One of the most remarkable aspects of the crucifixion of Jesus is his humble reserve. As God he has all power to end his suffering and humiliation in an instant. He had already reminded Peter, Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”(Matt26:52-54)
And now as he hung on the Cross, Satan and the crowds give him one last and final temptation, the call to come down from the Cross:
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. (Matt 27:39-44)
The temptation is to pride and power, to anything but the Cross. They seem to taunt him saying, “Since God is powerful, if you were God, you would have the power to come down and not be overpowered by your enemy.
The temptation is very crafty and very worldly. To the worldly minded the demand makes sense. In effect, if it is faith you want, you can have it from me if you will come down from the cross. Then I will be impressed, and then I will believe. In effect the tempters want to be saved on their own terms.
Why does Jesus stay on the Cross? Three reasons, at least:
1. Humility – Jesus is out to overcome Satan. In the world, we seek to overpower our foes. Does it work? No, usually the cycle of violence just continues and gets worse. We think, If I can just yell louder, outwit my opponent, or outgun him, I win the day. Yes, but there is more to life than a day. And the next day your opponent returns with louder and more witty arguments and bigger guns. The cycle of violence just continues. It is endless power struggle.
But as was once said, Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive our hatred, only love can do that. And, here at the cross, I would add, Pride cannot drive out pride, only humility can do that.
And therefore, though coaxed by the crowd and Satan into power struggle, the Lord chooses the only weapon truly effective against Pride, that is, humility. It is like kryptonite to the Devil.
To our eyes it seems the Lord is defeated. But in his humility the Lord is doing more damage to Satan than we could ever imagine. The Lord stays on the cross to defeat Satan’s pride by profound humility. He does this despite Satan’s desperate attempts to engage his pride, and summon him to a power struggle.
2. Obedience – It was disobedience that got us into trouble. It will be obedience that restores us. Adam said, “No.” Jesus, the New Adam, says “Yes.” It is not essentially the suffering of Jesus that saves us, it is his obedience, and the suffering is part of that obedience.
Jesus decide to obey his Father, no matter the cost. Isaiah says of Jesus, “He suffered because he willed it.” (Is 53:7) St. Thomas says that if Jesus had suffered and gone to the cross, but not willed it, we would not be saved. Jesus himself said, “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down freely. (Jn 10:18) Cassian says, “We are saved by the human decision of a divine person.”
Jesus went to the cross and decided to stay on the cross in obedience. And it is by his obedience, his will to obey and save us that we are saved.
3. To save me – At a more personal level, we can also see, based on what has already been said, that Jesus decided to stay on the cross to save me. If he had come down, I would not be saved. You would not be saved. We might have been impressed, we might have even had a kind of faith. But it would not be a saving faith.
Pure and simple Jesus decided to stay on the cross and to endure mockery, shame, pain and death, to save a poor sinner like me. And old gospel song says,
When Jesus hung on Calvary, people came from miles to see
They said, If you be the Christ, come down and save your life
But Jesus, sweet Jesus, never answered them
For He knew that Satan was tempting
If He had come down from the cross, my soul would still be lost
If He had come down from the cross, my soul would still be lost
He would not come down from the cross just to save himself
He decided to die just to save me
In the Matthean Passion account, we come to the trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate is a study in evasion and vacillation. Despite being a man of great political and worldly power, Pilate is indecisive, inwardly troubled, and quite incapable of doing what he knows is right. Despite the outward power he had, inwardly he was weak and morally compromised. And in his weakness, he does something very awful: he violates his own conscience and sentences an innocent man to death.
Let’s look at his story in five stages.
I. Attempted Avoidance - At a professional level, Pilate thought the whole matter brought before him to be a theological dispute among the Jews and, for this reason wanted nothing to do with it. Yet he could see a storm was brewing as the crowds grew larger and noisier. If there were a riot at Passover, his career as Governor of Palestine (and hopefully upward to better posts) would be in jeopardy. Was there not some way out of this perilous matter of Jesus!?
On a personal level, Pilate is also troubled. His own wife, unnerved, tells him, Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matt 27:19). Yes, Pilate is anxious, unnerved, and seemingly quite avoidant of the whole matter. The last thing he wants to do is to have to make a decision one way or the other about Jesus.
But at the end of the day, every man, woman, and child on this planet is going to have to decide for or against Jesus. Pilate wants to avoid a decision, but ultimately, he cannot.
According to Luke’s Gospel, he seeks refuge in a jurisdictional solution:
On hearing [of Jesus' actions in the north] Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 26:6-7)
“Ah!” thinks Pilate. “Here is a way out. Herod can save me from having to take a stand on Jesus! Whatever the decision, I can evade responsibility.” But in the end, Herod merely sent him back to Pilate. Herod rendered no guilty verdict. Surely this would satisfy the crowd! But it does not.
Pilate (this also means you) is going to have decide about Jesus, one way or the other. No one else can make this decision for him. His attempt to avoid taking a stand on Jesus has failed.
II. Calls for Compromise - So it is now clear that a crucial moment is coming for Pilate. The text says,
Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, “You have said so,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. (Matt 27: 11-14)
It is evident that Pilate wants Jesus to give him a way out. If only Jesus will speak in a manner that will reassure all present. If only Jesus will not so unsettle others with his divine claims. If only he would not stand out in such stark black and white contrast; if only he would appreciate the need for a little more gray in this whole matter! Yes, if he will just compromise a little with his claims, all will be well!
But it will not be so for Pilate. Jesus remains silent to all the demands that he reassure others by diluting the truth or by compromising his message.
Many today are like Pilate, and seek to rework the true Jesus, to “tame” him, to paint a picture of him in soft focus and pastel colors. A “kinder, gentler” Jesus is trotted out by some, even by religious “leaders” in hopes of quieting the controversy and making it easier and more palatable for people to make a decision for Jesus.
But of course to decide for a fake Jesus is not the same as deciding for the real Jesus. A compromised, fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one can. Watering Jesus down, diminishing his moral demands or his summons to absolute faith in him, setting aside his insistence on being the central priority of our life even to the point of martyrdom, modernizing him, or seeking to turn him into a harmless hippie – none of this will work. One day you are going to have to decide on the real Jesus. Compromise will not work.
III. Substitution Stunt – Avoiding and compromising hasn’t worked, so Pilate tries substitution. It’s the old bait and switch stunt. Let’s find something or someone to replace the decision. So Pilate trots out Barabbas.
Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him…But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matt 27:16-20)
Pilate thought that surely the crowd would not prefer the swindler and robber, Barabbas, to Jesus, who had been so popular earlier that very week. Pilate reasoned that it was only the leaders among the Jews who feared and hated Jesus, out of concern only for their own power. Yes, surely the crowds would favor Jesus from Galilee over Barabbas. Surely! This bait and switch, this substitution, would get Pilate off the hook so he wouldn’t have to decide about Jesus. Or so he thought.
But it will not work. The religious leaders have seeded the crowd. Barabbas is chosen. Pilate is still stuck with the Jesus question!
Here too, many of us try similar bait and switch tactics. Radically following Jesus is a bit too much for some. But how about buying off or deflecting the decision? Perhaps it amounts to writing a nice big check to charity, or engaging in some good work. Perhaps some religious ritual can buy some time or placate the Lord, who stands silently by waiting for an answer from me as to his Kingship in my life.
It is significant that the “substitute Jesus” that Pilate trots out for his bait and switch has the name “Jesus Barabbas” (a name that means “Jesus, Son of the Father”). Yes, the substitute that Pilate uses bears a name and title similar to the real Jesus. But he is NOT the real Jesus. And neither are our attempts at check writing or perfunctory religious observance (though having aspects of Christ) the real Jesus. Our substitution stunt, our bait and switch, cannot buy off the question, or avoid the decision we must make for or against the real Jesus. We too must ultimately face the “Jesus Question.”
IV. Refusing Responsibility – Exasperated, Pilate engages the crowd:
What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:23-25)
Pontius Pilate, the governor, the most powerful man in the region, the only one with the judicial faculty to hand a man over to death, stands before a crowd and claims that he is not responsible for what he does. He claims that, in violating his own conscience and handing over an innocent man to torture, he is innocent.
These are lies. Pilate cannot refuse responsibility for the decision he is making. He must be a man and own his choice. He has weighed the consequences. It will be either his career, or Jesus; it will be either his power and position, or Jesus; it will be his eventual promotion, or Jesus. Having been weighed against career, power, and promotion, Jesus is dismissed by Pilate and handed over for torture and crucifixion.
But Pilate cannot avoid responsibility despite the theatrics of washing his hands. Jesus’ blood is on your hands too, Governor Pilate. Down through the centuries your responsibility resounds: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried.”
Yes, Pilate had to decide about Jesus one way or the other. And so do you and I. No attempted avoidance, calls for compromise, substitution stunts, or refusing responsibility will work. You must decide, I must decide, one way or another, for or against Jesus. There is no third way. And if you think you can sit on the fence, know this for sure: one day Satan will say, “Come with me,” for Satan owns the fence.
You are free to decide, but you are not free to not decide. Jesus stands before you and “compels” a choice. What is your answer?
Here is a movie account of the trial from The Passion of the Christ. Note that both Pilate and Jesus speak in Latin. I think this is the director’s way of saying that Jesus, as God, is speaking personally to Pilate, thus he uses Pilate’s mother tongue.
As we continue to ponder some of the texts of the Matthean Passion Narrative, we turn to the difficult case of Judas. To many modern readers, Judas is something of a sympathetic character. Some of this is due to our (rather flawed) moral reasoning, reasoning that places exaggerated emphasis on subjective issues (such as intentions, feelings, etc.) and almost no emphasis on the objective morality of the act itself. Granted, both elements are important, but our modern emphasis creates a rather skewed tendency to evade personal responsibility and to overlook the objective harm of sin.
But, to be fair, the biblical text itself also evokes some sympathy for Judas, who deeply regretted what he had done and even went so far as to return the money. The text says,
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)
It is clear that Judas is sorrowful for his sin and this is surely one component of what we call contrition. He even returns the money, a further sign of his sorrow, and wishes to be free of any profit from his sin.
And yet we are also faced with the fact that he went and hanged himself, which, while further indicating his sorrow, remains objectively an act of despair. Instead of turning to Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end the pain of his guilt rather than facing the Lord, admitting his sin, and humbly seeking mercy from the Lord and His Body, the Church.
In this, Judas acts quite differently from Peter, who at first ran off in sorrow after denying the Lord, but did not turn in on himself. Rather, in spite of his humiliation, Peter remained rooted in the early community of the Church, and found healing with the Lord in an honest conversation at the lakeside (cf John 21). None of this could have been easy for Peter. Surely, a part of him wanted to run off and hide his guilt and shame from the Lord and from others. But unlike Judas, he stayed in communion with the early Church and let the Lord find him.
St. Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow for sin, and what he writes is instructive for us here when we ponder Judas and his fate:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)
And thus Godly sorrow draws us to repentance and back to the Lord. The Greek word here translated as “repentance” is μετάνοιαν (metanoian) meaning, more richly, “to come to a change of mind,” or “to change one’s thinking.” And this change “leads” us to salvation.
But what is salvation? It is not just to have a certain legal status; it is to be in a saving and transformative relationship with the Lord. And Godly sorrow leaves no regret because of this healing, merciful, and joyful relationship to which it restores us.
In this way, we can see how Judas’ sorrow was lacking in two important fruits. First, it did not lead him back to salvation, that is, back to Jesus. Second, it did not remove regret. Judas remained devastated and was not willing to seek to return to a relationship with Jesus. Why was this? It is hard to say. Perhaps he would have been too humiliated to face Jesus or the community. Whatever regret he had, he was not willing to share it humbly. And thus, instead of turning to the Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end his pain on his own terms rather than those of the Lord or his Body, the Church.
St. Paul says simply and bluntly of worldly sorrow: it produces death. It is known by its fruits: separation, isolation, inwardness, and finally death – both spiritual and physical.
So yes, Judas had sorrow for what he had done. But it was the wrong kind of sorrow, the worst kind of sorrow.
What became of Judas in terms of salvation? To many of us, despite a reflection like this, we retain the hope that perhaps he could ultimately have been saved. Was he? Here too we cannot certainly say. But Jesus himself gives us a rather sad clue when he says of Judas,
The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Mk 14:21)
It is difficult for us to imagine Jesus saying this about a man who is ultimately saved and makes it heaven. So while we’re not sure, it certainly doesn’t look too good for Judas!
Our sympathy for Judas has understandable roots. But in the end, his fatal flaw (and the difference between him and Peter) was that Judas repented unto himself, not unto the Lord. When you walk, sometimes you fall; but if you fall, make sure you fall on Jesus!
A final postscript to the sad story of Judas is to ponder what might have been. Can you imagine the glory of the moment, had Judas come to Jesus in sorrow and received mercy and forgiveness? Imagine beautiful churches all over the world named “St. Judas Parish,” “St Judas – Patron of Sinners,” “St Judas Refuge of Criminals,” “The Parish of St Judas the Reconciled.” Imagine the novenas and prayers of similar titles: “Novena to St. Judas, Patron of Lost Souls,” “A Prayer to St Judas for a Worthy Confession.” Parishes might even have dedicated their “Lost and Found” department to St. Judas!
But none of this was to be, “for worldly sorrow brings death.” Save us O Lord from final despair!
Continuing to look at some of the text from the Passion according to St. Matthew, we come to the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas the high priest.
Having heard false and conflicting testimony from various witnesses, Caiaphas turns to Jesus, and here is where we pick up the text:
The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Christ the son of God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so. But I tell you: from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Let’s look this text in three stages.
I. Obedience to Lawful Authority – Jesus has remained silent in the trial thus far. But at a critical moment in the trial, Caiaphas puts Jesus under oath. Caiaphas, as high priest, has the authority to do this. And on account of this, Jesus will in fact make an answer. In so doing, he demonstrates obedience to lawful authority.
Nowhere does Scripture counsel disrespect or disobedience to lawful authority. Jesus accepts the lawful authority of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Earlier he had counseled his disciples, The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matt 23:2-3)
Likewise, he would later say to Pilate You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above (Jn 19:11). And while he reminds Pilate that he will answer for his use of authority, he does acknowledge that Pilate has authority, and has it from God.
St. Paul would counsel and remind the early Christians, Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Rom 13:1-3)
None of these counsels and commands are to be taken to mean that those in authority were good or even just men. We have the authorities we deserve, and that God permits, and unless they command us to do something objectively evil, Scripture teaches that we are to obey lawful authority and show proper respect. If even Jesus can stand before the likes of Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate and accept their authority, then certainly we can do so.
Accepting the authority of those over us does not mean that we never air our differences or express our concerns. Jesus plainly did this, as did Paul and others. But at the end of the day, even less-than-perfect authorities are to be obeyed when they legitimately command us.
Thus as we shall now see, Jesus, having been put under oath, will answer the high priest.
II. Oath – Jesus is put under oath and ordered to answer whether or not he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus answers, “You say so.”
This answer may at first seem to us to be evasive and mildly disrespectful. But as we shall see, Jesus seeks to distinguish what he means by the term Messiah, or Christ, from what Caiaphas means. For many used the word “Messiah” in a way that Jesus was not comfortable with. Many understood the Messiah as a political figure or a military leader. But Jesus spoke of himself as a suffering Messiah, one who would bear the sins of the people, and having suffered and died, would rise on the third day.
The Messiah was to be a king, but not a king of this world. He was to wage war, but not against the Romans or some other enemy of flesh and blood, rather against Satan and the forces of darkness.
Thus, when Jesus is told to declare whether or not he is the Messiah, his expression “You say so” could also be rendered, “Those are your words.” Or more extensively,
“Yes I am a Messiah, but not in the way you understand. I am the Christ, the Messiah, but I have not come to wage war; I am not here to dislodge the Romans or to act in a way that you fear will bring Roman crackdown. No, I have come to suffer and die for the sins of the people. I’ve come to fulfill Scripture which says of the Messiah: He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed….the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is 53:5-6)
I have come to reconcile man to God and reopen the gates of heaven. Am I the Messiah, the Christ? You say so. And you’re right. But you and I do not mean ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ in any way remotely similar.”
As for confirming whether or not he is the Son of the living God, here too Jesus prefers different terminology, terminology that to our ears seems a lesser title than “Son of God.” Instead, Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man.”
Though to modern ears, “Son of Man” seems a lower title than “Son of God,” biblically this is not really the case. In the Scriptures, the title “Son of God,” or “Sons of God,” could refer to the Angels, but it could also refer to human beings, who are made in the image and likeness of God. For if God is their creator, He is in essence a Father to them, and they are his sons.
Of course, Jesus often did refer to himself as God’s Son in a unique sense, declaring that he and his Father were one (Jn 10:30), that to see Him was to see the Father (Jn 14:9). And he would often speak equivocally of himself and the Father, for example saying, My Father is working until now, and I am working (Jn 5:17).
And thus, to believers in Jesus, Jesus was in fact the Son of God in a unique, perfect, and sublime way. But for a typical Jew of the first century, hearing Jesus call himself the Son the living God, would have been ambiguous – even shocking.
Thus, Jesus does not simply answer back to the high priest, “Yes I am the Son of the living God,” but he goes on to call himself the Son of Man. In so doing, he taps into a passage from the Book of Daniel that speaks of the Messiah in high and divine terms. And to Jewish ears, the title “Son of Man,” while rarely used, was a far more exalted title for Jesus to claim of himself than the title “Son of the living God.”
Here is the passage from the book of Daniel to which Jesus refers:
As I (Daniel) looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened...In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. Daniel (7: 9-14)
And thus we see that Jesus claims for himself a high and exalted title wherein he is the great eschatological King, the one who shall rule over all the nations, and his kingdom shall never be taken away. And as Son of Man, he rules from heaven.
The title so shocks the high priest, that he rends his own garments and declares that Jesus has blasphemed by equating himself to God. And that leads us to the third point.
III. Omnipotence – Since we have already read the text from Daniel, it is clear to us that Jesus is speaking of the glory of his reign, and his great omnipotence. They will one day see him seated at the right hand of God in heaven, and also coming on the clouds of heaven, whether they like it not. For this is who he is, the Lord and King of glory, and of his kingdom there shall be no end. And he shall come on the clouds in judgment on the nations; he will judge the world by fire.
But what does it mean to say that he will come on the clouds? Too many of us moderns think of this only in literal terms. Such a literal interpretation is surely not impossible for God. In fact, the Lord Jesus may very well be seen on the last day coming in the clouds.
But we ought not simply reduce it to this. For Jesus was also speaking to the men of his day about something that they also would see and experience. Thus we ought not simply see his reference to coming on the clouds as some early form of airline travel or a kind literalistic insistence that they would one day be able to look up in the sky and see him just to the right of a large cumulonimbus cloud.
The ancient Jews used expressions in their day just as we do today. And while these expressions express truth, they often use images, similes, metaphors, and allegories, which in and of themselves need not always be taken literally. For example, we moderns often speak of being “star struck.” But of course we don’t literally mean that stars struck us. Rather we mean that we are struck by something that awed us in the way that looking up and seeing the stars at night might do. Sometimes we also speak of something coming from “out of the blue.” We do not mean literally that it came out of some blue section of the sky and hit us over the head. Instead, we mean that whatever it was, it came to us as if out of nowhere. More recently, we speak of storing our information “in the cloud.” But of course we don’t mean that our data is literally in the condensate zones of upward turbulence that we call clouds. We are using a metaphor to describe our data being “up above us” somewhere and accessible and able to be seen in many places “below.”
And thus, when Jesus speaks of coming on the clouds, we need not interpret this in a merely crude and literalistic way.
To the ancient Jews, the clouds were an image of glory, an image of heaven, and were also an image of God’s judgment. As an image of glory, the clouds both revealed and hid God’s glory. In the Exodus, God led them in the pillar of cloud by day, which appeared as a column of fire by night. This cloud revealed God’s presence yet also hid it. In the desert, the presence of God was indicated by the Shekinah, the glory-cloud that the descended on the tent of meeting. It both revealed God’s glory and presence, and yet also hid it from the people could not withstand God’s glory in all of its fullness.
So on one level, Jesus, in saying that the men of his day would see him as the Son of Man coming on the clouds, is saying that they would see him in all of his glory. He is saying that they would see and experience his powerful Kingdom breaking into this world, whether they liked it or not. The Temple and an exclusive Israel was going away. The fulfillment of ancient Israel, the Church, God’s Kingdom, was breaking in. The Temple, the symbol of ancient Israel, was going to be swept away.
In another sense, the clouds also show forth God’s judgment. Throughout the Scriptures, the clouds are often a symbol of God’s judgment come down on Israel, or on other nations. The clouds symbolize God visiting judgment on the people and the nation. Here are a few examples:
- Zeph 1:15 Near is the great day of the LORD, Near and coming very quickly; Listen, the day of the LORD! … That day will be a day of wrath– a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness..
- Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. …. There has never been anything like it, Nor will there be again after it To the years of many generations. (Joel 2:1-4)
- For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near– a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations….Dark will be the day at Tahpanhes when I break the yoke of Egypt; there her proud strength will come to an end. She will be covered with clouds, and her villages will go into captivity. (Ex 30:3, 18)
- As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. (Ex 34:12)
And thus, in saying that he was coming on the clouds, Jesus was saying that they would experience his judgment on the nation for having rejected His saving love. In a sermon called the Mount Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21), Jesus had already tearfully lamented the great destruction that was coming upon Jerusalem for lack of belief. And exactly forty years after his death, the great destruction he predicted came to pass. Jerusalem and the temple were utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. The temple was never again to be rebuilt. The Lord did indeed come in a great cloud in judgment upon ancient Israel!
So much in such a short few lines! As you can see, the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas was dramatic and has much to teach us.
In past years on the blog, I have generally published the schedule of the Lord’s final week according to the Scriptures (on the Monday of Holy Week). Since I have done this in years past, I presume most of you have seen it by now. If you haven’t, you can read it here: A Chronology of Jesus’ Holy Week
For this year, I thought I might look at some of the moments in the Passion Narrative (this year from St. Matthew) and highlight them.
The first moment occurs in the Garden of Gethsemane and presents a very good stance for Holy Week, indeed for the whole of our life. Jesus was at prayer, and returning to his disciples found them asleep. He says to Peter and the others (and to us),
Watch and pray so that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak. (Matt 26:41)
Let’s examine the saying, and explore what it has to say for us, and to us.
I. Problem - Jesus comes to his disciples and finds them sleeping. Note that these are the leaders of the Church, and this is the most crucial moment in all of human history. A great showdown between light and darkness, between good and evil, between Satan and the Lord, is about to unfold, is unfolding! But the disciples, the first leaders of the Church, are sleeping.
It is a disgraceful reality that is too often still the case, even today. And lest you think that this is simply a way of bashing popes, bishops, priests and deacons, let it be clear that the leaders of the Church include parents in families and elders in communities as well.
Regarding the clergy, too often while our people are undergoing severe trials and exposure to terrible sin and error, we remain sleepy and quiet. Well does the Scripture describe many of us clergy when it says, Israel’s watchman are blind, the lack knowledge; they are mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. (Is 56:10)
But many parents too, the leaders of the domestic church, are also woefully out of touch with the struggles of their children. They have little idea what their children are actually watching or listening to; they seem to have other priorities than to monitor their children carefully and teach them with clarity.
Yes, for all of us Church leaders, at the parish level and at the domestic level, we too easily doze off, and dream away, seemingly unaware of the great cosmic battle that is going on all around us, claiming our people and our children.
Or perhaps we do have some sense of the awful battle, but know little about what to do. Overwhelmed and stressed out, we medicate ourselves. Perhaps like the disciples we drink some wine and doze off in the garden while the critical battle unfolds around us. We are overwhelmed, so we tune out; we veer off to diversions, watch fantasies on television, or lose ourselves in virtual Internet relationships while our real relationships languish. Reality is too painful, so we medicate ourselves, and go off to sleep, a spiritual sleep, a moral sleep, even a physical sleep.
Only the pure mercy of God can save us. If the Church or the world were depending on human leaders, we’d be doomed. If the Church were solely dependent on human beings to keep her together, she would’ve lasted 20 minutes, max! Yes, only the pure mercy of God can see us through. Without Jesus awake and sober in the garden, we’re surely lost.
Yes, a serious problem is described here: while the cosmic battle between good and evil unfolds all around us, too many of us are asleep. And while God’s mercy can help close the gap, we must be willing to do what Jesus commands, what he now prescribes.
II. Prescription – Jesus says, Watch and pray! That is to say, “Wake up; come to your right mind; be sober!” To be sober is to have a clear mind, a mind that is aware of what is going on, and that can clearly identify the signs of the times. The sober mind is able to identify the tactics of the enemy, the drives of sin, and know their moves. The sober mind is also in touch with the remedies of Grace and how to apply them prudently. We simply have got to watch and pray!
In particular, our prayer needs to be rooted in the Scriptures and the revealed truth of Jesus Christ. There’s just too much stinking thinking in our world today to think that our mind is going to be anything but polluted if we don’t cleanse it every day with the Word of God.
Our minds are like a sponge. Put a sponge in muddy water and, don’t kid yourself, the sponge is going to come out muddy. How then is the muddy sponge to be cleansed? It is plunged into clean water and rung out; it is plunged back into the clean water and rung out again, and again, and again. Thus our minds, like sponges muddied by the polluted, confusing, and erroneous thinking of the world, must be cleansed daily by being plunged into the clear, clean water of God’s Holy Word.
It is a sobering fact that if you and I are not praying daily and being deeply rooted in God’s Word, it is very unlikely that we will make it.
The Lord’s prescription is bluntly simple: wake up, and keep watch by praying! We somehow find time for everything else. It’s time to wake up and keep our eyes focused on the Lord, to watch him, to listen to him, and to be deeply rooted in the relationship of prayer and obedience to his Word. Otherwise, a terrible peril is upon us which the Lord next describes.
III. Peril – We are told to watch and pray lest we undergo the test, lest we give way to temptation. The Greek word for temptation here is πειρασμόν (peirasmon) and almost sounds like the English word “peril.”
Now don’t let temptation become something abstract. Temptation is the work of Satan to drag you to Hell. Are you clear on that? If you’re not watching and praying, you’re defenseless; you’re an easy target; you’re low hanging fruit; you’re probably not going to make it. If you do not pray, Jesus warns that you will give way to temptation, that is, that Satan will be able to drag you off to Hell, and probably others along with you.
If you don’t even care enough about yourself to pray, at least get right for the sake of others who are probably depending on you in some way for teaching and example! No priest goes to Hell alone; he takes others with him. And no parents go to Hell alone; they take others with them.
It’s time to wake up and recognize the peril. You will give way to temptation if you’re not even going to watch and pray. Satan can and will drive you to Hell. This peril is real. If you don’t think so, talk to Jesus. He said it, I didn’t.
IV. Prevailing priority – Jesus goes on to say, The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.
Sadly, most of us interpret this saying as an excuse, as if Jesus were permitting us to say, “Well, deep in my heart I really want to do what’s right, but I’m really not able to do it because of my weak flesh. So it’s really not my fault. I should get credit for having good intentions in my heart.”
This is not only an incorrect interpretation of what Jesus says here; it is a sinful interpretation. Jesus is not saying that our flesh excuses us. He’s saying that our spirit is willing, that our Spirit by his grace has the capacity to prevail over the weakness of the flesh!
We are going to have to battle against our flesh; that is true; that much is clear. But our spirit, the part of us that is open to God, has the capacity to prevail, if we will permit God’s Holy Spirit to strengthen our human spirit.
In other words, our spirit is to be our number one priority, over and against our flesh. And having this priority, we open our spirit to God’s Holy Spirit, and we will be strengthened. We will prevail over temptation; we will be victorious over Satan’s attempts to drag us to Hell.
Therefore, there should be no excuses here. Jesus says that although the flesh is weak, and we will battle against it until the day we die, our spirit can “will” to overpower the drives of our flesh; our spirit can and must have a priority that will empower us to prevail over the flesh, and any incursions of the evil one.
We must make a decision; our spirit must be willing to watch and pray. We cannot allow the emphasis to fall on the weakness of the flesh. The emphasis must always fall on the prevailing power and priority of the human spirit to be graced by God’s Holy Spirit to win the victory.
Not a bad prescription for life and for Holy Week too!
:Watch and pray that you not enter into temptation. The indeed spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (Matt 2:41)
- γρηγορεῖτε καὶ προσεύχεσθε, ἵνα μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς πειρασμόν τὸ μὲν πνεῦμα πρόθυμον, ἡ δὲ σὰρξ ἀσθενής. (Matt 2:41)
- grēgoreite kai proseuchesthe hina mē eiselthēte eis peirasmon to men pneuma prothymon hē de sarx asthenēs (Matt 2:41)
Fr. Francis Martin has been a great teacher of mine. He here comments on the text of Mat 26:41.
The Passion, which we read in today’s liturgy, is too long to comment on in detail. We are only able to take a portion and examine it.
It may be of some value to examine the “middle range” of problems and personalities involved. The usual villains such as the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd that shouted “Crucify him!” are fairly obvious in displaying their sinfulness and are unambiguously wicked. But there are others who participate in the Passion accounts whose sinfulness, struggles, and neglect are more subtle, yet still real. It is perhaps in these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves who, like them, may not overtly shout, “Crucify,” but who are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as the persecutors are unambiguously wicked and bold.
As these behaviors are noted, we must understand that WE do these things. For the Passion accounts are not merely portraits of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me. We do these things.
So, let’s look at this middle range group in three stages.
I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,
This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.
Note that the apostles are reminded of these facts since Jesus has said them before on a few occasions. For example:
- From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Matt 16:21)
- When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief. (Matt 17:22-23)
- We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matt 20:19)
Thus, we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and to prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end, NOT in death, but in rising to new life. But though he has told them over and over, they still do not understand or see. Thus, he predicts that their faith in him will be shaken.
Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative and forget that he has promised to rise. Since they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment, they will retreat into fear and not accompany him boldly and confidently to his Passion and glorification (for his Passion IS his lifting up, his glorification). Instead, they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see it nor accept it. Thus, fear overwhelms them and draws them back into a sinful fear and disassociation from Jesus. Only a few, Mary his Mother, John, Mary Magdalene, and a few other women would see him through to the end.
But as for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, and miss what is glorious and awesome. Their perception is quite partial and their blindness comes, paradoxically, from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.
We too can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor hearing. For the Lord has often told us that if we trust, our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give way to our fears and fail to walk boldly the way of Christ’s Passion. We draw back, disassociate ourselves from Jesus, and exhibit some of the same tendencies and problems we will now observe in the people of that day.
So let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from the “partial perception” and forgetful fear of many of the disciples and others.
II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated in not trusting Jesus’ vision and refusing to see it. We can consider them one by one. Please understand that the word “we” used here is shorthand and does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies. But there’s no need to take everything here personally.
A. They Become Drowsy - One of the common human techniques for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to just go numb and drowsy. We can just doze off into a sort of moral sleep. Being vigilant to threats posed to our souls by sin, or the harm caused by injustice, (whether to ourselves or to others) is just too stressful. So we just tune out. We stop noting or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like creature comforts, meaningless distractions, alcohol, or drugs. We go into a kind of moral sleep and we begin to lack a prayerful vigilance. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions. So we just tune out and daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing, or what the latest sports stats are.
In the Passion accounts, Peter, James, and John are personally asked by the Lord to pray with him. But they doze. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). But unwilling or unable to deal with the stress that the Lord is clearly under, they just tune out, go numb, and drowse away. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep on. The Lord warns them to stay awake, lest they give way to temptation. But still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much. So they just tune out, much as we tune out at the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing. It’s too painful, so we tune out.
The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). For drowsiness is a significant and serious spiritual problem.
Sadly, God described us well when he remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. (Is 56:10)
We do this, not only because we might be lazy, but also because we fear. And one strategy is to try to not notice, to go numb, to tune out. But, despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake, and the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus, we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear, for the Lord has told us that we have already won, if we just trust him. But the disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days. And so, often, have we. So they, and we, just give way to stress and tune out.
B. They Seek to Destroy - It is said in the text that when Peter finally does come awake, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the High priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11). Jesus goes on to heal Malchus who, tradition says, later became a follower.
We too, in our fear can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. We usually act in this way because of fear. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear and why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently. But too often, we lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus and saw in him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not, and in fear, lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.
It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak to a confuse world with clarity. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversation with the world. The truth will out; the truth will prevail. We may not win every encounter. But we do not have to; all we have to do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. But in Christ, we have already won. And this confidence should give us a serenity.
But Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days. And so, often, have we. So Peter and we just give way to fear and lash out, driven by the need to win, when in fact we have already won.
C. They Deny - Peter, confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, denies that he knows him or is one of his followers. He disassociates himself from Christ. We too, confronted with the possibility of far lesser things like ridicule, will often deny a connection with the Lord or with the Church.
Someone might say of one of the more controversial passages of scripture (such as commands to tithe, prohibitions on divorces, fornication, and homosexual activity, etc.), “Oh, you don’t really believe that, do you?” And it’s too easy to give way to fear and to either say “No” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or experience the unpleasantry of debate? So we just disassociate, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!
Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. (Mat 16:21). But too easily we ARE ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter was afraid because he had forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He had forgotten that Jesus would rise after three days. So too do we often forget that. So we lack confidence and give way to fear, and we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.
D. They Dodge – Simply put, when Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter, prior to his own denials, had followed the Lord, “at a distance” (Mk 14:54) but that as soon as trouble arose, he scrammed.
And we too can run. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s just our own self-generated fear that following the Lord is too hard, and involves too many sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money since the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor. Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle since the Lord insists on chastity and respect. Maybe we are doing something we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But, rather than face our fears, whether from within or without, we just high tail it out.
The disciples forgot that Jesus had shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he would win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerged and they ran. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to resist and confront our many fears.
E. They Deflect - Now in this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. But the fact is that Pilate was summoned to faith, just like anyone else. “Are you a King?” he asked Jesus. And Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own, or have others been telling you about me?” The fact is, Pilate has a choice to make. Either he will accept what Jesus is saying as true, or he will give way to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. Now the texts all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But, because he feared the crowds, he handed Jesus over.
Now note, PILATE did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but HE did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Mat 16:21). Well actually, Pilate, it is also YOUR responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. And though you wanted to do what was right, and were sympathetic with Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.
So too for us. We also will favor our career or our hide over what is right. And in so doing we will often blame others for what we freely choose. “I am not responsible, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two” …etc.
In effect, we are often willing to say, “Look Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe and, generally I obey you. But you have to understand, I have a career, I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company is doing some things that are unjust; I know the world needs a clearer witness from me, and I’ll do all that – after I retire. But for now, well, you know… It’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell bound sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!” And we wash our hands, and we excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.
And all this is done in fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and get focused on the fearful present. We lack the vision Jesus is trying to give us that in three days we will rise with him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of now.
III. The Path that is Prescribed – OK, by now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be! In three days we rise! Why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true; we get there through the cross. But, never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning! I’ll rise!
We end where we began with this gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.
Yes, after he has been raised, he goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with him and be reunited with him in Galilee.
So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, and deflect. We’ve already won. All we need to do is hold out.
An old Gospel song says, “I promised the Lord that I would hold out! He said he’s gonna meet me in Galilee!” So hold out; Galilee is not far; in three days we will rise with him!
This Homily was recorded in mp3 format here: Palm Sunday Sermon
In our care for the poor, there are many rewards that we know must wait. Sometimes we are not exactly sure what the help we supplied even did at all!
Scripture does speak of some blessings that will wait until heaven. And thus Jesus counsels us to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal (Matt 6:20). Of course, we do not store up treasure in heaven by putting it in a balloon or a rocket and sending it up there. Rather, what Jesus teaches is that we store it up in heaven by giving it to the poor and needy. Scripture says elsewhere, Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for it will come back to you after many days. (Eccles 11:1)
And thus, some of our care for the poor will have rewards that we will reap later.
But some rewards are now. Perhaps we see what a difference our help has made. Or perhaps, too, we notice how God’s goodness to us increases, since he can trust us to be generous with His blessings. Scripture says, And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (Matt 10:42). Or again, Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:38) And yet again, Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done. (Proverbs 19:17).
Yes, some rewards are now, and not just “return gifts” from the Lord, but also the joy of giving itself; the joy of connecting with others.
All of those personal rewards and others besides are seen in this beautiful video. Please enjoy it! And remember, GOD will not be outdone in generosity.
And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men…. (Gal 6:9-10)
Every ancient prayer manual and guide to spirituality until about fifty years ago had at least one large section devoted to what was known as Pugna Spiritualis (spiritual battle or spiritual warfare). In more recent decades, many spiritual books have downplayed or completely deleted references to spiritual battle or spiritual warfare.
Sadly, many modern approaches to faith, religion, and spirituality prefer to emphasize exclusively consoling themes rooted in self-esteem, affirmation, etc. To be sure, the authentic faith can and does offer great consolation, but the truest and deepest consolation often comes after one has persevered along the sometimes-difficult path, along the “narrow way” of the cross.
But too many today, in the name of affirmation and pseudo-self-esteem are ready to excuse, and even affirm grave moral disorders, rather than fight them. Grace and mercy are preached, but without reference to the repentance that opens the door to these gifts. Both the possibility of Hell and any consequences of sin, are absent from many modern conceptions of faith and religious practice.
Some years ago, I was approached by a rather angry woman who, having heard my sermon on the seriousness of certain sins (which were in the readings of the day), expressed great indignation that I would preach on such topics. She said, “I come to church to be consoled and have my spirits lifted, not to hear old-fashioned warnings about judgment and sins.” She felt quite a “righteous indignation,” and was most certain that I had transgressed a fundamental norm, namely, that religion exists to console, and that any challenge to one’s moral stance, (except perhaps caring for the poor), is intolerant and way out of line.
Indeed, many today have this kind of attitude: that it is their birthright not to be troubled or vexed in any way by something people might say, especially a preacher who claims to represent God! The “God they worship” would never trouble them. They will have Jesus for their consoler and best friend, but not their Lord, and certainly not their judge. And never mind the literally thousands of verses from Scripture in which Jesus himself speaks sternly and warns of sin, death, judgment, and Hell. They will have none of it, and are certain that “the Jesus they know,” would never raise his voice at them or challenge them even for a moment. Never mind that the real Jesus says to take up our cross and follow him.
With spiritual battle having been removed from many people’s spiritual landscape, the idea that the Lord would summon us to battle, or ask us to choose sides, seems strangely foreign, intolerant, and uncompassionate.
Even more dangerous, these modern conceptions not only distort Jesus, but they downplay the presence and influence of Satan. This is a very, very bad idea. Even if we cease fighting against Satan, he will never ceases his sometimes very subtle attacks on us.
Jesus called consistently for prayerful, sober vigilance against the powers of evil and sin. Like it or not, we are in a battle. Either we will soberly and vigilantly undertake the battle, or we will be conquered and led off like sheep to the slaughter.
Despite what modern spiritual approaches would like to eliminate, Christianity has been a militant religion since its inception. Jesus was exposed to every kind of danger from the beginning. Herod sought his life; Satan tried to tempt him in the desert; many enemies plotted on all sides as he worked his public ministry, misrepresenting him, levying false charges, and conspiring to sentence him to death, and eventually even succeeding though only for a moment.
And as for Jesus, so also for his mystical Body the Church: Saul, Saul why do you persecute me!? (Acts 9:4) Jesus warns us that the world would hate us (Luke 21:17; John 15:20); that in this world we would have tribulation (Jn 16:33), and that we should watch and pray lest we give way to temptation (Matt 26:41). He summons us to persevere to the end if we would be saved (Mk 13:13). Jesus rather vividly described the kind of struggle with which we live when he said From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force (Matthew 11:12). Indeed, no Christian until the time that Jesus returns, can consider himself on leave or dismissed from this great spiritual battle, from this great drama that we exist in, this battle between good and evil.
Popular theme or not, we do well to remember that we are in the midst of a great cosmic and spiritual battle. And in that battle, we must be willing to choose sides and fight with the Lord for the Kingdom of God. Either we will gather with him or we will scatter. We are to fight for our own soul, and the souls of those whom we love.
In the holy week that is about to unfold, we are reminded once again of the great cosmic battle that the Lord waged, and that is still being waged in our time. Though already victorious, in his mystical Body the Church, the Lord in his faithful members still suffers violence, rejection, and ridicule. It is also for us to reclaim territory from the evil one, to take back what the devil stole from us. We are to advance the glory of God’s Kingdom through the fruits of great spiritual struggle, sacrifice, prayer, fasting, preaching, and an extensive missionary campaign to which the Lord has summoned and commissioned us.
The battle is on; the struggle is engaged! To spiritual arms one and all! Fight the good fight for the Lord.
Still not convinced we are at war? Let the Lord pull back the veil just a bit and let you look at what’s really going on. The final words of this article will not be mine; they will be the Lord’s. Here is described the cosmic battle that is responsible for most of the suffering and confusion you experience:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers who accuses them before our God day and night,has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. (Rev 12)
Among the struggles that many face in their spiritual lives is one in which we at times feel angry with God. While the sources of this anger can be varied, they tend to be focused in three areas: the existence of evil and injustice in the world (which God seems to permit), God’s seeming delay in answering our prayers, or some personal setback or trial in our life.
The thought that God can prevent bad things, often leads to expectations that he should prevent them. And then when such expectations are not met, resentment, disappointment, or anger can follow.
Sometimes our anger at God is obvious to us. But other times, it can take more subtle forms, such as depression or a kind of spiritual sadness, avoidance of God and spiritual things, a loss of hope, or a reduction in asking things of God at all in prayer. Sometimes too, we like to hide our anger with God by using understatements such as saying we are simply “disappointed,” or “frustrated.”
But the reality is, at times we are angry with God, sometimes very angry. What to do about this anger?
God himself seems to say, over and over again in the Scriptures, that he wants us to speak to him about it, to tell him that we are angry, and to pray out of this reality in our life.
God actually models this in the Scriptures. The book of Psalms is the great prayer book that God gave to Israel. In the Psalms is enshrined every sort of human experience and emotion: joy, exultation, hope, gratitude; but also dejection, hatred, despair, and yes, anger, even anger at God. God himself, through the Holy Spirit, authors the very prayers of the Psalms and says to us in effect, that every human emotion is the stuff of prayer. He models for us how to pray out of our experiences not only of joy and gratitude, but also of despair and anger. God says that whatever you’re going through should be the focus of your prayer.
Thus, God tells us that even if we are angry with Him, we should speak to Him about our anger. And he does not ask us to mince words, to minimize our emotions, or even to speak politely.
One of the most common expressions of human anger toward God in the Scriptures is in what might be called the “usquequo verses.” (pronounced “ooz- kay-quo”) The Latin word usquequo is most literally translated “how long?” And thus, in the Psalms, and in other verses of Scripture, will often come the question “How long Oh Lord?”
Now while the word usquequo can simply be a straightforward question, as in, “How long until lunch?” the adverb usquequo usually has more of a rhetorical form wherein one asks “how long?” in a plaintive and exasperated tone, as in “How much longer!?” As if to say, “Oh Lord, why do you let this awful situation go on? Where are you!?” Thus, the word bespeaks not only disappointment, but also even a certain sense of injustice that God would care so little about us that he would allow such terrible things to go on for so long.
God knows that we feel this way sometimes. And even if our intellect can supply some possible reasons that God would allow bad things to go on, or that He is not entirely to blame for the mess that we’re in, still it is clear that our feelings often are not satisfied with any rational explanation and simply cry out “How long, oh Lord!?
God knows this about us; He knows that we are feeling like this, and wants us to speak with him directly about it, to articulate it; to pray out of this experience.
Let’s sample some of these texts:
- Psalm 13:1-2 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
- Psalm 6: 3-6 My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me, save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning.
- Psalm 10:1-2 Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
- Psalm 35:17 How long, Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my precious life from these lions.
- Psalm 44:24 Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?
- Psalm 89:46 How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity! Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?
- Psalm 79:5-7 How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name; for they have devoured Jacob and devastated his homeland.
- Psalm 74:10-11 How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
- Psalm 94:2-3 Rise up, Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve. How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
- Lam 5:20 Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?
- Habakkuk 1:1-4 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
- Job 7:18-19 Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.
Thus we see modeled for us that God desires us to speak what we are feeling, to give voice to our anger. Why is this? First of all, he knows already that we have it and does not desire our prayer to be suppressed, pretentious, or phony. If anger is the “elephant in the room,” let’s admit it rather than trying to pretend it’s not there. Second, in expressing our emotions aloud we often help vent or at least reduce their power. Suppressed feelings often become depression if they are not given respect and a voice.
The biblical texts also model a kind of Jewish insight and practice known as taking up a “rib” (pronounced “reeb”) wherein one argues, complains, contends, strives, or pleads a case with God. Even early on in the Biblical text we see Abraham and Moses often in (sometimes tense) negotiations with God (e.g. Genesis 18:16ff, Exodus 3, Numbers 14:10ff). And thus the psalms and similar texts model a kind of “rib” wherein one asks God to deliver on his promises and expresses exasperation at the apparent delay of the same. God the Holy Spirit models and encourages this sort of prayer in including it in the inspired text.
Mysteriously, God does not often answer the “Why?” implicit in our groans. But he is able and most willing to hear them. And sometimes it is our very groans that yield the desired relief. Scripture says, I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry, my appeal. He turned his ear to me, and thus, I will call on him as long as I live (Ps 116:1-2), and, Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy (Psalm 126:5). And St. Augustine says, More things are wrought in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words. (Ltr to Proba, 2) Thus, our groans and soulful protests do reach God’s ears.
At other times, God gives a Job-like answer (cf Job 38 ff) in which he reminds us of our feeble capacity to see the whole picture when we protest suffering or evil. And thus, his answer is a kind of “non-answer,” in which he reminds us that our minds are very small.
But nevertheless, the point here is that God instructs us to ask, to protest, “How long?” as a sign of His understanding, even respect, for our anger and exasperation.
It is also interesting to note that God oftentimes takes up the complaint “How long?” as well! It ought not to surprise us that God is also at times “exasperated” with us, and in a kind of anthropomorphic turning of the tables, he too laments “How long?” Here are some of those texts:
- Psalm 82:1 God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?
- Jer 4:21-22 How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the trumpet?“My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”
- Jer 23:26-28 “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name…”
- Matt 17:17 “Unbelieving and perverse generation!” Jesus replied, “How long must I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”
So it would seem that God is willing to admit into prayer both our anger and His. Where there is love there is also bound to be some anger, for things matter when we love. God would rather have us speak openly and honestly of our anger toward him. He also often reveals His anger toward us. In this matter, vituperative anger, name calling, and cursing is in no way commended, but only honest airing of the fact of our anger and the basis for it.
There is an old saying, “No tension, no change.” The simple fact is that God allows some tension in our lives and in our relationship with him. One reason is that tension helps keep our attention and evokes change. In instructing us to cry out “How long, O Lord?” the Lord invites us to take up the energy and tension of our anger and make it the “stuff” of our prayer. In so doing, our prayer is more honest, and it soars on the wings of passion. It keeps us engaged and energized and fuels a kind of insistence and perseverance in our prayer.
Within proper bounds, and with humility presumed, anger in prayer has a proper place, and God himself both prescribes it and models it for us in the Book of Psalms and in other texts. Be angry, but sin not. (Eph 4:26)
This video is rather long, but it is a wonderful musical setting of Henry Desmarets’ (1661-1741) Usquequo Domine. Put it on in the background to play.
The translation of Psalm 13 sung here is as follows:
How long O Lord will thou forget me, must thy look still be turned away from me? Each day brings a fresh load of care, fresh misery to my heart; must I be ever the sport of my enemies? Look upon me, O Lord my God, and listen to me; give light to these eyes, before they close in death; do not let my enemies claim the mastery, my persecutors triumph over my fall! I cast myself on thy mercy; soon may this heart boast of redress granted, sing in praise of the Lord, my benefactor.
Over the years, as I have taught on the matter of sexual morality to both young people and couples preparing for marriage, I have noticed a pattern in the Biblical texts: sexual immorality is quite often linked to or closely associated with greed and theft. This link has become clearer and more understandable to me over the years.
Greed is the excessive desire to possess wealth or goods; it is the insatiable desire for more. This is closely linked to lust, which is an inordinate desire for the pleasures of the body.
Thus, the lustful, sexually immoral, unrepentant person says, in effect, “I want sexual pleasure for myself. I do not want to pay any ‘price’ for it by having to see it in relationship to other goods and people. I do not want to see it in relationship to the institution of marriage, or to the love of a spouse, or to family, or to children. I do not want commitments or responsibilities. I want to indulge in sex because I want it. All that matters is that I want it.”
Many go further in accepting few, if any limits on what they want, despising norms that in any way seek to limit their access to sex, or to place it in a wider, more responsible context.
For many today, sex is simply something they want. And the mere fact that they want it makes it right. Never mind that lust and sexual immorality have had devastating effects on marriage and family, that as promiscuity has soared so have divorce rates, abortion, single parent families, children without intact families, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, broken hearts, and the like. Never mind all this. For many, wanting sex makes it right, and precludes anyone from “telling them what to do.”
And this is greed, the insatiable desire for more, or the inordinate desire for things such that they are considered apart from wider norms that limit desires within the boundaries of what is reasonable and in service of the common good. Greed cares little for the common good, for the needs and rights of others. Greed just wants what it wants. Lust is very close to greed in that it is also an inordinate desire, one for bodily pleasures apart from any consideration of the needs of others or of what it just, right, and reasonable.
Let’s take a look at some of the texts wherein the Scriptures seem to connect greed and sexual immorality. Commentary by me on each of them follows in red.
1. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people….For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person….has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Eph 5:3,5)
The connection here between greed and fornication (porneia), translated here as sexual immorality, is not spelled out. Reading the text by itself might permit the possibility that it is only coincidentally connected to sexual immorality. But as seen below there are a good number of other texts that connect sexual immorality to similar notions of greed and covetousness. Hence, we ought to note the connection. That the connection was not developed or explained may signal to us that the early Christians saw the connection as more implicit and obvious than we moderns do.
2. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)
Here the list is broadened to include lust and all evil desires. These are connected in the text to greed, and greed in turn is equated with idolatry.
Idolatry values someone or something in a way that hinders or surpasses the love, trust, and obedience we owe to God. It wants the thing, rather than God who made the thing. Through greed, we excessively desire things, such as sex, money, power, and creature comforts, and they take on greater importance to us than God, or what God sets forth for us to obey. Through greed, these things become idols, since they surpass God in importance to us. We prefer them to God; we obey our desires more than God. God can take a number and wait, I want what I want, and that is all that matters.
For many today, and apparently for many back in the time when these texts were written, sex is more important than God, hence the connection to greed.
3. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. (Ex 20:17)
The 6th Commandment had already forbidden the act of adultery. But note here, how this commandment goes deeper, indicating that we are not to covet. In speaking of what it means to covet the Catechism says: The sensitive appetite leads us to desire pleasant things we do not have…These desires are good in themselves; but often they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him. The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit…..When the Law says, “You shall not covet,” these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: “He who loves money never has money enough.” (CCC # 2535-2536).
Hence, to covet the wife of another includes both a sexual desire for her and a greed that wants to have her.
4. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, (Mk 7:21)
Here again, note that in a verse that includes fornication and adultery, is also included the word theft, referring to the unjust possession of something. The fornicator and the adulterer both steal what does not belong to them. Sexual intimacy belongs to the marriage bed alone. Hence, the unmarried person and the adulterer both take what is not theirs. Clearly, antecedent to most, if not all theft, is greed.
5. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man overreach and defraud his brother in this matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thes 4:3-8).
This text not only links sexual immorality to greed, but also to theft, and in a wider sense injustice. For, to fail to live chastely both overreaches and defrauds.
The Greek word here translated as overreach is υπερβαινειν (huperbainein). This word means, “to go over,” to overpass certain limits, to transgress, to go too far, to go beyond what is right or due. Hence again we can see how greed is tied into sexual immorality; for it is desire overreaching, going too far, beyond what is reasonable, due, or right. The lustful person is greedy because he wants what he wants no matter if it is excessive or wrong. All that matters is that he wants it. And this is greed.
The word translated here as “defraud” πλεονεκτει (pleonektei) is related to covetousness and greed since it emphasizes gain as the motive of fraud. Thus, sexually immoral persons defraud others: the sexual partner, families, and society as a whole. They do this by thinking more of what they want than of what is right, or of how it might harm others. They act fraudulently, for they act as though they are married when they are not, and they do this in order to steal the privileges of marriage.
6. Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)
Again, simply note that sexually immoral persons are numbered among or alongside thieves and swindlers. They are akin to thieves for they take what does not belong to them, and they swindle because they obtain through deceit. The deceit is that they implicitly claim the status of married persons by seizing the privileges and rights of marriage without taking up its duties.
Hence, the mention of thieves and swindlers along with the sexually immoral may not be coincidental, but may imply “birds of a feather.”
7. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Let your manners be without covetousness, contented with such things as you have; for God has said: I will not leave you, neither will I forsake you. (Heb 13:4-5)
In other words, don’t be greedy and steal the privileges of the marriage bed through adultery, premarital sex, or any indulgence of sexual pleasure outside marriage. If you are not married, it is not yours. If you are married, it is yours only with your spouse. Be content with what you have and stop being greedy or covetous.
Hence, we see demonstrated a rather consistent scriptural connection between sexual immorality, greed and theft.
Sexual intimacy is a prerogative and privilege of marriage. It exists to build up marriage, to encourage recourse to marriage, and to help knit husband and wife together in a fruitful love. To snatch sex away from its only proper place is to possess unjustly that which is not yours; it is theft. And scripture connects this stealing with greed and covetousness. Greed is the excessive desire to possess, beyond what is just or reasonable. If this desire is yielded to, we take what is not ours simply because we want it.
Many today claim that they can do as they please in terms of sexuality and many even boast of their sexual freedom and exploits. The entertainment media celebrate sexual freedom. But it would appear that Scripture sees such sexual exploits not as liberation, but rather as theft and greed.
It is true that some act in weakness. Some fall, but are repentant. Surely, God is rich in mercy for such souls as these.
But as for those who celebrate sexual immorality, they ought to consider that what they call good, God calls sin, God calls greed, God calls theft.
For those willing to see, God is waiting and God is willing.
I have a large Icon of Christ in my room (see photo at right). What icons from the Eastern tradition do best is to capture “the Look.” No matter where I move in the room, Christ is looking right at me. His look is intense, though not severe. In the Eastern spirituality, Icons are windows into heaven. Hence, this icon is no mere portrait that reminds one of Christ, it is an image which mediates his presence. When I look upon him, I experience that he knows me. It is a knowing look and a comprehensive look.
The Book of Hebrews says of Jesus, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account. (Heb 4:13).
But his look in the Icon is not fearsome; it is serene and confident. Hence the text from Hebrews goes on to say, Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. (Heb 4:14-16)
Particularly in Mark’s Gospel, there is great emphasis on the eyes and the look of Jesus. A frequent expression in that Gospel is “And looking at them He said….” Such a phrase or version like it occurs over 25 times in Mark’s Gospel referring to Jesus.
Looking on Christ and allowing him to look on you is a powerful moment of conversion. Jesus himself said, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (Jn 6:40) and the First Letter of John says, What we shall later be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).
There is just something within us that seeks the face of God and desires that look of love that alone can heal and perfect us. I often think of this verse from Scripture when I am at Eucharistic Adoration: Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. (Song 2:9). Yes, I long to see the Lord, and the Scripture also speaks of his longing to “see” us.
Here are some scriptures that remind us to seek the face of the Lord and to look to him:
- Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually! (1 Chron 16:11)
- If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chron 7:14)
- You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.” (Ps 27:8)
- Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always. (Ps 105:4)
- I [the Lord] will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me. (Hosea 5:15)
- Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:40)
- He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him. (John 14:21)
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matt 5:8)
- Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. (1 Cor 13:12)
- For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 4:6)
An old song says, We shall behold Him, Face to face in all of His glory…The angel will sound, the shout of His coming, And the sleeping shall rise, from their slumbering place. And those remaining shall be changed in a moment. And we shall behold him, then face to face.
Allow Christ to look on you.
This video is a wonderful collection of many of the looks of Jesus and the reaction of the people following those looks. Pay special attention. The video also features a lot of “looks” that come from us. Notice how people look upon Jesus, and how they, as human beings react, as they look on Jesus. Look for the “looks” in this video. The final looks are especially moving.
One of the main threads that ran through Sunday’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus was faith, the need for faith and the Lord’s desire to draw others to a deeper faith. Jesus permits the illness and subsequent death of Lazarus, and even delays coming in order to increase their faith. He persistently questions both Martha and Mary about their faith and prays aloud that the crowd will come to come to greater faith. Yes, Jesus wants to grow everyone’s faith. This is something about which he is passionate – but why?
Simply put, faith is the door that must be opened by us in order for the Lord to go to work. And while faith itself is a grace – a gift – it is a grace that interacts with our freedom. Faith is the supernaturally granted, assisted, and transformed human element that opens the door for every other work of God.
Over and over again, the Lord Jesus links faith to his saving work. Either it is something he inquires about before a miracle, or he announces it after a miracle. Sometimes, due to the lack of faith, he “cannot” work a miracle. Consider some of the following texts that link faith to the work of Jesus:
- • When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” (Mt 9:28-29)
- • But Jesus turning and seeing [the woman who touched his garment] said, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well.” At once the woman was made well. (Matt 9:22)
- • Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment. (Matt 8:13)
- • Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matt 9:2)
- • Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matt 15:28)
- • “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mk 10:52)
- • Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Lk 17:19)
- • Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25-26)
- • Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered at their unbelief. (Mk 6:4-6)
So in these and many other places, the Lord is absolutely insistent upon and needful of our faith in order to go to work. Faith is our “Yes.” Faith is our opening of the door to the Lord, who stands outside and knocks (cf Rev 3:20).
But why is this so? Perhaps an image or analogy will work. It is a humble one to be sure, but it may help to illustrate why the Lord “needs” our faith.
I have lived in the city for most of my twenty-five years as a priest. Now cities have streets, streets have alleys, and alleys have alley cats. And I have discovered that it is a very good thing to take care of the alley cats. It is because of them that there are very few if any rats in our alley. And this is a very great blessing. In gratitude, I take care of the alley cats – or at least I try to.
I say “try” because I have learned that there are three different categories of alley cat (get it? “CATegories…?). And depending upon which category they fall into, I am more or less able to help them.
The first category contains those alley cats that greatly trust me. They are the ones who come up onto the back porch when I return home and greet me. They rub up against my leg and arch their backs. They let me rub their necks. Among these alley cats have been Ellen Bayne, Jenny June, Katie Bell, Gracie Allen, and Oscar Wilde. (Yes, I name them all.) So trusting are these cats that I’m able not only to feed them, but often to get them necessary medical help. Because of their trust, I am able to help them greatly. Their trust, you might say their “faith,” opens the door and allows me to be a great help to them.
The second category contains those alley cats that stand at a distance and will not come close to me. They will allow me to put food out on the back porch, but they wait until I close the door to come up and partake of it. However, they usually only get the leftovers after Ellen Bayne and the others have already had their fill. This second type will not allow me to touch them, so they never get their necks rubbed, nor am I able to help them when they are injured or need medicine. Because they trust me less, I am able to do less for them.
The third category contains those that will have nothing to do with me simply because I am a human being. The very scent of a human being means that they will have nothing to do with anything carrying that scent. These cats will never come up the steps of my back porch, and any food that I would put out would go uneaten because it carries that human scent. Because they do not trust me at all, there’s nothing I can do for them, absolutely nothing.
And in all of this, there is a lesson. Trust opens the door, and then I can help the cats. A lot of trust yields a lot of help; a little trust yields a little help; no trust yields no help. And it is this way with us and God. Jesus needs our trust and our faith in order to be able to go to work, in order to “be able” to help us. What CATegory are you in?
While it is true that God could simply overrule us and force his help upon us, he does not generally do this. He needs our faith, our opening of the door, our trust to be able to go to work.
And this is why Jesus is so insistent in yesterday’s Gospel, on drawing out faith from those who lament Lazarus. This is why, all throughout the Gospels, the Lord connects his greatest works with faith and trust. He looks for faith, demands faith, needs faith in order to work miracles. And when he works them, he commends the faith of those who receive them. It is faith that opens the door.
Yes, what CATegory are you in? See how important faith is and how it opens the door? Lord increase our faith! I do believe Lord; help my unbelief!
Photo at upper right: “Ellen Bayne”