26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Unlike Jesus, who is God, in today’s gospel, most people don’t seem to take hell very seriously. Two of the things I often hear as a priest are: ‘Oh God always forgives he doesn’t send anyone to hell’ and ‘oh I don’t believe in hell it’s just an old fashioned way of threatening people’.
It’s interesting. Question people who say these things a bit more and you’ll find often they do think some people are in hell. It usually depends on what generation they belong to but they will say Hiltler, or Jimmy Saville, or Osama-bin-Ladin or the latest criminal monster they read about in the papers ‘deserves to burn in hell’.
But aside from that the people who say these things don’t really understand what hell is. They think it is simply a place of punishment to which God sends you - a sort of eternal ‘stand in the corner with your hands on your head’ because you have been very naughty.
But hell is far worse than they think. Hell is to be cut off from the love of God. To be unable for eternity to know God and to love God. There can be no greater suffering than this. We are made to know and love God, it is our purpose and our happiness. To be unable to do that for eternity means to never be happy, never fulfilled, to never achieve our purpose to never be fully human. It is awful.
Each of us are made for God who reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. We will only find happiness loving Jesus Christ and being loved by him. If we break the commandments, if we miss mass when we feel like it, if we have areas of our life that we don’t want Jesus involved in, if we never talk to him, then it doesn’t matter how much Jesus loves us. We will never find that happiness which would be ours if only we would return his love. He can’t force us, our love must be free, but using our freedom we have chosen another path. To die like this without repentance is to go to hell. That is to die having freely chosen not to love Jesus and never learned how to love him. It’s like a man who turns up to run a marathon without having done any practice or preparation or asked anyone for help. He can’t do it. It’s not a punishment. He simply will not be able to run the distance. It’s the inevitable consequence of his choices.
Some people think, well once you go to hell, you would be sorry and repent and God would forgive you. But that is nonsense. Sorrow springs from knowing the love of God and responding to it. A person is in hell precisely because they have turned their back on God’s love. They can be angry, bitter, full of regret, but they are not capable of being sorry because they have rejected God’s on earth. The whole point about death is that it shows how important life on earth is. Death is the end of change, the end of time, when you die your choices are made, your destiny is fixed. What you do in this life has eternal consequences.
That’s not to say that any of us die perfect. But please God we die at least with the desire to love God present, with the intention, albeit with many failures, to obey his commands and live a good life. And in such case surely God will never turn us away. But what happens to the person who dies who never prays, and doesn’t care or who never goes to mass and doesn’t care, or who steals or lies or commits adultery and doesn’t care or who never helps the poor and doesn’t care? When they die their choice seems to have been made.
If more people took Jesus’ warnings seriously then there might be more people like the parents a young man told me about once ( and which I have told you before). When he was about 18 he moved in with his girl friend, he stopped going to mass and he lapsed from the faith. “You know what my mum and dad did, Father?” he said to me. They said “Right this is serious, this is a question of our son’s immortal soul, so from now on, every Wednesday and every Friday we will go to mass and holy communion, say a rosary and fast on bread and water until, by God’s grace, our son returns to the faith”. It took three years, he told me, but return he did, married and now has a large practising catholic family. Those parents grasped the seriousness with which, in today’s gospel Jesus speaks of sin and its consequences.