Opening the Word: A perilous judgment

It’s easy for us to forget that Catholicism is about salvation. We’re not play-acting, carrying out a series of benign ritual practices. Going to Mass and feeding the hungry are not pleasant family activities on a Sunday. They’re the way that God is acting here and now to save the world.

If Catholicism is about salvation, then there is a fearful corollary — it’s possible for us to not be saved. It’s possible that divine judgment will find that we have not loved unto the end in imitation of our risen Savior.

Judgment permeates the letter of James. Christians cannot live as if they already abide in the heavenly Jerusalem, content to enjoy a pleasant leisure. They must serve those who manifest Jesus Christ — the hungry, the poor and the prisoner, to name a few.

Wealth, for James, is a refusal to give the poor what is owed to them. Money is not a private affair but a public one — to have wealth means that one must give this wealth to those most in need.

Such giving is, of course, perilous. It goes against our desire for security, to save just a bit for a rainy day. But James castigates us for our greediness: “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten” (Jas 5:1-2).

For James, the only security that human beings have is God. And yet human beings are tempted to place their hope elsewhere — in riches, in power, in fame and fortune.

Such hope is hopeless. For goods, money and power all dissipate. We must place our goods in the only secure place, in the hands of the poor and thus in the hands of God. After all, it is the hungry, the thirsty and the prisoner who manifest the hidden presence of Christ in the world.

What if we don’t give everything away to the God who has given everything to us? Jesus answers this question in the Gospel.

Last week, Jesus placed a child in the midst of the disciples, preaching to them that only “one of these” can enter the kingdom of heaven.

The child is one who has a posture first of reception, rather than grasping. The child is one oriented toward generosity, toward the gift of self.

And therefore, to be a child is to give everything away, to love unto the end without any sense that such love is an obligation.

And thus Jesus, like James, castigates those who cause “these little ones” to sin. Here, he is not speaking just of children. But of the manner in which we malform these little ones, the ones accustomed to our pastoral care, to adore pride and prestige.

We put giant stones around their neck, causing them to plummet to the bottom of the sea.

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In such an instance, Jesus affirms strongly that it is better to eliminate a limb rather than to cause one of these little ones to sin.

Here, Jesus is being hyperbolic in one sense. He is not advocating self-harm. Rather, it is time to take the possibility of judgment seriously. It is time to recognize that we’re not play-acting and that, at the end of time, God will judge.

God judges now.

The Church is certainly full of sinners and saints alike. As long as we’re on the way, it’s not the time to rest secure on our laurels.

It is time to do penance and to give alms. To give everything unto God.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.