[Jesus] also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain – and so it does; and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot – and so it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?“Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? If you are to go with your opponent before a magistrate, make an effort to settle the matter on the way; otherwise your opponent will turn you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the constable, and the constable throw you into prison. I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” (Lk 12:54-59 NAB).
“Discerning the signs of the times” is the favorite activity of many people. In particular, “the signs of the times” are always telling certain Catholics that the Church should change its teaching on x, y or z. But as we unpack this passage, we find that “interpreting the present time” isn’t a license but a warning.
In the parallel passage in Matthew 16:2-4, Jesus tells the Pharisees and Sadducees, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Here Luke follows it up with a comparison to a debtor being hauled into court for judgment. In Matthew 5:25-26, the instruction to settle is presented as a kind of general lesson in the Sermon on the Mount; here it takes on different, more final tones.
Let’s cast our minds back to the parable of the Rich Fool, which we read earlier this week, as well as the Faithful or Unfaithful Steward. It’s been a week of warnings and demands that we prepare for the Master’s return, to keep watch for his unknown arrival, to remember that our deaths may come at any time.
Both Matthew and Luke use opheilō “debt” as a synonym for sin or trespass; when we sin against God, we do Him an offense for which He is due recompense. Now we owe a debt, and we will be called before the bench to answer for it. We’ve already been given the sign of the times: the sign of the Son of Man, resurrected after three days just as Jonah was cast out of the whale after three days.
For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin (Rom 7:18-25 NAB).
Our baptism has washed us of original sin, yet we live in the wreckage of original justice. Our flesh, as St. Paul tells us, is constantly at war with us, desiring things that are not good for us, or good things in amounts and at times that are not good, desiring to abuse ourselves and others to satisfy disordered appetites.
So we slip and fall. What are we to do? For, as the author of Hebrews warns us, “if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:26-27). Nor can we escape this fear and fury by denying that we owe God a debt in a one-sided annulment the Magistrate is not under obligation to recognize.
Having made ourselves opponents to God, we must then settle with him before the Day of Judgment comes. Happily, after his resurrection, Jesus gave his Church a means of reconciling us with God, when he breathed on his apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). We confess our sins, and repair our relationship with God through penance, receiving in return absolution.
When you have once departed [for eternity], there is no longer any place for repentance, and no possibility of making satisfaction. Here life is either lost or saved; here eternal safety is provided for by the worship of God and the fruits of faith. … Do you entreat for your sins, although it be in the very end of life, and at the setting of the sun of time; and implore God, who is the one and true God, in confession and faith of acknowledgment of Him, and pardon is granted to the man who confesses, and saving mercy is given from the divine goodness to the believer, and a passage is opened to immortality even in death itself (St. Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 5 [Address to Demetrianus], 25).
The sign is given: Now is the time to repent. For you do not know when the Master will arrive, and this night your life may be required of you. It is too late to settle the debt when you stand before the Judge.