Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday of Ember Week in Lent

Ezechiel 18:20-28 / John 5:1-15

All his justices which he hath done shall not be remembered: in the prevarication by which he hath prevaricated, and in the sin which he hath committed, in them he shall die.

Some recent sad events have turned the press to the question of fairness in school disciplinary policies. Specifically, they have questioned the wisdom, the fairness, of "no tolerance" policies for certain infractions, especially those involving drugs (whether illegal or not) or any object that could be construed as a weapon, even when common sense would deny its designation as such. The policies themselves were revived and reinvigorated after the terrible violence in Columbine, Colorado, now over a decade ago, and few people disputed their wisdom them. Since such infractions might be the only visible signs the school would ever have to warn of a lethal outbreak of violence, for the sake of the safety of the school, its students and staff, there would be no tolerance for any infractions, and leniency, even when allowed, would be rare.

Unhappily, in recent years, the deployment of these very disciplinary measures have been held, at least by many, to have been crucial triggers for the suicides of some students. Having committed what were, by the book, offenses, these students admitted their fault and were willing to accept responsibility. However, they had also been model students otherwise, in one case even heroically so, being not only an excellent student and athlete, but also along with his father the caretaker of his mother, deeply debilitated by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease. Even so, even knowing that this child had performed well before, admitted his offense, itself not breaking the law, and showed clear signs of remorse, the school board elected to transfer him from his school and forbid his attendance at any school events. Deprived of the very environment that had promoted his happy growth mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially, the student declined, first in grades, then in social activity, and finally into despair, taking his own life.

God's warning through the prophet Ezechiel raise worries that God is no more just than was the school board, and we may well want to cry out with Israel: The way of the Lord is not right. God tells us through his prophet that the sinner, the unjust, need only repent, and he will be forgiven, nothing being remembered of his wickedness. We might, just barely, be willing to embrace such generosity and indulgence. It is the second part that strikes us as objectionable. The Lord tells us that the virtuous man, however long, however illustrious his virtues and his works of righteousness, will suffer punishment and death for falling into sin. Really? Are his good works of old meaningless? Do they not speak of a person, an otherwise good person, who just made a mistake? The bad person, the wicked, who caused so much harm, is for the sake of one act of penance restored, whereas the good person, who has been consistent in his goodness, for the sake of one falling away, has all of his goodness cast aside and ignored as irrelevant?

This reading, however, misses the central message of God's announcement of both hope and doom, hope for the penitent, doom for the presumptuous. The purpose of our moral life, of our spiritual life, is not to earn merits or demerits before the celestial accountant, where the slightest irregularity at the arbitrary moment of accounting will produce unending horror for those in the red, unexpected delight for those in the black. Rather, the purpose of our life here and now is to grow into the sort of people who would find eternity in the presence of God a source of comfort and hope now, and of intense longing for the future. This means that the litany of our deeds, whether black as night, red as scarlet, or white as snow, is really not the point. The sinner who repents, who knows in his tears and sorrow, the sweet hope of life with God, just is the kind of person who will love God, enjoy God's presence, and rejoice in the company of all others who rejoice in the presence of God. On the other hand, the man of good deeds for whom an act of righteousness is no bother, who would rather plead his past goodness than repent being the kind of person he has become, the kind of person for whom an offense against God is not a burden and sorrow — such a man could never enjoy life with God. He would bear Hell already in his heart, and so directs himself already where God will, should he remain unrepentant, consign him justly with his irrevocable judgment.

Now, however, is the time to turn about. Now is the time to redouble our efforts. Now is not the time to sing litanies of our past virtues nor to ask for leniency because of them. Rather, now is the time to convert, to weep, to mourn, as well as the time to hope and to love. It is in those tears, those tears of sweet penitence, that we will find our life transformed, and discover ourselves to be the sort of persons for whom our God and his ways are a delight. Because he considereth and turneth away himself from all his iniquities which he hath wrought, he shall surely live and not die, saith the Lord almighty.

Hear us, O merciful God, and show unto our minds the light of Thy grace.

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