Does God Punish?
March 10, 2017
Friday, Lent Week One
The Responsorial (Psalm 130) is both truth and trust: “If you, O Lord, laid bare our guilt, who could endure it?”
Ezekiel 18: 21-28 basically tells us that God doesn’t keep books.
Many of us grew up thinking God keeps all our sins recorded in a big ledger, along with all the good things we do to make up for them. At the “judgment,” when we die, God subtracts one from the other and we have to make up the difference in “Purgatory.” We took for granted the good list would be shorter.
But Ezekiel talks as if the only thing that counts is what side you are on at the end: “If the wicked turns away from all the sins he has committed... he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the crimes he has committed shall be remembered against him.” And vice-versa: “If the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil.... none of his good deeds shall be remembered.” So how do you run up a score?
God doesn’t keep score. What matters to him is not what we have done but what we are. It is true, we “create ourselves” by what we do. Every act, good or bad, changes us, for better or worse. But the change isn’t quantitative; it is cumulative. What counts is the part all of our actions play in making it easier or harder for us to surrender ourselves totally to God in death. In pure faith, hope and love. The last judgment we make about God is our personal Last Judgment. Either we want him enough to say “Yes” to death — and to leaving all we have and love on earth, including life itself, to possess him — or we don’t. Our answer at that moment is all that counts.
Matthew 5: 20-26 seems both to support this and contradict it. Jesus bases God’s judgment on the kind of person we are: loving or unloving. All the examples speak of this: embraced anger, abusive language, silent contempt, alienation; they say we are or are not living in love. It’s a pass-fail exam. No one adds or subtracts points.
But if we haven’t completely reconciled our differences with others, Jesus uses the image of a prison from which we “will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” This seems quantitative.
Does Jesus speak of “punishment”? No. “Paid the last penny” can as easily mean “made a complete turnaround,” or “grown to the fullness of love.” The image speaks of completeness, not of payment as such.
But if we think of “penalty” instead of “punishment,” that works. God doesn’t “punish” us for sins; what would be the point of it? But he warns us that if we do not try to grow into “the perfection of love,” there will be distance to make up before we enter heaven. To say “Yes” to death, choosing God as our All with love undivided between God and any creature, is not something that comes easily. If we don’t work at growing into this (which means surrendering to it) during life, then the natural consequence or “penalty” is that we might have a struggle at the end. Another reason to embrace discipleship.
Initiative: Seek the “perfection of love.” Use the Liturgy of the Word.