Priests Are to Be Watchmen

Imagine a priest of God telling someone who has sinned gravely or who is on the edge of doing so, that God doesn’t really care about the sin.  “He is a God of love,” says the priest.  “He knows you mean well.  And besides,” he says, “the Church has changed her mind about many things,” a statement that happens not to be true, “and she will probably change her mind about this also.  Why, what you are doing might even be considered a good and holy thing, because it goes beyond the law, as Christ commands us to do.”

“You shall not die,” says the serpent to Eve, “for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

We could spend our lives meditating upon that verse, and not come to an end of how it reveals to us the reasons we invent for ourselves to go and do what we wish, and not what we should.

Milton suggests that the motive was ambition, a desire to overturn the order of being, or to overleap it by your own power, as if you could make your own universe, and be yourself the creator of your soul.  That is an attempt to shoulder the omnipotent God from his throne – a fool’s ambition.

But what if the serpent was implying that he spoke for God?

That’s what happens in a brilliant Anglo-Saxon poetic rendering of Genesis.  Satan’s ambassador has already tried Adam, who has told him to get lost (translation mine):

You are not like
any of his angels     that I ever saw,
nor have you shown me     any sure sign
I might take for truth     and trust he has sent,
my higher, in grace.     I cannot then hear you,
so you can fly off;     I hold my fast faith
in the almighty God     whose arms fashioned me,
his hands, right here.     From his high kingdom
he can give me any good thing,     with no servant going.

So the Devil, fuming, leaves Adam and seeks out Eve, presenting his credentials in this way:

I know that the mighty God
is swollen with anger against you,     so I myself shall say
the command he has given,     since I came from his side
over the long way,     that you have not well heeded
the message he has sent     from the morning-lands
on this occasion.

Now, what the devil implies has no reason to it.  He does not trouble to say why God is angry, just as – to change the terms a bit – those who would slip our consciences a sleeping drug do not trouble to say why God is shrugging and not bothering anymore with what he has forbidden.  God is presented as capricious.  There is no order to what he does.  He is, in other words, a liar.


C.S. Lewis took up the suggestion and ran with it in his own re-working of the fall of man, in the space-novel Perelandra.  There, on the planet Venus newly filled with creatures by God, the tempter says to the Lady that the one thing God most passionately wants from her is what by its very nature he cannot command, that is, that she would set forth on her own and become greater than a tame obedience would make her.

We must supersede the law.  It is a complex kind of lie, because in fact God does want us to become more and more like Him, but the road to heaven is by gratitude and obedience and faith in God, not by self-seeking, self-determination, and casting his very commands into the shade.

With some help from an unlikely ambassador – a philologist don from England named Ransom – the Lady resists the temptation long enough to foil the Devil’s plot.  But of course Lewis is not simply thinking of an imaginary Eden on a planet we now know is utterly hostile to any kind of life, rational or otherwise.  He is thinking of his own time, here and now, on earth, and the strategy Satan mainly uses among such people as we are.

The temptation is that of a moral inversion permitted or even willed by God.  In that case, those who obey God are the “sinners,” the Pharisees, the narrow-minded, the angry, the hurtful.  Why, the Devil himself says to Eve, in the Anglo-Saxon poem, that he will do her a good turn for her husband’s sake:

If you undertake to do this,     most excellent of ladies,
I shall hide from your Lord     the many harmful things,
the angry words     Adam spoke.

And thus will Eve, by refusing to follow Adam’s lead, actually be benefiting her husband.  High-mindedness hides a multitude of sins.

Our men in priestly robes are to be watchmen, not turnstiles.  “If I say to the wicked,” says God to Ezekiel, “O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” (33:8)  And since we are all priests of God, ordained or otherwise, we bear a like responsibility.

That does not mean we go finding fault in other people, to enjoy the delight of criticism.  But it does mean we must never present evil as anything other than evil; we must never pretend that arsenic is mere flour.  If you consume the arsenic, it does not matter what your opinion of it is.  It kills.  If you do the evil, it does not matter that you have worked up a justification for it.  It does the spiritual harm, nonetheless.  It can kill.

The watchman in Ezekiel sins by defect.  Is that what is going on when Christians in our time commend what God has forbidden, and instead of saying that arsenic is flour, say that it is sugar, it is what God really wants, despite what he has expressly said?


*Image: The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise by Benjamin West, 1791 [National Gallery, Washington, D.C.]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Priestly Renewal and Holy Thursday

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s The American Catholic Church: A Defense

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.