Fire and Brimstone


Father Scharbach spoke of his attempts in his earlier years to preach fire and brimstone in the New York subway. (Although I have often thought that having to commute on the subway is sufficient penance for anything short of murder.) The attempt was not successful. On the other hand, Pope Francis has been criticized for emphasizing the mercy of God too much.

John Keble, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, was also an astute pastor. He noticed that there was a difficulty in preaching that was not easy to overcome. The hearers often hear what they want to hear, not what they need to hear, no matter what the priest says. This is especially true during Lent.

What should be emphasized: the wrath of God against evil, or the mercy of God to sinners? Keble was frustrated:

Now in teaching repentance, there is of course a danger of erring on either side of this declaration. One many may speak, or seem to speak, of God’s wrath against sinners only; another only of His love and mercy to His redeemed; and even if both be fully set forth, according to their due proportions, both will not always be alike attended to.

The hearers will vary away with them, too commonly, only that part of what is said which suits their own temper and frame of mind. The hardened will lay hold of whatever is said on praise of God’s great and overflowing  mercy; while the bruised and wounded in heart, the tender conscience, will be over-much struck by the severe and awful part of the doctrine.

And thus it will too often follow, that each learner will dwell on just that portion of the instruction, which is own case did not so much require. So it is in reading or hearing the Bible: no wonder, therefore, that so it should be in men’s way of receiving the instruction and advice of Christ’s servants; no wonder if they often seem to be unduly severe, or overindulgent, when perhaps, if all they said was attended to, they would be found simply to have repeated God’s message.

This, then, is one great danger, whenever we preach, as in Lent we must preach, upon repentance: namely, that the hardened and tender consciences will often take to themselves what was properly meant for the other.

So we have the person who has missed mass in agonies of conscience while the Mafia don thinks that the priest will make everything right with God in return for a suitable donation. What’s a preacher to do?

Let us remember to pray for those who preach the word of God to us, that we will hear what we need to hear.

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