Is the Modern Interpretation of the Book of Revelation Flawed? A Consideration of a Different View

Flemish Apocalypse manuscript (15th century)

In daily Mass we have recently been reading from the Book of Revelation. It is commonly read at this, the end of the liturgical year, because it speaks to the passing quality of the things of this world and to the end of the world itself.

It is also a book of glory, depicting the ultimate victory of our Lord Jesus Christ after a long conflict between the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of Christ. In this context the Book of Revelation is not a mere tour guide to the last days but a reminder that Christ has already sealed the victory.

Most modern scholars estimate that the Book of Revelation was composed sometime between 90 and 110 A.D., likely toward the end of the reign of Domitian (Roman emperor from 81-96 A.D.). They believe that the “harlot city” referred to in Revelation is Rome and that this oppressive city-date persecuting Christians at the time of its writing will one day, in God’s good time, come under His wrathful judgment and be destroyed. Many of them project that this fulfillment is still to come and see it as symbolic of the end of the world.

There are good reasons for this dating of the Book of Revelation, not the least of which is the testimony of several Fathers of the Church. Irenaeus places the work in about 96 A.D. Victorinus places the writing in the context of the persecution of Domitian, who banished John to the island of Patmos. Jerome and Eusebius say the same. This range of dates (90-110 A.D.) also fits in well with modern theories of biblical dating, which as a general rule tend to favor later dates.

There is a minority view, however, that the Book of Revelation was composed prior to 70 A.D., during the persecution of the Church by Nero (Roman emperor from 54-68 A.D.). (Nero’s persecution of the Church was, up to that point, the worst of the first century.) This view holds that the “harlot city” of Revelation is Jerusalem and that the Book of Revelation is prophesying that the destruction of Jerusalem will take place “soon.” This destruction did in fact occur in short order, in 70 A.D, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. In this view, Revelation is warning Christians of the signs that will precede the destruction so that they can flee before Jerusalem’s doom is sealed. The historical context of the Book of Revelation put forward in this minority view is the persecution of Christians by unbelieving Jews (in partnership with Roman officials) and the subsequent destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Lord in judgment of this unbelief and the persecution of those who did believe. Some of the proponents of this interpretation also see in this historical event a symbol of the end of the world.

We might wonder whether the specification of such an early date offends against the testimony of the Church Fathers. The most significant Father attesting to a later date (96 A.D.) was Irenaeus, and most of the others based their conclusions on his. Irenaeus has proved to be a bit unreliable in terms of dating; for example, he argued that Jesus was 50 years old when He was crucified. Further, the translation of the Greek sentence in which Irenaeus puts forth the date of 96 A.D. is somewhat unclear. It can be translated in one of two ways:

John had this vision, near the end of his life, during the reign of Domitian, or

John had this vision and lived on to the reign of Domitian.

Thus, the minority opinion does not necessarily disregard the testimony of the Fathers as to the time frame, but rather interprets it as being somewhat vague.

In today’s post I would like to present this minority view of the Book of Revelation, which I think better articulates its original context and provides important interpretive keys to understanding its fundamental message. Although the view is not widely held, it is gaining adherents.

Although it is a minority view, it is growing in acceptance and, I would argue, is compelling for the following reasons:

1. It links the Book of Revelation to the “mini-Apocalypse” of the Mount Olivet discourse (see, for example, Mat 24:1-44).

The Mount Olivet discourse is widely interpreted as prophesying the coming destruction of the Temple, which would occur in 70 A.D., not the destruction of Rome or of the world.

There are many similarities between the Gospel passages of the Mount Olivet discourse and the prophecies of Revelation. The parallels are too numerous to detail in this post, but I have described them more fully here: The Fourth Apocalypse. Many argue that the Book of Revelation is John’s theological presentation of the Mount Olivet discourse, which is present in the other three Gospels, but missing from John’s. Therefore, they say that the content of Revelation corresponds to the Mount Olivet discourse, which prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D.

2. It links the Book of Revelation to prophetic books of the Old Testament and maintains their historical meaning and focus.

Most of the Book of Revelation was drawn directly from Old Testament prophets such as Joel, Daniel, and Ezekiel. These prophets had as their historical context the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 B.C. If that was context of the texts from which John borrowed, then it seems likely that John is saying in Revelation that what happened then (in 587 B.C) will happen again unless there is Jewish repentance and faith. This is what the Old Testament passages meant and now John borrows them for the writing of the Book of Revelation just prior to 70 A.D., when the Temple and Jerusalem were prophesied to be destroyed again.

Thus, parallel events are being described in Revelation and in the books of the Old Testament prophets, and this points to the context in which John writes. The minority view fits nicely with this historical perspective.

3. It maintains the tradition of prophets in its interpretation of the word “harlot.”

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem and the people of Israel are called harlots because they have committed adultery, forsaken the Lord, and are sleeping with false gods. Nowhere in the Old Testament is Rome or any pagan city referred to as a harlot, yet Jerusalem repeatedly is.

It seems unlikely that Revelation would depart so suddenly and widely from biblical tradition and assign the title “harlot” to the pagan city, Rome, rather than to Jerusalem. Here are some examples of the use of the word from the prophets:

But if you refuse and rebel [O, Israel], you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers (Is 1:20-21).

Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the LORD your God; the fear of me is not in you, says the Lord GOD of hosts. For long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yea, upon every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down as a harlot (Jer 2:19-20).

For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will deliver you into the hands of those whom you hate, into the hands of those from whom you turned in disgust; and they shall deal with you in hatred, and take away all the fruit of your labor, and leave you naked and bare, and the nakedness of your harlotry shall be uncovered. Your lewdness and your harlotry have brought this upon you, because you played the harlot with the nations, and polluted yourself with their idols (Ezek 23:28-30).

4. It agrees with the most direct references to the identity of the persecutors in the Book of Revelation.

In Revelation 2 and 3 there is reference to the persecutors as a “synagogue of Satan” and it is stated that they consider themselves Jews. Romans would surely not have considered themselves Jews. Hence, we ought to take the text at face value: the primary persecutors are Jews. However, Jews are not the only persecutors; Gentiles, responding to the complaints of Jews against the Christians, persecute as well. Here are a couple of texts that describe the persecutors of the Christians in very Jewish terms:

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write this: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life says this: ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan’” (Rev 2:8-9).

Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and learn that I have loved you (Rev 3:9).

5. It takes the clearest identification of the “harlot city” in Revelation at face value.

In Revelation 11, the harlot city is clearly identified as Jerusalem, not Rome:

and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified (Rev 11:8).

The city described as the place where their Lord was crucified can be no other place than Jerusalem.

Later in the Book of Revelation the double enemy against the Christians is described as a twofold threat: a beast and a harlot. The minority view holds that the harlot city is Jerusalem, where Jerusalem symbolizes Jews, especially the leadership centered in the Temple (Remember that many Jews became Christians; Jerusalem here is understood to refer to those Jews who emphatically rejected the Messiah.)

6. Its placement of the writing of Revelation to pre-70 A.D. aligns with Nero, not Domitian, which agrees with the reference in Revelation to the number 666.

There is a famous verse in Revelation identifying the “beast” as having a name that corresponds to the number 666:

This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666 (Rev 13:18).

There is little dispute today that 666 is a reference to Nero. Why would Nero (54-68 A.D) be referenced in a persecution taking place near 90 A.D. under the reign of Domitian (81-96 A.D.)? Thus, the minority view of Revelation as a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (not Rome) in 70 A.D. seems more plausible.

7. The two beasts described in Revelation 13, one from “the land” and one from “the sea,” fit well into the historical context of the 70 A.D. time frame.

The Book of Revelation presents the primary antagonist as a horrible red dragon, which is clearly the devil. However, this red dragon gives birth to two beasts that persecute the Church, one from the land and one from the sea. The two beasts can be seen as the unbelieving Jews (the beast from the land (the Promised Land)) and Rome (the beast from the sea (a common symbol of the Gentiles)). This is the double threat experienced by the early Christians.

Both these beasts emerged from a “red dragon” with 7 heads (there were 7 Herods) and ten horns (there were ten Caesars who interacted with the 7 Herods). Thus, a complex, two-fold enemy seems to be described.

This lines up well with the the historical context of the time leading up to 70 A.D., when two enemies conspired against the early Church. Ultimately, as the Book of Revelation also describes, these two beasts turn on one another, and the harlot is destroyed.

In Revelation 17 the complex, two-fold enemy is described as a beast and a harlot. The harlot city rides upon the beast. The beast later turns and devours the harlot with fire and total destruction. This in fact happened when Rome (which had a partnership with Jerusalem through the Herodian dynasty) turned against Jerusalem.

The year 70 A.D. was a crucial one for the city of Jerusalem, for that marked the end of the war with the Romans. In this year, Jerusalem was sacked and burned, and the Temple was destroyed. Not one stone was left on another and the entire area (except for a few dwellings on Mt. Zion) was abandoned. Survivors were either carried into slavery or killed. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, 1.2 million Jews lost their lives.

Thus, the Book of Revelation seems to describe an enemy of the early Christians that is a complex combination of two enemies who conspire against the early Church and later turn on each other. This was historically the fact at the time of 70 A.D., when the Jews and Rome went to war against each other.

8. It flows well from the fuller context of the New Testament.

A central reason for leaning toward a date prior to 70 A.D. for the writing of Revelation is that such timing better fits into the context of the persecutions being endured by the Christians as described in other New Testament books. In those accounts, the persecution comes more from fellow Jews than it does from Romans alone.

This minority view seeks to integrate the Book of Revelation within the same conflict of other New Testament books such as the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles—namely, a dispute between Christians and their Jewish opponents, who then engage the Roman officials for redress—rather than to set Revelation as a conflict merely between Christians and pagan Rome.

Jesus was put to death by the Romans (specifically, Pontius Pilate), but this was due in large part to their provocation by Jesus’ fellow Jews. Peter, John, and Paul all suffered as a result of similar behavior by their Jewish brethren, who incited the concern and hostility of Roman officials. The general context of the early New Testament period is that Jews who did not accept Christ stirred up trouble for the early Church and provoked the Roman authorities to arrest, punish, and even kill early Christians. The minority position sees this as the primary historical context of the persecutions described in the Book of Revelation.

Through the bulk of the New Testament the antagonists are fellow Jews who do not accept Christ as the Messiah. It is they who involve Roman authorities in exacting punishment on Christians. Although these Roman officials are often hesitant to become involved, they are not thereby absolved of responsibility any more than Pilate can be absolved for his actions. Notice the consistent biblical context of the double enemy face by Christians:

It was fellow Jews who handed Jesus over. In particular, it was Jews who had much invested in the Temple and its rituals who felt most threatened by Him who handed Him over. Pilate, though unjust in his final action, was reluctant and it was only when he perceived that the Jewish leaders would incite a riot that he relented and had Jesus put to death.

In the Acts of the Apostles, it is always fellow Jews who attack and pursue Paul. The Romans, far from being Paul’s enemy are in fact his protectors on more than a few occasions. Even when the Romans do arrest Paul, it is once again due to the insistence of Paul’s fellow Jews and the threat of civil unrest. The final arrest of Paul centered on a perceived defilement of the Temple that he supposedly committed. This was not in fact the case but was the pretext by which the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem handed him over.

In the Epistles of Paul, once again it is fellow Jews and Judaizers (so-called Christians who wanted to bring the whole of Jewish ceremonial law into the Church and make it binding on all Christians) who are the real enemies. Paul does not preach social unrest against Roman authority (nor did Jesus). In fact, Paul counsels respect for authority and prayers for all in authority. Likewise, Jesus strongly resists any attempts to be drawn into political zealotry and any conception of the Messiah that would understand Him as military savior.

None of this is to say that the New Testament is anti-Semitic. Remember, most of the early converts were Jews; Jewish Christians made up a sizable percentage of the early Church. This was not a matter of ethnic hatred but of a clear distinction between those who would accept Jesus as Lord and those who would not. The division was not a mere intellectual debate; it was a volatile clash between radically different answers to the basic questions, Who is God? Who is supreme? Who is to be worshiped?

It seems unlikely that the ongoing context of the New Testament would change radically in Revelation, its final book. All along, the context was of the passing away of the old order of the Law and the Temple and the passionate fear and hatred this caused. It seems much more probable that the final book of the Bible would prophesy the conclusion to this clash.

9. It takes the frequent use of the word “soon” in the Book of Revelation more literally.

Throughout the Book of Revelation, the events described are said to take place “soon.” For example,

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John (Rev 1:1).

Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near [i.e., soon] (Rev 1:3).

[To the church at Ephesus] Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev 2:5).

Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth (Rev 2:16).

I am coming soon; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. (Rev 3:11).

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done (Rev 22:12).

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)

“Soon” can certainly be understood from God’s perspective, one that sees a watch in the night (4 hours) as equivalent to “a thousand years,” but we ought not dismiss that the “soon” referred to in Revelation might also have had a more literal meaning. As Jesus said in the Mount Olivet discourse, There are some standing here today, who will not taste death until they see all these things take place. For the early Christians, “soon” may well have meant 70 A.D., rather than the 20 or more years later put forth in the more well-accepted view.

10. The presumption in the majority view that Rome is the harlot city is problematic because Rome was never destroyed.

Rome was sacked many centuries after biblical times (in the late 4th and early 5th centuries), but it was never burned or destroyed as depicted in Revelation. Jerusalem, however, was destroyed and burned in 70 A.D., corresponding to the prophecies of the Book of Revelation (e.g., Rev 18:18 inter al).

To summarize, the minority view holds that the Book of Revelation is describing the clash between Jews and Christians (which drew in the Romans) and caused the persecutions against the Church described therein. Revelation is not merely a book describing Roman persecutions.

The placement of the writing of Revelation at a time just prior to 70 A.D. under Nero seems more likely to me (than the context of circa 90 A.D. under Domitian). The warlike and apocryphal events described in Revelation agree well with the historical events that led up to the destruction of the Temple and the full establishment of the Church as the new locus of the worship of God. To me, this is the more likely and immediate context of the Book of Revelation.

For all these reasons, as well as others not set forth here, the minority view seems to me to be quite plausible.

This does not mean that there is no value in the majority opinion (namely, that the beast (harlot) is Rome and the context is a Roman persecution of the Church). It would be wrong to casually dismiss what is the majority view. What I have presented here is still described as a minority view.

I have come to appreciate that the minority view enables us to have a far richer understanding of the Book of Revelation, because it sees the Book of Revelation as an integral part of the whole Bible rather than as an apocalyptic work radically standing apart from the other biblical views.

Consider well the possibilities of the minority view of Revelation. Fundamentally, this view roots the Book of Revelation more solidly in the rest of biblical tradition and maintains the focus on the biblical city of Jerusalem and the context of faith, rather than on the pagan city of Rome to which the early Church looked with evangelical mission and a gleeful expectation of destruction.

Surely, as with any minority view, as you ponder it, you may be troubled by the fact that it unsettles what seems more familiar. I have come to believe that it is a more compelling interpretation than the more widely accepted one. What do you think?

By the way, David Chilton has written quite thoroughly on this theory of the Book of Revelation in his book Days of Vengeance. More information on the book is available here.

A Proverb about the Glory and Safety of God’s Word

There is always much to ponder in the Book of Proverbs, from which we have been reading at daily Mass this week (25th Week of the Year). Consider the following proverb, which speaks to the glory of the Word of God and of our need to preserve its purity.

Every word of God is tested; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Add nothing to his words, lest he reprove you, and you will be exposed as a deceiver (Proverbs 30:5-6).

From this we can discern four aspects of the Word of God.

Pure The text says, Every word of God is tested. The Hebrew word used here is צָרַף (tsaraph), which means to smelt, refine, purge, or test.

There are many today who are dismissive of the Word of God as something ancient, irrelevant to modern times, and unenlightened. However, it is precisely its ancient quality that speaks to its enduring truth. It has been tested by time and found to be a true and wonderful guide. Were it foolish or useless it would have been discarded long ago.

The Word of God remains, while empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, trends have arisen and then become passé. Yet here, still reading this text, still judging things by it, still finding it wise, still marveling in its enduring purity. It has been refined by God in the crucible of time. It alone has endured as pure. All else has been burned away, refined, smelted, and purged. Yes, the Word of God alone remains.

Protective – The text says, he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Yes, through His Word, God shields us from the errors and foolishness of our times. By the Word of God, we can test all things, all ideas, and see if they conform to God’s ways or not. This protects us not only from errors of our time, but from the sinful wounds and addictions that proceed from them.

There are many who propose ever-stranger ways to freedom and dignity. By God’s Word in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, we can see that these paths are dead ends. We are protected from going down many rabbit holes and from adopting misguided notions that seem wise to the world but are disclosed as foolishness by God.

God’s Word and His Law are like the defending walls of a city. Within, we are protected from worldly and devilish errors and from wolves masquerading as sheep.

Plenary The text says, Add nothing to his words, lest he reprove you. There are many who believe that they can improve on God’s revelation. Some think that perhaps God forgot to reveal something or to make necessary distinctions. They believe that perhaps He was too harsh at some points or too lenient at others. Some seek to subtract from God’s word or to explain it in such a way that its plain meaning as set forth by the text and the Magisterium is obscured.

The text says that God will reprove those who do this. It is never a good thing to be accused by God of distorting His Word. The Lord seldom expressed more anger than when He referred to those who might mislead His disciples. He warned that they would be better off being cast into the sea with a millstone around their neck (e.g., Mark 9:42). Be careful, do not distort God’s Word. He will avenge such things!

Proving The text says, and you will be exposed as a deceiver. The Hebrew text is more blunt, using the word “liar” כָּזַב (Kazab). If the Word of God is true, then those who deform it are liars, plain and simple.

The word deceiver is important as well. To deceive literally means “to carry off.” Thus, deceivers are like wolves who stalk their prey and carry them off hanging limply from their mouth. Jesus warned of such wolves (see John 7:15) as did St. Paul (see Acts 20:29). Scoffers, deceivers, and adulterators of the Word of God might gain audiences for a time, but soon they will answer to God. Do not admire them; do not be like them. Humbly accept the Word of God as faithfully preached and delivered by the saints and codified in the magisterial teachings of the Church.

Stay safe in the protection of God’s pure Word!

Pondering Some Proverbs

In daily Mass this week we are reading from the Book of Proverbs, in which a common theme is the contrast between the wise man and the fool.

Let’s examine a few passages from the Proverbs. They go a long way toward explaining the ultimate destiny of the wise and the destruction wrought by foolishness and evil.  My comments are presented in red text.

Blessings are for the head of the just, but a rod for the back of the fool (Proverbs 10:6).

God’s law is a great blessing to those who love wisdom. His commandments are not prison walls; they are defending walls. His commands do not limit freedom so much as they frame it within necessary limits.

To the foolish, though, to those who despise God’s wisdom, to those who hate discipline and reasonable limits, God’s law—any authority that tries to limit behavior—is hateful and punishing, like a rod on the back.

Many today are not simply indifferent to God’s wisdom as proclaimed by the Church and Scripture, they are openly hostile to it!

It is like the reaction of someone who has been sitting in a dark room and is suddenly subjected to bright light. He despises the light and protests its presence as something obnoxious and intrusive. Jesus lamented, And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil (Jn 3:19).

A wise man heeds commands, but a prating fool will be overthrown. A path to life is his who heeds admonition, but he who disregards reproof goes astray (Proverbs 10:8, 17).

The wise man listens to instruction and strives to base his life upon it. The wise humbly accept that they do not know all things and must be taught by God.

Fools, those who hate wisdom, prattle on and on about their own opinions. They believe something is true simply because they think it.

The text says that the end of a fool is destruction. Many nations, empires, political ideologies, trends, and philosophies have come and gone over the years, yet God’s truth remains. The wisdom and the Word of the Lord endure forever.

He who winks at a fault causes trouble, but he who frankly reproves promotes peace (Prov 10:10).

There is tremendous pressure today to remain silent about sin and evil. Those who do speak of sin are labeled judgmental and intolerant. Sadly, many Christians have succumbed to this pressure; nothing but trouble can result from such capitulation. The moral cesspool that is our modern age is evidence of this.

The correction of faults, frankly and with love, is an act of charity (St. Thomas Aquinas). Error and sin bring war and division, both individually and collectively, but God’s truth, lovingly proclaimed, brings peace by insisting on what is good, right, true, and beautiful.

We live in an age that turns a blind eye to evil. The world often celebrates it in visual entertainment, written media, and music. One can see the destructiveness of the glamorization of evil simply by reading the news.

God’s law is His peace plan for this broken world of ours; it is His wisdom that will bring us peace.

A fountain of life is the mouth of the just, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Proverbs 10:11).

Jesus warned that Satan and those who are evil often masquerade in sheep’s clothing, while underneath they are ravenous wolves (see Mat 7:15). Many in our world today who despise God’s wisdom attempt to conceal their violence by using euphemisms such as pro-choice, pro-woman, no-fault divorce, reproductive freedom, euthanasia, and death with dignity.

Despite the cloak of pseudo-compassion, they ultimately peddle death and division. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, speaks to the dignity of every human life, to hope, and to the promise of life in spite of any difficulties.

The soul of the wicked man desires evil; his neighbor finds no pity in his eyes (Proverbs 21:6).

There comes a steady hardening of the heart of a person who loves evil. As the hardening grows worse, they care less and less for the pain they cause others. They show little pity and don’t seem to mind that they destroy the reputations of others. Their cruelty, both physical and emotional, grows ever worse.

The just man’s recompense leads to life, but the gains of the wicked, to sin. Better a little with fear of the Lord than a great fortune with anxiety. Better a little with virtue than a large income with injustice (Proverbs 10: 15, 16).

For those who are striving to be just and to follow God’s wisdom, the rewards received are to be shared generously with others. The gains of the wicked, however, lead to sins such as gluttony, greed, and hoarding. Rather than sharing their abundance with others, they spend it on the flesh; they place their trust in creatures rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.

Where words are many, sin is not wanting; but he who restrains his lips does well (Proverbs 10:19).

In an age of non-stop communication and 24/7 news reporting, the sin of gossip is an almost endlessly available temptation. Discretion appears to have been lost. Almost everyone thinks he has a right to know everything about everyone else. The people’s “right to know” seems to have no limits.

Our age is one of many media (visual, verbal, musical, etc.) and on account of this sin is not wanting. We talk endlessly about other people’s business and often ignore our own issues. Why stay in our own lane when we can “tune in at 11,” read a scandal sheet, or surf to a website for the latest gossip?

Rare indeed are those who “restrain their lips” and limit their critique to what is truly helpful unto conversion.

Crime is the entertainment of the fool; so is wisdom for the man of sense (Proverbs 10:23).

Our culture often celebrates the sins of others as entertainment. On television, in the cinema, and in many other forms of communication, fornication, adultery, and all kinds of sexual misconduct are normalized—even celebrated.

It is the same with violence. Most adventure movies today glamorize its use solve problems. We also glorify mobsters and some other violent criminals.

Some will argue that movies should reflect life. That is fine, but most people are not killing other people, burning cities, crashing cars, or blowing up buildings. Most people are not involved in organized crime. Sadly, however, there is a lot of fornication, adultery, and participation in homosexual acts. In movies, this behavior seems to bring few negative consequences; in real life, however, the consequences are often devastating.

Where are the movies that depict wisdom, beauty, love, truth, chastity, and strong families? There are some out there, but they are far outnumbered by those that celebrate crime, violence, dysfunction, and sinfulness.

When the tempest passes, the wicked man is no more; but the just man is established forever (Proverbs 10:25).

The Church alone is indefectible, by the promise of Jesus Christ. Although evil movements, political forces, and sinful regimes rise and boast of their power, they eventually fall. The Church has seen empires rise and fall and philosophies come and go. Evil men have threatened the Church with destruction for thousands of years, but we have read the funeral rites over every one of them.

The truth will out. Evil will not remain; it cannot last. Christ has already won the victory.

The foolish keep resisting; they laugh at God’s wisdom, dismiss the Scriptures, and ridicule the Church. When they are gone, though, we will still be here proclaiming Christ crucified, gloriously resurrected, and ascended to glory.

Those who mock this resist the consistent message of history. Jesus is Lord, and though He permits His enemies time to repent, their days are ultimately numbered—evil cannot last.

These are just a few proverbs that are particularly appropriate for our times. They help us to understand what God has to say about many modern trends.

Here’s a video with some other sayings. In posting this I do not mean to affirm every saying presented in it, but some of them do make good sense!

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.

Why Do Some of the Psalms Seem Boastful?

To anyone who regularly reads the Liturgy of the Hours, some of the psalms seem downright boastful. They sound too much like the Pharisee who went to pray and said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). In the very next verse, Jesus recommends a briefer prayer for us: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How, then, are we to understand some of the psalms that seem to take up a rather boastful and presumptuous tone? Consider these three passages:

  • The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight (Psalm 18:21-24).
  • My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-4).
  • I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me … therefore I hate every wrong path (Psalm 119:100-102).

For us who would pray these, the spiritual approach is twofold.

These psalms are prayed in hope. While we are not worthy to say such words without a lot of qualifications, by God’s grace they will one day be true for us. God is drawing us to perfection. While total perfection will not come until we attain Heaven, if we are faithful we should be progressing toward this lofty reality even now.

Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation. One day in Heaven we will be able to say, “I do not sin; I am blameless before God. I am not proud and never depart from your decrees, O Lord.” Hope is the vigorous expectation that these words will one day apply to us fully; for now, we recite them in that fervent hope.

In effect, we are memorizing our lines for a future moment, when by God’s grace we will actually be able to recite them truthfully. Praying psalms like these is like a dress rehearsal for Heaven. These psalms amount to prolepses of a sort, whereby we proclaim a future reality as if it were already present. Our confidence to speak proleptically is in Christ alone.

These psalms are on the lips of Christ. When the Church prays, Head and members pray together; it is the whole Body of Christ that proclaims these psalms.

Christ never wavered, never drew back from God’s Law. He never sinned; His hands were clean from defilement and He was rewarded for His righteousness. Christ alone prays these psalms without any qualification.

In the Old Testament, these psalms pointed forward to the Christ, to the anointed Messiah. Today, they still point to Christ and He alone utters them authentically. None of us can really pray them apart from Christ, as members of His Body.

Even the perfected in Heaven cannot pray them without reference to Christ, for it is He who accomplished in them the perfection that makes such psalms a reality for them.

It is Christ who prays these psalms, and we—through Him, with Him and in Him—head and members—are praying them to the Father.

Without Christ, such psalms amount to haughty boasts and presumptuous declarations, but with Christ our Head, they are true; we can rightly pray them in the hope of our own perfection, one day, by His grace. We can also pray them in the joy that some of our brothers and sisters in Heaven have already attained to the perfection described therein. This is because the grace of Christ has had in them its full effect.

Clearing up Confusion with Today’s Gospel on the Temple Tax

The Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the 19th Week) is likely confusing to anyone who hears it proclaimed in the United States because the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE), used for the lectionary in this country, makes what I would argue is an inaccurate translation of the Greek text. Here is the passage in question (the crucial section is presented in bold italics):

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes,” he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?”  When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the subjects are exempt. But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you” (Matthew 17:24-27).

The NABRE translation makes little sense; kings do in fact collect taxes from their “subjects.” Their subjects are not exempt from taxes, tolls, or censuses.

In contrast, the Greek text is clear and does make sense. It speaks not of subjects and foreigners, but of sons and strangers. The Greek text is straightforward:

  • … ἀπὸ τῶν υἱῶν αὐτῶν ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων?
  • … apo ton huion auton e apo ton allotrion?
  • … from the sons of them or from the strangers?

The Greek word huion means sons or descendants (by birth or possibly by adoption); it refers to people sharing the same nature as their father. The Greek text is referring to people who are of the family or household of a king.

These sons (or members of the king’s family) are distinguished from allotrion, those who belong to another’s family and are thus foreigners or strangers.

In light of this, I find the NABRE’s translation of huion as “subjects” to be odd. I consulted about two dozen other English translations of this passage and not one of them renders the word as “subjects.” They all translate it as either “sons” or “children.” I believe that one of these translations is necessary to make the English text intelligible.

With the translation of “sons,” the meaning of the passage becomes clear. Jesus is pointing out to Peter that kings do not tax their own children and therefore He, as God’s Son, is exempt from the temple tax. However, to avoid giving scandal or stirring up controversy, Jesus instructs Peter to pay the tax (and tells him how to obtain the money to do so).

The particular tax in question is the annual levy to pay for the upkeep of the temple. It amounted to two drachmas and was paid with the didrachma, a two-drachma silver coin. This represented about half a day’s wages for a typical laborer and was paid by all male Jews aged twenty and over, both at home and abroad. However, certain Jewish officials (especially the higher ranking priests), were exempt.

It really is a charming Gospel: Jesus tells Peter to pull out the first fish he sees, and that in its mouth he will find the money necessary to pay the tax. What a wonderful story! It is a quiet miracle, one which affirms Peter’s faith in Jesus’ divinity and Sonship without confronting others who were not yet ready to hear or believe this. The Father does exempt Jesus from the tax, and He supplies the money to pay it; the tax officials are spared a conflict because they are not yet ready to render an act of faith in Jesus’ divinity.

God is merciful and He prepares us for belief. Having granted the gift of faith, He sends confirmations to strengthen our faith little by little. He draws us in gently and clearly.

Does God Harden Human Hearts?

One of the more difficult biblical themes to understand is that of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain people. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh. Before sending Moses to him, God said that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). There are other instances in which biblical texts speak of God hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among His own people.

Jesus hinted at such a theme in Matthew 13, when He said that He spoke in parables (here understood more as riddles) so as to affirm that the hearts of most people “outside the house” were hardened. He quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 as He does so. Jesus’ own apostles wondered why He spoke plainly only to them and a close company of disciples, but in riddle-like parables to the crowds outside. In His answer we are left to wonder if Jesus has not perchance written off the crowds and left them in the hardness of their hearts. To be fair, Jesus’ remark is ambiguous and open to interpretation.

What are we to make of texts like these which explicitly or implicitly speak of God hardening the hearts of people? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or hard heart? Why would God do such a thing when Scripture also says this:

•  As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)

•  God our Savior … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).

To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, about the interaction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, about time, and about causality. The question of God hardening hearts cannot be resolved simply. Greater minds than mine have pondered these things and it would be foolish to think that an easy resolution will be found in a blog post.

Some distinctions can and should be made and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” simplistically or in ways that use one truth to cancel out others that balance it.

I propose that we examine these texts along four lines:

  1. The Context of Connivance
  2. The Mystery of Time
  3. The Mystery of Primary Causality
  4. The Necessity of Humility

To begin, it is important simply to list some of the hardening texts. These will be referred to as we examine each of the four points above. The following are not the only hardening texts, but they provide a wide enough sample to use in our discussion:

•  The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).

•  Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country (Ex 11:10).

•  Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance (Is 63:17).

•  He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them (Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, in John 12:40).

•  They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie, so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thess 2:10-12).

•  Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. … Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done (Rom 1:24, 28).

Point I: The Context of Connivance In properly assessing texts like these we should first consider the contexts in which they were made and written. Generally speaking, most of these declarations that God hardens the heart come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those whose hearts were hardened. In a way, God “cements the deal” and gives them what they really want. Seeing that they have hardened their own hearts to Him, God determines that their disposition is to be a permanent one. In a sovereign exercise of His will (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), He declares and permits their hearts to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense there is a judgment of God upon the individual that recognizes the person’s definitive decision against Him. Hence this hardening can be understood as voluntary on the part of the one hardened, for God hardens in such a way that He uses the person’s own will for the executing of His judgment. God accepts that the individual’s will against Him is definitive.

In the case of Pharaoh, although God indicated to Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated. We see in the first five plagues that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening by Pharaoh of his own heart that the Exodus text speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness. God does this as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.

The Isaiah texts (many in number) that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God (e.g., #3 and #4 above) are also the culmination of a long testimony by Isaiah of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, God describes (through Isaiah) Israel’s hardness as being of their own doing: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness, and their refusal to repent.

St. John Chrysostom: Of the numerous texts later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g., Jn 12:40)) that speak of Israel as being hardened by God (and having their eyes shut by Him), St. John Chrysostom wrote, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaiah said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaiah said they would … For He does not leave us, except we wish Him … Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun, that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words (on a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

St Augustine: This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not … But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer, that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man, by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).

In the passage from 2 Thessalonians, while the text speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verses before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished.

Of this text St. Augustine wrote, From a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth] (Against Julian 5.3.12).

St. John Damascus: [God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).

The passages from Romans speak of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18), and preferred idolatry (1:23). Hence, as a just judgment, God hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and countless other destructive drives. So although it is said that God hands them over, it is really not that simple. They do not want to serve Him and so He, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.

Thus our first point of distinction in understanding the hardening texts is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. Scripture does not assert that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind, or causes him (against his will) to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgment by God, that the state of the person’s hardness has now become permanent. They refuse and so God “causes” them to walk in their own sinful ways since they have insisted on doing so.

Point II: The Mystery of Time In understanding these hardening texts (which we have seen are akin to judgment texts) we must recall that God does not live in time in the same way that we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive rather than speculative or serial (e.g., Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17).

To say that God is eternal and lives in eternity is to say that He lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, present, and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow; neither is He waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether and how long I live has always been known to Him. Before He ever formed me in my mother’s womb He knew me (Jer 1:4). My final destiny is already known and present to Him.

Hence, when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening the hearts of certain people, we must be careful not to think He lives in time the way we do. It is not as though God is watching my life like a movie. He already knows the choices I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not as though He is trying to negatively influence the outcome and trip certain people up. He already knows the outcome and has always known it; He knows the destiny that they have chosen.

Be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just as present as the past. Even if you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us to realize is that God does not live in time the way we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than merely accepting and respecting it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, double predestination, or other misguided notions that sacrifice one truth for another rather than holding them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow does not destroy my freedom to actually do it. How this all works out is mysterious, but we are free and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows our destiny already, this does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, so that we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

The key point here is mystery. How, why, and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that He lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus He acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.

Point III: The Mystery of Causality One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern world is that the ancient world was much more comfortable dealing with something known as primary causality.

Up until the Renaissance, God was at the center of all things and people instinctively saw the hand of God in everything, even terrible things. Job said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised … if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? (Job 1:21; 2:10) The ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for He was the first cause of everything that happened. This is what is meant by primary causality. The ancients were thus much more comfortable attributing things to God, even things that we are not. In speaking like this, they were not engaging in superstitious or primitive thinking; rather, they were emphasizing that God was sovereign, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and that nothing happened apart from His sovereign will. God is the primary cause of all that is.

Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g., human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

The key point here is understanding that the ancient biblical texts, while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, did not mean to say that man had no role, no responsibility. Neither did the texts mean to say that God acted in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis was on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is. Hence, He is often called the cause of all things and His hand is seen in everything. We moderns are uncomfortable speaking in this way.

After the Renaissance, man moved himself to the center and God was gradually relegated to the periphery. Man’s manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to secondary causes (causes related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. These are secondary causes because I cannot cause something to happen unless God causes me. Yet increasingly the modern mind struggles to maintain a balance between the two mysteries: our freedom and responsibility, and God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

In effect primary causality has largely been thrown overboard as a category. Even modern believers unconsciously do this and thus exhibit three related issues:

1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s sovereignty and our freedom.

2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.

3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as a “primitive mode of speech,” inappropriately concluding that God didn’t have anything to do with this or that. Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, denying human freedom, denying secondary causality (our part), and accusing God of everything (as if He were the only cause and shouldered the sole blame for everything). We either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism or we dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, pre-scientific age.

The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated than we are in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. We handle causality very clumsily and do not appreciate the distinctions between primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our own and nature’s part). We try to resolve the mystery rather than holding it in balance and speaking to both realities. In doing so, we become poor interpreters of the hardening texts.

Point IV: The Necessity of Humility By now it is clear that we are dealing with the mysterious interrelationship between God and Man, between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not to think more of the details than is proper, because they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts or accept them and then sit in harsh judgment over God (as if we could do such a thing). Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text in which Paul warns us in this very matter:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)

None of us can demand an absolute account from God for what He does. Even if He were to tell us, could our small and worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).

SUMMARY – In this (rather too long) post, we have considered the “hardening texts,” in which it seems that God hardens the hearts of certain people and groups—and so He does. But texts like these must be approached carefully, humbly, and with proper understanding of the scriptural and historical context. At work here are profound mysteries: God’s sovereignty, our freedom, His mercy, and His justice.

We should be careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully states, when it comes to texts like these they are to be appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).
This song says, “Be not angry any longer Lord and no more remember our iniquities. Behold and regard us; we are all your people!

My Word Shall Not Return to Me Empty – A Homily for the 15th Sunday of the Year

the Word

the Word of GodWhat do you expect to happen as a result of reading and hearing God’s Word? Do you expect to encounter something that will change you? The response of most people is pretty tepid and uninspired. Most don’t really expect much nor have they ever. For them, reading or hearing God’s Word is more of a tedious ritual than a transformative reality.

The readings for this Sunday clearly set forth that God’s Word can transform, renew, encourage, and empower us. We ought to begin to begin to expect great things from the faithful and attentive reception of the Word of God. However, Jesus also spells out some obstacles that keep the harvest small or even nonexistent for some.

Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in three steps.

I. Promise – The first reading shows that the Word of God can utterly transform us and bring forth a great harvest in our life:

Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s Word has power! If we listen to God’s Word authentically and attentively, it will refresh us and bring forth the fruit of transformation. No one can authentically attend to God’s Word and go away unchanged. If listened to with alertness, God’s Word can open our mind to new realities, give us hope, and teach us the fundamental meaning of our life. It can thrill us or frighten us. It can make us wonder, repent, or rejoice; it can also transform us. It can make us mad, sad, or glad. If we attend to it, however, it’s pretty hard to go away neutral. Of His Word, Scripture itself says,

• The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).

• “Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)

• Jeremiah himself said, But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (Jer 20:9).

• My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry! (Jer 4:19)

• Amos echoes, The lion has roared–—who will not fear? The sovereign LORD has spoken–—who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

• The Apostles join the great company of preachers and declare, For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).

• [T]he Lord gave the Word, and great was the company of the preachers! (Ps 68:11)

• Through His preachers, the Lord wants to set us on fire: I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes (Jer 5:14).

• Yes, if we will let him, he will set us ablaze with his word. Thus he will also set the world on fire, through us.

Yes, if we will let Him, He will set us ablaze with His word. Thus He will also set the world on fire, through us. God’s word, effectively preached and thoughtfully attended to, is fire that transforms. Pray for fiery preachers. Pray for ears attentive to God’s Word. Pray for a soul alive and alert to sound of God’s trumpet. Pray for a mind capable of appreciating God’s Word’s in all its subtlety and all its plain meaning.  It can change your life.

II. Problems – The Lord also alerts us to some problems that can arise in the human person. For while God’s Word does not lack power, neither does it violate His respect for our freedom and call to love. Consider that God speaks to inanimate objects and they must obey:

• And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light (Gen 1:3).

• And [God] said: This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt (Job 38:11). And the sea obeyed.

• And He says to the mountains, “Move!” and they shake and melt like wax before his glance (see Ps 97:5).

But the human person is not inanimate. We are possessed of a soul and gifted with freedom so that we may love. God speaks to us and, remarkably, we are free to say, “No.” The Lord Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel that our freedom is ultimately respected. The power of God’s Word remains, but God Himself has made it depend on our “Yes.”

Ponder, then, some issues that can cut off from or reduce the power of God’s Word:

No Reception – In today’s Gospel Jesus this about some people: [T]hey look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand … Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.

The Greek word translated here as “gross” is παχύνω (pachuno), meaning fat, thick, or dull. By extension, it means having an insensitive or hardened heart. Hence there are some who have hardened their hearts to God and His Word.

God (through Isaiah) once observed this about us: I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass (Is 48:4). This is another way of saying, I know that you are stubborn. Like iron, you are hardheaded. Like brass, your skull is thick; nothing can get through. For many of us, this tendency to be stiff-necked is gradually softened by the power of grace, the medicine of the sacraments, instruction by God’s Word, and the humility that can come from these.

For some, though, the stubbornness never abates. In fact, it grows even stronger as a descent into pride, and increasing hard-heartedness sets up. The deeper this descent, the more obnoxious the truth seems, and the less likely it is that they will be converted. As things progress, they shift from resistance to the truth to downright hostility. They harden their hearts and stiffen their necks. At some point, it would seem they reach the point of no return.

There are some texts in the Scriptures that speak of God Himself hardening the hearts of sinners. This is a very deep mystery and tied up in the deeper mystery that God is the primary cause of everything.

The text before us today, however, emphasizes the hardening of the heart from the human perspective: Those of hardened hearts have closed their eyes lest they see; They do not listen lest they be confronted with something they would rather not hear and sense the need for repentance and conversion. The Word of God can have no place in them because they reject it entirely; its offered power is cast aside.

No Reflection – The text speaks of the seed of God’s Word: The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart.

The Greek word translated here as “understand” is συνίημι (syniemi) which means literally, “to put (or set) together.” Figuratively, it means “to connect the dots, synthesize, understand.”  In other words, the seed sown on the path refers to the person who gives little thought to the Word of God. He does not try to connect it to his life or to understand its practical application. He does not “set it together” (synthesize it) with his experience or seek to apply it in his life. The Word will not last due to his inattentiveness to its meaning and its deeper role in his life. Thus the Word stays only on the surface, in his short-term memory.

Encountering little resistance, Satan is able to take it away quickly from the man, who has not really connected God’s Word to his life anyway. Here, too, there can be little or no transformation, because the power of God’s Word is neither appreciated nor admitted into the deeper places of the man’s soul.

No Roots – The text says, The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.  But he has no root and lasts only for a time.  When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The image here is of a plant that thrives when the weather is good and the wind calm, but blows away when the wind picks up, because of a lack of roots.

There are some who can rejoice in the Word of God, but only as long as it paints fair pictures and tickles their ears. But when the Word convicts them or causes them any negative experience within, or persecution without, they run away. When the wind blows, they are gone.

An old spiritual says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out.” As long as the preacher is talking about fair weather and there are no consequences to the Word, they’re shouting “Amen” and singing the refrains of the songs. But let that preacher step on their toes or someone in the world raise an eyebrow and they’re gone—gone with the wind. Here, too, the power of God’s Word to transform is cast aside.

No Recollection – The text says, The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety … chokes it off.

This describes people who are simply too distracted by the things of the world to spend time with the Word of God. They allow the water of their life to be disturbed; there is never enough calm for them to be reflective. They obsess over every small ripple that rocks the boat and do not trust God enough to relax and ponder His will and His Word. They are constantly busy with the details of their life and responding its “alarms.”

They allow the world to distract them from or draw them away from reflection on God’s world. This, too, limits the transformative power of God’s Word.

No Requirement – The text also speaks of the lure of riches [which] choke the word and it bears no fruit. Riches divide the heart.

People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10).

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21).

Some of the rich feel less need for God in their life. They are better able to maintain the illusion of self-support. But as these scriptures teach, it is an illusion, because all they really do is to buy themselves deeper into trouble.

If our treasure is in riches, our heart will not be with God’s Word. Job said, I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12). Only with a heart set on God’s Word as a treasure will we hunger for it and reflect on it enough to be truly transformed by it.

III. Produce – The text says, But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear … the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

Here, then, is the promise reiterated that the Word of God is powerful and will produce a radical transformation in us of thirty, sixty or even one hundredfold! Note that this promise is for those who receive the Word with understanding. That is, it is for those with συνίημι (syniemi), with a will to connect the dots, to synthesize, to seek to understand the Word and apply it to their life.

I am a witness to the power of God’s Word to transform and yield abundant fruit. I have learned to expect a lot from God’s Word: a new mind, a new heart, and a new life. God has not failed me. I have seen my life change dramatically for the better in so many ways. God has been good to me and has been true to His Word, which says, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). I cannot take credit for this new life I have received. It is the gift of God and He has given it to me through the power of His Word and the grace of His Sacraments.

Yes, I am a witness; how about you?

The lyrics of this song are taken from today’s first reading (from Isaiah 55):