23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Watchman

“You…I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel!”

This is one of the scariest verses in all of the Scriptures and, unfortunately, one also prone to the most inappropriate applications. The Holy One of Israel speaks to the prophet and names him to be watchman and then spells out exactly what that demands. In particular, he is called to warn those whose actions are causing the sword to fall on Israel:  “speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way.” A superficial interpretation of that verse can lead to the conclusion that we are all called, anytime we see someone committing sin, to tell them they are sinning and that they should stop that.

The goal: changed lives

But what is the actual goal of the watchman’s task? Is it not to help to bring about changed lives? It is a fundamental moral principle that the human will unassisted by grace cannot resist temptation. This is a corollary of the Lord Jesus’ comment:  “Without Me, you can do nothing.” “Nothing” applies in a very particular way to stopping sin on our own power. Not possible! St. Paul points this out in Galatians when he notes that the battle is not between the will and the flesh, but between the Spirit and the flesh. In other words, if we try to conquer sin in our lives by just addressing it as a will power issue, we will necessarily continue to fall. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can conquer the temptations of the flesh in our lives.

So, how does this apply to the watchman’s task? If we have conversations with people about stopping sin in their lives and yet they don’t know the Lord Jesus, or don’t know Him in a way that is effective for bringing about more of the Spirit in their lives, then we are doing two things that are not helpful.

First, we are setting them up for a fall, since if they don’t know Him, then they essentially have zero power to stop sinning.

Second, we may well be setting up in their minds the idea that first we have to stop the sin in our lives and then we can come to Jesus, as if a relationship with Him was somehow the reward for some kind of self-sanctification! Unfortunately, that is the distorted thinking that lots of people, especially lots of Catholics, have, i.e. that a relationship with Him is only possible after we totally clean up our lives. In point of fact, as the Lord Jesus’ comment above demonstrates, just the opposite is true:  we cannot possibly live a holy life without His help, in particular, without more of the grace and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives!

What is needed most

Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well–Angelica Kaufman. Courtesy of wikiart.org.

How we are meant to appropriately apply the watchman scenario to our lives is perfectly demonstrated by the Lord Jesus in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. He does not begin with, “Wretched adulterer, turn or burn!!!” First, He invites her into relationship with Him, speaking to her of the living water that is His gift to give. He does not begin with her sin, He begins with what she most desperately needs, a relationship with Him. It is only in that context that He then mentions her sin.

When He does it in that sequence, it is precisely to demonstrate that first she needs to come to Him. Then as she begins to walk with Him and receive that living water, then the sin in her life can be dealt with.

This approach has exactly the desired effect of the watchman’s task. She experiences something in His love and forgiveness that opens her heart and draws her into that relationship with Him. This is profoundly demonstrated by her first actions, which are to go back into that village and invite everyone there to also come and encounter the One Whom she just experienced changing her life.

Even in our progressively benighted culture, most people still have some sense that when they sin they are doing something wrong. Simply pointing that out to them is no help unless we also point out the way out:  a saving relationship in the power of the Holy Spirit with the Savior Who loves to save!  —  Fr. Ed