"Gather up ... the cockle ... to burn." — Matthew 13:30
Nothing is more amazing, nothing is more incomprehensible, than the wickedness of sinners. They know, it is taught to them, and it has been implanted in them from their earliest youth, why they are created, why they are in this world: that it is, to serve God, to observe His laws and commandments. They know how miserable they are if they fail in this, if they dare to transgress God's commandments and to make themselves guilty of mortal sin; they know that mortal sin brings them into a shameful slavery to the devil, and to the eternal pains of hell. And nevertheless they sin, they have no fear of sin, they dare to commit that frightful evil, mortal sin. Is this comprehensible, is it intelligible?
Yes, my brethren, mortal sin brings upon man the eternal pains of hell; our Saviour teaches us this in the Gospel of this day. He there compares the sinner to the cockle which shows itself in the fertile field of our Holy Church. When the harvest comes, this cockle will be bound into bundles and cast into the fire, that is to say: the sinners, who are like cockle, who die unrepenting, will be sentenced to hell, and will have to burn there for all eternity. And men have no horror of becoming cockle, of sinning mortally; and when they have sinned, they do not turn to repentance, they do not renounce their sins, they go on in them! What insanity, what blindness, what hardened wickedness!
Nay, more; not only does God threaten sinners with an everlasting punishment, not only does He declare that like cockle they will be cast into the fire, but, to touch their heart, to bring them to renounce their sinful life, He uses His rod, His scourge. He now and then comes and visits them with plagues and adversity, with temporal punishments; and even then, the eyes of their understanding are not opened; even then they do not, or at least do not sincerely and truly, renounce their sins and wickedness.
It is to this that I wish today to draw your attention. God comes at times to visit the sinner with temporal punishments, so that he may amend himself and be converted.
In order that the sinner may be converted and truly renounce his sinful life, God uses generally first His goodness, His mercy, His patience, as the Apostle St. Paul teaches us: "Knowest thou not that the benignity of God leadeth thee to penance ?" (Romans 2:4). When a sinner thinks of this goodness, he must say to himself, "See, I have sinned, I have committed this or that evil, instead of fearing God, I have risen in rebellion against Him, I have dared to commit what He has strictly forbidden, and that under pain of great punishments; at any moment He can make me expiate those sins, make me undergo those punishments, at any moment He may summon me before His Judgment Seat, cast me into the abyss of hell; and He is so kind as to spare me, to grant me life, to preserve me in it, although I am His enemy, although I have offended and outraged Him. He suffers me to live before His eyes; but shall I continue to offend and outrage Him, shall I not amend myself, be converted and crave God's mercy and pardon? O ! then I should be the most rash, the most insane, and the most wicked of all men."
Yes, my brethren, this is what God's goodness and patience should produce in the heart of sinners. Should it be otherwise, should they remain insensible to this goodness, should they, instead of being converted, go on in their sins, should they become bolder in doing wrong; then God uses another means to open their eyes, to bring them to repentance; then He uses that means of which I have resolved to speak to you today, then He uses His rod; then he comes and visits the obstinate sinner with His scourges; and of these it is written: "Many are the scourges of the sinner." (Psalm 31:10).
Yes, then it is that He comes and visits them with all sorts of punishments, of miseries. Now it is the sword, wars, oppression of the people; now plague or some raging sickness; then it is a famine, depression of trade, a ruined harvest which are so many scourges in His hand, to punish those wicked men, to draw them from their error and bring them to repentance. "Death and bloodshed, strife and sword, oppressions, famine and afflictions and scourges; all these things are created for the wicked." (Ecclesiasticus 11:9).
We see this verified and confirmed by the examples which sacred Scripture makes mention of, and which we meet with nearly on every page. According to Leviticus (36) God said to the people of Israel: If you walk in My precepts and keep My commandments, I will give you rain in due season; and the ground shall bring forth its increase ... you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land without fear. ... I will set My tabernacle in the midst of you, and My soul shall not cast you off. ... But. says the Lord, if you will not hear me, nor do all my commandments, I will do these things to you: I will quickly visit you with poverty. You shall sow your seed in vain; I will set my face against you and you shall fall down before your enemies, and shall be made subject to them that hate you. But if for all this you will still not obey me I will chastise you seven times more for your sins, I will make to you the heavens above as iron, and the earth as brass; I will make you few in number, and your highways make them desolate.
Behold how God speaks to the people of Israel; see how sin offends and irritates Him; see with what punishments He threatens those who do not fear Him, who violate His precepts and commandments, and think not that these are merely threats. Open the Book of Judges; you will see there how those threats have been realised, with what frightful chastisement He has visited these sinful people. After the death of Josue, they grew faint in the practice of religion; through their intercourse with the heathen they became unfaithful to the laws of God. What happens? The Lord suffers this for a while, but seeing that they continue in their sins and infidelity, He delivers them into the power of Chusan Rasathaim, King of Syria, who held them for eight years in a cruel slavery, till at last their eyes were opened and they had recourse to penance.
Such punishments they did not draw on themselves once or twice; as often as they forsook the ways of justice, His powerful arm came to oppress them. No more happiness for those sinful people, no more rest, no more peace; but oppression and miseries without end; in so far that they left their houses and dwellings and hid themselves in rocks, whilst their enemies destroyed all things, and left them neither sheep, oxen, nor mules, as Sacred Scripture testifies. (Judges 6:4).
Thus did God punish this chosen people, and why? For their sins and infidelity; because they transgressed His laws. Do we not read that in the time of Elias, God, offended by the sins of His people, closed the heavens for three years and six months, without allowing a single drop of rain to fall upon the earth! A drought of three years and a half! not a drop of water, of moisture, for three years and a half! What do you think of sin which brings such punishments? which excites God's anger to such an extent?
Read further still in Sacred Scripture, you will yet discover other punishments of which sin, and sin alone, has been the cause. Did not a famine reign in the time of Eliseus which lasted seven years ? Oh! then, what did not the wicked sinners endure and suffer? How many perished of hunger, of privation? Where could they go and seek food when there was no food to be found? When God, in His anger, had cursed the earth, and said: "In vain shall you sow your seed?" (Leviticus 26:16).
Even then the sinner is so blind that he does not fear God, that he dares to offend Him, and incur His wrath; even then he is so blind that he considers all his wickedness as naught, that he looks upon his cursing and swearing, or his excess in drink, or his impurity, his injustice, his cheating and stealing as trifles, as a mere nothing. Ay! trifles! which incur such chastisements! which have brought about such chastisements from the beginning of the world, and will continue to draw till the end of the world! Yes, till the end of the world.
Can we deny this, my brethren? Do we not our selves see and experience that God punishes us for our sins; which from town to town, from district to district, from house to house, everywhere abound? The cholera which has burst out so often and which has made so many victims; the fevers, small-pox, and many other diseases which spread so rapidly from house to house, are they not scourges from the hand of God? What shall I say of the depression of trade, of famines, of the scarcity of commodities of life and consequent high prices, of all that want among the poor which has risen time after time? What of those constant rains, the continued drought, which have made the land sterile and has destroyed all the labour undergone to obtain fruits and gain sustenance. What of such dreadful calamities as explosions in mines?
Are not all these scourges? Does all this per chance happen by accident? With God nothing happens by accident; all the hairs on our head are numbered, says our Blessed Lord in the Holy Gospel, not a sparrow "shall fall on the ground without your Father" (Matthew 10:29). If God's Providence extend to the smallest and most abject things, so also we must acknowledge it in war, in sickness and famine, which he uses, as He Himself declares, with a special purpose, namely, to punish us for our sins, to withdraw us from them, to bring us to repentance and to an amendment of life.
But here comes an important question: these punishments are sent to move our hearts, to bring us to penance, and the renouncing of our sins; have the punishments which from time to time are sent to us had that effect? Do the wicked acknowledge their errors, and abandon their ways of iniquity? Has sin ceased to reign, to exist amongst us? Alas, is not the generality of mankind at the present day most corrupt, in spite of all the chastisements which they have received? Do we not hear, have we not to acknowledge that never has iniquity, never has sin and wickedness been so supreme, so wide-spread, so great as at the present day?
Was impurity ever more common than it is at present? Look at the baptismal register, go back a few years, then come to the present time, and see what a contrast for the worse is registered there to the greater shame of the days we live in. Has drunkenness ever been so general as what it is at present? Here it is a father of a family, there a son, a servant, a workman; yes, sad and shameful it is to have to say it, there it is a mother, a daughter, possessed by the demon, the love for drink. What shall I say of many other sins and vices? Wherever you go you hear nothing but blasphemies, cursing and swearing. Go into the society of other men, and what do you hear but obscene language, or conversations against religion; infidel talk?
Yes, my God! thus wicked is mankind at the present day, or rather thus wicked, thus vicious are those whom in baptism You have adopted as Your children, and to whom You have promised an eternal inheritance! Far from conducting themselves as children of God, far from fearing, honouring, and serving You, and loving You with their whole heart, they only offend and outrage You by their wickedness, and that in spite of the rod which You use to punish them, in spite of the chastisements with which You visit them. But, my God; have You not other punishments with which You can chastise them? Wars, sickness, famine are not capable of moving their hearts, of bringing them to renounce their sins; have You not greater and more terrible punishments?
Yes, my brethren, He has got other punishments in His power; He has got one which does not consist of evils, of adversity, of sorrow and sufferings; one which does not affect the temporal, but the eternal; which does not fall on the body, but on the soul; in a word, it is a spiritual punishment, but a frightful one, one which He sends down on the sinners when He abandons them to themselves; when He withdraws from them certain graces which He is not bound to give them, when He treats them as the inhabitants of Babylon, of whom it is written: "We would have cured Babylon, but she would not be healed, let us forsake her." (Jeremiah 51:9).
Alas! alas! when this happens, when the sinners are left to themselves, what is the frightful consequence? These miserable men become blind in their intellect, and hardened in their wickedness, and this blindness, this obduracy leads them so far that they lose the very last spark of faith, that they renounce their faith and religion, conceive a hatred for God and for his ministers, and die in final impenitence, with despair in their heart and blasphemy in their mouth.
Sinner, no matter who you are, how pitiable is your hap, if this should befal you! should God say of you: I have made this sinner feel My punishments, I wished to cure him, but he would not be healed, I will forsake him! Have you up till now been insensible to the Lord's scourges, insensible when you saw war rage in your country or out of it, insensible when you saw all those terrible diseases reign around you, insensible when you witness so much hunger suffered, when you saw the harvest destroyed. Open your eyes at last: God used these scourges to move your hearts, to bring you to repentance, to lead you to renounce your sins. Correspond with the intentions of your Lord and God, renounce your sins, have recourse to His mercy, and you will obtain pardon: which God grant. ... Amen.