Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Last Sunday, July 23, our Gospel reading included the parable of the wheat and the weeds, from Matthew 13, along with Jesus’s own explanation of its meaning. “Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace…” (Mt 13: 40-42). We do not want to be the weeds.
In my homily at the Cathedral of the Epiphany, I repeated that the devil, hell, and the possibility of damnation are indeed real. In our modern pride, we sometimes think we are more sophisticated or intelligent than our forebears. We imagine that at least three of the “Four Last Things” – that is, death, judgment, heaven, and hell – are merely stories that were once used to frighten people into obedience. We clever moderns needn’t believe such obvious fables, today. Instead, in our culture, we bully and shout down and threaten and abort and euthanize people into obedience.
If we do reject the prideful Babel of modern culture, however, and believe what Christ himself has said about our inevitable bodily death and judgment, what should we then do? “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” just as our Lord consistently preached (Mk 1:15), and just as the church from the beginning has consistently preached (Acts 2:38).
What does it mean to repent? God is love. To be with or to follow God means to love. We cannot love others much, if we love ourselves too much. We cannot love others much, if we do not have at least some idea of the love of God. And we cannot love others much, if we are mired and stuck in our own sins. At its most fundamental, then, repentance means conversion, a turning to the Lord, and away from selfishness.
All of us, merely by being human, have experienced God’s love. Every good thing in our lives, from the most trivial to the most profound, is God’s loving gift to us. Each of us, no matter the details of our life, desires more of these good things, more receiving of God’s good gifts. In other words, each of us desires to be happy.
And yet we also have, universally, the experience of suffering. Some suffering is moral – we do wrong to others, and we receive wrong done to us by others. This moral suffering we experience as the opposite of happiness. We recognize deep down that such experiences are somehow deeply wrong, even when we lie to ourselves about that and try to justify those wrongs to our own advantage.
If that were all, it would be pretty easy to “avoid evil, and do good” (e.g., Ps 34:14, 1 Pet 3:11, etc.). But the drama of the parable is that we must also contend with our passions, and with our fallen capacity to choose evil. At our best, we are naturally “good” in the sense that we rarely actively wish harm to others, but most of the time, we are more “not good” in the sense that we rarely love others as much as we love ourselves. We are, then, both weed and wheat, at the same time.
But grace builds on nature. Just as, in the natural order, we can recognize and strive to be better than mere passive malice and default selfishness, so also in the order of grace, we can repent and strive to love more perfectly, putting God and others ahead of our mere worldly happiness. In this deeper sense, repentance means allowing God to change whatever is weed in us into happy and holy wheat. It is not that we have the power to change our own nature.
Rather, God’s grace and spiritual gifts act in us, most especially in the sacraments, guiding our growth day by day into something fruitful. We must try, over and over again, every single day, to choose according to God’s will, more lovingly, so as to be united to God and our neighbor.
Finally, we imagine all too clearly that God is too loving to condemn his own children to hell. In one sense, this is very true. It is not, as many today believe, that no one goes into hell. Rather, God does not choose who goes to hell. We choose for ourselves, by refusing stubbornly to repent and believe, and by remaining unrepentantly in our sins. The wheat become wheat because of God’s grace, which brings repentance and conversion. The weeds remain weeds, and therefore burn, because they reject God’s grace.
Dear friends, I beg you to heed again God’s call to repent and love more. None of us are perfect. No matter how close we are to God in this life, there is still work for grace to do within us. Conversely, no matter how far we are from God at this time, there is still hope for coming to love. Continue to cling courageously to all that we know to be true and good, in Scripture and tradition, and remain pilgrims following God’s way, day by day.
Please pray for me, and for each other, just as I pray constantly for all of you. In a special way, I ask you to pray for the victims of a human trafficking incident that took place this last week in San Antonio. The tragedy of human trafficking must end and all of us are called to do what we can to make that happen.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City