Dan. 12:1–3; Hebrews 10:11–14, 18; Mark 13:24–32
We do not know the day. We do not know the hour.
I am grateful for an end to the election season. Politics seems to get more contentious with every year. No one seems to be interested in serving the common good, just in tearing down the other side. And within the Church, the picture isn’t particularly good either. With the Pennsylvania grand jury report reopening old wounds and the bishops of the national conference openly divided about how to respond to the angry demands for accountability, our faith seems to be under assault. And no doubt it is. But countries have seen worse divisions, and our Church has suffered through worse times than these. Still I sometimes wonder what these events portend for our Church, our nation, and our world.
Our readings today point to two final outcomes: Heaven and Hell—being caught up with the elect of Christ, as we hear in our Gospel reading, or residing in everlasting horror and disgrace, as the Book of Daniel puts it. And we choose one or the other in the decisions we make. That point bears repeating. In our decisions, we choose something that draws us closer to God, or we choose something that takes us away from God and that ultimately leads to Hell.
We do not know the day. We do not know the hour. But whenever it comes, we choose one path or the other.
Jesus warns us of this in the Gospel of Matthew. The gate is small and the road narrow that leads to life, but the path is broad that leads to destruction. It’s fashionable these days to think that everyone goes to Heaven and that God is too merciful to send people to Hell. To a degree, they are correct. God wants all to be saved, as Paul says in the first letter to Timothy. He desires all to be saved and to come to knowledge of him. Yet scripture tell us of two ends, one for those who choose God’s will and one for those who reject it.
Our reading from Daniel contrasts the two ends for us. Daniel is one of the early apocalyptic books of Hebrew scripture, and it shares some common imagery with other apocalyptic writings like Ezekiel, another book of the Hebrew prophets, and the Revelation of John, much of it capturing the tribulation and cataclysm of the end days. The prophet writes, “[I]t will be a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time.” The reading from Mark is even more dramatic: “[I]n those days after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
The events of our day do not look so bad in comparison. But Jesus warns us to be prepared, to live now as if the master is returning immediately. We do not know the day. We do not know the hour.
God wants all to be saved, but our readings make it clear that there are two ends. Daniel spells it out clearly: “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” There are only two options.
In Mark, the elect will be gathered from the four winds.” The others will not be gathered. They will be left clinging to those things they chose over God. You see, we choose salvation or damnation. We choose to seek God’s will or our own will. God simply confirms our own choice. God doesn’t send the unrepentant to Hell. The unrepentant choose it for themselves. So the choice is in our hands. We can choose to align our will with God’s, or we can choose to focus on ourselves and cling to lesser goods.
So how can we choose God’s will over our own? The Church has given us some guides in this area to help us. They are called works of mercy, and there are two sets of seven: the corporal works of mercy, and the spiritual works of mercy.
Let’s start with the corporal works. These works are called corporal because they deal with the needs of the body, in particular, other people’s bodily needs. They are as follows:
- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Give shelter to the homeless
- Visit the sick
- Visit those who are in prison
- Bury the dead
Recall in Matthew 25 when the Son divides the sheep and the goats. Those things that the sheep did to the least of their brothers—feeding and clothing them, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison—the Son says, they did to Him. In a very real way, when we love our neighbor, we are showing love for God.
What are the spiritual works of mercy? These are those works we do to attend to the spiritual needs of others:
- Instruct the ignorant
- Counsel the doubtful
- Admonish the sinner
- Bear wrongs patiently
- Forgive offenses willingly
- Comfort the afflicted
- Pray for the living and the dead
Some of these are hard, if not downright unpopular, to put into practice. Sinners don’t like to be admonished. The ignorant don’t always like to be instructed. But it’s not merciful to allow someone to die in their sins. It’s not merciful to let the ignorant suffer from their ignorance. So while our culture often tells us that such things are just bigotry and judgmentalism, the Church calls it mercy. One great way to practice these spiritual works of mercy is to share our faith, to share the reason we believe what the Church teaches.
Jesus gave us two commandments: love God with your whole heart, your mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The most effective way to do the first commandment is to practice the second commandment as well as we can. When we choose the other over ourselves, we choose God. When we choose ourselves to the exclusion of others, we’re on our own. That’s what Hell is all about… turning away from God and going our own way.
In Deuteronomy 30, Moses tells the people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life, that you and your descendants shall live.”
Despite what happens in our political landscape, despite what happens with the fallible human beings who lead our Church, there is still a God who loves us and wants us to be with Him. We do not know the day. We do not know the hour. But God has set before us good and evil, life and death. Choose life. Choose God.