Mercy and Patience Now, but Sooner or Later Judgment Must Come

By Msgr. Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington

There’s an old Johnny Cash song (God’s Gonna Cut You Down) that is rooted in today’s Gospel:

You can run on for a long time … Sooner or later God’ll cut you down … Go tell that long tongue liar, Go and tell that midnight rider, Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter, Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down.

These verses go directly to the end point (judgment), but there is more to the story. First there is mercy offered, and then patience; finally in the end there is judgment.

Many today are either dismissive of judgment entirely, or they believe that judgment will result in instant entrance to glory.

Today’s gospel contains a necessary balance. It speaks of God’s patience and care now, but also of the day of reckoning, the Day of Judgment. On that day, our “case” will be adjudicated by God; the decision is final; there is no turning back.

Let’s look at this Gospel in two main parts:

I. The Proclamation of the Problem – The Gospel opens with the following lines:

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!

What Jesus is saying is that is so easy for us to focus on the sins of others and fail to discern our own need for repentance and mercy. Before God we are all beggars; all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf Romans 3:23). Every one of us is in need of boatloads of grace and mercy. And while we may rightly distinguish that there is a difference here on earth between the sanctity of a Mother Theresa and the wretchedness of a Hitler, before God we all fall far short of His glory and holiness; we are all beggars.

Sin surely does affect the lives of others and we are not asked to be blind to that. It is important to learn from the example of others, both good and bad. The point is to learn! We miss the point if all we do when we see someone suffer the effects of sin is to say, “My, my, God don’t like ugly!” What about the ugly in us? What about our own sin?

And so to our all-too-eager question, “What about them, Lord?” Jesus replies, “What about you? Stay in your own lane; work on your own issues and leave their final fate to me. Punishment doesn’t just come to others; if you don’t watch out it will come to you as well.” And just to make sure we get it the Lord adds, “[And] I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

In effect, the Lord tells us to get serious about our sin and about what it can do to us. The most serious problem in life is not the fact that we die or the manner of our death. The most serious problem we face is not Pilate or any political misfortune; it is not falling towers or any physical threat. It is not financial setback, or suffering, or losing our job, or losing our possessions. The most serious problem we face is our sin.

Now we don’t think like this. We minimize the maximum and maximize the minimum. We get all worked up about lesser things while often completely ignoring greater things. We are forever worrying about passing things like health and money, but give little heed to the things of eternity and to getting ready to meet God. Let our physical health be threatened we are instantly on our knees begging God for deliverance. But let our sins pile up and sinful drives be eating at our very soul and we take little notice. We don’t seem to care about being delivered from things that are far more serious than mere cancer.

The Lord says, If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body cast into hell(Matt 5:30). Pay attention, the Lord is saying that it is more serious to sin than to lose your right hand!

Again, we don’t think like this. I think that if I were to lose my right hand today I would lament this day for the rest of my life. The very thought of losing my hand gives me stabbing grief. Why don’t we think of our sin this way? Do you see how obtuse we are? Do you see how distorted our priorities are?

One day the Lord looked at a paralyzed man and decided to cure his most serious problem. He said to the quadriplegic, “Your sins are forgiven.” Could the man’s sins have been more serious than his paralysis? Yes!

And thus the Lord warns us that we ought to be more serious about our sins lest we perish, not merely losing our earthly life but our eternal life. The very fact that the solution to our problem required the death of the Son of God indicates that we are evidently in far worse shape than we think. Without our repentance and the magnificent mercy of God, something far worse than having a tower fall on us, or our enemies kill us might happen. Elsewhere in Scripture the Lord says, I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Lk 12:4-5). The Lord is not counseling here a cringing and avoidant fear, but rather a respectful fear such that we are serious about judgment day and realize that the result on that day will be eternal, unlike the passing quality of any earthly encounter.

Having portrayed the problem and underscored its seriousness, the Lord then reminds us that He is willing to help us, with His grace and mercy, to get ready. He sets forth a process in which we must cooperate, for the Day of Judgment will surely come. Let’s look at the process. 

II. The Portrayal of the Process – The Lord tells a parable that sets forth the process in which we are currently engaged: a process of patience and mercy that leads ultimately to the finality of judgment. Note the following steps:

1. ASSESSMENT There was once a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard and when he came in search of fruit on it and found none said to the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this tree and have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?

Faith is a fruit-bearing tree. It is to bear the fruits of love, justice, and the keeping of the commandments. The Lord looks for these fruits and often, through our conscience and by His Word, assesses if such fruits are present.

Many claim to have faith; they claim to be fruitful in what the Lord seeks. But as owner of the field, it is He who sets the terms. We are not the judge in our own case. It is the Lord’s ongoing work to assess our progress and fruitfulness. He determines whether the necessary fruits are present.

Yet many today claim the right to assess their own status. They make bold proclamations that God would not “dare” to find them to be lacking in anything substantial. In presumption, many declare themselves to be safe, fruitful, and righteous.

But this is not for us to say. In the parable it is the owner, the Lord, who makes the assessment. And note that in this parable he proposes that something significant islacking.

And yet some interlocutor, here called the gardener but let’s call her the Church, asks for mercy and time. And as we shall see such mercy and time is granted, along with necessary supplies (grace) to help accomplish what is sought, namely the fruit of faith. This leads us to stage two in the process.

2. ASSISTANCE – The text goes on to describe the prayers and requests of the gardener (in this case Mother Church): Sir leave it for this year also. I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. It may bear fruit in the future.

The Lord, the owner of the garden, not only grants the request but will also be the one to supply the necessary help to draw forth the fruits patiently awaited.

Indeed, the Lord sends us help and graces in so many ways:

  1. He speaks in our conscience. He has written His law in our heart.
  2. He gave us the law.
  3. He sent us prophets.
  4. He punishes our wrongdoings in order to bring us to repentance.

Before I was afflicted I strayed. But now I have kept your word (Ps 119:67).

But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:10).

  1. He sent us His Son,
  2. Who established the Church,
  3. and gave us grace and the Sacraments.
  4. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [That we be] no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph 4: 11-17).

Do you see how much God has done for us? He has graced us in every way. He has entrusted to the Church, in answer to her pleas, every necessary grace to bear fruit. And now He patiently awaits. He looks to return again to seek the fruits that are necessary for those who claim to have saving faith, fruits that are necessary to be able to endure the day of His coming, fruits that are necessary for us to have the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Indeed we cannot see or endure His presence without the fruit of holiness by His grace. For as Scripture says, Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or Who may stand in his holy place? Only he who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4). Only God can accomplish this. But He who made us without us will not save us without us. Thus we must, by His grace, renounce our sin and accept His grace.

3. ACCEPTANCE – The parable ends very simply with this line:  If not you can cut it down.

I’ve chosen to use the word “acceptance” carefully. Judgment is not so much God’sdecision as it His acceptance of our decision to bear fruit or to refuse to do so; to accept or refuse His offer of the fruits of faith such as chastity, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, love of the poor, and appreciation of the truth.

The Day of Judgment amounts to the day on which God accepts our final choice.It is not so much the passing of sentence as it is the final recognition of the absolute choice that we have made. On this day it is no longer possible for us to change. What we are remains fixed forever.

As we get older we notice that it is harder and harder to change. We are like concrete that sets, becoming ever harder. We are like pottery, which begins moist and malleable but whose shape is forever fixed when subjected to the fire.

And thus the Lord teaches us to be serious about sin and about the Day of Judgment. For now there is mercy and every grace available to us (thank you, Jesus!). But there comes a day when our decision is finally accepted and forever fixed.

The Gospel today teaches beautifully of God’s patience, but also of our need for mercy(we are all beggars before God). It warns us that our decision will finally be accepted. Yes, there is a Day of Judgment and it closes in on us all.

Talking about how often we sang Kumbaya My Lord will not suffice.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns us against presumption and trying to serve as judge in our own case:

Our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall (1 Cor 10:1:ff).

For now there is mercy! But there comes a day of ratification, of judgment, a day when the question is asked and the final answer supplied, not so much by God as by us.

“Be careful,” your flesh says, “No worries.” But the Lord says, “Repent!”

Here are more of the lyrics from the Johnny Cash song God’s Gonna Cut You Down:

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light.

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down

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