One of the great cries of Advent is for God to rend the heavens and come down (Is 64:1), for Him to stir up His mighty power and come to save us (Ps 80:2). But what is it that we really seek? Is it armies with thunder and lightning? Is it vindication and peace on our terms? In a way, it is a dangerous cry if we mean it that way, for who among us can say that no wrath should come to us but only to those other people who deserve it? If God should come in thunderous judgement, are we really so sure we could endure and be numbered among the just?
It is clear that we need the Lord to save us, but do we see that salvation seen only in earthly terms such that we are saved from our enemies but remain largely unharmed?
In the final essay of volume 11 of his collected works, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict) ponders a similar Advent theme. I’d like to present his reflections and add a few of my own. In a sermon from December 2003, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger taught,
Stir up your might, O Lord, and come! This was the cry of Israel in exile … this was the cry of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee [in the storm] “Wake up O Lord and help us!” … And throughout all of history, the little bark of the Church travels in stormy waters … Stir up your might and come!
… What really is this might of God that seems to be asleep and must be wakened? St. Paul gives the answer in 1 Corinthians when he says that Christ the Crucified One, who is foolishness and weakness to men, is the wisdom and power of God.
Therefore, when we ask for this real power of God, we are not asking for more money for the Church, for more buildings, for more structures, for more political influence. We are praying for this special, entirely different power of God. We are praying with the awareness that he comes in a powerful way that seems to the world to be weakness and foolishness (Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11: pp. 595-596).
Yes, here is the paradox of God’s power: He defeats Satan’s pride by the humility of His Son; disobedience and the refusal to be under any authority are defeated by the obedience and submission of Jesus.
Once stirred, God’s power will not always—or even often—manifest itself in thunder and lightning or in armies that conquer and destroy. Rather, His “strong and outstretched arm” is often found nailed and bloody on the cross. Yet here, and in this way, He defeats Satan. How? Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that.
Thus, the Lord defeats Satan not by the becoming a bigger, fiercer, more vengeful version of him, but by canceling his evil stance with its opposite. The Lord refuses to meet Satan’s terms, to become anything like him or in any way enter his world. In this way, the Lord conquers pride with humility and hate with love. I am mindful of some of the words from an old hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
The hymn concludes with these words:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Cardinal Ratzinger continues his essay in this way:
He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that apparently has nothing more to say, yet then proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God.
This paradox should challenge us mightily because it means that God’s help will often not be on our terms. We would like to have every foe vanquished and every sorrow of our life removed. No cross at all; just stir up your power Lord and take it all away. But that is not usually how God’s power stirs in this “paradise lost,” which we chose by our own ratification of Adam and Eve’s sinful choice. We preferred a tree and its fruit to God, and He does not cancel our choice. Instead, He plants the tree of the cross and saves us by the very suffering and death we chose in the ancient Garden of Eden.
Here is God’s true power at work in this sin-soaked and rebellious world: the power of the cross. If you didn’t know what you were asking for when praying, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us,” you do now. We might prefer that God save us on our terms, by the mere vanquishing of our foes and the removal of our suffering, but (as St. Paul teaches) power is made perfect in weakness; it is when we are weak that we are strong, for then the power of God rests on us (cf 2 Cor 12:9-10).
Cardinal Ratzinger then sets forth the challenge of this prayer for us:
[Hence our true declaration is] “Lord wake us up from our drowsiness in which we are incapable of perceiving you, in which we conceal and impede the coming of your holy power.
… Christianity is not a moral system in which we may merely roll up our sleeves and change the world. We see in the movements that have promised us a better world how badly that turns out!
… But [on the other hand] Christians are not merely spectators … rather [the Lord] involves us; he desires to be efficacious in and through us … And so in this cry we pray to him for ourselves and to allow our own hearts to be touched: Your power is in us, rouse it and help us not to be an obstacle to it, but, rather, its witnesses [to its] vital strength.
That may well mean suffering, martyrdom, and loss. It may not—and usually does not—mean that God will simply vanquish our foes and remove all our suffering. In this world the saving remedy is the cross; not just for others but for us, too. On Good Friday, Christ looked like a “loser.” Satan and the world danced. But on Sunday, the Lord got up. Friday was first, Saturday lingered, and then came Sunday. As for Christ, so also for us: always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that also the life of Jesus may be manifested in us (2 Cor 4:10). The victory will come but it comes through the paradoxical power of the cross.
Does this Advent reflection sound too much like Lent for you? Why do you think we are wearing purple during Advent?
Now pray with me (but be sure to understand what you are asking): Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us!
Here is the common Psalm for Advent: Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.
But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth? This is the cry that goes up from the final pages of the Old Testament (Mal 3:2). The Lord himself gives the answer:
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom! (Mal 4:5-6)
With these words the Old Testament ends.
The New Testament opens in the desert near the banks of the River Jordan, with John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, He is the Elijah who was to come (Mt 11:14). In John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah figure, who was to come to prepare the hearts of the people for the great coming of the Messiah.
All of this leads us to this Sunday’s Gospel, in which John the Baptist summons the faithful to repentance so that they will be ready when the Messiah arrives. Those of us who want to be ready also need to go into the wilderness and listen to John’s message: Prepare the way of the Lord! Although only the Lord can finally get us ready, we must be able to say to Him, “I’m as ready as I can be.”
Let’s look at this Gospel reading in three stages, going into the wilderness with John the Baptist as our teacher:
1. Context – Luke sets forth the context meticulously: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
What’s going on here? Why all the specifics? It almost seems as if we are reading an ancient Middle Eastern phone book or a “Who’s Who in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Yes, notice the following:
The Prestige– You might say that this is a parade of the prestigious, a roll call of royalty, a list of leaders! There is an emperor (i.e., the federal government), a local governor (i.e., the state government), three tetrarchs (state and local officials), and two religious (and secular) leaders. Anybody who is anybody is in the list, yet it was not to any of them that the Word of God came.
The Person– It was John the Baptist, the simple man in the desert, to whom the Word came. Who? He was not on anyone’s list! John the who? Where do you say he lives? He doesn’t live in the palace or even in Jerusalem? Recall these Scripture passages:
But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:27-29).
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure (Luke 10:21).
He has lifted up the lowly, and the rich he has sent away empty. To this simple, unlettered man, the Word of God came, and many went out to hear him speak the Word of God in wisdom.
The Place – Where is the Word of God proclaimed? Where is John the Baptist found? Where will Jesus appear? In a palace? In the “Ivy League” town of Jerusalem? No indeed; not in a palace, not in some air-conditioned environment, not in a place of power, but in a place of vulnerability, where one experiences one’s limitations. In the desert, neediness reaches out and grabs you. Yes, it is in a hot desert that the prophet was found.
It is in this hostile climate that we go to hear the call and feel its power. Do you understand the context? It is not be overlooked. The context is not found in the halls of power; it is found in the desert, where thirst and hunger hit rich and poor alike. It is here that the Word of God is found and heard.
2. Call – The text says, John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert.
Here we have a basic biblical call, “Repent and believe in the good news!” John said this, but so did Jesus in His opening call: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14 -15)
There must be balance in preaching. Repent and believe the good news! Modern thinking and practice have strayed from this kerygmatic balance between “Repent” and “Believe the good news!” Many today only want to hear or proclaim the “good news.” The good news only makes sense, though, if we understand that we are in dire need of a divine physician. Repenting sets the stage for the good news.
As we have discussed in other posts, metanoia means more than moral conversion. It means, more literally, to have one’s thinking changed (meta = change, noia = thought), to have one’s mind renewed, to think in a new way. The basic message is to have our mind converted from worldly self-satisfaction and self-righteousness and to be convinced of our need for forgiveness and for a savior. Yes, we are sinners in need of a savior. We are bound for eternal death and destruction and cannot save ourselves. There is good news, though: the Savior is here, even at the door! We must arise and be ready to answer when He knocks.
Our modern world, concerned more with comfort and relief than with healing, needs to experience something of the desert. There’s nothing like it to remind us of our frailty and neediness. Today in the Church we often try to make everyone feel comfortable; we don’t want to risk talking about sin or other controversial topics because it might unsettle someone. Where’s the desert in that? John wasn’t found in some air-conditioned marble palace. He was in the searing desert with no creature comforts to be found. There was and is just the call to come to a new mind, to reorder misplaced priorities, to surrender self-righteousness, and to accept that we are frail sinners who need a savior.
With the “bad news” established, the good news makes sense—and it really is good news: the savior is near, even at the door. However, we have to go out into the desert and listen to a humble man, not one of the rich and powerful. We must listen to John, a man clothed in camel hair and subsisting on wild honey and locusts.
He does proclaim good news, but we must be ready for it.
3. Content – What does it mean to repent? John says, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Notice the elements of the content:
Ready– The text says, Prepare the way of the Lord. This is a hectic season; we’re all getting ready for Christmas, but mostly in a social way (buying presents, going to parties, and decorating the house). Will we be spiritually ready for Christmas? We know how to get ready for a lot of things. We prepare for tax day. We make sure to be on time for work. We know how to catch a plane. We know how to get to a movie or a sporting event at the right time. We spend years getting ready for careers. Why don’t we spend more time getting ready for God? The one thing that is most certain is that we will die one day and stand before God. Are you ready? As the text says, Prepare the way of the Lord! This world will pass away, but the things of God remain. Careers and promotions are not certain, but death and judgment are. Why do we get ready for uncertain, worldly things and yet not spend time on spiritual things?
Right– The text says, make straight his paths. The winding roads shall be made straight! A winding road is a symbol of shifting priorities, of waywardness, of a heart that is not steadfast and straight. Too often we are all over the moral map; we are inconsistent and crooked. Scripture says,
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prov 3:6).
Put away from you crooked speech and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil (Prov 4:24-27).
Consider this example. If I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City and see a sign that says, “South to Richmond,” I know that following the sign would be foolish; it would lead me in the wrong direction. We know how to set a course for worldly destinations and how to avoid going the wrong way, but what about our course home to Heaven? We might sing, “I’m on my way to Heaven and I’m so glad the world can’t do me no harm,” but then we see an exit marked, “Sin City, Next Exit” and sure enough we take it. Why? Many of us are outraged to hear that we can’t just go whichever way we please, do whatever we want, and still end up in Heaven. Then comes all the anger directed at the Church, the Bible, the preacher, and anyone who might remind us that we have to make straight the ways of the Lord. You can’t go down to go up. You can’t turn left or right and say you’re going straight. Thus, the text says that we should make straight the way of the Lord.
Reverent– The text says, Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The mountain represents pride. Every sin is rooted in pride, because it asserts that our way is better than God’s. We think that we know better than God. We are modern; Scripture is old fashioned. We are with it while the Church is out of touch. This is the mountain of pride and we must let it go. God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. There is nothing that excludes us more from Heaven than pride, thinking that we know better than God does.
The valley symbolizes low self-esteem and despair. It may not be obvious, but a lot of sins come from low self-esteem. For example, we gossip and denigrate others because we think that if they are brought low, we will feel better about our own self. We also give way to peer pressure easily because we can only feel better about our own self if we “fit in” and are approved by others. Sometimes we’ll even sin in order to accomplish that. Some young women will fornicate for the price of a nice meal, selling their bodies for less than a prostitute would—all because they fear that they won’t be loved if they don’t. Young men pressure young women and disrespect them because they think that they must in order to “be a man.” Many young men join gangs—even drop out and commit crimes—all to “belong” and be “cool.” Low self-esteem is an ugly business that leads us to commit many sins. These valleys have to be filled in.
The solution to both pride and low self-esteem is fear of the Lord, reverence. The fear of human beings and what they will think is at the root of much sin. That is why the Scriptures admonish us to fear the Lord instead. When I fear the Lord, I don’t need to fear anyone else. When I reverence the Lord, my pride is dissolved. Mountains are made low and valleys are leveled when we have a reverential and loving fear of the Lord.
Refined– The text says, the rough ways shall be made smooth. Rough ways are filled with obstacles, stumbling blocks, and pitfalls. What are some of the things that hinder our ways? What are some of our obstacles and pitfalls?
What are some of the specific things that cause me to stumble? Are they habits, excesses, or unlawful pleasures? What are the things that make me rough and difficult to live with? Am I unyielding, unforgiving, unmerciful, or unkind? Am I lax, frivolous, unspiritual, or unaccountable? What are the rough ways in me and in my path that need smoothing? What trips me up? What in me needs softening and smoothing?
Recognizing– The text says, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The Greek word used in this passage is ὁράω (horao). While it is translated as “see,” it involves an active receptivity, more in the sense of looking than merely having something overshadow us or cross our visual path. The danger is that we can close our eyes. Thus, we must remain active and receptive. We must look for salvation and redemption; we must seek it. It is a gift, but we must open our eyes and accustom ourselves to its light and to its ways.
Learning the ways of the faith is very much like learning a language. Until we learn the letters, the meaning of the words, and the grammar, a different language can look or sound like gibberish. For many today, the ways of faith are just that: gibberish. For us who believe, though, because we have been made ready for God, because we make straight his paths, because we reverence God and reject roughness, we are able to recognize our redemption and rejoice in its presence.
As we look toward Christmas and ponder the incarnation, we ought to remember that so profound was truth of the incarnation that the early Church fell to her knees at these words: “and He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, from the virgin Mary, and became man.” This act of falling to one’s knees at these words is still practiced in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite; in the ordinary form, we are asked to bow.
These gestures acknowledge the profound mystery of the truth of the Incarnation. How does the infinite enter the finite? How does He, whom the very heavens cannot contain, enter the womb of Mary. How can He, who holds all creation together in Himself, be held in Mary’s arms?
In modern times we tend to trivialize God. In this age of empiricism and science we want to fit Him into our categories. But God is not just one more thing in the universe (even if very big or powerful) — He is existence itself. Our feeble words betray more than bespeak Him. We know Him as unknown. Our words about Him, even if true, say more about what He is not than what He is.
To some degree the ancients grasped this better than we; they remained astounded at things like the Incarnation. We avoid the tension of this deep mystery by sentimentalizing it. We speak of “the baby Jesus” and sing sentimental songs. This is not wrong, but one wonders if we do this to avoid the astounding mystery and the tension that such mysteries and imponderables summon.
In a passage we will read this week in the Office of Readings, St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote of this mystery:
The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like. He takes to himself all that is human, except for sin …. He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me? (Sermon, Oratio, 49)
We must all fall silent during Advent to ponder such things. There is a place for sentimentality, but wonder and awe — even shock — should also bring us to our knees. The cooing and crying of the little Infant is the same voice, the same Word that summoned creation into existence. It is an ineffable mystery, an unfathomable truth. And this Eternal Word made Flesh brings gifts to us at Christmas’ approach. An old song by St. Ambrose says,
O equal to thy Father, Thou,
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.
Hush, fall silent before the mystery; less analysis and more wonder and awe.
I am away in Florida preaching a retreat at Ave Maria University Parish. Below is a text that served as an outline for my first talk. I promised them I would post these notes for reference. I apologize if you may have read this just last year.
The Following are “Five Advent Reflections” I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent
1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says: Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.
2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)
In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .
3. Waiting for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:
He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).
Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!
4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).
Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.
And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name. Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)
As we begin the Advent Season, we are immediately drawn into its principal theme of preparation and readiness for the coming of the Lord. His first coming has already been fulfilled at Bethlehem, and while we should prepare spiritually for the coming Christmas Feast, these first weeks of Advent bid us to focus even more on His second coming in glory.
As the curtains draw back on the opening scene of Advent, we are warned by the Lord that He will come on the clouds with great power and glory and that we must be prepared. He says, “Beware … Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Today’s Gospel is taken from the Mt. Olivet discourse. The historical context in which the Lord was speaking was not the end of the world, but the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. For those ancient Jews, however, it was the end of the world as they knew it. The destruction of Ancient Jerusalem is also symbolic of the end of the world. The world will end for us either by our own death or by His coming to us in the second coming. Either way, the message is the same: Be ready!
With that in mind we do well to study this Gospel and heed its message, set forth in two stages.
DOUBLE VISION – The Gospel opens with a description of tribulations that are about to come on the land and two different reactions to it.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
Many will be frightened, shocked, bewildered, and dismayed when fixed points in this world such as the sun, moon, stars, and sea are shaken,
There is a second reaction that is prescribed:
But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
Yes, it is a very different reaction, one of expectant joy and serene confidence. So, we see here a kind of double vision.
Some cry out with fear and say, “He is wrathful!” Others with faith say, “He is wonderful!”
To some He is frightening, to others He is fabulous.
To some these events are awful, to others they are awe-inspiring.
Some shout, “Horror on every side!” others sing, “Hallelujah to the King of Kings!
In order for us to celebrate on that day when the Lord shall come, there are prerequisites that must be met. That leads us to the next stage of this Gospel.
DIRECTIVE – The Lord goes on to instruct us in how to be ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
Notice that the Lord announces the effect (drowsiness) and then the causes (carousing, drunkenness, and anxieties of daily life). This is typical of ancient practice. In modern times, however, it is more common to speak of the causes and then describe the effects. Hence, we will proceed with our study in a slightly different order than that in which it was presented.
Cause 1: DEBAUCHERY – The Lord warns of the problem of “carousing.” The Greek word used is κραιπάλῃ (kraipale), meaning most literally the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess. More generally it means the excessive indulgence of our passions or living life to excess. Other translators render the Greek word as “dissipation,” referring to the general squandering and loss of resources resulting from excessive indulgence.
We, of course, live in times that make it easy to (over)satisfy our every need. At the market there is not merely bread, there are fifty different types of bread. Our oversupply and overindulgence are literally reflected in our bodies: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease plague us.
It is not just food that is excessive; it is everything. We are excessively busy with the nonessentials of life. There are innumerable ways to occupy our minds. Our minds are so overstimulated that we cannot hear that “still, small voice.” Most people have a very short attention span due to this overstimulation. All day long the noise from the radio, mp3 player, TV, DVD player, CD player, PC, iPad, and cell phone compete for our attention. It jams our mind and breaks our union with Christ and even with our very self. Then there are the 24-hour news channels generating hype about even ordinary events: “Breaking news!” Our e-mail is flooded with junk mail and spam, offering false hopes and products and services we don’t really need. There are endless money-making schemes, lotteries, and sweepstakes. And oh, the sales: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, pre-holiday, post-holiday! It makes me think of the carnival hucksters calling, “Step right up!” It is worse than that, though, because it seems we cannot get away from it.
We spend, spend, spend and then borrow, borrow, borrow to support our spending. We need two incomes and 60-hour work weeks so that we can afford our lifestyle. Once we have acquired “the goods,” we’re never there to enjoy them. We sacrifice family on the altar of pleasure. We have an excess of everything except children, because they cost money and thus impede our ability to consume.
Even our recreation is excessive. Our weekends and vacations often leave us exhausted, disquieted, and unprepared for the coming week. A simple, quiet weekend, spent reflecting on God’s wonders or spending time at home with family? No way! It’s off to watch the myriad activities of our overscheduled children. The weekends meant for rest instead feature distinctly unrestful activities such as shopping, dancing in loud bars, watching football games, and drinking.
Yes, it’s all excess. It weighs us down, wearies us, costs a lot of time and money, and isn’t really all that satisfying anyway. It is dissipation. In the end, we are left with something like that headache and hung-over feeling of which the Greek word kraipale speaks. Up goes the cry anyway: “One more round!” Excess, dissipation, carousing; more, more, more!
Cause 2: DIVISIONS – The Lord warns of the “anxieties” of daily life. The Greek word used is μερίμναις (merimnais), meaning more literally “a part separated from the whole,” “that which divides and fractures a person into parts.” The human person, overwhelmed with excess, becomes incapable of distinguishing the urgent from the important, the merely pleasurable from the productive. On account of our overstimulation, our excess, we are pulled in many different directions. We can’t decide; our loyalties are divided and conflicting. We are endlessly distracted by a thousand contrary drives and concerns.
Anxiety is the condition of being overwhelmed and divided by many and contrary drives, demands, and priorities. Anxiety freezes and perplexes us. There is too much at stake and no central governing principle to direct our decisions. All of this overwhelms us and clouds our mind and heart. We are anxious about many things and cannot determine the “one thing necessary” that will order all of the details (cf Luke 10:42). The Lord lists anxiety as among those things that destroy our readiness to stand before Him with joy.
Cause 3: DRUNKENNESS – Here the Greek word used is straightforward: μέθῃ (methe), meaning drunk on wine. Why do we drink? We drink to medicate our anxiety. Overwhelmed by the excess that leads to anxiety (inner division and conflict) we drink to medicate our sense of being overwhelmed. Something has to soothe us. Instead of slowing down and seeking God, we drink. We anesthetize our mind. Alcohol is not the only thing we use. We use things, people, power, sex, entertainment, diversions, and distractions; all to soothe our tense, anxious mind.
This, of course, only deepens the central problem. All these things only add to the very problem that has disturbed us in the first place: the kraipale that is excess and dissipation. The solution is to get clear about our priorities, to seek God and allow Him to order our life. Instead of seeking a clear mind, however, we do the opposite and tune out. A little wine is a gift from God (cf Psalm 104:15) to cheer our hearts, but with excess, we go beyond cheer to dull our mind.
To be sober is to have a clear mind, one that knows and is in touch with reality and final ends. To be sober is to be alert, honest, and reasonable; to act in a way that bespeaks thoughtful and deliberate movement toward a rational and worthy goal. The sober person acts consciously and with purpose toward a unifying goal: being with God. St. Paul says, But this one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).
Lacking the one unifying thing, torn apart within, and anxious on account of our excesses, we dull our mind with alcohol. The Lord calls us to clarity, but we retreat into insobriety. We are, in effect, “hung over” from indulging in the excesses of this world and then “medicating” the resulting inner divisions. Our minds go dull and we tune out.
The Effect: DROWSINESS – The Lord says, Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy. The Greek word used here is βαρηθῶσιν (barethosin), meaning “burdened, heavily laden, overcome, or weighted down.” Thus, we see that the effect that all the above things have is to weigh us down, to burden our heart. Laden with excess, divided by contrary demands, and medicating the stress with insobriety, our heart becomes tired and burdened. Our heart is no longer inflamed and animated with love. It has become weary, distracted, bored, and tired of holy things and of the Lord. Instead of being watchful in prayer, our heart sleeps on, weighed down in sin, excess, division, and insobriety. It no longer keeps watch for the Lord, whom it is called to love.
Yes, the world, and our sinful preoccupation with it weighs our hearts down. It captures our love and attention and we become drowsy toward spiritual things.
In the garden, the Lord asked the apostles to pray, but they had spent their energy that evening arguing with Jesus and debating among themselves about who was greatest. Divided within, they wanted Jesus, but they also wanted the world and its fame and power. Struck by the conflict and tension that Jesus’ words about suffering and dying brought, they were divided and anxious. So, they medicated themselves and tuned out. They likely had more than a few drinks of wine that night. Weighed down and exhausted by worldly preoccupations and priorities, their burdened hearts were too drowsy to pray; and so they slept. (Satan, however, did not sleep that night.)
Consider the words of Jesus to the Church at Ephesus: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (Rev 2:5-6). Jesus also warns, Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Mat 24:12). Yes, sinful indulgence divides and stresses us. Because it is too much, we tune out and dull our mind; thus, our heart grows cold, burdened, and heavy with sin. Heavy and weary, our heart goes to sleep, and we lose our first love. Jesus described the pattern: Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. This is the cycle.
What to do about this awful cycle?
The Directive: DUE DILIGENCE – The Lord says, Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
The Lord does not describe this terrible cycle of debauchery (excess), division (anxiety), drunkenness (self-medication), and drowsiness (heavy hearts) merely to define the problem. Having diagnosed our condition, He prescribes the remedy of prayerful vigilance.
To be vigilantly prayerful is to be in living, conscious contact with God. It is to have our heart and mind focused on the one thing necessary (cf Luke 10:42), and thus to have our life ordered. With this order properly established, our excesses fall away, and the many associated anxieties and divisions depart. Once they are gone, we no longer need to medicate and soothe our anxious mind. This lightens our heart; its heaviness goes away. It is free to love and desire with well-ordered love.
Once we have set our sights on God through vigilant prayer, everything else in our life becomes ordered. Then, when Christ comes, He will not disrupt our world but confirm what we are already used to: Jesus Christ as the center and meaning of our life.
Through prayerful vigilance we can stand erect and raise [our] head because [our] redemption is at hand. Why? Because we are used to seeing Him and experiencing His authority. He thus comes not to destroy and usurp our disordered life, but to confirm and fulfill what has always been true for us: that Jesus is the center of our life.
One of the dangers in presenting New Testament moral teaching is reducing the gospel to a bunch of rules to follow using the power of one’s own flesh. This is an incorrect notion because for a Christian the moral life is not merely achieved; it is received. The moral life is not an imposition; it is a gift from God.
The Gospel chosen for Thanksgiving Day features the familiar story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus, but only one of whom returns to thank Him. The ingratitude of the other nine prompts an irritable response from Jesus, who more than suggests that they also should have returned to give thanks. Reading this Gospel on the surface, it is easy to conclude that it is a moral directive about being thankful to God and others. Well, that’s all well and good, but simply reminding people of a rule of polite society isn’t really the gospel message.
True thankfulness is receiving from God a deeply grateful heart so that we do not merely say thank you in a perfunctory way, but are deeply moved with gratitude. We are not merely being polite or justly rendering a debt of obligation; we actually are grateful from the heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift from God, which proceeds from a humble and transformed heart. We do not render thanks merely because it is polite or expected, but because it naturally flows from a profound experience of gratitude. This is the gospel message. It is not a moral platitude but rather a truth of a transformed heart.
An anointing that we should seek from God is the powerful transformation of our intellect and heart such that we become deeply aware of the remarkable gift that is everything we have. As this awareness deepens so does our gratitude and joy at the “magnificent munificence” of our God. Everything—literally everything—is a gift from God.
Permit me a few thoughts on the basis for a deepening awareness of gratitude. Ultimately, gratitude is a grace, but having a deeper awareness of the intellectual basis for it can help to open us more fully to this gift.
We are contingent beings who depend upon God for our very existence. He holds together every fiber of our being: every cell, every part of every cell, every molecule, every part of every molecule, every atom, every part of every atom. God facilitates every function of our body: every beat of our heart, every movement of our body. God sustains every detail of the universe: the perfectly designed orbit of Earth so that we do not overheat or freeze, the magnetic shield around Earth protecting us from the harmful aspects of solar radiation, and every process (visible and hidden) of everything on our planet, in our solar system, and in our galaxy. All of this, and us, are contingent; we are sustained by God and provided for by Him. The magnitude of what God does is simply astonishing—and He does it all free of charge! Pondering such goodness and providence helps us to be more grateful.
Every good thing we do is a gift from God. St. Paul said, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had achieved? (1 Cor 4:7) Elsewhere, he wrote, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-10). Hence even our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us. On judgment day we cannot say to God, “Look what I’ve done; you owe me Heaven.” All we can say on that day is “Thank you!”
Gifts sometimes come in strange packages. There are some gifts of God that do not seem like gifts at all. There are sudden losses, tragedies, natural disasters, and the like. In such moments we can feel forsaken by God; gratitude is the last thing on our mind. But Scripture bids us to look again: And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We don’t always know how, but even in difficult moments God is making a way unto something good, something better. He is paving a path to glory—perhaps through the cross—but unto glory. We may have questions, but remember that Jesus said, But I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:22-23). Yes, even in our difficulties we are more than conquerors (Rm 8:37) because the Lord can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way.
All is gift. Absolutely everything is gift. Even our failures are gifts, provided we are in Christ and learn humility from them. For what shall we give thanks? Everything! There is an old saying, “Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.” Like you, I am asked many times a day, “How are you doing?” I’ve trained myself to respond, “More blessed than I deserve.”
The word “thanks” in English is unfortunately abstract. In Latin and the Romance languages, the words for thanks are more closely related to the concepts of grace and gift. In Latin, one says thank you by saying, “Gratias ago tibi,” or simply, “Gratias.” And although gratias is translated as “thanks,” it is really the same root word as that of “grace” and “gift,” which in Latin are rendered as “gratia.” Hence in saying this, one is exclaiming, “Grace!” or “Gifts!” It is the same in Spanish (Gracias) and Italian (Grazie). French has a slightly different approach: Merci comes from the Latin merces, which refers to something that has been paid for or given freely. So all of these languages recognize that the things for which we are grateful are really gifts. The English word “thanks” does not quite make the connection. About the closest we get in English are the words “gratitude” and “grateful.” All of these words (gratias, gracias, grazie, merci, gratitude) teach us that everything is gift!
Gratitude is a gift to be received from God and should be asked for humbly. One can dispose oneself to it by reflecting on some of the things described above, but ultimately gratitude comes from a humble, contrite, and transformed heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift that springs from a heart moved, astonished, and deeply aware of the fact that all is gift.
On the feast of Christ the King, we are called to acknowledge that Jesus is in fact our King. It is one thing to say that He is our King because the song in Church says so, or the preacher says so, or the Bible says so (yes, faith does come by hearing), but it is quite another for us to personally say that Jesus is our King. There comes a time when we must personally affirm what the Church has always announced: “Jesus is Lord, and He is King. He is my King. He has authority in my life.” This must become more than just lip service; it must become a daily, increasing reality in our life.
Kings take care of us, but they also have the authority to command us. Do we allow Christ to command us or are we more like the typical modern person who doesn’t like to be told what to do? Perhaps we suffer from the milder form of this attitude in which we reduce Jesus to a “harmless hippie” who just says pleasant things but would never rebuke us or insist upon our repentance.
Again, consider this question: “Is Jesus Christ your King?”
That brings us to today’s Gospel. The Gospels aren’t theater; we’re not in the audience watching an ancient story unfold. No, we are in the story. We are not supposed to just sit back and observe what Peter, or Pontius Pilate, or James, or Mary Magdalene does. They are we and we are they.
This means that when Jesus asks one of them a question, we cannot merely wait to see how he or she will answer. No, we have to answer the question.
In today’s Gospel the spotlight is on Pontius Pilate. The Lord asks the critical question of him. We cannot simply wait to see how he answers; we have to answer. Let’s consider this Gospel in three stages.
I. INDECISION – In a remarkable display of literary artistry, John and the Holy Spirit vividly depict the vacillation of Pontius Pilate. In this Gospel passage of the trial of Jesus, Pilate goes in and out of the praetorium (the governor’s palace) more than a bellhop through the revolving door of a hotel! Indeed, he goes in and out seven times. Here is the text, with the portions describing his motions highlighted in bold:
So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” …. Pilate [re]entered the praetorium and called Jesus …. After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him….” Then Pilate took Jesus [back into the praetorium] and scourged him …. Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him ….” When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he re-entered the praetorium and [spoke] to Jesus …. Upon this Pilate [went back out] and sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend ….” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat (John 18-19, selected verses).
Did you count them? Seven times Pilate goes into or out of the praetorium! Such a picture of indecision and vacillation! He’s trying to please the crowds. He’s trying to please his wife (who had warned him to have nothing to do with that innocent man (Mat 27:19)). He’s trying to help Jesus. He can’t decide, so in and out he goes!
Pilate is just like us. We say that we love God, but we also love the world. We want to please others and we want to please God, but we cannot do both. We have to decide, but instead we vacillate; we are Pilate. We are often locked in indecision, trying to please the world and God.
Are we really so different from Pilate? Faced with a crucial decision, Pilate weighs the consequences that choosing Jesus will have on his career, his family, his loyalty to country and Caesar, and his access to power. While we may rightly criticize Pilate for his choice, don’t we make compromises with the world for the sake of similar things? How often does Jesus our King take a back seat to career, politics, convenience, and so forth? So easily do we stay rooted in vacillation, compromise, and indecision.
II. INQUIRY – In the midst of all this indecision, comes the question.
Pilate begins with his own question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Although it is Jesus who is on trial, He turns the tables on Pilate. Jesus effectively puts Pilate on trial by asking him a crucial question: Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” (John 18:34).
It’s a remarkable question! Guess what … You have to answer it. Each of us has to answer it. Don’t wait for Pilate; he already gave his answer and faced judgment long ago. How do we answer it?
Notice what the Lord is getting at with his question. He is asking us if we call him a King merely because we’ve heard others say it or because we personally know him to be a King. Is he really our King, or this just a slogan we’ve heard in church before? Do we believe that He is King or do we merely parrot what we’ve heard others say?
There is an old gospel song that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” Is that really the case with us? Too many of us are satisfied with a kind of inferential faith. Inferential faith is based merely on what others have said: we think or suppose that Jesus is Lord because our parents said so, or our pastor said so. This is a good beginning, for after all, faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), but there comes a moment when we have to say so. It is not enough that our parents say so or our pastor says so. Thus, Jesus is asking us right now, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or merely because others have said so?
Answer Him! It’s a crucial question, isn’t it? The faith of the Church is essential, normative, and determinative, but at some point we have to step up and say that we personally affirm that the faith of the Church is true and is ours, and then declare, “Jesus is Lord and King.”
What does it mean that Jesus is King? A king has authority, doesn’t he? Does Jesus have authority in our life? Do we have the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5) and base our life upon His will?
A king also takes care of his people and protects them. Do we allow the Lord to feed us with the Holy Eucharist? Do we allow Him to protect us from the poison of sin by the Sacrament of Confession and the medicine of His Holy Word? Are we willing to live within the protection of the walled city of His Church?
Is the Lord really our King? How do we answer? Is it just a slogan or is His Kingship real? Let the Lord ask one more time, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or have others been telling you about me?
III. INDICATION – Jesus says, I came into this world to testify to the truth and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me. So do you qualify? There are many who pay lip service to Jesus. They praise him for some of his teachings but not all. Many too, make up a false Jesus and say that he would never say what he is clearly recorded as saying in the Gospels and Epistles. But he fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one. We all sin and fall short, but at least call it what it is, Sin. The defiance that is too common today is very dangerous and does not lead the defiant to the Kingdom.
IV. IMPLICATION – We must answer. To refuse to answer is to answer.
A fascinating and wondrous literary device is used by John and the Holy Spirit in this Gospel passage. We have already seen how Jesus, who was Himself on trial, has turned the tables and effectively put Pilate on trial. Pilate, who has the duty to question Jesus, is now being questioned by Him. It is Pilate who must now make a decision, not so much about Jesus, but about himself. He has been asked a question that he cannot ultimately avoid, and now it is time to answer. Here is where the ingenious literary device comes into play. Look carefully at this passage from John’s Gospel and see if you notice anything strange about it.
Upon this [the shouting of “Crucify him!”] Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a King sets himself against Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and he sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha (John 19:12-13).
What is strange here? Well, notice that when Pilate has Jesus brought out, it says that “he” sat down on the judgment seat. Who exactly is sitting on the judgment seat? One might think, Pilate, of course! Historically, that might be true, but the text is ambiguous as to exactly who “he” is. Most Scripture scholars argue that the line is supposed to be ambiguous.
From the standpoint of historical facts, it was likely Pilate who took that seat, but from the standpoint of divine justice, it is Jesus who takes it.
Jesus has turned the tables on Pilate. Pilate is now on trial and the verdict is about to be revealed. Pilate seals his own fate when he hands Jesus over to be crucified; his vacillation is over. Pilate has made his choice; he has answered the question.
In this context it is Jesus who sits silently upon the judgment seat. The verdict is in. In deciding to hand Jesus over, in deciding to favor himself and the crowds over Jesus, Pilate has brought judgment on himself.
Too many of us have cartoonish notions about our final judgment: a benign Jesus giving us a great big hug, or an angry one gleefully passing judgment on His “enemies.” Perhaps there is also some notion of a review of our deeds, both good and bad, and then the pronouncing of some sort of verdict while we cringe and wait. Jesus is not a King who imposes His Kingdom. He invites us to enter into His Kingdom. Ultimately, judgment is about our choice, not His.
Judgment is finally this: The Lord, who suffered for us, quietly and respectfully sits on the judgment seat and accepts our final choice, a choice that is the accumulation all the choices we made in life, a choice that is now and forever fixed. Isn’t that what really happens?
The Lord has asked the question of Pilate, as he does of us. The choice is for Pilate to make and the judgement is one he brings on himself. His choice is either to accept the Lord’s Kingship or to reject it and watch Jesus led away while he (Pilate himself) stands alone, the judgment having been rendered by virtue of his own choice.
Yes, there are implications to whether we accept the Lord as our King or not. Today, the Lord asks us all if we will let Him be our King. To those of us who say yes, the Lord has this further question: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Is He really our King? Think hard about it. There are implications.
The question that we must answer has now been answered by Pilate. What is your answer?
The Gospel from this Wednesday’s Mass (Wed. of the 33rd Week – Luke 19:11-27) is known as the “Parable of the Ten Gold Coins.” It has an ending so shocking that, when I read it at Mass some years ago, a young child said audibly to her mother, “Wow, that’s mean!”
I’d like to look at it and ponder its shocking ending.
Today’s parable is like Matthew’s “Parable of the Talents,” but with some significant differences. In today’s parable, ten people each receive one gold coin. We only hear the reports of three of them (as in the Matthean account): two who show a profit and one who shows none.
Another difference is the interweaving of another parable (let’s call it the “Parable of the Rejected King”) within the story. Here is a shortened version, including the shocking ending:
A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. His fellow citizens, however, despised him and sent a delegation after him to announce, “We do not want this man to be our king.” But when he returned after obtaining the kingship … [he said] “Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me” (Luke 19:12,14, 27-28).
In analyzing a text like this I must say that I was disappointed at the silence of most commentaries with respect to this ending. The shocking phrase “slay them before me” goes largely unremarked.
The Church Fathers seem to say little about it. I was, however, able to find two references in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea. St. Augustine said of this verse, Whereby He describes the ungodliness of the Jews who refused to be converted to Him. Theophilus wrote, Whom he will deliver to death, casting them into the outer fire. But even in this world they were most miserably slain by the Roman army.
Hence both Fathers take the verse at face value, even declaring it historically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Josephus indicated in his work that 1.2 million Jews were killed in that dreadful war.
Historically fulfilled or not, Jesus’s triumphal and vengeful tone still puzzles me. If this verse does refer to the destruction of 70 A.D., then how do we account for Jesus’s tone here when just a few verses later He wept over Jerusalem?
As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).
Certainly a variety of emotions can sweep over even the God-man Jesus, but let me also suggest some other contextual and cultural considerations that frame Jesus’s startling and “mean” words (Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me).
1. Jesus was speaking in the prophetic tradition – Prophets often spoke this way, using startling and often biting imagery and characterizations. Though many today try to “tame” Jesus, the real Jesus spoke vividly, in the prophetic tradition. He often used shocking and paradoxical images. He spoke bluntly, as prophets do, calling his hostile interlocutors hypocrites, vipers, children of the devil, whitewashed tombs, evil, foolish, blind guides, and sons of those who murdered the prophets. He warned them that they would be sentenced to Hell unless they repented; He laid them out for their inconsistency and hardness of heart. This is the way prophets speak.
In speaking in this “mean” way, Jesus was firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke similarly. Thus, in understanding these harsh words of Jesus’s, we cannot overlook the prophetic context. His words, which seem to us to be angry and even vengeful, were expected in the prophetic tradition from which He spoke; they were intentionally shocking. Their purpose was to provoke a response.
Prophets used hyperbole and shock to convey and frame their call to repentance. And while we ought not to simply dismiss Jesus’s words as exaggeration, we should not fail to see them in the traditional context of prophetic speech.
Hence Jesus’s words were not evidence of vengeance in His heart, but rather a prophecy directed at those who refused to repent: they will die in their sins. Indeed, their refusal to reconcile with God and their neighbors (in this case the Romans) led to a terrible war during which they were slain.
2. The Jewish culture and language often used hyperbole – Even beyond the prophetic tradition, the ancient Jews often used all-or-nothing language in their speech. Although I am no Hebrew scholar, I have been taught that the Hebrew language contains far fewer comparative words (e.g., more, less, greatest, fewest) than does English (and many other languages). If an ancient Jew were asked if he liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream more, he might reply, “I like chocolate and I hate vanilla.” By this he really meant “I like chocolate more than I like vanilla.” When Jesus said elsewhere that we must love Him and hate our parents, spouse, and children (e.g., Lk 14:26), He did not mean that we should hate them vengefully. Rather, this was a Jewish way of saying that we must love Him more.
This background explains the ancient Jewish tendency to use hyperbole. It is not that they did not comprehend nuances; they just did not speak in that manner, instead allowing the context to supply that “hate” did not mean literal hate.
This linguistic background helps to explain how the more extremist elements of prophetic language take shape.
We ought to be careful, however, not to simply dismiss things as hyperbole. We who speak English may love that our language allows for greater nuance, but sometimes we are so nuanced in our speech that we say very little. At some point we must say either yes or no; we must be with God or against Him. In the end (even if Purgatory intervenes) there is only Heaven or Hell.
The ancient Jewish way of speaking in a rather all-or-nothing manner was not primitiveper se. It has a refreshing and honest way of insisting that we decide for or against God, that we decide what is right and just.
Thus, though Jesus’s words were harsh they did make an important point. For either we choose God and live, or we choose sin and die spiritually. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
3. Jesus was speaking to hardened sinners – The audience here is important as well. As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, He was entering hostile territory. The sinners and unbelievers He encountered were very rigid and had hardened their hearts against Him. Hence, Jesus’s words must be understood as strong medicine.
One can imagine a doctor saying to a stubborn patient, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll die soon and I’ll see you at your funeral.” While some may consider this to be poor “bedside manner,” there are some patients for whom such language is both necessary and appropriate.
Because Jesus was dealing with hardened sinners, He spoke bluntly. They were headed for death and Hell and He told them so.
Perhaps we, who live in these “dainty” times, who are so easily offended and so afraid of giving offense, could learn from such an approach. There are some who need to hear from priests, parents, and others, “If you do not change your ways, I do not see how you can avoid being sentenced to Hell.”
4. A final thought—a theory really—that some have advanced – According to this theory, Jesus was referring to an actual historical incident and using it to disabuse His listeners of their fond thoughts of a new king. After the death of Herod the Great, his son Archelaus went to Rome to request the title of king. A group of Jews also appeared before Caesar Augustus, opposing Archelaus’s request. Although not given the title of king, Archelaus was made ruler over Judea and Samaria; he later had those Jews who opposed him killed.
Kings are often despots – Because many Jews thought that the Messiah (when he came) would be a king, some were hoping that Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem in order to take up the role of an earthly king. According to this theory, because the people were pining for a king, Jesus used this fearsome parable as a reminder that earthly kings are usually despotic. Jesus was thus trying to disabuse them of the idea that He or anyone else should be their earthly king.
While this theory has a lot to recommend it, especially historical precedent, it seems unlikely that the Gospel text would use such an historically localized event to make the point. Jesus was not just speaking to the people of that time and place; He is also speaking to us. Even if this explanation has partial historical context, the meaning needs to be extended beyond one ancient incident.
Well, there you have it. I am interested in your thoughts. Because the commentaries I consulted seemed rather silent on this, I am hoping that some of you have read commentaries worth sharing. Likewise, perhaps you know of some other quotes of the Fathers that I was unable to find.
Is Jesus being mean here? No. Is He being blunt and painfully clear? Yes. And frankly, some of us need it. In these thin-skinned times we may bristle at such talk, but that’s our problem. Honesty and a clear diagnosis are far more important than our precious feelings.