A meditation on the teaching of Jesus that we are stubborn of heart and slow to believe

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue  James Tissot 1894

Some of the long soliloquies of Jesus in the Gospel of John are admittedly complex. For example, the farewell discourse and priestly prayer of Jesus spanning over four chapters (John 14 to 17) has many layers and moving parts. The Gospel from today’s Mass (Thursday of the fourth week of Lent), in which Jesus rebukes the unbelief of many ancient Jews, also features many aspects and layers that can overwhelm us, especially if we are unfamiliar with higher forms of rhetorical argumentation.

With these concerns in mind, it seems important to spend a little time pondering what Jesus teaches in this passage, since it can seem complex to us. I will provide a two-sentence summary, then a three-paragraph summary, and finally I will focus on a particular problem that Jesus raises about the suspicious quality of our unbelief. You can read the full passage, which I merely summarize, by clicking here: Jesus Rebukes our Unbelief (John 5:31-47).

Two-sentence summary: Jesus addresses himself to our human tendency to refuse to believe in God. While it is true that some struggle to believe, and reasonably seek some degree of evidence, there comes a point at which it becomes clear that, no matter how much evidence is presented, a  person simply and sinfully refuses to believe in God.

Three-Paragraph summary: Jesus rebukes the unbelievers before him by saying in effect:

Although you say you love God and have God for your Father, and you cherish the word of God and the Law of Moses, none of this is really true. For if it were true, you would listen to my Father who is speaking in the depths of your heart about me. And if it really were true that you cherished the word of God and the Law of Moses you claim to know so well, then you would see how dramatically I fulfill all that it says the Messiah and Savior would do.

Your unbelief is simply sinful stubbornness, for I have given you at least four lines of proof that demonstrate that I am both Savior and Lord. First, my Father is speaking to you in the depths of your heart, and giving you the grace to believe. Secondly I have fulfilled countless scriptures which demonstrate that I am the Messiah who was said to come. Thirdly I have worked many, many miracles in your sight that were both prophesied and are proof that I am who I say I am. Fourthly, the most credible prophet of your day, whose holiness and credibility you cannot deny, pointed to me and said I am Messiah and Lord.

Therefore, your refusal to believe in me can only be described as sinfully stubborn; as an example of hardness of heart, and that you do not have the love of God in you, neither do you trust in his word. In the end all your claims to having a special relationship with God, and love for Moses and the word will only serve to condemn you more severely. For you who should know better, simply refuse to believe. You will ultimately be held accountable for your sinful refusal to believe that I am both Savior and Lord.

Now we ought to heed well these words that are addressed not only to ancient peoples, but also to us in our current world. Though it may be true that some in our time do struggle to believe, it is even more often the case that many simply refuse to believe.

While there are many facets to this modern problem of unbelief, let’s look at one line in particular that the Lord speaks, and see how it applies in our own times. Jesus says,

I came in the name of my Father, but you do not accept me; yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another, and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:43-44)

Yes, here is a problem quite common today. We easily believe and accept what mere (and fallible) human beings say, but “cop an attitude” when God summons us to believe.

Consider that although we live in times in which many pride themselves on intellectual rigor, urban myths and foolish rumors are easily accepted and bandied about. There is often great credence and legitimacy given to things said by newscasters, certain populist scientists and scientific programs, and even to lesser sources such as Hollywood stars and other popular figures. So easily and quickly do many people believe almost anything said by these sources. Many assertions go almost unquestioned, especially those made by popular scientists and shows on the Science Channel and the History Channel.

Now there are facts that science legitimately presents to us that are supported by large amounts of evidence, and that ought to command some reasonable degree of acceptance from us. Yet even in the physical sciences, many theories that have had widespread acceptance in the past have come to be either significantly altered or entirely set aside. For example, even in my own brief lifetime of 53 years there have been some dramatic shifts in the sciences. When I was a child, I was taught that the universe was in a steady state. There was a theory proposed by a Catholic Priest and scientist named George Lemaitre SJ, that the universe was in fact expanding. Many ridiculed it as the “Big Bang.” By the time I was in high school, the Big Bang Theory was accepted by almost every scientist! Within the span of ten short years, a fundamental scientific premise had gone from being called ludicrous, to being called orthodoxy, and settled science.

Other basic theories and rules have also been called into question with the emergence of quantum theory. Basic axioms of Newtonian physics and even aspects of the Theory of Relativity now have more questions associated with them.

So even the physical sciences, though quite reliable in many ways, often present a moving target for some of the truths they proclaim. And yet, so easily do we simply accept as absolutely and always true whatever certain popular scientists say. Many good and thoughtful scientists are often more careful in the way they express their theories. Unfortunately, many presentations of science are flawed in that they present as certain that which is only theory and even under debate. The Science Channel and the History Channel often present scientists and theories that are more populist than true science. They speak of theories as if they were absolute facts. Thus, we are told that billions of years ago, comets rained down and filled our oceans with water; the Science Channel then obliges by showing us graphics and animated depictions of this as if it were absolutely true beyond any shadow of a doubt. We are then told that all the continents once made up one large continent call Pangaea; once again, the History Channel obliges by showing us an actual depiction of what this continent looked like, as if one could actually know its exact shape and size! The impression is thereby given that this is simply an irrefutable fact.

But the real problem isn’t the populist scientists, or the channels that want to sell ads and keep our attention. The problem is that so many of us looking at this stuff just say, “Oh, I guess that’s how it was. Look it’s right there on TV… look, the scientists are saying so.” And thus we just accept it as true, almost without question. Seldom do we pause and say, “Really? Are they that sure? What is the evidence? How certain is it?”

The same is true with so many things we hear on the news or read on the Internet. We say, “Look, it must be so; it says so right here!”

The point is, we accept so easily what is presented to us. And even if there are often good reasons to do so, because the evidence seems substantial, isn’t it interesting how quickly we “cop an attitude” when it comes to the truths of faith, and what Scripture says and reports, and what our ancient venerable faith reports as true. Suddenly, a lot of people who easily believe almost anything they see or read get skeptical and cynical and say, “Oh, no! You’re going to have to present me all kind of evidence for that! If I can’t see with my own eyes, I won’t accept it!”

Never mind that there’s lots of evidence for the truth of the Scriptures, or that creation shouts, “I was designed, I was designed!” Never mind that there are many miracles such as the Shroud of Turin, or the blood sample from Januarius the Martyr, which liquefies and boils every year on his feast day; or that there are healings, and even more exotic things like weeping statues. Never mind all that. Never mind too, that the ancient wisdom of the Church has stood the test of time as nations have come and gone. Empires have risen and fallen, political and scientific theories have come and gone, fads have become popular and then passé. “No! No matter what you tell me, I’m going to need a lot more evidence than that!”

And this suddenly cynical attitude stands in great contrast to the rather easy-going credulity that we have for things reported from far less substantial, reputable, or lasting sources.

Consider too, that the Holy Scriptures are one of the most numerous and consistent texts from antiquity. Far more ancient copies of it exist than of almost any other ancient document about any ancient historical period or person. The sources in Scripture are remarkably consistent and credible compared to those of other ancient documents. Yet look at the amount of dubious criticism and parsing of every small detail. Look at the dismissal of the Scriptures as being credible or accurate. There is more evidence by far of the existence of Jesus than of any other figure of antiquity. Yet notice that no one doubts the existence of Julius Caesar. But many simply dismiss out of hand any reference to Jesus. Many doubt that what is written of what Jesus said and did is factual; they even doubt that he existed at all. No other ancient figure or document must withstand the kind of scrutiny that Jesus and the Scriptures do. Why is this?

Yes, some of the same human beings who are so gullible that urban myths easily proliferate suddenly become hostile, prosecuting attorneys, debating every fact when it comes to believing in God.

This is what Jesus means when he rebukes us for so easily believing what someone says simply in his own name,  but when God and the things of faith are involved, suddenly we  are doubtful, cynical, hostile, and rejecting of evidence no matter how varied and numerous.

Jesus is pointing to the strange, obtuse, and mysterious stubbornness of the human heart. It somehow just doesn’t want to believe! So many who easily believe almost anything suddenly dig in their heels when it comes to believing in God!

Jesus is surely on point when he says to us that the problem of faith is not a lack of evidence from the outside, it is a problem on the inside. It is a problem of the human heart; it is the resistance of the flesh.

Pray for faith, pray for the grace to believe and see your faith increased day by day. Be sober that there is a strange stubbornness in the human heart towards believing in God.

Jesus directs our attention inward to our stubborn, impenitent, and unbelieving hearts, and urges us to pray. In the words of the Apostles, “Lord increase our faith!” or those of the Centurion, “I do believe Lord; help my unbelief.”

This song celebrates how creation shouts the existence of God.

13 Replies to “A meditation on the teaching of Jesus that we are stubborn of heart and slow to believe”

  1. Not long ago I read an article that scientist were very close to discovering the center of the universe and that many people will be very disappointed to find out it is not them.

  2. Poor Jewish people – they were expecting a Messiah , yet , like many of us too , finding it very difficult to

    believe that God could be that good – to take on human nature , to be like us in so much, to eat with sinners ;

    it was a culture that was all along trained to put a distance between itself and the unholy gentiles, with many demonic influences and ways

    ( possibly, to protect the family line for the savior , since the enemy was hard at work , to disrupt same , to prevent the Incarnation , through a holy mother ) and thus, the Pharisee possibly felt very right in his prayer whereas , The Lord was preparing the times when, being one in Him, in His infinite merits , we can call out
    -‘ have mercy on us ‘ , which , in itself is healing !

    Our own unbelief can be seen in those moments when faced with the shortcomings of others – a stinging word or act of pride / injustice – easy to forget what The Lord has done for the other and thus for oneself too and instead , to fall for the enemy invitation to simmer in selfrigtheousness , if not animosity and waste the occasion for calling out -‘ Lord , have mercy on us ‘, with the trust that He can touch the other too and many others who too need to be taken to Him !

    May The Holy Face that possibly was also beholding the Father ‘s love, in The Spirit ,esp. during The Passion , be our contemplation too , on behlaf of all in our lives as well , who need to be filled with that love !

  3. That was amazing Msgr. I am a Catholic convert of 9 years this Easter, just 1 week before St John Paul II died. I love the one holy Catholic and apostolic Faith. I am the only one in my entire family, immediate and extended. I am sharing this on my facebook. I hope they read it and get it! Thank you for writing it!

  4. “There is more evidence by far of the existence of Jesus than of any other figure of antiquity. Yet notice that no one doubts the existence of Julius Caesar.”

    Oh, come on, Monsignor. More evidence for the existence of Our Lord than for Caesar? Surely you jest!

    1. Four gospels, thousands of existent manuscripts, the epistles of the NT and the manifold reflections of the ancient Church Fathers etc., etc., etc. The manuscripts of the Scriptures are all able to be correlated etc. Many of the writings of other ancient figures do not exist at all let alone in thousands of copied manuscripts and tens of thousands of reflections, quotes, and sermons. And where writings and evidence of other ancient figures do exist, the number and quality of the sources is far less. I do not say that there is no evidence of JCaesar or any other ancient figure and I surely do not doubt their actual existence. I merely say that this to show how the insane canard repeated by many atheists today that there “no evidence that Jesus existed or that he said and did any of the things reported” is absurd on the face of it and that they do not dismiss other more meager ancient sources they way they do the Scriptures and other mountains of evidence about Jesus. If they are going to doubt Jesus in this way, then other figures of history also have to go or their deeds and words should undergo they same cynical scrutiny. But of course they don’t. Why do you suppose that is?

      Also, why do you list your e-mail as “depravity” ?? It does not edify and does not comport with your pen name “I like the Church Fathers”

  5. You shouldn’t read too much into an email address. I read an online article years ago [which I now cannot locate] in which the author argued that all of the new technologies of the last two decades are feeding the increasing depravity of our culture [e.g. through internet porn]. The article was on my mind when I was starting a new gmail account, so I simply used two words that appeared in the article. It’s as simple as that. However, I understand your concern about that address not being “edifying”, so, as you can see, you have prompted me to change it to something more suitable. It’s a real gmail address. Try it!

    To go back to the main issue, thank you for your response. I’m just concerned that non-Christians are going to think we’re nuts when we make obvious exaggerations like saying that there is far more evidence for the existence of Our Lord than for the likes of Julius Caesar or Augustus.

    Caesar and Augustus have their images on many contemporary coins and busts. Many contemporary statues of them were made too [indeed, arguably the greatest portrait statue ever made is of Augustus and stands in the Vatican Museums]:


    Caesar and Augustus also ruled a vast empire that reached into ancient Palestine [Augustus, of course, is mentioned by name in Luke’s infancy narrative]. They were also written about in great detail by many contemporary writers. Caesar also wrote his own works.

    Our Lord, on the other hand, is mentioned throughout the Gospels, the apocrypha, and He is briefly mentioned by a few ancient writers such as the Romanized Jew, Josephus, and the Roman pagan, Tacitus. He did not leave writings in His own name. There are no contemporary images of Jesus [apart from the Shroud of Turin]. There are no contemporary coins, busts, statues or paintings of Him. The first known Christian depiction of the crucifixion did not appear until a carving of it was made on the wooden door of the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome over 400 years after the crucifixion.

    But this is hardly surprising. Again, Caesar and Augustus ruled a vast empire and Our Lord, although He is the Son of God, was seen by the contemporary Roman and Jewish leadership, not as a ruler, but as a rabble rousing troublemaker. As He Himself said, “My Kingdom is not of this world”. It’s entirely natural that there would be more evidence for the existence of Caesar and Augustus than for Our Lord.

    Of course, none of what I’ve said means that Jesus did not exist. Of course, Our Lord existed. Even atheist Bible scholars acknowledge that He existed. Even the most skeptical scholars agree that He was baptized by John and that He was crucified by Pilate. Atheists who argue that Jesus did not exist are not even taken seriously by other atheists.

    But to suggest that there is far more evidence for the existence of Our Lord than for any other figure in antiquity is an exaggeration that makes Christians seem like we’re irrational and that we can’t defend our Faith without resorting to such exaggerations.

    1. By the way I think you are selecting my quotes out of context. I think a fair reader will not summarize me as you have “saying that there is far more evidence for the existence of Our Lord than for the likes of Julius Caesar or Augustus.” My remarks in context are more nuanced than that. Of course there is plenty of evidence that JCaesar existed. It isn’t necessary to school me in things Roman. But that is just my point. There are tons of evidence for Jesus too. One set of data is cynically disputed, the other is accepted almost uncritically. The evidence for Jesus can stack up against any ancient figure and surpasses most of them by far in terms of the number of primary sources and currently extant manuscripts and corroborating testimonies. Thus I stand by my essential point however you wish to exaggerate it or worry about it. You of all commenters ought not fret over how an argument might come across.

      I wonder if you would take the same tack at the LARGE number of atheists who are currently saying that “Jesus Christ never existed” or the mitigated form: “Most of what the scriptures say about him never happened” Get on their blogs and say a few things.

      1. OK fair enough. I have to say however that I don’t go on those atheist blogs because their blogs would do little or nothing to draw me closer to God. Despite my sometimes contrarian comments, I can assure you that this blog does draw me closer to God!

        I don’t think there would be much point going to those atheist blogs anyway. The prominent agnostic historian of early Christianity, Bart Ehrman, recently wrote a book called Did Jesus Exist? in which he sets out the overwhelmingly strong case for His existence. Yet, several atheists who believe in the “Christ myth” theory have published several rejoinders. If one of their own fellow travelers like Bart Ehrman can’t persuade them, there’s not much I could do. Atheists are particularly stubborn of heart.

      2. Msgr, might I add that while there may be documentation regarding the existence of Julius Ceasar and other ancient leadership, that knowledge carries with it no reason. What I mean is that as human beings, we hold no greater connection to that information than we do to the number 4.

        However, when we speak of Jesus, we feel it. I cannot explain why, but all people feel something in speaking of (or with) Jesus. Even athiests, while trying to deny his existence feel something. I can deny the existence of Ceasar and still feel no emotion. I can do the same for the number 4. But as an athiest fights to prove the non existence of our Lord, he/she feels something. That feeling alone is evidence of Jesus’ existence. That and a whole lot of actual historical documents.

        Furthermore, regarding contemporary images, does the multitude of artwork throughout the milenia count? I can’t tell you how many paintings I have seen of Ceasar, because I am fairly sure I have not seen any. I cannot count how many paintings or drawings I have seen of our Lord because I am not disciplined enough to count that high.

        That a ruler of this earth would have his likeness etched on money (a thing of this earth) does not surprise me. Did the writer not realize that Jesus has his image etched on our souls?

  6. I suspect that most people don’t want very much in the way of “Mystery”
    Will we be forgiven the debt of the ten thousand talents, as in Matthew 18:24? Will the wrongs be righted, in our lifetimes, by the Second Coming? So many more.
    Science has become a religion of illusionary certainties to many people as some of its outspoken “experts” tell people what they want to hear about “proofs” instead of what they need to hear about theories. Not to mention that a lot of what’s being presented as if they were facts – as if they’d been through the approval process of “peer review” – instead of bypassing that process by getting published and marketed by an influential book company who has the ability to hype it big time.
    Scientism you’ve call it and I like the term.
    But … what about the uncertainty in quantum physics which Richard P. Feynman (founder of the uncertainty principle in quantum) said; “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow…”
    Einstein didn’t like it and said that he couldn’t believe that God played dice with the universe. If he’s had the chance to observe it he may be well pleased with the resolution of wave/particle duality about a year ago.
    Bits of atoms (therefore smaller than atoms) can’t be seen so a test (double slit experiment) was used to see if they wave or if they were particle. The test showed them as being both.
    Finally, a molecule was put through the test and was shown to be a bit more particle and a bit less wave than the wee bits. An equation was devised, applied and it turns out that things, which can be seem with the naked eye, are vastly more particle than wave – the miniscule wave part hadn’t been noticed before.
    Resolved, until … someone put atoms (which can just be seen with a non-light but electron based microscope) through the experiment and they tested out to the values of how much wave and how much particle they should have. Then they were examined by the electron based microscope and appeared to be strictly particle and the, still running test, showed them to be strictly particle. Turn off the microscope they again became partly wave and partly particle.
    Who’s gonna assure us that there’s no mystery or uncertainty to protect those who feel unstablized about the mystery/uncertainty of truth? No need, it’s almost certainly well buried in scientific tomes.
    Reminded me of a physics post at; Crab Nebula/COS cell, human heart; http://blog.physicsworld.com/2010/02/15/crab-nebula-or-heart-building/
    James Dacey saw a similarity between a vast stellar object and a tiny heart cell so, I suggested a starting point for research.
    There’s probably lots of picture, spectrographics and the likes for such research but, maybe not what they need. Before anyone had much of a chance to gather any new and needed stuff the Crab Nebula went nova and burst apart with incredible speed. http://www.planetary.org/blogs/jason-davis/20130808-coolest-video-expanding-supernova.html http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxz0ATNvROk
    Or did it? It’s 6,300 light years away so, it seems that what we’re seeing happened long ago and the light waves which “report” the incident are reaching us 63 centuries later. All timed through 6+ millenia because James Dacey and my (not so humble as I’d like to think?) self contributed two parts of a starting point for solving a mystery.
    Very grateful to Robertlifelonfcatholic for the centre of the universe thing. I very needed it today because I’m not so central.
    Leads me to wonder if a fear of so many Mysteries was the main impetus of the Protestant growth. Sure Henry VIII of England wanted clergy who wouldn’t criticize, and interfere with, his hedonism and Martin Luther may well have been sincere about his desire for reform but; they didn’t do it single handed. Societies were stablizing and people may well have wanted answers instead. Wanted them so much that they would rather have wrong answers than uncertainty? Unlike Feynman.
    It’s the Mysteries that drew me away from the dis-satisfaction of being within the frustration of being in the varieties of Protestant faith(s) that had been fostered around me. Too many “know it alls” Judging? I s’pose but just it’s how I felt, in my frustration, than how I accuse.
    Would be surprised if there weren’t any know it alls in the upper structure of the Catholic system but, a firm policy can keep imperfections (we, I, all people, have imperfections) in check.
    So, those who fear the uncertainty flock to those who presume to speak on behalf of the modern day Feynmans by offering comfortable illusions.

    1. Oops. Forgot to mention. Thanks so much for the reference to Father George Lemaitre SJ, there’s so much cool stuff to have fun exploring. That order has so much like, the founder’s scruples tied in with obsession thing which I begin see as obeying rules only because they’re the rules until only obsession makes it possible to stay on track.
      My understanding of that may well follow an uncertain, but exciting path to the real truth – over my early impressions.

  7. I almost never comment, however i did a few searching and wound up here
    A meditation on the teaching of Jesus that we are
    stubborn of heart and slow to believe

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