I’ve often seen people reacting strongly to a certain message delivered from the pulpit. Some identify themselves with the circumstances brought into discussion in the sermon and feel exposed, as if the priest purposely reveals their secret to the entire congregation. Others respond negatively to any message that is delivered in a more compelling and direct way, feeling personally attacked and hurt by the less subtle preacher.
This is not necessarily the fault of the priest nor of the people. We are the product of a society that lives and breathes political correctness, where all religious are considered equal and the truth is relative. A powerful message is perceived therefore as too strong because is often compared with the more common but more diluted message of the Gospel that concentrates on guaranteed salvation and tends to forget about the active participation and alignment that Christ requires of each one of us in order to obtain it.
Jesus Christ is considered by all Christians a messenger of love and peace, and this is absolutely true. Christ came to replace an eye for an eye with loving your enemy and turning the other cheek; He wants all men to become one, uniting them with God through His crucified body. But the same Jesus declares “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to send peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and the daughter against her mother. (Mat 10:33-35) This is to say that “harmony is not always a good thing”, as St. Theophylact of Bulgaria, observes, because there are situations that may hinder our faith and we should separate from them, rather than trying to cover them up with relativism or misplaced acceptance.
Christ never hesitated, when deemed necessary, to call the things as they were, by name, without clever subtleties or embellished rhetoric’s. The Scripture is full of such examples. The Sadducees and the Pharisees that were surrounding Him, waiting to find in Him a fault were admonished with blunt words “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! (Luke 11:44). He uncovered their two-facedness of justifying themselves behind their chosen status while dwelling in sin: “ Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. (John 8:43-44) He called them “generation of vipers” (Mat 12:34-35), “a cup clean only on the outside” (Luke 11:49), “washed graves” (Luke 11:44) and so forth.
His disciples were not spared either. Peter was called Satan when he failed to understand the necessity of Christ’s suffering and death (Mar 8:33). Luke and Cleopas, who did not recognize Christ on the way to Emmaus, were named “ fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25)
He warned everyone about the danger of sin and of spiritual procrastination: “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire”. (Mat 7:19) He depicted with painful precision the punishment of the wicked: “The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth”. (Mat 13:41-42)
Jesus went even beyond words as in the case of the money changers from the temple: “And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise”. ( John 2:14-16)
No matter what the Lord said or did, He always had only one thing in mind: the care of His reason endowed sheep; He is the good Sheppard that gives His life for the flock. In a similar manner the priests are called to shepherd the flock that Christ has left in their care.
The mission of the shepherd can be difficult and painful at times. St. John Chrysostom, in his treaty about priesthood observes that a real shepherd has a very difficult task tending to his animals: Those shepherds with great authority compel the sheep to accept the remedy even if they do not willingly submit to it. It is easy to bind them when cautery or cutting is required. Sometimes caressing a sheep is not enough, one has to use a hot iron to cauterize a wound if wants to prevent an infection.
In priesthood the situation is more complicated because “here too, it is possible to bind and to restrain from food and to use cautery or the knife, but the decision to receive treatment depends on the will of the patient, and does no lie with the man who administers the medicine”. One may want or even try to apply the treatment, but if the man does not want to receive it, if his heart is made of rock, if his ways are set and does not see the treatment as necessary, the cure will fail, no matter how willing the shepherd is.
“It is proper therefore for the priest to leave none of these things unexamined, and after a thorough inquiry into all of them, he must apply such remedies as he has considered appropriate to each case lest his zeal prove to be in vain.” The priest has to become a good judge of character in order to be able to discern what treatment has to be applied to each end everyone in his flock. He has to remember above all that God does not desire “the death of the wicked” but that “he should turn from his ways and live.”(Eze 18:23) The priority is to gather, at any price, the body of Christ, to preserve the Church in unity, peace and love, to bring back home the prodigal sons. “One can see that he has much to do […] in the work of knitting together the severed members of the Church”.
But the priest cannot sit idle either, waiting for the sheep to ask for treatment, because the sheep may never realize it needs it; nor he should give a diluted medication when a stronger one is needed. He has to pro-actively address all the issues that endanger the life of the church by balancing all that God has left as tools, discerning what, when and how to apply in order to prevent schism, uproot heresy, keep the seal of the faith inviolate. This happens sometimes at the expense of his own suffering and pain, for his actions may be misunderstood at times, but the shepherd knows that this is nothing new, Christ has done it first for all.