Christian shame, and Christian hope
Once again, an Old Testament prophet emerges to give us a strong dose of reality today. This time, it is Ezekiel, particularly in chapters 12 and 13. Ezekiel prophesied during the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. He foretold the utter destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, which he also lived to witness. One of the most intriguing things about his message is his insistence that God’s delay in punishing the Jews was now over, and that those living at that time would see that punishment. This ought to give us pause today.
One of the great problems in the life of the Church is the assumption that the disasters inevitably brought on by sin are so far off that sinners need not worry about the adverse consequences of their actions. Of course, a Christian ought to see the consequences all around him—the moral and spiritual consequences, the tremendous damage done in the lives of a great many people from the widespread refusal of so many to heed God’s Revelation and to do His will. But those who rationalize (as most of us do when we sin) are often protected from despair by a blindness to the deep consequences of their infidelity.
Moreover, despite the spiritual and moral wreckage, the total collapse of a culture or a civilization takes a long time. For example, despite the widespread destruction of human happiness caused by the breakdown of marriage, sexual immorality, sexual abuse, substance abuse, gender ideology, and a general moral irresponsibility in our culture, huge numbers of spiritually broken people continue to be respected and thrive materially. The fulfillment of their bad habits gives them exactly the sort of perverse pleasure that blinds them to what is really happening, and the larger culture continues to offer them attractive but illusory paths to happiness. In other words, those who are “shallowed” by sin typically look in the wrong places for satisfaction, narrowly avoiding total disaster for a very long time.
Even for faithful Christians who more or less understand what is at stake, the overwhelming consequences of the rejection of the teachings of Christ can appear to be very long-delayed indeed. No wonder we so seldom take these consequences seriously.
Whitewashing the Lies
For God, all times are soon, as one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day: God is eternal, outside of time, and sees all times at once. But even in a human sense, and even though we suffer in our own persons inescapable moral and spiritual consequences for ignoring and rejecting God’s will, God does not typically bring material or worldly disaster on those who sin, nor does He offer an essential correspondence between virtue and material or worldly success. If He did do this as a general rule, it would be much harder to grow in love; selfishness would be an adequate motivation.
But what happens if God’s patience runs out? This is what makes chapter 12 of Ezekiel so interesting:
Son of man, what is this proverb that you [the people] have about the land of Israel, saying, ‘The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing’? Tell them therefore, “Thus says the Lord God: I will put an end to this proverb.... The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision.... For I am the Lord; I will speak the word that I will speak, and it will be performed. It will no longer be delayed, but in your days, O rebellious house, I will speak the word and preform it, declares the Lord God. [Ez 12:21-25]
Sadly, the world and even the Church are full of false prophets who confuse others by proclaiming visions which they make up out of their desire for worldly approval, applying a Christian veneer to the most deadly of sins, and passing them off as virtue. The Church is rife with preachers and teachers of this kind. In Ezekiel’s chapter 13, God talks about them as well:
They have seen false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘Declares the Lord,’ when the Lord has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word..... Therefore thus says the Lord God: “Because you have uttered falsehood and seen lying visions, therefore behold, I am against you, declares the Lord God. My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and who give lying divinations.... Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash, say to those who smear it with whitewash that it shall fall!” [Ez 13:6-11]
This is a remarkably apt image. How often do our cultural “influencers” erect a wall of falsehoods, only to have wayward Catholic “leaders” adjust their spiritual and moral teaching to whitewash that wall!
Reckoning and Redemption
What is so fascinating about the Book of Ezekiel is that God reveals Himself as having “run out of patience”—or rather, He realizes that His forbearance has not had the desired result, and so He must allow the consequences of widespread sin to be made manifest in a way that can bring those who survive to their senses. These prophecies were uttered after the Jews had been exiled to Babylon, yet they still seemed to think they were just fine. But in a very few years, within the lifetimes of nearly all who heard Ezekiel’s proclamations, Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, including the Temple itself. This was the clearest possible signal of God’s disgust with His chosen people, and of His determination to make them understand.
Notice too that these imminent prophecies of Ezekiel are followed by a searing denunciation of the idolatrous elders of the Jewish people (chapter 14) and of the character of Jerusalem as a “useless vine” (chapter 15), and then a long prophetic sequence on “the Lord’s faithless bride” (chapter 16). And yet at the very end of this dismaying section of the book comes one of the strongest prophecies of the Redeemer. God promises that He will remember His covenant with Israel:
I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God. [Ez 16:62-63]
This stunning passage is our cause for hope and joy today. In Israel it was possible for essentially the whole people to go wildly astray. The Old Testament is a saga of this happening again and again. But that is not possible with the Church. Despite the sins of a great many of her leaders and her most socially prominent members, the Church remains a harbor of redemption, and huge numbers of her faithful will be just that, faithful, even when they seem to have no voice in the Church’s administration. The Church is the Body of Christ, sacramentally united with her Head. This is not just a matter of a covenant or an agreement. This is the fruit of redemption—and it is not a perishable fruit.
And that is why, bad as things are and can be, the Church is always an enormous reservoir of good—and so an unfailing cause for hope.
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