One of the blessings of having been a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in the 1980s was the frequency of guest lectures by Eli Wiesel.
He survived the horrors of Auschwitz and over the past decades has shared his reflections and wisdom learned there.
One of Mr. Wiesel's more memorable points was a story about Lot from the Midrash Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic stories about the Pentateuch. The Midrash offers untold stories about Old Testament characters to give a sense of life not explicit in the biblical text.
The Midrash tells about the years Lot spent in Sodom and Gomorrah preaching repentance to the wicked inhabitants of those cities. After 20 years of such preaching, a young boy approached Lot, asking, “Father Lot, why do you go on preaching? No one listens to you and they are not going to become as good as you.”
Lot answered, “Do you think that I am preaching to make them become like me? I am preaching to make sure I do not become like them!”
Lot's point is well taken for our own time. The increased violence, materialism, pornography, family breakdown, etc. are well-known problems. Some people suggest that the changes in our culture are part of human evolution. They develop apologetics to justify the new values, not as license but as a liberation from the strictures of traditional family. Personal freedom from all demands and limits is exalted as the highest value possible. The radically independent individual in pursuit of the self has become the exalted hero.
In the context of that apologetic, critics who decry the dangers and evils of these modern trends are ridiculed for their conservatism.
Vice President Dan Quayle was roundly mocked for criticizing “Murphy Brown” becoming a single mother, though an April 1993 article in The Atlantic Monthly was entitled, “Dan Quayle Was Right.” The article showed that there is a direct connection between family breakup and moral breakdown. However he and other proponents of traditional values are satirized by the proponents of radical individualism.
A colleague once told me that a Catholic discouraged him from making moral criticisms on the grounds that if he ended up doing the very thing he criticized, people would judge him more severely. After all, no one wants to be a hypocrite, so why preach about sin when one might end up committing the very sin he condemned? Of course, whether an individual publicly proposes a moral position or not, a judgment based on sound moral doctrine lies in store, since God our Lord will determine the norms for judgment.
Imagine a sinner defending himself before God's judgment seat by saying, “Well, I never criticized others for stealing, murder, or adultery. Should not I be let off for doing these things?”
Too many Catholics take the position of the young man in Sodom who questioned Lot about the futility of preaching, and subsequently do not criticize immoral behavior. I hear parents say, “They are going to do it anyway, so why bother telling them not to?”
The Midrash about Lot offers one very good reason to keep preaching about morality. If we hear ourselves praise virtue and criticize immorality we may motivate ourselves to live up to God's norms for holiness, truth, and goodness. Even if no one else listens, we ourselves may be improved. Even if (and probably when) we do fail at living the moral ideal, we still have the moral ideal to challenge us to do what is right. If we fail to talk about right and wrong we may accept our feelings and desires as the norms for right and wrong. If we fail to learn and meditate on the commandments of God so as to teach a morality based on those commandments, we may settle for the fluid and presently declining values of the culture. In other words, teaching and proclaiming the laws and holiness of God will help us as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Ph 2:12).
Furthermore, our teaching of the law of God to others will remind us of our failures to keep them. Such a salutary reminder of our need for God's grace and mercy leads us to put our trust and confidence in “God who works in us both to will and to work according to his good pleasure” (Ph 2:13).
Dependence on God's mercy to forgive us our sins and his grace to enable us to do what is right is a most wonderful benefit from preaching God's law to others, and of course, to ourselves. Like Lot, let us not cease preaching what is right. Let us do so simply because it is right and true, both for us and for our society.
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas.