Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Wrath of God: What Exactly is It?

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (B)”: This homily was given on March 15, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23; Psalm 137: 1-6; Ephesians 2: 4-10; John 3: 14-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2015]

Little 7-year-old Raymond gets into a fight with his sister and he purposely breaks one of her toys.  At that point his mother happens to come into the room and she sees what’s going on.  She says, “Raymond Nicholas, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.  Apologize to your sister right now!”

Little Raymond says, “No way.  I’m not apologizing to her.  She asked for it.  She got what she deserved.”

Raymond’s mother turns 8 shades of red and says, “Then go to your room!  Go to your room right now and you stay there for the rest of the day.  No TV; no radio; no stereo; you just sit there and think about what you’ve done, and why you need to apologize to your sister.”

Little Raymond gets upset and says, “But mom, I’m supposed to play football today with my friends.  They’re expecting me; I need to be there.  I want to be there!”

His mother says, “Too bad.  You should have thought of that before.  Go to your room.”

Little Raymond shouts out, “You’re bad!  You’re a bad mother.  You’re the meanest mother in the world.  You’re the meanest mother who ever lived!  You hate me!”

And he storms off to his room where he moans, and groans, and lives in utter agony for the rest of the day while all his friends happily play their football game.

Now before I go any further let me issue this very important clarification: the fact that the boy in this story happens to have my name is merely a coincidence.

I was always a perfect brother.

Just don’t tell my sister I said that!

But in all seriousness, my brothers and sisters, the point I’m trying to make in telling this story is that if you understand the dynamics of it—in other words, if you understand what’s going on here between little Raymond Nicholas and his mother—you will understand what the Bible means when it speaks of the “wrath” of God.

This, of course, is a concept—an idea—that confuses many people.  And that’s understandable.  After all, St. John explicitly tells us in his first Letter that “God is love.”  Psalm 103 tells us that “the Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and rich in kindness.”  Romans 8: 38 says that “neither height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  In our second reading today from Ephesians 2 St. Paul says, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.”  And finally in today’s gospel Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

These are just a few of the many Scripture verses that speak to us of God’s incredible, eternal love.

But there are also other passages of the Bible—like today’s first reading—that tell us of God’s “anger” and his “wrath”.

Listen again to the words of that reading:
Early and often did the Lord, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the ANGER of the Lord against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy. Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects. Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
How do we makes sense of this apparent contradiction?  Is our God a God of love or is he a God of wrath—or is he somehow a God of both?

But how can he be a God of both, since love and wrath appear to be mutually exclusive realities, diametrically opposed to one another?

Well, here’s where I think little 7-year-old Raymond Nicholas and his mother can help us.

In this regard, I would say that the words of St. John serve as a good starting point.  St. John tells us explicitly that “God is love”—all love, complete love, perfect love.

Okay, that’s great Fr. Ray.  But what about God’s wrath?  If God is pure, total, perfect, complete, 100% love, how does “wrath” fit into the picture? 

Well, very simply, the wrath of God is just the way that certain people experience his LOVE.

Yes, you heard me correctly: the “wrath of God” is the way that some people experience his love.

Specifically, people who defiantly and obstinately cling to their sins.

Think of little Raymond Nicholas.  He broke his sister’s toy and then he refused to repent and say he was sorry.  If had said he was sorry he would have been happy for the rest of the day playing football with his buddies at the local field.

But he said, “No way.  I’m not apologizing to her.  She asked for it.  She got what she deserved.”

And he ended up spending the rest of his day sulking in his room—alone.

So I guess that means his mother hated him.

No, not at all!  His mother loved him!  She loved him deeply.  She loved him more than he knew.  But because he stubbornly refused to repent of his sin, little Raymond EXPERIENCED THE LOVE OF HIS MOTHER AS WRATH!—which is why he responded to his punishment by shouting, “You’re bad!  You’re a bad mother.  You’re the meanest mother in the world.  You’re the meanest mother who ever lived!  You hate me!”

The Israelites in today’s first reading could very easily have related to the plight of poor little Raymond.  As we heard a few moments ago, they were defeated and carried off to captivity in Babylon because they stubbornly refused to repent of their idolatry—even though God, in his love, had sent them many prophets over the years to warn them about the consequences of their disobedience.

And so they, too, experienced love as “wrath”.  Their sentiments were captured perfectly in today’s responsorial psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

Now the good news is that little Raymond Nicholas eventually got out of his room, and God’s people eventually came home from Babylon.

That’s because in this life, we can always change for the better, such that we move from experiencing God’s love as wrath back to experiencing God’s love as love.

But there will be a moment—the moment when we take our final breath on this earth—when that kind of change will become impossible.  Which means that if we are still stubbornly clinging to our sins at the moment of our death, we will experience God’s love as wrath for all eternity.

In fact, that’s really an accurate description of what hell is.  Hell is where people experience God’s love as wrath—forever. That’s why repentance is so important—and why the sacrament of Confession is such a blessing.

Which leads to the obvious question: Have you made a good, thorough confession yet during this season of Lent?

And if not, what are you waiting for?