Repentance and Judgment
Friday March 14, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier First Week of Lent
Reading (Ezekiel 18:21-28) Gospel (St. Matthew 5:20-26)
We hear the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet Ezekiel that if the righteous man turns away from his righteousness to commit evil he will die, but if the evil man turns away from evil to perform righteous deeds his evil deeds will be forgiven and he will save his life. And we look at this and say (as the Lord suggested we probably would), “It’s not fair!” If somebody spent most of his life living a good life and then decided to commit mortal sin they would go to hell. But if somebody spent most of his life doing evil and at the end of his life suddenly repents of what he has done and turns around he will go to Heaven. We look at that and we say, “On the scale, it doesn’t balance. The one person has spent the majority of his life doing good things and then turned to evil at the very end. The other person spent most of his life doing evil things and then turned to good at the very end. It would seem that one would have to take into account the majority of what the person’s life has been.”
But, in fact, if a good person, recognizing and knowing what is right and what is wrong, willfully chooses to stop doing what is right and turns his heart against the Lord to commit mortal sin, knowing fully well what it is that he is doing, that person is making a free choice of the will to say, “I don’t want to serve God,” and to say, “I am going to turn my back on God.” Since the person in this example did not repent, it is in sin that the person dies. Even though the person spent the majority of his life doing what is right, the reality is that toward the end of his life, if he chooses sin and is unrepentant, he is going to die in his sin; whereas if the sinful person, the evil person, turns away from the evil, repents of those things, seeks mercy and forgiveness from God, and gets his life on the right track, that person dies in the state of grace, and that person will be able to go to Heaven. And since in God’s wisdom He has decreed that any person who dies in the state of grace will go to Heaven and any person who dies in the state of mortal sin will not go to Heaven, all that He is doing is upholding the justice of His decree because we have a free will.
If we willfully choose to go against God and we die unrepentant for what we have chosen, we cannot go to Heaven. We cannot be with God because we have willfully chosen against Him. Even if the majority of our life was spent for God and doing what is right, if we have knowingly and willingly turned our back on Him and chosen to go against Him, then we have chosen against Heaven and it is by our own choice that we cannot enter Heaven. But if, on the other hand, we have spent our life in sin and through the grace and mercy of God we recognize what it is that we have done and we repent of that and we confess our sins and we get our life on the right track, then we trust in the mercy of God that our sins will be forgiven, that they will be forgotten, and that once we are in the state of grace, if we keep ourselves that way and we die that way, we will go to Heaven. It may be that we will have quite a period of time in Purgatory, but we will go to Heaven.
While on one level it looks unfair, it is also something we all recognize that we absolutely depend upon. If our sins are not forgiven when we repent and confess them, if they still remain, none of us is going to go to Heaven. So we are all dependent upon this teaching, recognizing that in the mercy of God if we are truly repentant our sins will be forgiven, they will be destroyed, and we will be restored to the state of grace. Without that teaching no one can be saved. And so we see in this that God’s way is not unfair, but rather it is perfectly just, and that the more one knows, the more one is going to be held responsible, which is why Our Lord in the Gospel takes what the Old Testament said to a different degree, to a more perfect manner. It is not merely killing somebody that will bring about liability, but even being angry or speaking negative words. So we realize that we are held to a higher accountability, to a greater responsibility, for what it is that we do because of what we know.
For each of us, we need to look at that teaching, and we need to be so grateful for the mercy of God. We need also to recognize the justice of God. We need to reform our lives even on the smaller things so that we watch our language, that we watch what we think and say and do toward others, that we seek to truly love our neighbor, and that we repent of any area where we have offended God or neighbor so that we will be forgiven. That is the mercy and justice of God. That is the balance in which we live our lives. We know the justice of God and we depend on the mercy of God. If we are truly repentant, the mercy of God will prevail, our sins will be forgiven, and when we die we will go to Heaven.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.