The theme of the watchman or guard is very prominent in both today’s first reading and Gospel, and it certainly challenges anyone in a position of responsibility for the Christian community. Watchmen were employed in ancient civilizations to protect the city and the lives of its citizens from enemies. In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel was told by God that he was to watch over the house of Israel, and that the duty of the religious watchman is to warn the people of danger to their souls, so they could save themselves from whatever would destroy their souls. Ezekiel was to warn the Israelites when they were going astray from God’s law, for this rebellion would damn them. However, notice what God tells him: if “you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” Whereas “if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his [evil] way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.”
Jesus taught the same thing when he spoke about the wicked shepherds who will flee when the wolves appear to attach his flock, that they will be held responsible for the death of the flock. In other words, the flock will die because of their sins, but the shepherd will also pay for not warning them and giving them a better chance to flee from evil ways and save their lives. The responsibility of the watchman is very clear then, and very serious. The salvation of the flock is affected by his fulfilling or not fulfilling his role, but his own salvation depends upon him fulfilling his role faithfully.
And who are the watchmen today for God’ s people, for God’ s flock, who will themselves be held accountable if they fail to warn the flock against the poison of sin that will surely lead to their spiritual death, whether they are warned or not, if they continue to sin rather than change?
First of all, there are all those who shepherd, the Church as a result of Holy Orders. That is why St. Augustine told his people that being a Christian, with them, gave him great consolation and joy, while being a shepherd for them was a cause of great anxiety for himself because of the added responsibil- ity he had before God to be a faithful watchman. That is also why your priests and bishops truly need your prayers constantly, because of the account they must render to God as the watchmen of His flock.
But the role of watchman is not limited to the clergy who shepherd the whole community. Being a watchman is also a role for all others who shepherd God’ s flock in those smaller communities within the Church; for instance, those who hold the position of Superiors in religious orders, or superiors in individual religious houses. They too must be vigilant over the portion of God’s people they serve as their religious superior.
And likewise, Christian parents also have the responsibility of watchman, for they are true shepherds over the family that God has entrusted to their care. It is especially significant in this regard that Vatican II referred to the Christian family as the “domestic Church,” a microcosm of the larger family of God that we call the Catholic or universal Church.
Yes, parents too are given this great responsibility directly by God with whom they have cooperated in the establishment of their marriage and family. God has entrusted a small but very important portion of His flock, this individual family, these children, to the care of their parents, who must see themselves as God’s watchmen, with the same responsibility and accountability before God for their small “domestic church” that the ordained have for the larger portions of Christ’s Church.
Thus parents have a serious duty to watch over their children and to see that they know the ways of God, the ways that lead to eternal life, to heaven and happiness, and to warn them about the evil ways that lead to unhappiness, to spiritual death, and ultimately to Hell. This requires great prudence, great love and great respect for their children’s natural freedom and social nature. It doesn’t mean trying to totally remove one’s children from the world, but rather teaching them how to live Christian lives in the midst of a world with many traps. This involves teaching them about the traps that the world lays for them, trying to enslave them by its false values or morals.
Of course, one can never be sure that one’s children will listen to sound teaching. They may well go their own way and adopt the ways of the world one day rather than their home and their Church. But the task of the watchman is to warn and teach and encourage. The result will be determined by the interplay of each person’s freedom and the way they cooperate or fail to cooperate with the grace of God. The watchman warns; only God’s interior grace can make that warning take root. But the better they are taught, even if they drift away one day, they will always have this sound teaching of their home to return to when they discover the world is not what they hoped it was.
It’s a great responsibility that parents have, but God has not left them alone. They are part of the larger Church, and the teaching efforts and sacraments of the Church are at their disposal, if they will take advantage of these powerful helps. Parents, like clergy, must find their help in prayer and study, and recognize that God has not asked them to do this without His help. Sometimes we act as if everything depends upon us, and that can lead to over- reaction to the power of the world, as if God’s grace cannot overcome the influences of the world, so long as we do our part as watchmen.
Finally, certain things are critical for having a greater influence as watchmen over our children, without becoming wardens over them. First we must start their education young, as infants, introducing them to God as their Father, and to Jesus as their Saviour, and the Holy Spirit as their guide, and to their Angel whom Jesus said watches over them even while adoring their creator. There is no great secret to this; their religion must grow up with them, and the supernatural must be a natural part of their daily life. If you reduce God merely to a Sunday obligation, do not expect that your children will listen to you, as they grow older, when you try to tell them how God expects them to live.
Secondly, there is an old adage that the family that prays together, stays together; and that truism needs to be reintroduced in an age when families are literally coming apart. How do you assure the unity of your marriage, of your family? For the believing Christian there is a clear answer: by making Christ the the center of unity. In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says that Jesus Christ is the one in whom “all things hold together.” He is the center of the whole creation, holding it together. Should not married couples, then, make Christ the center of their unity, of the unity of their marriage and their family, to hold it all together. God has to be the center, or things inevitably fly apart.
Jesus must not only be in our Churches, but He must also be present in our homes as well. But how? The Gospel gives a strong hint: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.” Yes Jesus is present in the family that prays together, in His name, not just when a death in the family occurs or some tragedy, but daily, at our meals, in the evening for a short time, or for the family Rosary or even part of the Rosary, together, two or three gathered to pray in His name. How rich our families will be, if Jesus
is the first member of our family.
Prayer is the most important practice in being a successful watchman, a true shepherd of the family entrusted by God to parents. Prayer will then open the way to instruction, to teaching, to warning, to encouraging, all in the spirit of God’s love. So why don’t we pray together. Is it that we don’t have the time? We make time for other lesser things, why then not the most important thing for the health of our family? Do we feel embarrassed somehow to pray with our children, or with our spouse? Why? Is it perhaps because God is not the center, or because we have let prayer slide for so long a time that now it doesn’t seem natural. Some people are embarrassed to go to the doctor because they have avoided a physical for so long, but you know what happens if we let a disease go to long – it maims or even kills us. Jesus is also the good physician of our souls; and it’ s never too late to turn to him in prayer. When the storm is battering down our house, we naturally pray together, why not before the storm hits?
If you would be a good watchman, first stay awake; next pray together, make God, make Jesus the center of your family life from the beginning, teach your children His truth in season and out of season. Make Him the One whom you thank for good things that happen, the One whom you petition for the needs of your family, the One whom you adore and ask forgiveness from when you have done wrong. There is the formula for successful marriages and family life. It’s not really all that complex: make God the center, and God will do what you cannot, so long as you try to do what you can.