In the Office of Readings during these Easter weeks, we are reading from the Book of Revelation. In it is this passage reminding us that there are some things that are not for us to know:
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down” (Rev 10:1-4).
A similar passage occurs in the Book of Daniel. Having had certain things revealed to him, Daniel is told,
But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end (Dan 12:4).
To the apostles, who pined for knowledge of the last things, Jesus said,
It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power (Acts 1:7).
In all of these texts we are reminded that there are some things—even many things (seven is a number indicating fullness)—that are not for us to know. This is a warning against sinful curiosity and a solemn reminder that not all of God’s purposes or plans are revealed to us.
A few reasons come to mind for this silence and for the command to seal up the revelation of the seven thunders:
It is an instruction against arrogance and sinful curiosity. Especially today, people seem to think that they have right to know just about everything. The press speaks of the people’s “right to know.” While this may be true about the affairs of government, it is not true about people’s private lives, and it is surely not true about all the mysteries of God. There are just some things that we have no right to know, that are none of our business. Much of our prying is a mere pretext for gossip and for the opportunity to see others’ failures and faults. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that more than half of what we talk about all day long is none of our business.
It is a rebuke of our misuse of knowledge. Sadly, especially in the “information age,” we speak of knowledge as power. We seek to know in order to control, rather than to repent and conform to the truth. We think that we should be able to do anything that we know how to do. Even more reason, then, that God should withhold from us the knowledge of many things; we’ve confused knowledge with wisdom and have used our knowledge as an excuse to abuse power, to kill with might, and to pervert the glory of human life with “reproductive technology.” Knowledge abused in this way is not wisdom; it is foolishness and is a path to grave evils.
It is to spare us from the effects of knowing things that we cannot handle. The very fact that the Revelation text above describes this knowledge as “seven thunders” indicates that these hidden utterances are of fearful weightiness. Seven is a number that refers to the fullness of something, so these are loud and devastating thunders. In His mercy to use, God does not reveal all the fearsome terrors that will come upon this sinful world, which cannot endure the glorious and fiery presence of His justice. Too much for this world are the arrows of His quiver, which are never exhausted. Aside from the terrors already foretold in Scripture, the seven thunders may well conceal others that are unutterable and too horrifying for the world to endure. Ours is a world that is incapable of enduring His holiness or of standing when He shall appear.
What, then, is to be our stance in light of the many things too great for us to know, which God mercifully conceals from us? We should have the humility of a child who knows what he does not know but is content that his father knows.
O Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, even so is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord both now and forever (Psalm 131).
Yes, like humble children we should seek to learn, realizing that there are many things that are beyond us, that are too great for us. We should seek to learn, but with a humility that is reverence for the truth, a humility that realizes that we are but little children, not lords and masters.
Scripture says, Beyond these created wonders many things lie hid. Only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).
Thank you, Lord, for what you have taught us and revealed to us. Thank you, too, for what you have mercifully kept hidden because it is too much for us to know. Thank you, Lord. Help us to learn; keep us humble, like little children.
In the Office of Readings this Easter season, we are reading from the Book of Revelation. This choice might seem surprising, but there are good reasons for it.
While many suppose that the Book of Revelation is merely about the end of the world, it is about far more; it is also about what is happening right now. It was not written only for the end of the ages but for all ages. It is a book of glory that discloses the victory that Jesus has already won. Don’t get lost in lots of exotic theories; Revelation is a book of glory that prophetically declares what is really going on.
Its title in Greek is Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Apokalupsis Jesou Christou), which literally means “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ.” It is as if Jesus is pulling back the veil to show us what is really going on. He shows us the great drama of history and tells us that He has already won the victory. He tells us that we should not lose heart while the dust settles, while the wheat is separated from the chaff and the harvest brought in.
We are too easily either mesmerized or terrified by our limited view of history. We think that life depends on which political party wins, or whether a cure is found for some disease, or whether world leaders can reach rapprochement. However, the battle is higher and deeper than our little sliver of the 21st century. It is far deadlier and is about more dramatic issues than what will happen to the GNP of the U.S. or which of the latest political theories will prevail.
This is a great drama between good and evil. It concerns the fundamental issue of where you will spend eternity. Yes, there is a great and cosmic battle in which we are all caught up; it is happening all around us. St. Paul says,
For we do not contend against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the high places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Eph 6:11-13).
The Book of Revelation is speaking to the same reality. It unveils the true and cosmic battle. In so doing, it declares without ambiguity who the victor is: Jesus Christ our King, who has already won. There are only two kingdoms, two armies, two sides. You must decide whom you will serve: the prince of this world or the King and Lord of all creation.
Revelation opens with a vision of the glory of Jesus the Great Lord and Son of Man:
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev 1: 10-17).
Yes, here is our Lord Jesus in His resurrected and conquering glory! At the name of Jesus every knee shall bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11).
Yes, Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:5-7).
The second part of the Book of Revelation calls the Church and us as individuals to repentance and perseverance. The cosmic battle reaches the Church and individual disciples. The battle is in the Church and in the heart of every person. Hence, the letters to the seven churches. We are not to lose the love we had at first. We must be willing to endure hardship and persecution. We are to reject the fornicators and all those who propose any sort of sexual immorality. We are to resist syncretism and every form of false religion. We must resist all the deep secrets of Satan; we must not be in any agreement with his ways. We must resist sloth and not fall back. We must resist lukewarmness and every sort of pride and self-satisfaction. The Church, clergy, and laity must fight the good fight, must persevere. We must endure hardship and always keep in mind the reward that awaits the courageous and the eternal disgrace that is coming to cowards and all who embrace the world, the flesh, and the devil.
John is then caught up into Heaven to see the glory of God and the heavenly liturgy. God has revealed to him what must take place soon. Historically, the Book of Revelation pointed to the destruction of Jerusalem and to the end of an era. Down through the ages, empires and nations have crumbled; eras and epochs have come and gone; only God’s Kingdom, as proclaimed and made sacramentally present by the Church, has survived or will survive.
Today we are arguably at the end of another era. The West is crumbling, and decadence abounds. Confusion about basic reality is so widespread that our current cultural situation can credibly be described as a lunacy. Even within the Church, voices that should speak out prophetically are infected by worldliness and silenced by fear. There is among Church leaders, clergy, and laity a widespread softness and a feeling that the risk of speaking out is too great.
The message of the Book of Revelation is a strong antidote to times like these, now, in the past, and in the future: be strong, be prepared, and be willing to suffer, realizing that no matter how powerful and glamorous evil may seem, Jesus is the victor. We must persevere and realize that we are swept up into a cosmic battle that is much larger than our current situation but that reaches us nonetheless. We must choose sides. Don’t think that you can sit on the fence. Satan owns the fence; he will come for you and say, “You belong to me.”
The seals, the bowls, and the trumpets of Revelation are but a further description of the cosmic battle and the wretched defeats that ultimately come upon the defiant and disobedient. God will not leave unpunished those who despise His Kingdom and His holy ones. These seven ordeals times three are a call to repentance to those who survive. They are also a manifestation of God’s justice and ultimate authority over history.
A crucial battle comes in Revelation 12, when the red dragon with seven heads and ten horns besets Mother Mary, who is also an image of the Church. However, the devil cannot prevail in the war that breaks out in Heaven. He is hurled to the earth, where he unsuccessfully pursues the woman (who represents both Mary and the Church). In a rage he continues to pursue us.
For the time being, the cosmic battle continues. Satan rages, for he knows his time is short. He is a big loser.
Even losers still have an odd ability to dupe and impress foolish, gullible people. So Satan still flashes the cash, makes empty promises, and dangles passing pleasures before us. Sadly, many of the worldly and unspiritual foolishly fall prey to his pomp and lies. Mysteriously, God permits this until the full number of the elect is gathered in.
Then comes the end:
And fire came down from heaven and devoured Satan and his armies and followers. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the HolyCity, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new.” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev 20:9-21:5).
Yes, it is good that we read the Book of Revelation. It is a pulling back of the veil, wherein the Lord tells us what is really going on and what the outcome shall be. He is telling us not to lose heart. “In this world you shall have tribulation, but have courage, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
Be not dismayed, fellow Christians. Do not fear what is coming upon this world. Even if it is the end of the era, the Church has endured such sea changes before. Christ has already won the victory and has promised that the Church will remain indefectible. When the current foolishness has run its course, we will still be here preaching the Gospel, even if we have become a small remnant and are preaching from our prison cells!
Do not be fearful. Do not be a coward. Preach boldly and with love. Continue to shine the light of the gospel in the darkness. The gospel will win; it always wins.
Don’t get lost in the details of the Book of Revelation and miss its message of victory in the midst of persecution and trial. It is a call to persevere. It is a pulling back of the veil to show us what the end shall be! Be strong, be courageous, be certain. Jesus has already won the great victory in the cosmic battle. The dust is still settling, but know for certain that Jesus has won, and if you choose Him, so will you!
He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev 21:7-8).
Regardless of what youthinkis going on, this is what isreallygoing on. Choose sides. I urge you to choose Christ with courage. Don’t look back. Come what may, Viva Christo Rey!
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.
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.
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!
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:
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).
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).
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
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).
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
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).
Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
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).
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:
Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
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)
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).
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).
And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
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)
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).
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).
Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
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)
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.