I spent a few days at Bethany Beach (in Delaware) this week with four other priests, thanks to the loan of a house from some very generous lay people. In Washington we speak of going to the beach. But in nearby Baltimore they say, “We’re goin’ down-e-ocean.” I think in New Jersey they call it “going down the shore,” as in the Jersey shore. At any rate, thank God for a restful time, lots of long walks along the shoreline, interesting discussions, and good food. In fact, according to the Scripture story of the road to Emmaus, walking, talking, and dining provide an image of the Kingdom.
A brief thought occurred to me today as I walked along the water, this time alone. I began my walk right in the center of Bethany Beach, just down from the center of the boardwalk. The beach was rather crowded—lots of people, chairs and umbrellas everywhere, kids running back and forth into and out of the water.
As I headed north walking right on the shore, I noticed that the crowd thinned out quite quickly, so that within a hundred yards of where the boardwalk ended the beach became quite empty with just a few folks here and there.
Why, I wondered, did people huddle together so? I would think that people would prefer to spread out a little, would want some privacy, and might be willing to walk a ways to get it. Instead, they crowded together in an eight-block area along the Bethany Beach Boardwalk.
It occurred to me that despite our often-expressed desire for space and privacy, this image of people huddling together had important lessons to teach.
The chief and uniting lesson is that ultimately people need people. Crowding close together at the beach meant that there were others to provide not only company but safety. There were plenty of lifeguards, and if any trouble were to arise, plenty of people nearby to help. Where there are people there are also many conveniences near at hand. There were food vendors up on the nearby boardwalk as well as vendors selling beach gear. There was even a free town Wi-Fi signal in the air. Public bathrooms were nearby as was a safety station and a police presence. A lot of children, some of whom had only just met that day, were playing together, teaching each other to surf, riding boogie boards, or building sand castles.
A simple lesson, really, but somehow beautifully painted for me at Bethany Beach—people need people. People benefit from other people. People take care of other people and provide necessary services, protection, and company. Space and solitude have their place, but it really is more instinctual, even in this wide-open country, to cluster together in cities. For all of our complaints about crowds, in the end it’s good to have other people close at hand.
It was all a painting of what Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:11).
Yesterday’s blog on the increasing darkness in our culture received a lot of good feedback. Special thanks to Patrick Madrid for spreading the word. Reading such data can cause us to feel discouraged at times. Here are a few thoughts on this discouragement and what we can do about it.
1. The beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” comes to mind. Who are those who mourn? It is they who see the awful state of God’s people: that so many do not know Him or honor Him. Those who mourn are those who see how many do not know why they were made and spend their lives on lesser or even useless things (and get lost in sin and the deadly wages of sin). Seeing this, they mourn. But this mourning is not depression; it is a sadness rooted in love, and so, as the beatitude says, they are “comforted.” But here the word comforted is to be understood more in relation to its Latin root confirmare which means to strengthen. Hence those who mourn because they love God’s people and see their awful state are also those who will be strengthened and motivated to go to work to make a difference.
2. Indeed, there is an old Chinese proverb that says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And though we may feel things have descended deeply and rapidly, just keep preaching, teaching, and striving for holiness. God has a way of multiplying our works when we least expect it. The harvest will come; for now, just keep sowing seeds and watering them with your tears of love.
3. Another saying goes, “It is easier to wear slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth.” Further, we are instructed just before a flight that in the event of an emergency we should don our own mask before assisting others with theirs. In both of these instances, we hear the additional advice that we should initiate any reform by first tending to our own heart and life. If the world is going to reform, it has to begin with me, with my own decisions. Scripture says, “They made me a keeper of vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept” (Song, 1:6). May it not be so for us.
There are many things we can do, big and small, that can begin to make a difference. Some involve small personal changes, others summon us to greater courage in relationships, and still others call us to greater generosity. Here is a list of some possible avenues. Please add to it! (Note: this list was not created with any particular order in mind.)
- Participate in pro-life vigils and “40 Days for Life.”
- Inform others, including media companies and manufacturers, when they have done well. Warn them when they cooperate in evils such as abortion (via support of Planned Parenthood) or homosexual activism.
- Ask for the gifts of joy, gratitude, and serenity. Others will notice and ask you about it!
- Read Catholic media; listen to Catholic Answers and EWTN radio. Grow in your faith!
- Work on overcoming your most frequent sins. Make a particular examen to help this.
- Pray over the news; don’t just watch it or read it, or, even worse, just complain about how awful things are. Pray as you listen and read.
- Sign up for Eucharistic adoration; encourage others to do so.
- Repent; go to confession frequently.
- Ask a friend to Mass; if he says “no,” ask again later and/or ask another person. But resolve to seldom come to Mass alone.
- Spend time with younger people; encourage in them what is good; explain what they misunderstand.
- Be consistent with prayer.
- Consider praying the rosary every day; if you can, add the Divine Mercy Chaplet as well.
- Support cloistered religious communities and ask their prayers.
- Be willing to take the risk and correct a fellow sinner; be humble but clear.
- Have the courage to warn those in your own family who may be mired in sins such as greed, fornication, cohabitation, unforgiveness, planning a divorce, etc.
- Have more children; be generous with life!
- If you are older, support those who do have many children by assisting with childcare or providing other necessary help.
- Support outreach to the poor, especially those programs that help them to break the cycle of poverty and to become more deeply rooted in the life of faith.
- Encourage bishops, priests, and deacons who are courageous in addressing what ails us.
- Support Catholic groups that seek to engage the culture and summon the world to reform and to Jesus.
- Pray! And then pray some more. If you can, fast occasionally.
- Pray some more!
In other words, consecrate your life to God and begin the great reform by looking to your own heart and mind. When people start to notice, ask them to join you. Many little things add up to a lot. We can’t change the culture overnight, but we surely can begin to make a difference in our own life and in the vineyard of our family, parish, and community, all of which the Lord has asked us to tend.
Here’s a beautiful song that you might print and pray often. (For a printable copy, Click here: Prayer of Consecration).
Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love;
Take my feet, and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing
Always, only, for my King;
Take my lips, and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold:
Not a mite would I withhold;
Take my intellect, and use
Every power as you choose.
Take my will, and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself, and I will be,
Ever, only, all for Thee.
Words: Frances R. Havergal 1874.
Here is a beautiful version, sung by Chris Tomlin.
The results of a recent Gallup poll on a range of moral issues do a pretty good job of showing how dramatically America has changed in a rather short period of time. Many behaviors now deemed “largely acceptable” were once considered very wrong. In fact, most of us over fifty remember an America that was very different.
Until the mid-1960s, birth control was unapproved—even illegal to sell in many jurisdictions. It was associated with prostitution.
Divorce was something that people whispered about. And until 1969 it was so difficult to get a divorce that the few who did want them were willing to go to Mexico to in order to obtain them.
As for gambling, Catholics were less adamant about it and permitted “light” forms of gambling like bingo. But among the Protestants, “gambling” was synonymous with sin. Some of the old spirituals warned gamblers of the fires of Hell: “I would not be a gambler. I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.”
Having a baby outside of marriage was considered so shameful that girls who got pregnant were often sent away to have the baby, which was then usually put up for adoption. Frankly, the final result was often better for the infant, who was usually adopted quickly by a married couple. Catholic orders of nuns were often the ones who handled these matters, and did so discreetly and lovingly.
Sex before marriage happened, but far less frequently—and almost no one thought it was OK. In those days there were also many protections that society insisted upon to help prevent sex before marriage. For example, young people were often chaperoned on dates. Dances and other group events were commonly arranged by adults in order to encourage young people to meet, but there were prudent limits set. Parents were more vigilant and insisted that their youngsters be home at a reasonable hour. Women’s dormitories at colleges were more strictly guarded and a young man who called was expected to meet his young lady in the lobby and say farewell to her there. Young people also got married a lot sooner. Most did so right after high school or college.
Homosexual activity of any sort was not just considered shocking; it was deemed repulsive.
Abortion was illegal—an unmentionable horror. It was associated with prostitution and utter desperation. Frankly, I don’t think I ever heard the word abortion before 1970, though I admit I was only about ten at that time.
Only the death penalty and wearing fur were more acceptable in the pre-revolution days than they are today.
Behold the cultural revolution! And revolution is the only word for it. America before the revolution was NOT a perfect culture. Racism was more widespread; there were two major wars before 1950, and there was a rather decadent period in the 1920s. But overall, we were a lot clearer about the values necessary to ensure our future: marriage, sex, and children. People got married and usually stayed married. We frowned upon, limited, and punished behaviors and attitudes that destroyed our families: sex before marriage, homosexual acts, abortion, and divorce. Today most of these behaviors are not only widely tolerated, but outright celebrated.
Why has this happened and why so suddenly? The world, the flesh, and the devil.
At the level of the demonic, there surely is strong satanic influence in the “high places” of Hollywood, the music industry, Madison Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue (at both ends of the block). American culture, via movies and music, generates a steady stream of sewer-like themes that celebrate fornication, divorce, adultery, and homosexuality, and that portray abortion sympathetically.
At the level of the flesh, Americans consume filth in enormous quantities. Internet porn sites are among the most frequently visited. Most Americans are no longer shocked by foul language, pornographic themes, or nudity in movies and music. Granted, the desire to consume this material comes from weakness due to our sinful human nature, but indulging these weaknesses leads to successively darker places, to a dulling of the sense of morality, to enslavement by the senses, and ultimately to a downright craving for the filth.
At the level of the world there is the rebellion that is at its heart. The “world,” in the scriptural sense of the term, refers to that collection of interests and powers arrayed against God and His Kingdom. To build its power, the world entices in order to enslave; it offers pleasures but then sends the bill. The world works quite handily with Satan.
At the end of the day, however, we in the Church bear a lot of the responsibility. This has happened on our watch. Jesus commissioned us to be the light of the world. So why is the world in such darkness? I have little doubt that the Lord has allowed a kind of satanic incursion for His own mysterious reasons. Perhaps the Church needs to be purified. Perhaps the West needs to be plowed under, as many previous eras and empires have been. Perhaps He is preparing a great renewal. I just don’t know.
But I do know that we must work more consciously to be the light we are supposed to be. This poll is a gauge of the extent of the darkness. Usually the lights go out as a result of a power failure. But in this case it is a moral failure. It is a failure of our mission as Christians that has led us here. Start with your own life and with your own family. Work in your own parish. Start lighting candles and living in the light.
A couple of years ago I wrote of an unusual experience I had at Mass wherein a person who was troubled by a demon had those demons manifest themselves at the consecration, causing the person to run out of the Church. More on that in a moment.
I thought of that long-ago incident in relation to the current events transpiring in Oklahoma City, where a satanic cult stole the Eucharist from a Catholic parish and announced plans to desecrate it at a satanic “mass” in September. Archbishop Paul Coakley filed a lawsuit, asking a judge to stop the desecration by requiring the group to return the stolen property. He indicated in the suit that the Host was to be desecrated in the vilest ways imaginable as an offering in sacrifice to Satan.
A spokesman from the satanic group, Adam Daniels, said, “The whole basis of the [satanic] ‘mass‘ is that we take the consecrated host and give it a ‘blessing‘ or offering to Satan. We’re censoring it, [I think he means using incense], doing all things that’s [sic] normally done to bless a sacrifice, which is obviously the host body of Christ. Then we’re taking that and we’re reconsecrating it, or the Devil does …”
[The bracketed comment and the single quotation marks within the above quote are mine.]
In light of the threatened lawsuit, the group returned the consecrated host to the Church. Thanks be to God. But did you notice the satanic spokesman’s attestation regarding the host: “which is obviously the host body of Christ”?
Grave and sad though this incident was (and it wasn’t the first), these Satanists obviously consider the Catholic Eucharist to be the Body of Christ. Unless I missed it, there have been no attempts by Satanists to steal and use a Methodist host, or an Episcopal one, or a Baptist one, or a Lutheran one, etc. It is a Catholic host they seek. Here then is an affirmation of the Scripture which says, Even the demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19).
Elsewhere, Scripture says of a demon that afflicted a man among the tombs, And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped him (Mark 5:6). And in Luke’s Gospel, And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ (Lk 4:41-42).
Indeed, as many who have assisted at exorcisms can attest, there is wonderful power in holy water, relics, the exorcist’s cross, the touch of a priest’s stole, and so forth in afflicting demons and urging them to leave. Yet so many Catholics and others discount these sacramentals (as well as the Sacraments), using them carelessly, infrequently, or not at all. Many people, even faithful Catholics, consider them of little significance. But demons do not. Shamefully, demons sometimes manifest more faith (out of fear) in these things than actual believers who ought to revere them out of loving faith. Even this Satanist in Oklahoma acknowledges that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist and he seeks a host for that reason, although obviously for nefarious and perverse purposes.
And that leads to a story of my own that I published a long while back. Here is an excerpt from that piece:
It was almost 15 years ago. I was At Old St. Mary’s here in D.C. celebrating Mass in the Latin (Extraordinary Form). It was a solemn high Mass. I don’t suppose I thought it any different than most Sundays, but something quite amazing was about to happen.
As you may know, the ancient Latin Mass is celebrated “ad orientem” (toward the Liturgical East). Priest and people all face in one direction. What this means practically for the celebrant is that the people are behind him. It was time for the consecration. At this time, the priest is directed to bow low with his forearms on the altar table and the host between his fingers.
As directed, the venerable words of Consecration were said in a low but distinct voice, Hoc est enim Corpus meum (For this is my Body). The bells rang as I genuflected.
But behind me there was a disturbance of some sort; a shaking or rustling sound came from the front pews behind me to my right. And then a moaning or grumbling. “What was that?” I wondered. It did not really sound human, more like the grumbling of a large animal such as a boar or a bear, along with a plaintive moan that also did not seem human. I elevated the host and again wondered, “What was that?” Then silence. As the celebrant in the ancient Latin Mass I could not easily turn to look. But still I thought, “What was that?”
It was time for the consecration of the chalice. Again I bowed low, pronouncing clearly and distinctly but in a low voice, Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, novi et æterni testamenti; mysterium fidei; qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem pecatorum. Haec quotiescumque feceritis in mei memoriam facietis (for this is the cup of my Blood, of the new and eternal covenant; the mystery of faith; which will for the many be shed unto the remission of sins. Whensoever you do this, you do it in my memory.)
Then, I heard another sound, this time an undeniable moan and then a shriek as someone cried out, “Leave me alone, Jesus! Why do you torture me?” Suddenly there was a scuffling noise and someone ran out with the groaning sound of having been injured. The back doors swung open and then closed. Then silence.
Realization – I could not turn to look for I was raising the Chalice high over my head. But I knew in an instant that some poor demon-tormented soul had encountered Christ in the Eucharist and could not endure His real presence displayed for all to see. And the words of Scripture occurred to me: Even Demons believe and tremble (James 2:19).
Repentance – But just as James used those words to rebuke the weak faith of his flock, I too had to repent. Why was a demon-troubled man more aware of the true presence and more astonished by it than I was? He was moved in a negative sense and ran. Why was I not more moved in a positive but comparable way? What of the other believers in the pews? I don’t doubt that all of us believed intellectually in the true presence. But there is something very different and far more wonderful in being moved to the depth of your soul! It is so easy for us to be sleepy in the presence of the Divine, to be forgetful of the miraculous and awesome Presence available to us.
Let the record show that on that day, almost 15 years ago, it was made quite plain to me that I held in my hands the Lord of Glory, the King of Heaven and earth, the just Judge and Ruler of the kings of the earth. Is the Lord truly present in the Eucharist? You’d better believe it; even demons believe that!
The Gospel today sets forth the biblical basis for the Office of Peter—the Office of the Papacy—for Peter’s successors are the popes. The word “pope” is simply an English version (via Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tongues) of the word “papa.” The Pope is affectionately called “Papa” in Italian and Spanish as an affectionate indication that he is the father of the family, the Church.
That Peter receives an office and not simply a charismatic designation we will discuss later. As to certain objections regarding the Office of the Papacy, we will also deal with them later. But for now let’s look at the basic establishment of the Office of Peter in three steps.
I. The Inquiry that Illustrates – The text says, Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?“
It should be noted that in asking these questions Jesus is not merely curious about what people think of Him. He seems, rather, to be using these questions as a vehicle by which to teach the apostles, and us, about how the truth is adequately revealed and guaranteed.
Jesus’ first two questions reveal the inadequacy of two common methods.
1. The Poll - Jesus asks who the crowds say that He is. In modern times we love to take polls and many moderns put a lot of stock in what polls say. Many people (Catholics among them) like to point out that x% of Catholics think this or that about moral teachings or about doctrines and disciplines. It is as if the fact that more than 50% of Catholics think something makes it true, and that the Church should change her teaching based on this.
But as this gospel makes clear, taking a poll doesn’t necessarily yield the truth. In fact ALL the assertions of the crowd were wrong no matter what percentage held them. Jesus is not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets redivivus. So, running the Church by poll-taking or democracy seems not to be a model that works.
2. The Panel - Jesus, having taught this implicitly, now turns to a group of experts, a “blue-ribbon panel” if you will. He asks the twelve, “Who do you (apostles) say that I am?” Here we simply get silence. Perhaps they were looking around like nervous students in a classroom, not wanting to answer lest they look foolish. The politics on the panel led not to truth but to a kind of self-serving, politically correct silence.
That Peter finally speaks up is true. But, as Jesus will say, he does not do this because he is a member of the panel but for another reason altogether.
Hence the blue-ribbon panel, the committee of experts, is not adequate in setting forth the religious truth of who Jesus is.
And through this line of questioning, Jesus instructs through inquiry. Polls and panels are not adequate in yielding the firm truth as to His identity. All we have are opinions or politically correct silence. Having set forth this inadequacy, the Gospel now presses forward to describe God’s plan in setting forth the truths of faith.
II. The Individual that is Inspired - The text says, Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
We are taught here not merely that Peter spoke, but also how he came to know the truth. Jesus is very clear to teach us that Peter spoke rightly not because he was the smartest (he probably wasn’t), or because some one else told him (Jesus is clear that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him), or because he happened to guess correctly. Jesus teaches that Peter came to know the truth and speak it because God the Father revealed it to him. God the Father inspires Peter. There is a kind of anointing at work here.
So here is God’s methodology when it comes to adequately revealing and guaranteeing the truths of the faith: He anoints Peter.
It’s not polls or panels that God uses—it’s Peter.
And while truths may emerge in the wider Church, reflecting what is revealed, it is only with Peter and his successors that such views can be definitively set forth and their truth adequately guaranteed. Thus the other apostles are not merely bypassed by God. He anoints Peter to unite them and give solemn declaration to what they have seen and heard.
The Catechism says the following of Peter and his successors, the popes:
When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them … The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.
The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff. The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council. But there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 880-884, selected).
All these truths point back to this moment when we see how God Himself chooses to operate.
And note, too, the dimension of faith we are called to have. We are to assent to the Pope’s teaching and leadership not merely because we think he is smarter, or because it might happen that he has power, riches, or other worldly means that might impress us or compel us to assent. Rather, we assent to the Pope because, by faith, we believe he is inspired by God. It is not in flesh and blood that we put our trust; it is in God Himself, who we believe has acted on our behalf by anointing someone to affirm the truth and adequately guarantee that truth to be revealed by God.
And this then leads to the final stage wherein Jesus sets forth a lasting office for Peter.
III. The Installation that is Initiated - The text says, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus does not merely praise Simon for a moment of charismatic insight. He goes further and declares that He will build his very Church upon Simon, and thus He calls him Peter (rock). And here, too, He does not merely mean this as a personal gift or as a sort of recognition that will die with Peter. In giving Peter the keys, He is establishing an office, not merely a “promotion” for Peter. This will be God’s way of strengthening and uniting the Church. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says more of this:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, all that he might sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith may not fail; and when thou hast turned again, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:31).
Hence it is clear once again that God’s plan for the Church is to strengthen one man, Peter (and his successors), that in turn the whole Church may be strengthened and united. Thus the Lord Jesus establishes not only Peter, but also his office. This is God’s vision and plan for His Church.
It is true that many have objected to this teaching. There is no time here to do a full apologetical reply to every objection. But frankly most of the objections amount to a kind of wishful thinking by some, who want this text to mean something other than what it plainly means. Nothing could be clearer than the fact that Jesus is establishing both Peter and an office that will serve as a foundation for the unity and strength of His Church.
Some object that within other verses Peter will be called “Satan” and will deny Christ. But Jesus knew all this and still said and did what He does here.
Others object that Jesus is the head and foundation, that He is the rock. True enough, but apparently Jesus never got the objectors’ memo, for it is He Himself who calls Peter the rock and establishes him with the authority to bind and loose. It is also true that both Jesus and Peter can be head and rock, in terms of primary and secondary causality (more on that HERE). And in addition that Peter and his successors are head and rock by making visible and being the means through which Christ exercises His headship and foundational aspect.
Finally, let’s return to the title of this post: “If no one is Pope, EVERYONE is pope!” Without a visible head, there is no principle on earth for unity in the Church. The Protestant experiment tried to replace the Pope with Scripture and gave it sole authority. But Protestants cannot agree on what Scripture says and have no earthly way to resolve their conflicts. While they say that authority resides in Scripture alone, the fact is, in claiming the anointing of the Holy Spirit and thus the ability to properly interpret Scripture, they really place the locus of authority within themselves and become the very pope they denounce. Having denied that there is a pope they become pope. If no one is Pope, everyone is pope.
I have read that some objectors think Catholics arrogant in asserting that we have a pope whom we trust to be anointed by God to teach us without error on faith and morals. But which is more arrogant: to claim there is a pope (not me), or to in fact act like one myself?
In the end, the Protestant experiment is a failed one. Many estimates place the number of Protestant denominations as high as 30,000. Personally, I think this is exaggerated—but not by much. Protestants all claim the Scriptures as their source of the truth but differ on many essential matters such as sexual morality, authority, the necessity of baptism, whether once saved is always saved, etc. When they cannot resolve things they simply subdivide. There is an old joke, told even among Protestants, that goes,
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!” Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
A strange little joke, and not entirely fair since most Protestants of different denominations that I know get along fine on a personal level. But the truth is, the denominations disagree over many very important things. The Protestant experiment is a failure that leads only to endless division. The Church needs a visible head. The Bible alone does not suffice, for there are endless disagreements on how to interpret it. Someone must exist to whom all turn and who all agree will resolve the differences after listening.
Jesus installed an individual in this role to manifest His office of rock and head of the Church. That individual was Peter and after, his successors.
Here’s a light-hearted video I put together commemorating Pope Benedict’s many visits to unite and strengthen us. I don’t have enough footage yet to do a Pope Francis video. But I suspect he’ll rack up the miles, too!
But when it comes to the faith, not only should we know the end of the story—we must never forget it and must base our very lives on it. As we look about the world, it is easy to get discouraged and think that evil is winning. And yet Scripture plainly states that Satan’s plans are going nowhere, that Jesus has already won the victory. Mysteriously, the Lord allows Satan a little time to sift through the ruins of his former kingdom, but do not be deceived—Satan has lost and so have all who are allied with him.
Some lines from Psalm 37 come to mind:
Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more;
look for them and they will not be there.
But the poor will inherit the earth,
will delight in great prosperity.
But my Lord laughs at the wicked,
because he sees that their day is coming.
Wait eagerly for the LORD,
and keep his way;
He will raise you up to inherit the earth;
you will see when the wicked are cut off.
I have seen a ruthless scoundrel,
spreading out like a green cedar.
When I passed by again, he was gone;
though I searched, he could not be found.
mark the upright;
Because there is a future for a man of peace.
Sinners will be destroyed together;
the future of the wicked will be cut off.
Spoiler Alert! Yes, dear brethren, I checked. I went to the end of the story and sure enough, Jesus wins! There it is right at the end of the Bible. But this is a spoiler you need to know, because you have to choose which team you’ll be on and it’s nice to know ahead of time whose team has already won. It’s like going to today’s horserace with tomorrow’s paper. You’d be a fool to bet on any horse other than the winning one. Well, you have tomorrow’s paper and here is what it says:
20:7When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison. 8 He will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 They invaded the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the holy ones and the beloved city. But fire came down from heaven and consumed them. 10 The Devil who had led them astray was thrown into the pool of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. 11 Next I saw a large white throne and the one who was sitting on it. The earth and the sky fled from his presence and there was no place for them. 12 I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Then another scroll was opened, the book of life. The dead were judged according to their deeds, by what was written in the scrolls. 13 The sea gave up its dead; then Death and Hades gave up their dead. All the dead were judged according to their deeds. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the pool of fire. (This pool of fire is the second death.) 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the pool of fire (Rev 20:7–15).
21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.”
5 The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.” 6 He said to me, “They are accomplished. I [am] the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. 7 The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son. 8 But as for cowards, the unfaithful, the depraved, murderers, the unchaste, sorcerers, idol-worshipers, and deceivers of every sort, their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev 21:1–8).
22:6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, and the Lord, the God of prophetic spirits, sent his angel to show his servants what must happen soon.” 7 “Behold, I am coming soon.” Blessed is the one who keeps the prophetic message of this book. 20 The one who gives this testimony says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! 21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all (Rev 22:6–7; 20-21).
Keep this in mind; keep it always on your mind. The result of this victory is obtained in the paradox of the cross. Jesus destroys death by dying and tells us that to save our life we must lose it to this world. Whatever the struggles and setbacks, do not be dismayed. Love and humility have already overcome hatred and pride. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that. Pride cannot drive out pride, only humility can do that. And thus the Lord allows opportunities for the light of truth to shine in the error of darkness, for love to endure in the face of hatred, and for humility to shame pride.
Until the last day when the trumpet shall sound, the drama carries on. But see what the end shall be. You already know the end of the story. Just make sure you serve in the Lord’s army and wield the weapons of light, love, and humility.
Well I know this video is going to seem strange after such a serious reflection. But what could be more humble than a little pig “spoiling” the movie as the patrons go in? And yet, if you listen to his advice, he’s basically saying what I just did. “Don’t waste your time on losers; don’t waste your time going down a path of wrong ideas or theories; don’t get all worked up about characters and things that don’t matter—here’s what’s really going on in the movie.”
Not bad advice for life either. If you know the end of the story, there’s a lot you can disregard along the way, and you’ll know where to set your focus. Keep your eyes on Jesus and the truth of His Gospel.
Some years ago a woman (and parishioner) told me, almost in passing, that she and her husband were planning to divorce. Knowing that she had two young children, both under 10, I asked her in so many words, “What about the children?” Unabashedly she assured me that they were in fact divorcing for the sake of the children. Perhaps she saw my bewildered, dubious look, so she added, “We don’t want them to experience all the yelling and bickering.” “Hmmm … ,” I said. “Well then stop the bickering and yelling. Get whatever help you need, but don’t make the kids pay even more for your problems.”
I was a parochial vicar in those days, so the woman informed the pastor of my “insensitive” remark and demanded that I be taught to be more sensitive and diplomatic. Luckily, the pastor saw the irony of her demands, since diplomacy between spouses seemed lacking as did sensitivity toward children who did not likely “feel” great that their home was breaking up because the adults couldn’t get along.
When I was a little child (not so long ago) in the mid 60s, divorce was still considered shocking, and to a large degree morally wrong. But that was before we crossed the chasm of the cultural and sexual revolution. In 1969, no-fault divorce began to careen through the land like a runaway train leaking poisonous gas. Within less than a decade, divorce went from something shocking and whispered about to a mainstream action for which we are expected to have sympathy. After all, the thinking goes, doesn’t God want everyone to be happy? How can we be so mean as to say that people should stay in “unhappy marriages”? Never mind those vows, which have no happiness clause and even seem to imply that there will be unhappy times: better or WORSE, richer or POORER, in SICKNESS and in health for as long as we both shall live. No, forget all that. Marriage is about “happiness” and everyone’s “God-given right to be happy.” God only wants me to be happy. Jesus wasn’t really serious when He spoke of the cross and our need to carry it through patience, suffering, forgiveness, and bearing with one another.
I remember another couple who were fighting bitterly in my rectory parlor. They began throwing around the “divorce” word. I asked them, “But what about the vows you took?” After a pause, the husband said, “What vows, Father?” So I recited them from memory. “Oh, that … ,” said the husband. “But you know, you just say those words at the ceremony because you’re supposed to … ” He seemed to have thought of them as only ritual words and considered himself exempt from the vows that had come forth from his very mouth before both God and man.
In the short span of a few decades, we have come to the point where many do not see marriage as about keeping vows, or commitments, or about what is best for children. Marriage is now about adults and what makes them happy. And all of us are just supposed to accept this regardless of the effect that it (obviously) has on children.
In his recent book, Defending Marriage, 12 Arguments for Sanity, Anthony Esolen makes some poignant observations:
Parents will say, “My children can never be happy unless I am happy,” but they should not lay that narcissistic unction to their souls. Children need parents who love them, not parents who are contented; they are too young to be asked to lay down their lives for someone else. It is not the job of the child to suffer for the parent, but the job of the parent to endure, to make the best of a poor situation, to swallow his pride, to bend her knees, for the sake of the child. I have heard [from those] who still quaver in voice when they speak about what their divorced parents did to them – hustling them from one half of a home to another half, enlisting them as confidants, one against the other, [threatening] them that they may just find themselves a lot less often with a parent they love if they do not do exactly what the [threatener] demands. [and I would add forcing them to endure Daddy's new live-in girlfriend, or Mommy's new husband, or a strange new step-brother who is hard to get along with and who started touching them in embarrassing places.] Children must grow up at age ten so their parents don’t have to (p. 142).
Esolen also comments on how children often have divorce “explained” to them:
[The Child] must be told that the father, although he wasn’t so terrible, just couldn’t satisfy the mother in some mysterious way, and so bad was this dissatisfaction that she had no choice but to compel her son [or daughter] to live without a father … Adults are wonderfully adept at weaving webs of self-deceit around themselves for protection. Children aren’t … They aren’t yet dulled by habit, or by slogans, or by a long history of compromising with the truth, so that what they do see, they see clearly (p. 138).
Yes, indeed, children are famous for for seeing through the hypocrisy of adults. Their innocence is still shocked by misbehavior and inconsistency. I remember a high-school classmate, whose parents had divorced, wondering why “the rules” in the house only applied to her. One day she asked her mother, who had divorced, why she couldn’t love her father anymore. The mother replied, “But I still do love him.” My classmate saw through this self-justifying lie and challenged her mother to “get back together with Dad again.” Her mother just responded, “You’ll understand when you get older.” In one short phrase, her mother managed to both patronize her daughter and introduce her to the cynical and compromised world of the baby-boomer generation, a generation that collectively never grew up and that may well be the most narcissistic, egocentric, selfish, and immature generation since the patricians of the late Greco-Roman culture.
Disclaimer - I realize that every divorce story is an individual one. I know that there are some who read this who will be angry or hurt and who will insist that my picture does not take into account the special and unique circumstances that led to their particular divorce. I realize, too, that some people really tried to save their marriages but could not because the other spouse refused. OK. But I only speak to the general problem, not to every specific case. The critique here is of the culture, first and foremost. The fact is that by and large people used to work out their differences and stay married, but today they do not. We used to consider the impact that divorce would have on children. Today it is either not considered or the children are way down on the list below the needs and wishes of the adults.
Divorce has shredded our families and caused grave harm and hurt to children: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. If we cannot see this then we are not only divorced from marriage; we are divorced from reality. You might say, “Well, I don’t think it’s so bad. The roads are paved and the planes run on time.” OK, but talk to someone whose parents divorced. Talk to them honestly about the absurdities to which they were subjected: they were supposed to get along with their siblings while Mom and Dad played by other rules. Talk to them about being shipped back and forth to different homes, about feeling guilty that they liked one setting or parent more than the other, about two houses with two different sets of rules, about Mom and Dad bad-mouthing each other, about being subjected to “loyalty tests” by their parents. Ask them about how all of this affects their understanding of acceptance, loyalty, trust, self-esteem, respect for authority, appreciation for the truth, personal responsibility, courageousness, perseverance, forgiveness, human dignity, sexual responsibility, marriage, family, love, and on and on.
We need to see divorce for the diabolical lie that it is. It comes from the hardness of our hearts, as Jesus clearly says in Matthew 19. We ought not separate what God has joined. And if we do, there can be little but destruction that comes from it.
Splitting the family is like splitting the atom. And for all the anxiety we had back in the 80s about “the bomb,” as usual, Satan had us focused on the lesser thing in order to keep us from concentrating on the greater and more dangerous problem. All the silly “nuclear-free zones” did nothing. A few “divorce-free zones” (like we had prior to 1969) might have actually made a difference! But the problem is always someone else, not me or the decisions I make.
Even in the Church we got all swept up in issues of nuclear war, etc. And while total silence on that matter from the Church would have been wrong, where were similar statements against the nuclear fission of divorce as our families were split and we were handing out annulments like candy?
Do not mistake this for “bishop bashing.” We cannot expect the clergy to solve every problem in a cultural and moral tsunami in which lay people outnumber clergy 5000 to 1. But clarity and a bit more courage never hurts.
Perhaps it is like the clarity and courage my old pastor (referred to above) showed me when I was “turned in” for being insensitive and undiplomatic, who saw the hypocrisy of the complainant and commended me, instead of scolding me, for raising the simple question, “What about the children?”
The Jewish people took the burial of the dead quite seriously; it was the way a community paid its last respects to the one who died. The Scriptures laid down quite firmly that no dead body was to be left unburied—even that of one’s worst enemy. Perhaps one of the stronger horrors that a Jewish person could imagine was stated in Psalm 78: They have thrown the bodies of thy servants as food for the birds of heaven; wild beast feast on the corpses of the just.
The dead, therefore, had a right to ceremonial care. As soon as a person was dead, his eyes were to be closed, he was to be kissed with love, and his body was to be washed (Genesis 50:1; Acts 9:37). In this washing, the body was anointed with perfumes. Nard was the most usual of these, but myrrh and aloes were also used.
By the time of Christ, the custom was that the body was elaborately wrapped in a shroud and the face was covered with a special cloth called a sudarium. The hands and feet were tied with strips of cloth.
Once this was done, relatives and friends could come to the home to say goodbye to the deceased for the last time. All of this happened in very short order; burial usually followed within eight hours of death. In such a hot climate, burial could not be delayed.
After this brief time during which the living could say their farewells to the deceased, the body was carried in a kind of litter to the grave. There were no professional carriers; the person’s relatives and friends took turns carrying the body as a sign of affection. Women led the procession and it was usually quite a noisy spectacle—even in cases in which the sorrow was not that great (such as in the case of a person who had died after a long illness). All funeral processions were expected to have those who wailed loudly and threw dust in their hair as well as flautists who played doleful music on their instruments. Given these expectations, families often hired professional mourners who assisted in the process.
The Jews never cremated their dead; indeed they had a revulsion for the practice since they believed in the resurrection of the body.
Cemeteries were always to be at least fifty yards outside of any town or village.
The typical tombs of Jesus’ day involved a kind of cave or excavation cut into a rocky cliff. Sometimes larger families or groups of families would use these burial areas together. An opening in the side of a cliff might lead into a crypt of several rooms used by different families. There would be an outer and an inner chamber, or at least a front and back portion to the cave. In the outer chamber the body would be laid out on a kind of bench or shelf cut into the rock. After the final respects were paid, a large round stone was usually rolled into place (via a groove) to cover the tomb.
These large stones would often be whitewashed as a kind of warning to passersby that the area was in fact a gravesite. This was because Jews incurred ritual uncleanliness by coming in close contact with a dead body. Surely this could be endured as an act of charity for a dead relative, but one would not wish to incur it for a stranger. Thus the whitewashed tomb entrances served as a kind of warning to steer clear.
Very poor people, who could not afford a rock-hewn tomb, or foreigners who had no land were buried within vertical shafts in designated fields. In the Gospels there is reference to the purchase of the potter’s field as a place to bury the poor and foreigners who died in Israel (Mat 27:7).
A brief repast would follow and included the ritual drinking of wine and eating of the bread of mourning. For the very closest relatives (such as a wife, son, or daughter) mourning lasted for 30 days. This was observed by the wearing of special clothing, by refraining from wearing phylacteries during prayer, and by not answering greetings in the street.
After about a year, family members would return to the tomb and collect the bones, placing them in a box called an ossuary. They would mark the box with identifying information and place it in the back room of the tomb where the bones of other relatives were also stored. This is the basis of the Jewish expression that the deceased “rested with his ancestors.” It also explains the concerns of the patriarch Joseph: Then Joseph took an oath from the sons of Israel, saying, “God will visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” (Gen 50:25). And Scripture says that as Moses left Egypt he took the bones of Joseph with him; for Joseph had solemnly sworn the people of Israel, saying, “God will visit you; then you must carry my bones with you from here” (Exodus, 13:19). And Scripture says that after entering the land, The bones of Joseph which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried at Shechem, in the portion of ground which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money; it became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph (Jos 24:32).
Thus Joseph rested with his ancestors. And so will we, until our bodies shall rise at the Last Trumpet.
As you may know, the Catholic Faith was illegal in the Roman Empire prior to 313 AD, when the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan permitting the Christian Faith to flourish publicly. Prior to that time, Church buildings as we know them today were rare—Mass was usually celebrated in houses.
Now be careful here; these “houses” were usually rather sizable, with a central courtyard or large room that permitted something a little more formal than Mass “around the dining room table.” I remember being taught (incorrectly) that these early Masses were informal, emphasized a relaxed, communal quality, and were celebrated facing the people. Well, it turns out that really isn’t true. People didn’t just sit around a table or sit in circle—not at all. They sat or stood formally, and everyone faced in one direction: east.
In the drawing (to the right) you can see the layout of an ancient house church (actually more often called a Domus Dei (House of God)) drawn based on an excavated 3rd century house church in Dura-Europos (located in what is now today’s Syria). Click on the diagram for a clearer view. The assembly room is to the left and a priest or bishop is depicted conducting a liturgy (facing east) at an altar against the east wall. A baptistery is on the right and a deacon is depicted guarding the entrance door. The lonely-looking deacon in the back of the assembly hall is there to “preserve good order,” as you will read below. The photograph below shows the baptistery of the Dura-Europos house church.
What is remarkable about these early liturgies is how formal they were despite the fact that they were conducted under less-than-ideal circumstances. The following text is from the Didiscalia, a document written in about 250 AD. Among other things, it gives rather elaborate details about the celebration of the early Catholic Mass in these “house liturgies.” I have included an excerpt here and interspersed my own comments in RED. You will find that there are some rather humorous remarks in this ancient text toward the end.
Now, in your gatherings, in the holy Church, convene yourselves modestly in places of the brethren, as you will, in a manner pleasing and ordered with care. [So these "house liturgies" were NOT informal Masses. Good order and careful attention to detail were essential.] Let the place of the priests be separated in a part of the house that faces east. [So even in these early house Masses, the sanctuary (the place where the clergy ministered) was an area distinct from where the laity gathered. People were not all just gathered around a dining room table.] In the midst of them is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated. Likewise, and in another section let the lay men be seated facing east. [Prayer was conducted facing east, not facing the people.] For thus it is proper: that the priests sit with the bishop in a part of the house to the east and after them the lay men and the lay women, [Notice that men and women sat in separate sections. This was traditional in many churches until rather recently, say the last 150 years.] and when you stand to pray, the ecclesial leaders rise first, and after them the lay men, and again, then the women. Now, you ought to face to east to pray for, as you know, scripture has it, Give praise to God who ascends above the highest heavens to the east. [Again, note that Mass was NOT celebrated facing the people as some suppose of the early Church. Everyone was to face to the east, both clergy and laypeople. Everyone faced in the same direction. The text cites Scripture as the reason for this. God is to the east, the origin of the light.]
Now, of the deacons, one always stands by the Eucharistic oblations and the others stand outside the door watching those who enter [Remember, this was a time of persecution and the early Christians were careful to allow only baptized and bona fide members to enter the Sacred Mysteries. No one was permitted to enter the Sacred Liturgy until after having been baptized. This was called the disciplina arcanis, or "discipline of the secret." Deacons guarded the door to maintain this discipline.] and afterwards, when you offer let them together minister in the church. [Once the door was locked and the Mass began, it would seem that the deacons took their place in the sanctuary. However it also appears that one deacon remained outside the sanctuary to maintain "good order" among the laity.] And if there is one to be found who is not sitting in his place let the deacon who is within, rebuke him, and make him to rise and sit in his fitting place … also, in the church the young ones ought to sit separately, if there is a place, if not let them stand. Those of more advanced age should sit separately; the boys should sit separately or their fathers and mothers should take them and stand; and let the young girls sit separately, if there is really not a place, let them stand behind the women; let the young who are married and have little children stand separately, the older women and widows should sit separately. [This may all seem a bit complicated, but the bottom line is that seating was according to sex and age: the men on one side, the women on the other, older folks to the front, younger ones to the back. Also, those caring for young children were to stand in a separate area. See? Even in the old days there was a "cry room!"] And a deacon should see that each one who enters gets to his place, and that none of these sits in an inappropriate place. Likewise, the deacon ought to see that there are none who whisper or sleep or laugh or nod off. [Wait a minute! Do you mean to tell me that some of the early Christians did such things? Say it isn't so! Today, ushers do this preserving of good order, but the need remains.] For in the Church it is necessary to have discipline, sober vigilance, and attentive ear to the Word of the Lord. [Well that is said pretty plainly—and the advice is still needed.]
It is critical for us who would preach the Gospel to ponder what sorts of presuppositions our listeners bring to the conversation. Today, sadly, there are many trends that have poisoned the culture and make our task much more difficult.
Yesterday we explored six problem areas. Today four more. It helps to describe modern mindsets not to despair of them, but rather to look at them with some insight rather than being only vaguely aware of them. If we are more clear on the presuppositions that people bring to the table, we can better direct our message to them and ask them to consider if these notions are helpful or right. For indeed, most bring their preconceptions to the conversation subconsciously. Bringing their premises to light can act as a kind of medicine or solvent that will assist us in clearing the thorns so that the seeds of truth can be sown.
So, here are four more problematic presuppositions.
I. Reductionism – This is a philosophical position which holds that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of its individual constituents. Most commonly today reductionism is found in the explanation of complex human phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry.
Reductionism tends, therefore, to reduce the human person to the merely biological. Thus every thought, emotion, passion, desire, memory, or wish is just a bunch of chemicals in the brain, the firing of synapses, etc. Even clearly metaphysical concepts such as justice, mercy, beauty, infinity, and so forth must somehow be explained in terms of brain cells and physical processes. The human person is thus reduced to a sort of brain on a stick or a collection of chemicals and atoms.
Yet from the standpoint of causation (in particular formal and final causality), it is hard to say how something merely physical can generate that which is metaphysical. The term metaphysical means, literally, “that which is beyond the physical.” Hence things such as beauty, goodness, justice, moral uprightness, the infinite, etc. are not “physical” things that can be weighed on a scale or spotted out for a walk together. One does not expect to walk into a restaurant and see justice sitting down to dinner with morality. These things are real, in fact so real that many of them have inspired marriages and launched wars. But they are not physical. But since nothing can give what it does not have, one may reasonably wonder how a merely physical entity such as the brain can “produce” metaphysical concepts. How can we, who (physically) only know closed and limited time, “imagine” infinity?
Some say these are merely emanations of the physical mind, conceptualizations of the bicameral intellect, or abstractions of the brain. But pardon me for pointing out that “conceptualizations” and “abstractions” are metaphysical concepts, and you’re not allowed to use metaphysics to say that there is no such thing as metaphysics.
“Never mind,” say the reductionists, “science will ONE DAY be able to explain it.” But again I object that such an answer is a kind of “God of the gaps” argument and I would like an answer today, please, since you are rejecting metaphysics today.
The traditional answer still makes the most sense: the human capacity to grasp the metaphysical—the spiritual, if you will—points to a metaphysical or spiritual dimension to the human person. Our spiritual capacity points to a spiritual cause that can give what it has: a spiritual sense, an openness to things beyond the physical. Clearly the brain is an essential way in which the soul exercises many of its faculties, but we are not simply to be reduced to a brain.
But reductionism is a common view today and produces a culture that is hostile to those of us who point to the to importance of the soul. While faith surely regards our body, it most surely also summons us to attend to our soul. But in a reductionist world, concerns for the soul are set aside as irrelevant. The local gym is full; the Church is empty. Obsessions about physical health abound, but there is little concern for the soul. Stop smoking; it could kill you. But there is little similar concern for sinning, which could permanently land you in a “smoky” place.
Thus one form of reductionism reduces me to my body. But in a strange twist, many reductionists also play the other side of the fence simultaneously. And thus many also see their body as a mere appendage. My body is merely something I have, a kind of tool if you will. In this reductionism the “I” seems to be some soulful agent who can use his body without reference or effect on himself. And thus absurd statements can be made by some reductionists such as that “I” am really a female, but trapped in a male body. The self in this case is thus reduced to the “soul” and the body is a mere suit of sorts, a machine, or something akin to that.
“Well this is crazy,” you might say. “Which is it going to be? Am I reduced to my body or to my soul?” Well, your first mistake is to seek consistency in these dark days. But, to answer your question more directly, the form of reductionism you choose is whatever form benefits you in the moment to justify whatever you want to do. And don’t worry about maintaining consistency because too many people are just too dazed to do all the math anyway; you’ll likely get away with almost any crazy inconsistency you want to hold.
And while we’re on the reductionist kick, why don’t we reduce marriage—a lifelong loving union of a man and a woman bearing the sweet fruit of love in their children—to just two (or more) adults being happy together for as long as they please? Yes, let’s just take the one thing and lose the rest. And how about sex? Let’s reduce it from being about love, pleasure, and procreation, to just being about pleasure. Yeah, let’s lose that necessary connection to procreation and pretend that the sperm and ovum aren’t ever there, or kill them and thwart their purpose. Who invited them anyway? And let’s also play the other side of the fence and reduce having children to a technology in a petri dish and lose all that messy, unpredictable, marital embrace stuff, which is so unfair to “gay” people and to people who want children but can’t find a spouse or don’t want one.
Yeah, that’s it. Let’s just reduce everything down to its parts, take what we like, and leave the rest.
Well pardon me, dear reader, for my tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the increasingly dark world of reductionism. But as evangelizers we need to know some of the twists and turns of the reductionism that dominates our age. The Catholic and biblical world strives to speak to the rich tapestry and beauty of what God has done and the connections He has intended. Increasingly, we are living in a world that separates what God has joined, and we are going to have to work long and hard to get people beyond the consumerist thinking that wants (some of) the parts without the whole. We must work hard to show that a reductionist approach is ultimately foolhardy and has many very bad consequences.
I will strive to be briefer with the next three presuppositions.
II. Scientism – This is itself a form of reductionism. Scientism is the position that emphatically states “The physical sciences explain all reality.” The only problem is that the statement itself is not a scientific statement; it is a (flawed) metaphysical statement. There is no way that the claim can be verified scientifically. Thus while defending (boastfully) the physical sciences as being the only necessary explanation for everything, the boaster must step outside of science—set aside science, in fact—in order to make the claim. It’s usually not a good idea to break the very rule you are announcing in the very act of announcing it.
Clearly the physical sciences are a great boon to our modern age. But the physical sciences can only attend to the physical world. The physical sciences are good at addressing material and efficient causality but are not able to speak to formal and final causality. The physical sciences are good at explaining how things physically come about but are not equipped to answer the deeper questions related to “Why?” Why does anything exist at all? And what is the final purpose to which all things tend? These are not questions science is equipped to answer.
But clearly we live in times in which many practically idolize the physical sciences and are dismissive of anything that cannot be weighed on a scale or seen under a microscope. Evangelization is now much more difficult. We must spend a lot of time showing how many very real things (justice, loyalty, etc.), things that effect very real changes, are not physical but are nevertheless real. We must re-invite many to discover the necessity and the beauty of the metaphysical realities of art, ethics, philosophy, and theology.
III. Heresy and “Designer” Religion – Even within the realm of believers are legions of Catholics and Protestants who feel utterly entitled to design their own religion and their own God. We used to call this heresy and idolatry.
In the past the heretics and idolaters at least had the decency to commit formal schism and go off and found their own religion. But in lazy times like these, many prefer to stay within their religion—one they reject at fundamental levels—and live off the money, off the resources, and in the buildings of the very faith they disrespect so boldly. It’s just so much trouble to have to go and build your own buildings and find your own followers, you know. So the lazy, modern form of this is to say, “I am a faithful Catholic, but … ” And then out comes the list of things picked and chosen from Catholicism or Christianity.
The word heresy comes from a Greek word meaning “choose.” It is true that many of the truths of our faith are held in some tension. Are we free or is God sovereign? Orthodoxy says, “Both,” and holds that the tension is acceptable because there are mysteries and limits to our knowledge that prevent us from simply resolving every tension. But heresy will not abide the tension and thus chooses one and discards the other. Is God loving and merciful? Yes! But then why is there judgment and Hell? Both must be held, says orthodoxy, and while there are mysteries, clearly God will not compel our “Yes.” To this, heresy says, “No way!” and so rids itself of the tension by redesigning God or by discarding the clear revelation of judgment and Hell.
Many today feel utterly free to call themselves Christians, to call themselves Catholics, and then go on to pick and choose what they like. They see this as a kind of God-given right and are supported in this by new-age spirituality and the “God-within” movements of Oprah and company. Yes, “I gotta be me. I gotta be true to myself.” So the real Jesus has to go.
And because most of these moderns cannot abide the Jesus of Scripture, so they rework Him and tame Him. They take some qualities they like—His love and His ministry of healing—and discard His less than pleasant warnings about judgment, or His summons to carry the cross, or His demand for a chastity so thorough that it even prohibits lustful thoughts.
And never mind quoting scripture to them. They are essentially “post-scriptural” and cannot be bothered with the details of the actual revelation. God has spoken to them personally. God is love and would never do or say anything that might upset anyone. One line trumps every other word and line of scripture: God is love.
This is heresy: picking one thing discard the rest. This is a “designer” Jesus, one who coincidentally agrees with everything the dissenters wish to do or think. And don’t even think of quoting St. Paul.
Here, too, we who would evangelize are going to have to keep chipping away at this. But have confidence! There are many who have come out of this fog; we need to keep working.
IV. Arrested Development – A final factor I would like to cover is not so much a presupposition or mindset as it is a simple lack of maturity. We live in a culture here in the West that I would argue is best described as developmentally fixated on teenage issues. Collectively, we behave like the classic teenager: hating authority, demanding all the rights yet rejecting any responsibilities, titillated by and imprudent about sex, obsessed with “fairness” (but only in an egocentric way), constantly pushing boundaries just to assert ourselves, insisting we know a few things and being resistant to being taught (“too cool for school”), behaving recklessly (dismissing any consequences), obsessed with trends and fitting in, always asserting our independence but insisting others pay our way. I could go on, but you get the point. I have written more on this problem here: Stuck on Teenage.
But as evangelizers we must be sober and aware of our need to summon many people to maturity and to get there ourselves. Someone has to be the adult in the room. And we must be very careful not to try to appeal to the world around us by asking “Mother Church” to don jeans and adopt teenage foolishness. The Church must be kind, but clear, in insisting that everyone come to full maturity in Christ.
What is Captain Kirk doing up there at the top of the post? He is engaging a destructive robot name “Nomad.” Nomad has flawed programing and needs to be engaged in his error by Captain Kirk. And while Kirk ultimately causes Nomad’s destruction, we who love God’s people seek their salvation.
It is critical for us who would preach the Gospel to ponder what sorts of presuppositions our listeners bring to the conversation. Today, sadly, there are many trends that have poisoned the culture and make our task much more difficult.
But difficult does not mean impossible. It helps to describe modern mindsets not to despair of them, but rather to look at them with some insight rather than being only vaguely aware of them. If we are more clear on the presuppositions that people bring to the table, we can better direct our message to them and ask them to consider if these notions are helpful or right. For indeed, most bring their preconceptions to the conversation subconsciously. Bringing their premises to light can act as a kind of medicine or solvent that will assist us in clearing the thorns so that the seeds of truth can be sown.
I list here six presuppositions and try to avoid an overly philosophical analysis, instead attempting to use a more descriptive approach. The first few may seem familiar but the last three are less often discussed. Please add to this list in the comments box. I also hope to discuss other presuppositions tomorrow.
I. Secularism – The word “secular” comes from the Latin saecula, which is translated as “world,” but can also be understood to refer to the age or times in which we live. Secularism is excessive concern about the things of this world and the times in which we live. It does this to the exclusion of the values and virtues of Heaven and the Kingdom of God. The preoccupation with the things of this world crowds out any concern for the things of Heaven.
Hostile – And it is not merely a matter of preoccupation with the world, but, often, it is a case of outright hostility to things outside the “saecula” (world or age). Spiritual matters are often dismissed by the worldly as irrelevant, naïve, hostile, and divisive. Secularism is an attitude that demands all our attention be devoted to the world and its priorities.
Misplaced Priorities – The attitude of secularism also causes many who adopt it to tuck their faith under worldly priorities and views. In this climate, many are far more passionate about and dedicated to their politics than to their faith. Their faith is “tucked under” their political views and made to conform to them. It should be the opposite—political views should be subordinate to faith. The Gospel should trump our politics, our worldview, our opinions, and all worldly influences. Faith should be the doorkeeper. Everything should be seen in the light of faith. But secularism reverses all this and demands to trump the truths of faith.
Secularism is the error wherein I insist that the faith should give way when it opposes some worldly way of thinking or some worldly priority. If faith gets in the way of career, guess which gives? If faith forbids me from doing what I please and what the world affirms, guess which gives way? The spirit of the world often sees the truths of faith as unreasonable and unrealistic, and demands that they give way, either by compromise or a complete setting aside of faith.
As people of faith, we should put the world and its values on trial. But secularism in us instead puts the faith on trial and demands it conform to worldly thinking and priorities.
Secularism also increasingly demands that faith be privatized. Faith is to have no place in the public square of ideas or values. If Karl Marx said it, fine. But if Jesus said it, it has to go. Every other interest group can claim a place in the public square, in the public schools, etc. But the Christian faith has no place. Yes, God has to go. Secularism in its “purest” form demands a faith-free, God-free world. Jesus promised that the world would hate us as it hated Him. This remains true, and secularism describes the rising tendency for the world to get its way.
To make this world our priority and let it overrule our faith, is to board a ship doomed to sink with no life boats on board. With secularism, our fascination and loyalty is primarily to the world, and this amounts to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” If the world is really all that matters then we are the most pitiable of men, for everything we value is doomed and already passing away.
II. Materialism – Most people think of materialism as the tendency to acquire and need lots of material things. It includes this, but true materialism goes far deeper. In effect, materialism is the error that insists that physical matter is the only thing that is real or existent. Materialism holds that only those things that can be weighed on a scale, seen in a microscope, or empirically experienced (through the five senses) are real. The modern error of scientism, which insists that nothing outside the world of the physical sciences exists or is real, flows from materialism. (More on that HERE.)
In effect, materialism says that matter is all that “matters.” The spiritual is either non-existent or irrelevant to the materialist. This of course leads to the tendency to acquire things and neglect the spiritual. If matter is all that really matters then we will tend to want large amounts of it. Bigger houses, more things, and more creature comforts are all amassed in order to give meaning and satisfaction to me.
In the end, however, it is a cruel joke since, All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Eccles 1:7). And again, Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. [It] is meaningless … The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep (Eccles 5:10-12). But never mind that; the materialist will still insist it is the only thing real or relevant.
The error of materialism is ultimately tied up in thinking that matter is all that exists and that man, a creature of matter and spirit, can be satisfied only with matter. Materialism denies a whole world of moral and spiritual realities that are meant to nourish the human person: goodness, beauty, truth, justice, equity, transcendence, courage, feelings, attitudes, angels, and God. These are ultimately spiritual realities. They may have physical manifestations to some extent, but they are not physical. Justice does not walk through the door and take a seat in the front row. Transcendence does not step out for a stroll, give a speech, or shake hands with beauty. Such things are not merely material.
To deny the spiritual is to already be dying, for the form of this world is passing away. To deny the spiritual is to have little to live for other than today, for tomorrow is uncertain and one step closer to death.
III. Individualism – The error of individualism exalts the individual over and above all notions of the common good, and our need to live responsibly in communion with God and others. Individualism exalts the view of the individual at the expense of the received wisdom of tradition.
Individualism demands autonomy without proper regard to the rights and needs of others. It minimizes duties toward others and maximizes personal prerogatives and privileges. It also tends to deny a balanced notion of dependence on others for human formation, and the need to accept correction and instruction.
Individualism also tends to be defiant and declare, “I will not be told what to do.” Hence there is little notion of being required to conform to the truth or even to reality. The notion that I should live by the “creeds of dead white men” is rejected as absurd, repressed, and even unhealthy.
Most individualists think of themselves as having an intrinsic right to make their own religion, to invent their own deity, and even craft their own reality. In the past these sorts of things were called idolatry, syncretism, heresy, and delusional thinking. But today many in our culture celebrate this notion as a strange form of liberty, not seeing it for the isolation that it is, and not recognizing that they are consigning themselves to the status of spiritual orphans.
Personal freedom and autonomy have their place and should not be usurped by government or other collectives. But freedom today is often misunderstood as the ability to do whatever I please, instead of the ability—the power—to do what is good. Freedom is not absolute and should not be detached from respect for the rights and welfare of others. Individualism ultimately scoffs at this idea.
Never mind that excessive and mistaken notions of freedom have caused great harm in our culture and it is often children who suffer the most. Sexual promiscuity, easy divorce, abortion, substance abuse, etc. are an abuse of freedom and cause harm to both children and to the wider society that must often seek to repair the damage caused by irresponsible behavior. Individualism still scoffs at this, refusing to acknowledge any personal responsibility for societal ills.
Individualism, because it rejects the collective wisdom of the ages, also leads to the iconoclasm of the next problematic area: the hermeneutic of discontinuity.
IV. The Hermeneutic of Discontinuity – The word “hermeneutic” refers to the interpretive key by which one sees and understands the world. Thus, the phrase “hermeneutic of discontinuity” refers to those who interpret previous generations and their wisdom as flawed, erroneous, naïve, and so forth.
It will be granted that no past era was perfect or all wise. Nevertheless, there is an accumulated wisdom that has stood the test of time.
But those possessed of the hermeneutic of discontinuity will have none of it. It is old, and therefore bad, irrelevant, unenlightened, bigoted, naïve, superstitious, backward, medieval, and so forth.
In the Church, we are just emerging from a time when anything “old” was dismissed as “pre-Vatican II.” There was a presumed break and a great chasm with the past that we “ought” to observe, that it was somehow “wrong” to quote St. Thomas or the Council of Trent.
There is a widespread, arrogant, modern notion that we have “come of age.” We confuse our technical knowledge with wisdom. But our arrogance cuts us off from the collected wisdom of our ancestors and we make mistakes that were long ago recognized as harmful and foolish.
Here, too, as the Church “re-proposes” the Gospel, she is proposing the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the ages. Yet a modern world, often locked in the hermeneutic of discontinuity, scoffs merely on the basis that what we propose is ancient rather than modern.
Regardless, we must continue to insist upon and preach the wisdom of God, in season and out of season. We must refuse to be swayed by false notions of and demands for relevance. The true meaning of the word relevant is not “modern” or “hip.” The word comes from the Latin re (again) + levare (to lift). And thus, it means to take up again what was dropped or which fell by the wayside.
Our job is to persevere and by our persistence keep the wisdom of God ever before humanity like a burning torch. We must preach the Gospel in season and out of season and not confuse ephemeral notions with wisdom. But neither should we imagine that there is nothing good today or that something is bad simply because it is modern. Jesus says, Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (Mt 13:52).
V. Neo-Nominalism – There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals—things that can be illustrated by many particular things (e.g., strength, humanity). The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects since they do not exist in space and time. Most nominalists have held that only physical particulars in space and time are real, and that universals exist only subsequent to particular things. The term “nominalism” stems from the Latin word nomen (name).
The modern and more lazy version of nominalism, which I will here call neo-nominalism, holds that words (nomen = word) are simply arbitrary sounds we assign to things that reflect us, more than anything we call reality. In a more sweeping way, whole categories are also dismissed.
Thus, for example, words and categories such as male, female, marriage, abortion, euthanasia, etc. are just words we assign; they are mere human “constructs” that do not exist in reality. So, many claim the right today to move beyond human words and categories such as male, female, marriage, and so forth. They also claim the right to assign new words to describe these realties. Abortion becomes “choice,” “reproductive freedom,” or “women’s healthcare.” Unnatural acts of sodomy are called “gay” (a word that used to mean happy) and anal sex is celebrated as an “expression of love.” Same-sex “pseudo-gamy” is called “marriage.” Suicide or killing of the aged or imperfect is called “euthanasia” (a word that mean means “good death” in Greek). Sexual identity is now called “gender” (a grammatical category of nouns in nearly one-fourth of the world’s languages, not a word for human sexual differentiation).
Neo-nominalism claims the right to define new reality and scoffs at the more humble proposition that we ought to discover reality and conform to it. Nominalism casts aside such humility and claims the right to merely define reality by inventing new words and thoughts and then imposing them on what really is. And thus we get endless absurdities such as LGBTQ (and Lord knows what letter will be added next). We have bizarre notions such as being “transgendered,” a concept that denies human distinctions that could not be more obvious and are literally inscribed in our bodies. But the neo-nominalists will not be troubled with reality.
The next and even more absurd “edge universe” for many of them is the so called “transhuman” movement in which even the reality of being human is dismissed as a mere “construct.” People will claim the right to start calling themselves other species and (presumably) the right to engage in all sorts of bizarre consort with animals, the “right” to develop cross-cloning, etc. For after all, who is to say what is “human” to these neo-nominalist iconoclasts?
For them, there is no reality per se, just human constructs that are fungible. So-called “reality” is merely to be toyed with and defined according to the latest whim and need for self-justification through the re-describing of what is actually happening.
Neo-nominalism gets very dark and very absurd very quickly, as we are observing every day in our increasingly indecipherable “anti-culture.”
VI. Hedonism – This is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē “pleasure” and is akin to the Greek hēdys meaning “sweet.”
Of course pleasure is to be desired and to some degree sought, but it is not the sole good in life. Indeed, some of our greatest goods and accomplishments require sacrifice: years of study and preparation for a career; the blood, sweat, and tears of raising children.
But hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. Hedonism is directly opposed to the theology of the Cross. St. Paul spoke in his day of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Php 3:18–19). He also taught that the cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).
Things have not changed, my friends. And thus the world reacts with great indignation whenever the cross or suffering is even implied. And so the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask (rhetorically) of the Church: “Are you saying that a poor woman who was raped needs to carry the child to term and cannot abort?” (Yes we are.) Are you saying that a “gay” person can never marry his or her gay lover and must live celibately?” (Yes, we are.) “Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world as handicapped and cannot be aborted and put out of his (read “our”) misery?” (Yes we are.) “Are you saying that a dying person in pain cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain?” (Yes, we are.)
The shock expressed in these rhetorical questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” to the modern hedonist mentality, which sees pleasure as the only true human good. To the hedonist, a life without enough pleasure is a life not worth living. And anyone who would seek to set limits on the lawful (and sometime unlawful) pleasures of others is mean, hateful, absurd, obtuse, intolerant, and just plain evil.
When pleasure is life’s only goal or good how dare you, or the Church, or anyone seek to set limits on pleasure let alone suggest that the way of the cross is better or required of us! You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.
And indeed many faithful Catholics in the pews are deeply infected with the illusion of hedonism and thus take up the voice of bewilderment, anger, and scoffing whenever the Church points to the cross and insists on self-denial, sacrifice, and doing the right thing even when the cost is great. The head wagging in congregations is often visible if the priest dares mention that abortion, euthanasia, IVF, contraception, and so forth are wrong and should be set aside regardless of the cost, or if he preaches about the reality of the cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at any notion that might limit the pleasure others want to pursue.
Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the cross and redemptive suffering seem like a distant planet or a parallel and strange universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reworked Jesus and cannot conceive that He would want them to be anything but happy, content, and pleased. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” And on this basis all sorts of sinful behavior is supposed to be tolerated because insisting on the opposite is “hard” and because it seems “mean” to speak of the cross or of self-discipline in a hedonistic culture.
Bringing people back to the real Jesus and to the real message of the Gospel, which features the cross as the way to glory, takes a lot of work and a long conversation. We must be prepared to have that long conversation with people.
There are other modern trends I hope to discuss tomorrow (e.g., reductionism, minimalism, scientism, fixation).
Today’s gospel teaches us to pray always and not lose heart. This is a gospel about having tenacity in prayer and, even when the results seem discouraging, continuing to beseech the Lord. It is also a gospel about the Lord’s will to extend the gospel to all the nations and to make the Church truly catholic.
Let’s look at this gospel in five stages.
STAGE I. TRAVELS - The text says, At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Thus Jesus goes north of Israel into the territory we know today as Lebanon.
Now Matthew is not just giving us a quick travelogue here. We are not interested merely in Jesus’ physical location but, even more, in what this location signifies. Jesus has gone up north to pagan territory. Other things being equal, this is a rather odd destination for a Jewish preacher. But we need to recall that Jesus is preparing the Church for a mission to all the nations. So it makes sense that He pushes the boundaries of the Jewish world. Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Samaritans as if to say, “The racism of a Jewish-only world must now end. The Gospel must break the boundaries of nation and race and be truly universal, truly catholic.”
This vision of the Gentiles being drawn to the Lord was actually well attested to in the Old Testament. But, just like today, there were texts in the Scriptures that were popular and well known and others that were conveniently “forgotten” or had little effect. Consider a few examples of texts that announced the entry of the Gentiles into the Holy People of God:
- The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants–all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:6-9).
- I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Is 49:6).
- Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “mother” for all shall be her children (Psalm 87:4-5).
- I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord … All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord (Is 66:18; 23).
Hence we can see that the Jewish people’s own Scriptures spoke of a day when Jews and Gentiles together would worship the Lord and be His people.
This introductory note about Jesus’ location is essential to understanding the text that will follow. We must grasp Jesus’ will to reach out to the Gentiles. We do this in order to appreciate that some of the harsh tone He exhibits later can likely be understood as a rhetorical means of questioning racial and national division rather than as an affirmation of such division. In effect He is tweaking His disciples and the Church and giving voice to their fears and hostilities. In so doing He also calls out the Canaanite woman in order to show forth one who is willing to set aside these racist notions for a greater good.
Let’s watch it unfold.
Stage II. TORMENT – The text says, And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
It is a sure fact that Canaanites were despised by Jews. And Canaanites returned the favor and despised them right back. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. In her torment and desperation this woman no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her!
She has likely heard of Jesus’ power to save and heal. She looks past her racial hatred and, risking terrible personal rebuke, calls on Jesus. Her sorrow crosses boundaries. The only enemy she cares about is the demon afflicting her daughter.
It is sad but true that a common enemy can often unite factions. It should not take this, but the Lord will take whatever he can get to unite us.
So torment has lowered the barriers.
Stage III. TEST - The text says, But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”…. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
It is a shocking and daring thing that Jesus does here. He takes up the voice of sin, oppression, racism, and nationalism. It is a very strange thing to hear come from the mouth of the Lord, who has already journeyed among the Samaritans and Gentiles, healing them and often praising their faith (e.g. Lk 8:26; Mt 8:10; Lk 7:9; Matt 8:11 inter al).
The usual explanation is that He is calling out this woman’s faith and through her is summoning His disciples to repentance. The disciples want the Lord to order her away. In effect, He takes up their voices and the voice of all oppression and utters the hateful sayings of the world, even going so far as to use the term “dog” to refer to her.
Yes, Jesus is testing her, trying to awaken something in her. He is also giving voice to the ugly thoughts of His disciples and likely others, Gentile and Jew, who were standing by and watching with marvel and disdain the interaction of a Gentile, a Gentile woman, and a Jew.
There is a saying, “Things do, by opposition grow.” And thus, through this test, Jesus increases her faith and possibly that of the bystanders. Just as an athlete grows by facing tougher opponents and a musician improves by playing tougher pieces, so does the testing of this woman’s faith cause it to grow.
Remember, God tested Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Esther, Susannah, Judith, Gideon, and countless others. The Canaanite woman, too, is being tested. And like those of old she, too, will grow by the test.
We, too, are tested. For God seems at times to be strangely silent and we are made to feel like no child of God at all. Indeed we may often conclude that even the dogs live better than we.
So the question for us remains. Will we give way during the test or hold out until our change comes? Will our faith grow or wither? Will our love grow stronger or will it change to resentment?
Stage IV. TENACITY – The text says, But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Note here that the woman is not put off. Whatever anger, grief, or discouragement may move through her, she perseveres.
She is even bold and creative. In a sense, she will not take no for an answer.
- She is like Mother Mary at Cana, who did not pause for a moment when Jesus seemed dubious of her request (Jn 2:5).
- She is like the widow before the Judge in Jesus’ parable, who never stopped pestering the judge for a favorable ruling (Lk 18:1-8).
- She is like the blind man at the side of the road, who still kept calling for Jesus despite the rebuke of the crowds (Lk 18:39).
- She is like the parents who brought their infants to Jesus for a blessing, who withstood rebuke by the disciples and won through to the blessing (Mk 10:13-16).
- She is like Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to see Jesus despite his short stature (Lk 19:1ff).
- She is like the widow with the hemorrhage, who, though weak and ritually unclean, pressed thorough the crowd and grabbed the hem of Jesus’ garments (Mk 5:28).
- She is like the lepers, who, though forbidden by law to enter the town, sought the Lord at the Gates and fell down before Him (Luke 17).
Yes, she has tenacity. She will hold out until the change (the healing she desires for her daughter) is accomplished. She will not give up or let go of Jesus no matter how unwilling He seems, no matter how politically incorrect her request appears, no matter how much hostility she encounters from the disciples, the crowds, or even Jesus Himself. She will hold out.
Here is a woman with tenacity! How about you?
Stage V. TRIUMPH – The text says, Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
Here is the victory. She has gone from torment to triumph by a tenacious and tested faith. Jesus now takes away the veil of His role and shows His true self—the merciful, wonder-working Messiah and Lord.
Jesus says to her, “Great is your faith.” But how has it become so? In the crucible of testing, that’s how. We may wonder at God’s delays, at His seeming disinterest or even anger. But in the end it is our faith that is most important to Him.
Our faith is more important to God than our finances, our comfort, or our desired cures. For it is by faith that we are saved. We are not saved by our health, by comforts, by money, or by good fortune. And God is willing to delay; He is willing to test us and try us, if only for the sake of our stronger faith by which He will save us. God saves us, but He does it through our faith.
Why all this delay? Why the suffering? Why the trials? Stronger faith, that’s why! God may not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time. For His true goal is not to give us what we want, but rather what we need—stronger faith.
Having done this, the Lord gives her the triumph. We, too, must accept that God’s truest blessing for us is not better health or improved finances; it is stronger faith.
Consider well the lesson of this gospel. Though God often seems uninterested, even cruel, He is working His purposes out and seeking to increase our faith. Hard, you say? What parent among you has not had to do the same for your child? For children, untested and untried, who get their every wish, who never have to wait, become spoiled, self-centered, and headed for ultimate ruin. Consider well that God knows exactly what He is doing and consider, too, that most of us are hard cases. God must often work mightily to get our attention and strengthen our faith. Do not give up on God; He is up to something good, very good.
Photo Credit: Goodsalt.com, used with permission.
I have it on the best of authority that as this woman saw Jesus coming up the road she sang this song:
Pass me not O gentle savior
hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by
Savior, savior, hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by
Let me at a throne of mercy
find a sweet relief
kneeling there in deep contrition
help my unbelief