You Can't Play Games With God

User's Guide to Sunday, Sept. 25.

Sunday Sept. 25, is the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A, Cycle 1).


Pope Benedict XVI finishes his apostolic trip to Germany today. The trip began with media-generated controversy about the Pope coming to a place that rejects his beliefs. Then articles appeared by writers surprised by his humanity and the good behavior of the Catholic crowds. Finally, the trip was pronounced a success. (We wrote that paragraph the day before his trip, but every papal trip follows the same script in the media!)


Ezekiel 18:25-28, Psalm 25:4-9, Philippians 2:1-11 or 2:1-5, Matthew 21:28-32

Our Take

There was a confessor at our college who, if he would hear a hint of rationalization in your confession, would shout, “You can’t play games with God!”

The words were memorable because they were true.

Aristotle pointed out that we are what we choose to do. It is an obvious thing, but we often forget it: We too easily fall into the trap of considering our actions separate from our identity.

There are not two of me, the one who prays and really means well and wants to do the right thing … and the other me who goes to that place I shouldn’t go or says the things I shouldn’t say or enjoys the guilty pleasures I shouldn’t enjoy.

That is why the Catholic view of “predestination,” as the first reading points out, does not conflict with our freedom.

Now, don’t get us wrong. There are various views of predestination that are not compatible with freedom: Some may believe that God created certain people to be saved and certain people to be lost. That is simply not true.

But it is true that no one dies unless God allows them to die and that God allows some people to die when they are not at peace with him. Perhaps tonight you will commit some mortal sin, and then slip in front of a bus and get killed.

God, who knew from all eternity what the state of your soul would be, will have allowed you to die at that moment rather than let it happen when you are in a state of grace.

If that seems unfair, then we can see where the first reading is coming from.

“You say, ‘The Lord's way is not fair!’ says the Lord. ‘Is it my way that is unfair, or, rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.’”

God knows the obvious thing that we forget: There are not two of each of us. There is not a me that commits a sin and rejects his love and another me that is really a great guy who means well and doesn’t really mean the bad thing and maybe is just “experimenting” with the bad thing.

There is only one me. And that me has freedom. Terrible freedom, says the Catechism:

“Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back” (1861).

Jesus puts a spotlight on this truth in the Gospel when he tells about the one son who intends to do the right thing but doesn’t do it and the other son who intends not to but does.

The Father in the story doesn’t give the first son the benefit of the doubt because he is so positive and full of good intentions, and he doesn’t judge the second son sourly because he was so quick to disobey. He isn’t concerned about the self-conception or professed love of the sons at all.

He only cares about what they actually do.

The son who did the right thing is rewarded. The one who didn’t isn’t. End of story.

Ultimately, that will be how God judges us — not on what we meant to do, but on what we did.

Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,

where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.

Pope Francis participates in Mass on the solemnity of Pentecost, May 19, 2024

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