Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-9
We have security guards for a reason. If an attacker shows up and the security guard flees to save his own skin instead of warning the people he is responsible for guarding, then what use is he? In the ancient world, watchmen would patrol the walls of city a day and night, scanning the horizon for an enemy’s approach. If they disregarded their duty, the whole city would be in danger.
In this Sunday’s reading from Ezekiel, we find a repetition of the prophet’s original call (Ezek 3:17-19 parallels 33:7-9). God appointed him as a watchman, to warn the people of the “sword” of the Lord’s judgment. His job was to sound the alarm, to “blow the trumpet,” to warn the people to flee from the wrath of God. Even though God’s judgment falls on the sinful person for his or her sins, the watchman is responsible for warning them of the coming judgment.
Warning is a strange responsibility because it is by necessity occasional, meaning you only need to warn on rare occasion. This is why security work can be very difficult. The vast majority of days are humdrum, run-of-the-mill, monotonous, and safe days, where no serious threats show up. But a security guard, a watchman, is employed for those rare times when the stability and safety of a business, school, or other place, is in danger. It takes energy and commitment to keep alert during all the long night-time hours in order to be ready, if the need arise, to sound the alarm.
Blood on Whose Hands?
If the watchman does his job in the ancient city when an enemy is approaching and blows his trumpet loudly and clearly for all to hear, then he’s done his job and can then take up arms or flee for the hills with impunity. To anyone who fails to heed his warning, we can say, “his blood shall be on himself” (Ezek 33:5). But if the watchman fails in his duty and flees without warning others, he might live, but he will have committed a terrible sin. Many people could die because of his negligence. Their blood will be on his hands. In fact, the Lord tells Ezekiel that if he fails to be an alarm-sounding watchman to the wicked, “his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezek 33:8 ESV). However, if Ezekiel does his job, the Lord tells him, “you will have delivered your soul” (33:9 ESV).
A New Testament Word of Warning
We remember St. Paul for proclaiming the good news, but he also proclaimed some bad news: “the wrath of God is coming” (Col 3:6). Jesus himself warned of the coming wrath (Matt 3:7||Luke 3:7) and St. Paul picks up the theme repeatedly. Wrath comes upon the disobedient (Eph 5:6), the ungodly (Rom 1:18), and the wrongdoer (Rom 13:4). It is God’s vengeance (Rom 12:19), from which we hope to be saved (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9). Just like the sword of the Lord, which Ezekiel warned about, the wrath of God comes against those who reject him. Paul, as an evangelist, is a New Testament prophet, warning us about the coming wrath, the final judgment of God. He even alludes to Ezekiel’s vocabulary when he preaches in Macedonia. After his message is rejected at a synagogue, he says “Your blood be upon your heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Act 18:6 RSV). Paul also reflects on his responsibility to warn by saying, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). He is a New Testament watchman, called by God to proclaim a warning of coming wrath, and the gospel message of deliverance.
Hearing and Speaking
You and I don’t have the national responsibility of a prophet like Ezekiel, or the foundational importance of an apostle like Paul, but we are responsible, as Christians, to proclaim the message of salvation, which includes a warning. In fact, Pope Francis reminds us that evangelizing is a “daily responsibility” (Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 127). He describes the personal evangelization which each of us can do: “In this preaching, which is always respectful and gentle, the first step is personal dialogue, when the other person speaks and shares his or her joys, hopes and concerns for loved ones, or so many other heartfelt needs. Only afterwards is it possible to bring up God’s word” (sec. 128). So proclaiming the Gospel need not be a passionate confrontation, but rather it can often be a delightful way of relating to a friend. We usually need to earn interpersonally the right to be heard before our word of warning and joy can have an effect.
The Sin of Silence
If we do not speak out against the injustices around us, we can find ourselves falling into what Pope Francis calls “comfortable and silent complicity” (sec. 211). He emphasizes that true faith cannot but speak out. It “always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it” (sec. 183). If we hide the light under a bushel basket, then no one can see it (see Matt 5:15). If we fail to speak, to blow the trumpet of warning, to announce both the wrath and the salvation of God, then we abdicate our duty as followers of Jesus. Exactly how to speak is a matter for deep consideration, debate and can be different depending on one’s personal calling and audience. One Protestant minister, D. T. Niles, put it nicely when he said that evangelism “is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.” To not speak, to hide the light, to stay silent would be to let another person go hungry.
If we are to be good watchmen, good security guards, then our job is not just to turn tail and flee from danger, but to “go out to the highways and hedges” (Luke 14:23) and blow the trumpet, to sound the alarm, to bring the word “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Silence is not an option.