehumanised the ones they killed so heartlessly.

What I admire so deeply about Jesus was precisely his inner strength.  His power to love was such that others’ hatred could not provoke hatred within him – he was so free that he could say of his murderers: Father, forgive them... He was not threatened by anyone, anything, even by those who caused his excruciating death.  He did not call them scum, sub-human, unforgivable and to be eliminated at all costs.

Did God forgive them, and others like them, as Jesus prayed? Did God dehumanise, demonise, them - no longer prepared to love them?  Did God get them in the end?  We might ask: Does God punish the genuine sinner eternally?

Today’s Gospel parable said: The kingdom of heaven is like... wheat and darnel growing together...  Though we did not go on to read the rest of the passage, Matthew’s community made sense of the parable by seeing the wheat and the darnel as good people and bad people, as saints and sinners, both existing, at least for the moment, in the kingdom.  What the gospel went on to say was that, at the end of the process, one lot would be destined for the furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the other lot would be destined to shine like the sun.

Does the gospel, then, contend that God condemns the unrepentant sinner to hell (and rewards the saint with heaven)?  That would no doubt be the child’s way of understanding it.  Yet what we know from our observation of Jesus’ behaviour is that God cannot be other than totally loving, whether of saint or of sinner.  It is the reactions of saint and of sinner to that love that are the variables.  Those who turn away from the cost of loving and accepting love do not finish up with the same experience for eternity as others who, following the lead of Jesus, struggle to love and be loved.

In this phase of our adventure of living we human persons are all a constantly changing mixture of good and evil, of sensitive compassion and of cold self-interest, of connectedness and of isolation, of love and of lack of love.  In the next phase of our adventure of living - the phase that unfolds after our death - there will be no distractions, all will be quite single-minded and focussed.  The saints will be the ones who respond to love, who trust love, and reach out in love to others, to all.  Their experience will be one of total freedom, lack of fear, a wonderful sense of inner strength, sensitive and responsive connectedness: utter fulfilment – radiant happiness.  That precisely is what I imagine is the experience that we call heaven.  The sinner is the one who has closed off from love, in fear and insecurity, unwilling – unable – to trust, withdrawn from everything, opting not for connectedness but for total self-absorption and self-interest - effectively choosing isolation and unmitigated loneliness.  That, I imagine is the experience we call hell.

Whatever our choice – and it will always be our choice – it seems that God will honour it, joyfully in the one case or reluctantly in the other.  As far as we can see, God cannot change the sinner’s outcome other than by taking away the sinner’s power freely to choose.  Yet, if God takes away that freedom, God takes away with it the power to love (which is precisely the basis of the experience we call heaven).

To ask: do I believe in hell? seems to me to be no different than to ask: do I believe that someone can single-mindedly refuse to love?  It is a question that seems closely connected to the reality of human freedom.  To ask: has anyone single-mindedly refused to love? is a different question.  That is a question of fact, my own answer to which is: I don’t know.