Today all three readings present us with a lesson in what we might call spiritual or theological presumption. In the Gospel we hear Christ basically warning his fellow Hebrews about presuming that the suffering that is afflicting the Galileans will not afflict them simply because they are the chosen people. He also rails against the idea that those who suffer or die young in this world have somehow brought their misery upon themselves because of their sins. And in his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells them sternly that they should study the sins and failures of the Old Covenant so that they can work to avoid falling into the same traps, never presuming that because of God’s grace they are somehow beyond falling. No, he tells them, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. Moses seems to be completely oblivious that he is on the holy Mount Horeb, and just walks right up to the burning bush. He receives a stern warning: come no nearer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.
I think it is very important that we brush up on this theme of presumption from time to time because we live in a religious environment that is heavily influenced by protestant culture, and there are some very stark differences between the Catholic and protestant theology in this area.
Protestant theology teaches that if we have accepted Christ as our Lord, then his grace covers over our sins like snow, and even in our sinfulness we can be certain we are destined for heaven. That is why a protestant can say that he or she is saved even while they are aware of having committed very serious sins or persisting in sin.
Catholic theology teaches that it is presumptuous to make such a declaration. And that is why Catholics often don’t know how to respond when they are asked “Have you been saved?”
A Catholic response to the question would be “I am working on it, I trust that with God’s grace I will be, I am filled with confident hope and trust that God is leading me along the pathway to salvation.” But a Catholic would not dare to say that he or she is definitively saved.
And this is because from the earliest days, the Church has taught that salvation requires cooperation with God’s grace, it requires that we use our freedom to love God and love our neighbor according to God’s will. Luther used to say that God’s grace covers us like snow over a pile of dung – that we remain wretched even when we are saved and redeemed. But this is entirely contrary to what we believe. We believe that God saves us not simply by covering over our sins, but that he saves us by sanctifying us, by making us holy from the inside out. Through the sacraments, Christ is at work continually helping us to die to ourselves and be more and more alive each day in him, and this is what we believe makes us holy, this is what we teach brings us salvation. And because we fall short of that regularly, because we often resist Christ’s work of salvation in our sinfulness we also are very aware that we cannot, any of us, presume salvation. That doesn’t mean we should fear damnation. But it is clear that life is a constant struggle of working with God’s grace to achieve one and avoid the other. No one can claim to be secure or lost until their last breath.
This is why the Church, following the teaching of Christ, urges us to be extremely cautious in any assumptions about the state of our moral life or the moral lives of others – both in the positive or negative. If you look, for example, at our funeral prayers –
they speak about our hope, about our trust, about our certainty in God’s love and compassion and mercy. But never will you hear Catholic theology stating with certainly that someone is either in heaven or in hell - except in the case of canonized saints, and that is because in those unique cases of a canonized saint there have been two confirmed miracles attributed to that person that prove that he or she must be in heaven. Outside of that – no comment.
This may all seem a bit speculative. Let’s look at the practical application to your life and to mine. There are different ways that unhealthy spiritual presumption can manifest itself, both in the positive when we mistakenly assume we are guaranteed salvation, and in the negative, when we mistakenly presume that we cannot help but go to the other place.
A first and common level of presumption would be the sort that we see with Moses today: it is a kind of rashness or presumption in our approach to God. Sometimes it is just a carelessness.
We can begin to presume a kind of informal and unserious relationship with God. We get sloppy with sacred things, times, and places. Don’t treat them with the care they deserve.
And this is presumption in the sense that we kind of dispense ourselves from the rigors of the spiritual life. We give ourselves a pass – easy excuses – I’m doing better than I was, I could be like so and so, at least I (fill in the blank). I’m a good person (that’s one of my favorites).
All of these lines of thinking are presumptuous. Why? Because notice, they have nothing to do with what God has asked of us or told us that he expects. Instead, they have to do with what we want to do, to justify, or with our own judgment, or the judgment of this world. And it is presumptuous to think that our judgment, or the judgment of this world, is on the same level as God’s. No – we are held to his standards and his standards alone – he is the judge. We cannot, any of us, dispense ourselves from the teaching of Christ any more than we can dispense ourselves from having two arms and two legs.
This about an example in daily life when we might be the ones who have established the rules: When the teenager arrives at the door late at night (or early in the morning) saying “Well, I know that you have constantly told me that I need to be home by 10:00pm, but I figured that was a bit harsh and that it would be fine if I got back by 2am.” Or better “My girlfriend said that you would understand.” That doesn’t go over well. Presumption.
Another line of spiritual presumption has to do with the future… to presume that we can repent later, that we can change our lives later, that we can accommodate sin for a bit longer before we get our acts together. That’s the presumption that Jesus goes after today in the Gospel and that St. Paul warns against in our second reading. We can never presume our ability to repent in the future. Repent now. That is a constant refrain in the scriptures.
The time to do good and avoid evil is now. And this is repeated again and again by Christ to help us combat the lies and temptations of the evil one who is always trying to get us to put off doing good or avoiding evil just one more day. God is merciful, and as Jesus teaches us in the Gospel passage today that he will give us the opportunity to bear fruit even when our track record has not been great. But there will be a harvest: that is not a threat, it is simply reality. We should not put the grace and mercy of God to the test. We cannot presume upon God’s mercy as if we would live forever. He will do everything he can to save us, but he will not violate our free choices.
And this leads to another and final area of presumption of a different sort that can be very problematic: when someone presumes to think that they will be always be trapped by sin, that they are tainted, that they have done something that cannot be forgiven. On a few sad occasions I have heard someone say “God will never forgive me.” Who are we to say? That is not our role. No, Christian hope tells us that we should seek and strive for holiness and that it is presumptuous to think that God’s grace is not capable of overcoming any obstacle and of making us saints. In fact, what we do know from Christ is that God’s most intent desire and greatest effort in our world is directed toward bringing us to a sanctity and holiness that will give us true and lasting joy. It is the height of presumption to think that somehow we could be beyond his ability to save, to think that we do not share in his plan of salvation, that we have not been made like every human being: for holiness, to be a saint.
How to we fight against sins of presumption? We follow the example of Moses. We remove our sandals. The sandals that would track into the Holy Ground of Christ’s teaching the rocks and dirt of our own judgment, the judgment of this world. Instead, in all humility we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us to stand with bare theological feet before God and ask him to teach us his ways, to show us who he is and what he desires for us. And then do our best to follow without compromise or hesitation, repenting quickly when we fail, not presuming, but trusting, that through the grace at work in us Christ is leading us along the path to eternal salvation.