Friday, November 16, 2012

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Did you floss your teeth this morning? I won’t ask for a show of hands, but if we’re like the rest of America, many of us did not. It’s not that we don’t appreciate that flossing is a good thing. We do! We know it helps keep our gums healthy and fights the buildup of plaque. We don’t do it, however, because we don’t want to make the effort; it’s annoying. We’re more focused upon the short-term inconvenience of flossing, than we are on its long-term benefit.

Advertisers are well aware that we often focus on the short-term, while overlooking long-term consequences. They use this to their benefit, especially with so-called "shock ads." Some of you remember this one: "This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs." That’s a "shock ad." Right now New York City is conducting a big public health campaign, trying to get people to cut back on sugary drinks. One poster in subway cars shows soda turning into globs of fat as it’s poured into a glass. The caption reads: "Are you pouring on the pounds? Don’t drink yourself fat."

It’s gross. It’s scary. But then that’s why "shock ads" are so often effective. They force us to consider the long-term consequences of the decisions we make now. They try to change the way we feel, so we’ll change the way we act.

How did today’s readings from the Bible make you feel? Both the first reading from Daniel, and our Lord in the gospel, spoke of our final judgment at the end of history with some very powerful images. Daniel refers to a time "unsurpassed in distress" after which some will be an "everlasting horror and disgrace." When Jesus foretold of his coming as judge, he described the sun and moon being darkened, stars falling from the sky, and the "powers of heaven" being shaken.

It would be understandable if these images made us feel afraid. Kind of like a "shock ad." If you’ll recall, shock ads appreciate that we often ignore the long-term consequences of the choices we make in the short term. They’re also intended to make us feel a particular way, so that we’ll change our behavior. If today’s Scripture readings shock us into changing our behavior, and remind us that we’ll be judged tomorrow for the things we do today, that’s a good thing. If’ we’re inspired to repent, change our ways, and turn our life around, then we have allowed the Word of God to cut us to the heart. Which might be exactly what we need. We might think of it as a "kick in the seat" from our Father in heaven.

In the Washington Post a few weeks ago, an English teacher at an area high school recalled how she’d become frustrated at some of the students in her class who had just failed a test. She asked, "Why don’t you guys study like the kids from Africa?" One kid shot back, "It’s because they have fathers who kick their (behinds) and make them study."

When it comes to living the Christian life, most of us, at one time or another, need similar "motivation" from our Father in heaven. Every so often, we can benefit from a stern warning that our actions have consequences; that we’ll be held accountable for what we do; that the choices we make define what kind of people we are. Psychologists call this "negative reinforcement." And it can help shape us into being better people.

Earlier this fall my son Charlie entered 5th grade. As a way to prepare him and his classmates for middle school, they’re being held responsible for completing their assignments on their own, without mom and dad having to sign off on everything and constantly check up on them. Should they not get their work done, or forget to bring something home, they receive demerits. And I have to say that the prospect of a demerit has really lit a fire under my son. Like many ten-year old boys, Charlie’s not the most organized person in the world. But the negative reinforcement of demerits has really had a positive impact. Of course, the system of demerits isn’t intended to last forever. It’s designed to help kids develop good work habits. And what’s another word for a good habit? Virtue!

There’s a parallel here with our relationship with God. God presents us with stern images of judgment, because sometimes we need that to get us kick-started in the right direction. Just like demerits; just like "shock ads." Like them, the "shock value" of judgment is simply the means to an end. It can help us to become better people. But the last thing God wants is for our relationship with him to be dominated by fear of judgment.

For those of us who are parents, we wouldn’t want our relationship with our kids to be like that, would we? Sure, we want our kids to respect us, to trust us, to be responsibly obedient to us. But we also want our kids to love us. We want there to be warmth, affection, closeness, and fun.

So too in our relationship with God. God wants our obedience, respect, trust. But God also wants us to be close, for there to be intimacy, friendship, and more than anything else, love. But that can’t happen if our relationship is based on fear. It’s hard to be close to one we’re afraid of.

Today God challenges us to trust in his goodness and mercy, hope in his promise of everlasting life, and allow the prospect of judgment, not to frighten us, but to motivate us to live lives of true holiness, and remind us of the good news that it is goodness, and not evil, that has the last word, and the final victory. It’s because of this that Pope Benedict can write, "The last judgment is not primarily an image of terror. It is an image of hope."

(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press:

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