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):

A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

One of God’s stranger affections is the special love He had for Jacob of the Old Testament. We are reading through this story in daily Mass this week.

According to some, the name Jacob means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even while still in his mother Rebekah’s womb, Jacob wrestled with his twin brother, Esau. Although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel, hence his name.

Although he was a “mama’s boy,” Jacob was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Rebekah favored Jacob and schemed with him to steal the birthright from Esau by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretenses.

Esau sought to kill him for this, leading Jacob to flee north to live with Laban, an uncle who was an even greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years Jacob labored for Laban, in the hopes of winning his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In a wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! It would be seven years before Jacob would finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it. He was a schemer and was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.

Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. God loves sinners like you and me as well. In the story of Jacob—a hard case to say the least—God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5). His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation:

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. For reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob had reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He understood that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).

Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. Whatever the reason, though, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I.  DISTRESSED manSo the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day (Gen 32:21-24).

Jacob is distressed and has difficulty sleeping. He has, somewhat willingly, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him.

Our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.

Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him, to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about the way God works:

1.  God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do. Oh, how we all love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who God is. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone. It’s time for Jacob to think, time for him to pray and look to deeper issues.

2.  God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – Verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man”? The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him—the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. Here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, to try new things, and to discover strengths we did not know we had.

3.  God brings Jacob to a place of desperation – The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our human will. Thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night and with the lesson that he must learn to lean and to trust.

Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean. He will never forget this lesson because he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with Him, to wrestle with the issues in his life. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. He has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean and to trust.

II.  DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

If “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would ask Jacob to let him go and for Jacob respond, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, drawing from Jacob the required response. So the man says, “Let me go!” God wants Jacob (and us) to come to the point at which he (and we) say, “I will not let you go.”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, in effect, “Don’t go; I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I’m sunk!”

God needs to get all of us to this place.

This critical moment has brought Jacob to the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends upon God.

III.  DIFFERENT man – The text then says, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).

Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. When his blind father Isaac had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”

But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth: “My name is Jacob.” In this response is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all that his name implies of him has been true.

Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”

Renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way: with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, to cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again. He would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).

Postscript – In the Book of Hebrews, there is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become: By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Jacob limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Learn to lean and to delight in depending upon God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?

“And in the Morning Watch, the Lord … Cast a Glance” – A Meditation on the Look of the Lord

Lest the Easter Season slip away and I miss the chance, I would like to look back on a reading from the Easter Vigil.

There is indeed an astonishing verse in the Exodus account, which was read at the Easter Vigil. The Lord has parted the waters of the Red Sea by a strong eastern wind and the Israelites have just made the crossing with the Egyptians in hot pursuit.

And in the morning watch, the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud, cast a glance on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic (Ex 14:24).

Just one look … that’s all it took! One can imagine many other ways that God could have despoiled them: lightning, angelic forces, etc. Instead, the Lord merely “cast a glance.”

Was it an angry glance? The text does not say. I would propose, based purely on speculation, that it was a look of love. For if God is love, then how could it have been anything else?

Why, then, the panic among the Egyptian forces? Perhaps it was like the reaction of those accustomed to the darkness, who wince in pain when beautiful light shines. Love confronts and drives out hate the way light drives out darkness. Love is what it is; it cannot be something else. To those held bound by hatred, though, love is like kryptonite. Thus the Egyptian army falls at the glance of God, panics at the weakness it experiences. Yes, love can be like kryptonite.

I propose that despite the panicked result, God’s glance was one of love. God does not change. Even when we speak of His wrath or anger, we are speaking more of our experience than of what is in God. God is love and so He looks with love. That we experience something other than love is a problem in us, not in God.

Indeed, sometimes we see the look but miss the love. In the Gospel of Mark is told the story of a rich young man who sought perfection, but somewhat on his own terms. Jesus looked at him with love and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). The young man saw the look and heard the words, but missed the love. As a result, he went away saddened.

And lest we reduce God’s look of love to one of mere sentimentality, we ought to recall that God’s look of love can also convict us and move us to repentance. Peter’s denial of the Lord is recounted in all four of the Gospels. Simon Peter was in the courtyard of the high priest warming himself by the fire; he had just denied knowing the Lord for the third time when the cock crowed. The Gospel of Luke recounts, The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly (Lk 22:61-62). Here was a look of love that caused pain, but it was a healing pain that led to repentance.

For those of us with deeper faith, we learn to count on the look, the glance of God, to save us. An old hymn says, “Though billows roll, He keeps my soul. My heav’nly Father watches over me.” Another says, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

Yes, the glance of God may make you feel sad, or mad, or glad; but it is the look of love, always seeking to console or to set us right and bring about healing.

I have a large icon of Christ in my room. In my opinion, what icons from the Eastern tradition do best is to capture “the look.” No matter where I move in the room, it seems that Christ is looking right at me. His look is intense, though not severe. In the Eastern spirituality, icons are windows into Heaven. Hence this icon is no mere portrait that reminds one of Christ; it is an image that mediates His presence. When I look upon Him, I experience that He knows me. He is looking at me with a knowing, comprehensive look.

The Book of Hebrews says of Jesus, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:13). Christ’s look in the icon in my room is not fearsome; it is serene and confident.

Particularly in Mark’s Gospel, there is great emphasis on the eyes and the look of Jesus. The following expression, or one like it, appears more than 25 times in the Gospel of Mark: And looking at them He said, …

Looking on Christ and allowing Him to look on you is a powerful moment of conversion. Jesus Himself said, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (Jn 6:40). And in the First Letter of John we read, What we shall later be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).

Keep looking to the Lord during this Easter season, through the art that most moves you and especially in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Look at Him and let Him look at you. Be not dismayed like the Egyptians of old. God is love and therefore His look is always one of love, no matter how we experience it.

The Lord is casting a glance at you right now. What do you see?

This video is a collection of clips from the movie The Passion of the Christ, set to music. It shows many of the looks of Jesus as well as some that come from us. Look for the “looks.”

Living the Lessons of Love – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

In the Gospel for today’s Mass, Jesus gives us three lessons on love meant to prepare us for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They also go a long way in describing the normal Christian life.

Too many Christians see the Faith more as a set of rules to keep than as a love that transforms—if we accept it. Let’s take a look at the revolutionary life of love and grace that the Lord is offering us in three stages: the power of love, the person of love, and the proof of love.

1.The Power of Love“If you love me, you will keep my commandments … Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”

We must be very careful how we hear this, for it is possible to think that the Lord is saying, in effect, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” This understanding reduces the Christian faith to a moral maxim: do good, avoid evil, and thus prove that you love God. Loving God, then, becomes a human achievement.

Understanding this text from the standpoint of grace, however, yields a different—and I would argue, more properunderstanding. Loving God is not a human work; it is the gift of God. The text should be read to say, in effect, “If you love me, then by this love I have given you, you will keep my commandments.” Thus, the keeping of the commandments is the fruit of the love, not the cause of it. Love comes first. When love is received and experienced, we begin, by the power of that love, to keep the commandments. Love is the power by which we keep the commandments.

It is possible to keep the commandments to some extent out of fear and by the power of the flesh, but obedience based on fear tends not to last and brings with it many resentments. Further, attempting to keep the commandments through our own power brings not only exhaustion and frustration, but also the prideful delusion that somehow we have placed God in our debt because we obey.

It is far better to keep the commandments by the grace of God’s love at work within us. Consider the following qualities of love:

A. Love is extravagant – The flesh is minimalist and asks, “Do I really have to do this?” Love, however, is extravagant and wants to do more than the minimum. Consider a young man who loves a young woman. It is unlikely that he would say, “Your birthday is coming soon and I must engage in the wearisome tradition of buying you a gift. So, what is the cheapest and quickest gift I can get you?” Of course he would not say this! Love does not ask questions like this. Love is extravagant; it goes beyond the minimal requirements and even lavishes gifts on the beloved, eagerly. Love has the power to overrule the selfishness of the flesh. No young man would say to his beloved, “What is the least amount of time I must spend with you?” Love doesn’t talk or think like this. Love wants to spend time with the beloved. Love has the power to transform our desires from our own selfish ends, toward the beloved.

While these examples might seem obvious, it is apparently not so obvious to many Christians, who say they love God but then ask such things as, “Do I have to go to church?” “Do I have to pray, and if so, how often and for how long? “Do I have to go to confession, and if so, how frequently? “What’s the least amount I can put in the collection plate or give to the poor in order to be in compliance?” Asking for guidelines may not be wrong, but too often the question amounts to a version of “What’s the least I can do?” or “What’s the bare minimum?”

Love is extravagant and excited to do and to give, to please the beloved. Love is its own answer, its own power.

B. Love Expands – When we really love someone we also learn to love whom and what he or she loves.

During high school, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At first I thought it was hokey, but since she liked it, I started to like it. Over time, I even came to enjoy it a great deal. Love expanded my horizons.

I have lived, served, and loved in the Black community for most of my priesthood. In those years, I have come to love and respect gospel music and the spirituals. I have also come to respect and learn from the Black experience of spirituality, and have done extensive study on the history of the African-American experience. This is all because I love the people I serve. When you love people, you begin to love and appreciate what they do. Love expands our horizons.

What if we really begin to love God? The more His love takes root in us, the more we love the things and the people He loves. We begin to have God’s priorities. We start to love justice, mercy, chastity, and all the people He loves—even our enemies. Love expands our hearts.

The saints say, “If God wants it, I want it. If God doesn’t want it, I don’t want it.” Too many Christians say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad. Besides, everyone else is doing it.” Love does not speak this way.

As God’s love grows in us it has the power to change our hearts, minds, desires, and vision. The more we love God, the more we love His commands and share the vision He offers for our lives. Love expands our hearts and minds.

C. Love excites – Imagine again a young man who loves a young woman. Now suppose she asks him to drive her to work one day because her car is in the shop. He does this gladly and sees it as an opportunity to be with her and to help her. He is excited to do so and is glad that she asked. This is true even if he has to go miles out of his way. Love stirs us to fulfill the wishes and desires of the beloved.

In the first Letter of John we read, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Yes, love lightens every load. As we grow in love for God, we are excited to please Him. We keep His commandments, not because we have to, but because we want to. Even if His commandments involve significant changes, we do it with the same kind of gladness that fills a young man who drives miles out of his way to take his beloved to work. Love excites in us a desire to keep God’s law, to fulfill His wishes for us.

2.The Person of Love “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”

In this text, Jesus tells us that the power to change us is not an impersonal power like “The Force” in Star Wars. Rather, what changes us is not a “what” at all but a “who.” The Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, living in us as in a temple, will change us and stir us to love. He who is Love will love God in us. Love is not our work; it is the work of God. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10). God the Holy Spirit enables us to love God the Father and God the Son, and this love is the power in us that equips, empowers, and enables us to keep God’s law. He, the Holy Spirit, is the one who enables us to love extravagantly and in a way that expands and excites.

The Lord says that He, the Holy Spirit, remains in us. Are you aware of His presence? Too often our minds and hearts are dulled and distracted by the world and we are unaware of the power of love available to us. The Holy Spirit of Jesus and the Father is gentle and awaits the open doors we provide (cf Rev 3:20). As we open them, a power from His Person becomes more and more available to us and we see our lives being transformed. We keep the commandments; we become more loving, confident, joyful, chaste, forgiving, merciful, and holy. I am a witness! Are you?

3.The Proof of God’s Love“I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”

The key phrases here are “You will live” and “You will realize,” for the Lord says that He will not leave us as orphans, that He will come to us and remain with us.

How do you know that these are more than just slogans? Simply put, you and I know this because of the new life we are receiving, which causes us to realize that Jesus lives, is in the Father, and is in us.

To “know” in the Bible is more than intellectual knowing. To “know” in the Bible is to “have intimate and personal experience of the thing or person known.” I know Jesus is alive and in me through His Holy Spirit because I am experiencing my life changing. I am seeing sins put to death and graces coming alive! I am a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). This is what Jesus means when He says, “You will realize that I am in the Father and in you.” To “realize” means to experience something as real.

I am proof of God’s love and its power to transform, my life is proof! In the laboratory of my own life I have tested God’s word and His promises, and I can report to you that they are true. I have come to experience as real (i.e., “realized”) that Jesus lives, that through His Holy Spirit I have a power available to me to keep the commandments and to embrace the new life, the new creation they both describe and offer to me.

I am a witness; are you?

This song says, “He changed my life and now I’m free …”