What is honor? The full etymology of the word is debated, but what seems most likely is that it comes from the Latin word honos, which, though translated as “honor,” also points to the word “onus,” which means “weight” or refers to something heavy. Hence, to honor someone is to appreciate the weight, significance, or burden of something he has done. It is to acknowledge that he carried a great burden well, that he withstood a heavy load, that what he did was weighty, significant.
For many, Memorial Day means the beginning of summer. To others, it’s a day off to go shopping. But as I am sure you know, Memorial Day is really a day to honor those who have died in the service of our country, those who carried a great burden so that many of us did not have to.
Our soldiers, police officers, and first responders are deserving of our honor, for they put their lives on the line so that we can live more freely and experience abundance. None of us can fail to appreciate the burdensome weight that some carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly.
War remains controversial (as well it should).But soldiers do not create the politics they are sent to address. They are simply told that there is a danger to be faced, an injustice to be ended; and so they go. Private First Class Arthur Richardson is one of those who went north during the Korean War and did not return. He carried well the great weight of being a solider. He also carried the weight of collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly; he gave his life.
The love of one’s country (patriotism) is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism teaches,
It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC # 2239).
The Lord Himself makes it plain: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary film on the Second World War, entitled simply, “The War.” It remarkably depicts the suffering and cost, and the burdens carried, especially by the soldiers. But it also shows the sacrifices made by many back home who scrimped, saved, and went without. Some endured the loss of loved ones. Some were detained in camps.
Each episode of the documentary begins and ends with the same beautiful and haunting anthem and can be heard in the video below. Its basic theme is “America, I gave my best to you.” The full text is as follows:
All we’ve been given by those who came before The dream of a nation where freedom would endure The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?
Let them say of me I was one who believed In sharing the blessings I received. Let me know in my heart when my days are through America, America, I gave my best to you.
Each generation from the plains to distant shore With the gifts they were given were determined to leave more. Battles fought together, acts of conscience fought alone: These are the seeds from which America has grown.
For those who think they have nothing to share, Who fear in their hearts there is no hero there. Know each quiet act of dignity is that which fortifies The soul of a nation that will never die.
America, [America] I gave my best to you.
The word “memorial” comes from the Latin memorare, which is an imperative meaning “Remember!” So Memorial Day is “Remember!” Day. To remember something is to allow it to be present in our minds and hearts such that we are grateful, sober, aware, and different.
This is a day to remember that there are men and women who have died so that you and I are able to live with greater security, justice, and peace. May these fallen soldiers rest in peace. We owe them both a debt of gratitude and our prayers.
Here is the song and video from “The War” by Ken Burns.
In today’s Gospel we see an example of the anger of Jesus. In our Catholic and American experience we often see most anger as sinful. Further, many have remade Jesus into a friendly and harmless hippie. They screen out a large number of texts where Jesus, in the mode of the prophets, is urgent, demanding and even angry at the obtuseness, sloth and stubbornness so common to the human condition. His is an urgency borne in love, and and anger meant to underscore the seriousness of of the choice before us, for against him and his Kingdom.
Jesus, of course, has sovereignty over his anger and expresses it to the perfect degree and always focused on the right and just object. This is not always the case with us. For most of us anger is an unruly passion and we do not always how and when to use it well.
Before looking at Jesus’ anger, lets look at our own experience and struggle with anger.
To begin with, some distinctions are in order.
We ought first to distinguish between the internal experience or feeling of anger and the external manifestation of it.The internal experience of anger as a passionate response to some external stimulus is not sinful since we cannot usually and immediately control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals us that something is wrong, threatening or inappropriate as we understand or interpret the data. Sometimes our perceptions are incorrect but often they are not. Anger, in this sense, is not only sinless, but necessary as it alerts us to the need to respond to something that is a threat or unjust and it gives us the energy to address it. It is a passion and an energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
But it is possible that our anger can arise from less than holy reasons. Some of the things we fear, we should not fear. Some of our fears are rooted in pride, and an inordinate need for status and affirmation. Some of our fears come from misplaced priorities. For example we may be excessively concerned with money, property, popularity or material things. And this concern triggers inordinate fears about things that should not matter so much. And this fear gives rise to feeling easily threatened at any loss or diminishment. This in turn triggers anger, since we sense that something is wrong or threatening. But we ought not be so concerned with such things since they are rooted in pride, vanity and materialism. In this case the anger may have a sinful dimension. rooted in the inordinate and sinful drives.
Now external manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension when they are beyond what is reasonable. If I am experiencing anger there may be little or no sin in that. However if I express that anger by hurling insults, or physically attacking someone I may well have sinned by a sinful expression of my anger. However, it remains true that we live in thin-skinned times and people often take personal offense when they should not. We will see in a moment that Jesus did not often hesitate to describe his opponents’ in rather vivid ways.
Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin.The Scriptures say, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4) So anger is not the sin. However, the object of anger or the expression of anger may become sinful.
When is the external manifestation of anger an appropriate response? Most simply put, anger is appropriate when its object is appropriate and reasonable.
For example, it is appropriate to experience anger when we see or experience injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. harnessed appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism. He elicited it, and focused its energy in productive ways. Notice that he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not to give the Civil Rights Protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to elicit a just anger on the part of many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist injustice and effect change through non-violence. This sort of angry response was appropriate, reasonable and even holy. The tradition of non-violent resistance to injustice remains strong in those who protest abortion, and other sins, crimes and social injustices. It is the anger that motivates the desire to speak and the zeal to take action to rectify injustice.
Anger is also appropriate and even necessary in some forms of fraternal correction. To fail to manifest some level of anger may lead to the false conclusion that the offense in question is not really all that significant. For example if a child belts his brother in the mouth and knocks out a tooth a parent ought to manifest an appropriate amount of anger to make it very clear that this sort of behavior is intolerable. To gently correct a child in a smooth and dispassionate way with no inflection in the voice can lead to the impression that this really isn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. Again, note that the anger in question should be at a proper level, not excessive, and not too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.
Meekness– And this leads us to an important virtue, beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit which helps us to master anger: Meekness. In modern English, meekness has lost its original vigor and tends to signify a person who is a bit of a pushover and easily taken advantage of. But, in its original meaning, meekness describes the vigorous virtue wherein one gains authority over their anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης) as the middle ground between being too angry, and not being angry enough. As we have noted, there is a place and a need for anger. The meek person has authority over their anger. They are able to summon its energy but control its extremes. Hence the meek are far from weak. They are the string ones who have gained authority over their anger. St. John Chrysostom says in this regard: He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices. (Homily 11). St Thomas Aquinas says: Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason (II, IIae 158.8).
What of Jesus?One the one hand Jesus seems to have taught very strongly against anger:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:21-22)
On the face of it it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus broke his own rule for he exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus DOES clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful and hateful anger. Notice that he give two examples of the kind of anger he means. The first example is to use the term of contempt: Raca. This term is hard to translate so it is simply rendered in the Aramaic. Essentially what it means to do is to strip a person of any dignity and to regard them with utter contempt. The term fool; has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger her but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger would seem unreasonable given what we have said above and it would also call into question Jesus’ own example which includes not a little anger.
Most people are familiar with Jesus’ anger in the cleansing of the temple. But there are other places as well where he manifest not a little anger:
Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 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 23:29-33)
Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire! He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God!” ( John 8:44-47)
Passages like these do not exhibit the “Mr Rogers” kind of Jesus common in the modern imagination. Jesus was no “Caspar Milquetoast.” His vigorous anger is also on display in the video below.
What to make of Jesus’ angry displays?
Not sinful – Clearly they are not sinful displays of anger since the scriptures assure us that Jesus never sinned (e.g. Heb 4:15).
There may be an important cultural dimension to remember here. In the culture of the ancient Jews there seems to have been a wider acceptance of the expression of anger than in our own American setting. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was an expression more acceptable than our culture would usually permit. Turning over the tables etc. was a “prophetic action.” Prophets did things like this. In that culture it was more acceptable than perhaps in ours. But even we find a place for civil disobedience. We may not always like it, but we respect that it has a place in our culture.
Yet Jesus clearly is angry. He is grieved at the hard heartedness of his opponents and his strong tone is an authoritative summons to repent. A lowered and lyrical voice might not convey the urgency of the situation. These are hardened men and there is a need for pointed and passionate denunciation. This is righteous anger.
We ought to be careful before simply taking up Jesus angry tone for two reasons. First, he was able to see into their hearts and properly conclude as to the proper tactics necessary. We may not always be able to do this. Secondly, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone. It may be a less effective tactic in our setting and prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.
But in the end, anger is not, ipso facto, sinful or wrong. It is sometimes the proper and necessary response. We do well to be careful with our anger, for it is an unruly passion. We ought to see above all the fruit of the Spirit which is meekness and ask to Lord to give us authority over our anger and a prudence as to its effective use.
I want, in future posts to explore more of this Gospel that I cover in my “live” homily” (see video below) and will do that later this week.
We live in a secular age. Religious utterances by government officials are greeted with surprise or even indignation by some. While the primary role of civil leaders is not a religious one, insisting that never express religious sentiment is a form of extremism rooted in exaggerated conception of the idea of the separation of Church and State. In fact, “separation of Church and State” appears nowhere in the United States Constitution.
On Presidents’ Day we do well to look to history to clarify that these extreme, modern concerns were not shared by Washington, Lincoln, and many other leaders. Sadly to the adherents of “cancel culture” the example of Washington and Lincoln or any of the founding fathers is dead on arrival for they fall short of some values or notion of being “woke.” But for the rest of us who still revere Washington, the other founding Fathers, and Lincoln, their example of turning to and invoking God is both illustrative of our history and edifying. So, lets turn to a brief study of this history.
Religion and the First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
While the First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing a law respecting an establishment of religion (the “Establishment Clause”), but it also specifies that it shall pass no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion (the “Free Exercise Clause”). This second pillar, protecting the free exercise of religion, has been eroding over the years, with the definition of “exercise” ever-narrowing. Increasingly, the claim is made that religious bodies (especially the Catholic Church, it seems) are seen to have no right to attempt any influence in the legislative process. This, of course, would limit our ability to freely exercise our faith, a major tenet of which is that we should evangelize, be a light to the world, and testify to the truth. More and more, secularists are proposing that the only acceptable place for religious expression of any kind is within the four walls of a church building.
Many argue that America’s founding fathers wanted it this way, that they wanted a “wall of separation” because most of them were either irreligious or deists. It is interesting to note that despite this most of them spoke freely of God, including appeals to Him and His will in their remarks. This is true even of Thomas Jefferson (who famously referred to a “wall of separation between Church and State” in a letter). But if this were to be interpreted absolutely, as some want, Jefferson himself never got the memo. Of the five inscriptions on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial, culled from his writings, three refer God and one to the Creator. Most of the founding fathers (who purportedly wanted this dramatic separation of Church and State) were involved in drafting the Constitution.
Many people love to point out that God is never mentioned in the Constitution. Oh, but He is! The final line of the Constitution reads as follows:
Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty-seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof, We have hereunto subscribed our Names
“In the year of our Lord …” where did that come from? I guess the drafters of the Constitution never got that same memo that God is not to be mentioned in government documents or at government functions. The Lord referenced here is none other than Jesus Christ, for the year corresponds to the number of years since His birth and he is referenced as “our Lord.”
The first signature on the Constitution is that of George Washington. Apparently he also never got that memo about keeping God and religion out of all things governmental because he mentioned God frequently in his writings and speeches. Below are just three examples. The first speaks of our obligation to give thanks to God; it is a decree declaring a Day of Thanksgiving in the United States on November 26, 1789. The second is from a speech to an assembly of Delaware Indian Chiefs in 1779 (it would be considered highly politically incorrect today). The third is from his last speech to the U.S. Legislature.
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:” Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best. Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789 George Washington, President.
You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are (Speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779).
I now make it my earnest prayer that God would … most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of the mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion (Last Official Address of George Washington to the Legislature of the United States).
Abraham Lincoln also often referred to God and faith:
On Faith as among the civic virtues – Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty (First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861).
On Divine Providence – In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid—but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it (Letter to Eliza Gurney, October 26, 1862).
On Religious Liberty – But I must add that the U.S. government must not, as by this order, undertake to run the churches. When an individual, in a church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest, he must be checked; but let the churches, as such take care of themselves. It will not do for the U.S. to appoint Trustees, Supervisors, or other agents for the churches (Letter to Samuel Curtis, January 2, 1863).
On the Justice of God – Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether” (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).
These are just a few samples showing that the aversion to any religious reference is relatively new and is a disposition largely unknown to our founding fathers as well as to those of Lincoln’s era. These quotes do not “prove” that Presidents Washington and Lincoln were perfect Christians or that they were never critical of any aspects of religion, but they do indicate that they both understood the importance of religious faith to our country and were quite comfortable articulating both the need for faith and its benefits.
Extremism – Recent attempts to completely ban any religious expression, any spoken appreciation for religion, or any encouragement of its practice, would surely seem extreme to these men—extreme and far removed from the embrace our country has historically extended to faith.
Washington and Lincoln did not hesitate to invoke God, ask His blessings, and exhort their fellow citizens to prayer. Let us pray for our country and for all of our leaders. Happy Presidents’ Day!
St. Valentine’s Day is a day that celebrates romantic love. This sort of love, to be sure, is noble and to be encouraged. The Church has sometimes been accused of being suspicious of romantic love. It is true that certain heretical groups such as the Cathari and the Jansenist’s have frowned on sexual love in marriage. But they were considered heretics for their views. A true Catholic view celebrates romantic love (eros in Greek). As a Catholic Pastor I like others want to encourage romantic love and ultimately marriage. And within marriage to encourage on-going romantic love. I tell my younger parishioners, get married (first!) have lots of babies and raise them Catholic! You may recall the old Rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.”
A Great Love – Romantic love is good and it brings blessings! But romantic love (eros) has a place a purpose and in God’s plan. Fundamentally eros is meant to draw a man and a woman to each other and ultimately to marriage. And within marriage their romantic love is to be fruitful and multiplying. Yet too many today just play around with and dabble in eros. They vent its power through premarital sex and do not follow it’s intended course which is to draw to people together in deep desire and love. Eros is about drawing and man and woman into deep interpersonal union it is not merely about bringing two bodies together. Too many rush to eros’ physical urge and disclose the deepest mysteries about themselves inappropriately. The great dance of courtship and marriage is thus short-circuited and eros looses both it’s dignity and its goal. Marriage rates have plummeted and so have birthrates.
Pope Benedict had this to say on eros:
That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called “eros” by the ancient Greeks….The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness…..Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet [in] the contemporary [scene] eros, is reduced to pure “sex”….Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: … no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. [But] true, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves….Two aspects of this are important. First, eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh”. The second aspect is equally important….eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose….[And in Scripture Marriage] becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. (Deus Caritas est 3-11 selected)
So romantic love (eros) has a dignity but it also has a purpose. It’s purpose is to draw man and woman toward marriage, family and ultimately toward God. The deep desire that man and woman have for each other is a sign of the ultimate desire of the human heart for deep union with God.
An even greater love – But there is a second love to be celebrated on St. Valentines Day and that is Agape love. Agape love is the love whereby we love God above ourselves, above all things and above all people. There is perhaps no greater example of this sort of love than that of the martyrs. They were willing to forsake everything for Christ. They excepted the supreme price of this love, the gift of their very own life. Every martyr can truly say, “Lord, I love you more than my self, my life, my things and more than any other person in my life. The world hates me for this and will kill me for it, but I willing pay the price that this love demands.”
St. Valentine was a martyr. Christian tradition recognizes two saints from the early Church as “Valentine.” The first is the Roman priest Valentine. He was decapitated in 268 AD for the crime of trying to convert a member of Emperor Claudius the Goth’s household. He also a renowned healer. The second Valentine is Bishop Valentine who was also a renowned healer and was also turned it for converting people to Christianity. He was imprisoned and the attempt was made to force him to sacrifice to pagan gods. When he refused an attempt was made to club him to death. When that failed he was beheaded in 273 AD.
The red of St. Valentine’s Day signals not only the warm blood of romance, but also the red hot blood of martyrs. Eros is surely noble and necessary. It is rightly celebrated. But no great love (agape) exists than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Thus today the red blood of martyrs too is celebrated and proclaimed.
We are reading from Hebrews 12 in the Liturgy this week (Monday of the 4th Week) which mentions, among the heroes of ancient Israel, Jepthe. More on that in a moment.
But one of the most strange and horrifying stories of the Bible is the story of Jephthah (Pronounced “Jeff-tha” and alternately spelled Jepthe) and his ritual murder of his daughter. It is a tale of faith and piety gone terribly wrong and a teaching of what happens when error and false religion are substituted for the true faith. It is also a tale of how God can work even with the worst of us to accomplish his ends. Let’s look at this “fractured fable” of a story.
The story of Jephthah is told in Judges 11. He is described as a mighty warrior and would one day be numbered among the Judges of Israel. As the chapter opens we are told:
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him. (Jdg 11:1-3).
Jephthah the Ganger – Tob is a land to the extreme east of Jordan. Having been dispossessed of any personal resources Jephthah became ranked among the roving bands of dispossessed youth who had little to lose. While the text above says describes Jephthah as gathering “adventurers” around him, many translators render the Hebrew as “worthless men” or “ruffians.” In effect Jephthah is a gang member, the head of a group of marauders who allied themselves with local inhabitants who felt over-taxed or had other grievances against local rulers. They sustained themselves by raiding caravans or towns and enemies of their friends.
It is quite a remarkable thing that the likes of Jephthah would rise to Judge Israel for six years. Judges were those who, in the years prior to kingship in Israel, served as charismatic leaders. They usually rose to power in response to some crisis or need.
And, sure a enough, a crisis did arrive that would catapult Jephthah to power. The text says,
Some time later, when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?” The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.” Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me—will I really be your head?” The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them (Jdg 11:4-10).
The Israelites needed a warrior and Jephthah had gained the reputation of being a skilled and fearsome warrior. He would be their man and he came to Judge (rule) over Israel. He first, as a formality, sent messengers to negotiate a settlement with the Ammonites. In a lengthy message he sets forth both an historical and theological basis for Israel’s claim on the Transjordan area to which the Ammonites were now laying claim. Among other things the Israelites had lived in the land over 300 years. But the Ammonites rejected all negotiations. So Jephthah prepared for war. (cf Jdg 11:12-28)
Here is where things get strange. Prior to going to war Jephthah vows a vow. It is an immoral vow, on the face of it. It is a vow that would require something wicked of him. The text says:
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord. (Jdg 11:29-31)
This is a wicked vow. It is wrong to vow to kill some as a sacrifice to God. It is forbidden explicitly by to offer any human being in sacrifice to any god let alone Him: You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:31; cf also Lev 18:21) It is murder that Jephthah vows. It is false religion that he embraces.
Some have tried to soften the vow by translating the vow as “whatever” comes out of the house, Jephthah would offer in sacrifice. Thus he could have meant an animal. But it is difficult for the Hebrew (צֵא הַ) to support this notion. The gender of the word would have to be in the feminine form to support this theory. But the form is masculine which everywhere else means “whoever” and it is coupled with the verbs “to come out” and “to meet.” It does not usually pertain to things and animals to do this. Hence, it seems the plain meaning of this text is that Jephthah vowed to kill the first human who came forth to meet him upon his return. One may suppose he figured that a slave or servant would be the first to greet him?
What makes the vow even more troubling is that it was generally presumed that one who was called to be a judge had an anointing from God. Verse 30 does speak of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah How could one anointed by God be guilty of such a gross violation of God’s law. We can only recall that God’s approval of one area in a person’s life is not an approval of every area of their life. Most of Israel’s greatest leaders had serious flaws: Moses and David had murdered, Jacob was a usurper, Abraham “pimped” his wife and so forth. God can write straight with crooked lines. St. Paul reminds us that we carry the great treasure of God within “earthen vessels.” An old gospel hymn says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” God does not call the perfect, that much is clear.
The story of Jephthah then has it’s horrible twist and dreadful end:
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.” “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite (Jdg 11:33-40).
In the end, Jephthah is met by his only daughter and is “forced” to fulfill his vow to kill her as a sacrifice. But in fact he is not forced for no one is compelled to fulfill a wicked vow. Yet the plain meaning of the text indicates that did just that. There are attempts by some scholars to try and show that Jephthah really didn’t do it. But, their attempts are very contrived and, in the end, set aside the plain meaning of the text which quite clearly indicates Jephthah went through with his vow.
What happened to Jephthah? We can only speculate. But it would seem that he had come under the influence of the false religions of the pagans. In particular, he seems to have come under the influence of the Canaanite practices of human sacrifice. The Jewish people had often fallen prey to just such a syncretism. Their faith in the God of Israel was often selective and weak. Superstition often drew them to the Baals and other gods of the surrounding nations. Their straying often led them to great wickedness, sexual promiscuity, deviance and even human sacrifice. Jephthah seems to have been among their number. His rejection by his brothers in Israel and his wandering at the fringes of the land were surely factors in his religious confusion and the evil that flowed from it.
And what of us? We too do well to consider the rapid descent into evil of our culture as we have increasingly and collectively rejected the true faith. Things once thought shameful are now practiced proudly by many. Things once thought immodest are flaunted. A terrible toll of abortion also mounts as our children are sacrificed to the gods of promiscuity, contraception, illicit sexual union, career, and convenience. As God has been shown the door in our culture, and kicked to the curb, we have descended mightily in to confusion and corruption, to debauchery and decay. It begins with forsaking faith in the One, True God. This nation, though always pluralistic and non sectarian, did once have a clear place for God. Now He has been escorted to the margins. And we, like Jephthah, are increasingly able and willing to do the unthinkable.
On the Bad Memory of God – One final thought on the story of Jephthah. It occurs to me that God has a “bad memory.” I say this because God the Holy Spirit holds Jephthah up later in scripture for our admiration. It’s right there in Hebrews 11 where Jephthah is said to be among the cloud of witnesses:
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies….. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 11:32-34; 12:1-2)
It is a remarkable thing to see Jephthah listed among the great Old Testament saints. Perhaps we can say that Jephthah repented? We can surely hope. But it is also possible to celebrate the “bad memory” of God. I hope you will understand, I mean no irreverence here. Scripture says, For I [the Lord] will forgive [my people] their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:34). And also, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more,” says the Lord (Heb 10:17) I don’t know about you, but I am depending and the “poor memory” of God. I am hoping for a poor recollection on the part of God of certain incidents and passages in my life 🙂 And if Jephthah can make the cut, perhaps there’s hope for me too!
There have been a number of musical oratorios based on the Story of Jephthah. One of my favorites is “Jepthe” by Carissimi. In this first video I have assembled some images to the story and set it to a Chorus from Jepthe by Carissimi. The song is led by the daughter and is one of the happy moments in the Oratorio. The text says, Cantemus Omnes Domino! Laudemus belli principem, qui dedit nobis gloriam et Israel victoriam (Let us all sing to the Lord! Let us praise the prince of war, who gave glory to us and Israel Victory).
The final chorus of Jepthe by Carissimi is a minor masterpiece and a deep lament for the only daugther of Jepthe. The text says: Plorate filii Israel, plorate omnes virgines, et filiam Jephte unigenitam in carmine doloris lamentamini (Weep O children of Israel, weep, all you virgins, and in sorrowful songs lament the only daughter of Jepthe). The final lamentamini repeats over and over as we are drawn into the deep sorrow of loss.
In a pandemic, and after a summer of violence, a contentious election and now more violence, a reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is striking by the fact that the ancient diagnosis of Israel applies to our times as well. By the following I don’t intend a commentary on the events of the last few days. Rather, I think the text from Isaiah and my remarks seek to go to a deeper and wider level of what ails us and has been growing for decades. Here is what Isaiah says:
And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor. The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable. … Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves (Isaiah 3:5-9).
When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord … My people—a babe in arms will be their tyrant, and women will rule them! O my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow (Isaiah 3:6-12).
Let’s note four fundamental issues that God assigns to that age (and, I would argue, ours as well). Our culture and nation have become:
Dominating and Loud – And the people shall oppress one another, yes, every man his neighbor.
These are indeed contentious times—so contentious that we cannot seem to have honest debates or disagreements; we just yell at one another. On college campuses, students shout down speakers with differing views and accuse them of hate. Demonstrations both on campuses and elsewhere often devolve into a kind of mob violence, which has included vandalism, setting cars afire, breaking windows, looting, and even murder.
Pope Benedict XVI warned of the tyranny of relativism. By this he meant that as relativism and subjectivism have shifted the source of truth from the object to the subject, from reality to opinion, there is no longer any basis for reasonable discussion.
In such a climate, whose views win the day: Those with the most money, power, and political clout or those who shout the loudest or are best able to intimidate others?
Dishonoring and Low – The child shall be bold toward the elder, and the base toward the honorable.
What is described in this verse has been going on for a considerable time. Those of us who are older remember a time when disrespect for elders was not tolerated. Beginning in the 1950s and picking up speed through the 1960s, our culture devolved into one centered on youth. Youthful vigor and youth itself were esteemed over maturity. Young people were “hip” and relevant; “old people” were out of touch and had nothing to offer. If something was old, it was bad; if something was new it was good. Rock music emphasized rebellion and the rejection of tradition. Television sitcoms featured children who were all-wise and parents (especially fathers) who were stupid and buffoonish.
All of this has led to a breakdown of respect for elders and those in authority. And, frankly, elders and authority figures have not helped matters, as many of them have fearfully declined to insist upon proper respect.
When there is no respect, there can be no teaching. When there is no teaching or handing down of what has proven best and most worthwhile, what is base and low-brow too easily appeals to those who are schooled only in their lower passions.
Rap stars, news media, Hollywood actors, and other pop-culture figures have more influence than Scripture, faith, literature, and tradition. Much of popular culture presents that which is base and most of those who represent it reject the honorable and time-tested traditions that have built our culture. Cultural iconoclasts dominate; those who build on what is honorable are fewer, both in number and influence.
Destructive through Lust – Their very look bears witness against them; their sin like Sodom they vaunt, they hide it not. Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves.
Today, promiscuity of every sort is celebrated. Again, those of us who are older can remember a time when living together outside of marriage was scorned; it was referred to as “living in sin” or “shacking up.” Now, not only is it widely tolerated; it is even encouraged.
Movies and popular songs since the 1960s have depicted and spoken of illicit sexual unions of every kind as normal, acceptable, routine, and even beautiful. Homosexual acts are now celebrated, made the matter of pride. Contraception, widely rejected by every Christian denomination prior to 1930, is now called virtuous or responsible by most. Divorce, once considered shocking and discouraged by our very laws, is now common; it is often encouraged as a way to happiness.
God warns through Isaiah in this text: Woe to them! they deal out evil to themselves. In other words, if we don’t get marriage and sexuality right as a culture, it will kill our civilization. Sexual distortion leads to distortions about marriage. Distortions about marriage lead to broken families. Broken families lead to broken children. Broken children become broken adults. Broken adults have a hard time leading or making good decisions.
The breakdown of culture and civilization continues. In our sins we deal out evil to ourselves. We sow the wind and we reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). We sow in the field of the flesh and we reap a harvest of corruption (Gal 6:8).
Declining in Leadership – When a man seizes his brother in his father’s house, saying, “You have clothes! Be our ruler, and take in hand this ruin!” … But he will say: … “You shall not make me leader of the people.” … because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord … O my people, your leaders mislead, they destroy the paths you should follow.
This is an especially controversial part of the text. Yet, honestly, there is a crisis of leadership in our culture at nearly every level. In families, many parents do not lead their children, choosing instead to try to be their friends. Many priests and bishops timorously hide, speaking in abstractions and generalities rather than teaching clearly. Too many do not vigorously summon the faithful to a proper moral vision.
In terms of social and political leadership, mob rule is becoming more common, and leaders succumb to many notions simply because a loud and sometimes violent group demands it. Further, many leaders mislead by looking only to their political survival and “playing to their base.” There is a kind of hypersensitivity to the feelings of aggrieved individuals or groups of self-described victims. Many leaders are more preoccupied with not giving offense to certain popular groups than with making difficult decisions that may demand sacrifice and that will not please all, but are still the best answer. What is best can sometimes be hard; the truth is not always pleasing to everyone.
Disclaimer: Without a doubt, some of what Isaiah said was controversial in his day. And without a doubt my application of the text to this day and age will likewise be controversial. But what if ensuing conversations and debates are the result? What if you get a chance to register your comments and complaints in the comment box here and other people get to respond to you? What if my imperfect post is meant to encourage conversation in a culture that increasingly wants to shut down conversation and forbid “politically unapproved” speech and replace an open mouth with a clenched fist?
Finally, remember that biblical passages have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. We’re all a little of both and we need both.
This song, recorded in my parish church, was performed by the St. Luke Ordinariate Choir:
Yesterday, January 6th (the official day of Epiphany) was quite and epiphany of its own,. Currently in our country we are dramatically and almost evenly divided. The huge crowd that gathered yesterday was largely peaceful and came to express concerns about the conducting of the last election. Fine; and probably worth further investigation. But the rioters who broke into the Capital acted immorally and deserve the same condemnation as those who rioted in the racial demonstrations of the summer. Legitimate grievances do not allow the endangerment of life, the destruction of property, or the desecration of sacred or special places.
None of us will be happy about the outcome of every situation, debate or election. Traditionally we have accepted defeats and used legitimate processes to continue our struggle for what we think is right or best. That seems far less the case today with our burning cities and now violated Capital. Any talk about understanding the anger of rioters simply adds to the injury and seeks to excuse what is heinous and immoral behavior.
Personally, I have never been so worried about the condition and future of our country as I am today; not simply because we have deep differences, but especially because we no longer seem to have a way to resolve our differences civilly. It is the tyranny and chaos of relativism of which I have written elsewhere Click HERE.
There was a time when we all agreed that we loved our Country and only wanted what we thought best for it.. Even that agreed premise seems less obvious today. Yet it still seems to me that healthy patriotism is among the first places we should look to begin a recovery.
Love of one’s country, patriotism, is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,
It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC #2239).
Much of this is reflected in a beautiful song written for the Ken Burns series “The War.” It is called “American Anthem.” The lyrics are touching and moving. The central themes are just what the Catechism teaches: gratitude and the serving of the common good. Let’s explore some of the themes of this song on this Memorial Day of 2019.
The song begins in this way:
All we’ve been given
By those who came before
The dream of a nation
Where freedom would endure
The work and prayers
Have brought us to this day
So we begin with gratitude. The works and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day. Each day we wake up in a land of beauty and plenty. We live in freedom because others died to win it and protect it. We drive on roads that others paved, make use of an electrical grid that others created and built. We depend on technologies that others developed. The Constitution, our legal system, civil society, the Church and her time-tested teachings—all these things and many more we have received from the hard work and ingenuity of others. Every day I am blessed to be able to walk into a beautiful church built by others.
Those who came before us were not sinless, but they exhibited bravery, virtue, perseverance, and patience in carefully setting forth a nation and a commonwealth that we often carelessly take for granted. When I ponder these things, I am overcome with gratitude.
The song also speaks of the dream of a nation in which freedom would endure. Today, many interpret freedom as the license to do whatever one pleases, but true freedom is the ability to obey God, live virtuously, and benefit from the fruits of that behavior: freedom from excess and the slavery to sin. It is only in this freedom, a freedom from self-absorption, that one can leave the sort of legacy of which the song next speaks:
What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?
Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
I gave my best to you
Remember that America is not merely a nation-state or a legal entity—it is our patria, our homeland, from which we get the word “patriotism.” There is both a fatherly and motherly image we can derive from our country, America. We are sprung from its loins and nurtured in its womb. We have shared in its freely bestowed resources, taken our meals from its rich soils, and learned from the best of its teachings and traditions.
Thus, patriotism is a beautiful virtue linked to the fourth commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Sadly, some people today dismiss the virtue of patriotism, calling it “nationalism” and portraying it as evidence of xenophobia. That some have exhibited extremes of patriotism does not remove the truth that patriotism is a virtue and is both commended to us and commanded of us. From it we derive a requirement to do our part to protect, preserve, and contribute to the common good. We are to leave a legacy that others will recognize, that we carried our share of the burden, that we did our very best for the land and people we are called to love.
Each generation from the plains
To distant shore
with the gifts they were given
To leave more
Battles fought together
Acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds
From which America has grown
It is perhaps enough to simply do no harm or merely hand on what we received, but love is expansive. It leads us leave to our descendants more than we received. It is the American and human spirit to build on what is received, to bring things to greater perfection and beauty.
As the song mentions, we often do this by working together, but sometimes we must take up the lonely and often-despised role of the prophet summoning the nation to greater justice and holiness. Both traditions are needed. Many of us have had to raise our voices in protest at the straying of our land from its biblical roots, but this has been and is done out of love for our people and land, so that we attain to a greater and more perfect union.
In times like these a song like this feels healing. It ends this way:
In sharing the blessings I received Let me know in my heart When my days are through America America I gave my best to you
Many of us have heard expressed the formulaic regret by someone declining to attend an event: “Though I can’t be there, I’ll be there with you in spirit!” Two reactions usually occur to us who receive such a reply:
1 That’s unfortunate.
2 Whatever the phrase “there in spirit” means, they probably won’t be present in spirit either.
We human beings are body and soul. It is our dignity to combine the two orders of creation: matter and spirit. Angels are pure spirit, animals are matter, but the human person gloriously unites both orders in our one person.
For the human person, physical presence is important because we are not disembodied energy and while absences are sometimes necessary, it is usually thought of as less than ideal when we “phone it in” or go virtual.
Many people forget that the word “virtual” originally meant, “sort of like, but not really.” So, we might say, “He’s virtually a genius.” This is a form of hyperbole where we speak of his qualities that are like a genius though he’s not actually one in the full sense of the word. Lately “virtual” has simply come to mean “electronic” or “online” communication. But we ought not lose the original insight that computer (“zoom”) meetings are sort of like meetings but not really. They lack important aspects and subtleties when people share a room together and are physically present. There’s usually more buy-in in actual meetings. Interaction is livelier and people can’t get away with some of the multitasking going on in the background of virtual meetings. There is also something about being away from your usual desk or location with all its distractions and being in a room that is both neutral and designed for meetings.
To be sure, some meetings work well online, especially those that are brief and to the point. Travel time is often saved as well. Zoom and other platforms have been a great help in this time of plague. But recent studies have shown that online classes are terrible for students, especially the younger ones. Others too are wearied by all the online time that has been asked of us. And while I have given many online talks in recent pandemic months, I miss the dynamic of being in the room with people where I draw energy and get subtle feedback by their postures and expressions. Obviously masks also hinder this feedback greatly.
But of all meetings where physical presence is most required, the Sacred Liturgy is most important. One cannot receive sacraments virtually. You simply have to be there. How discouraging it was to hear the Governor of Virginia seek to school religious leaders and their congregants recently on where and how they should experience God:
Worship outside or worship online is still worship…. You don’t have to sit in the church pew for God to hear your prayers,” ….Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are. [*]
It is more than annoying for this radical pro-choice governor to play theologian and liturgist. He certainly shows little knowledge when it comes to Catholic Sacraments, all of which require physical presence to be conferred. You can’t get baptized online, receive Holy Communion online, or even absolution. Physical presence is required. All the sacraments touch the body in some way, whether through the laying on of hands, pouring of water, anointing with oil, or reception of Communion. The Christian faith is incarnational. Christ did not come among us as a ghost, a meme, or a Zoom host. He does not simply livestream and is not merely an idea. The Catholic Mass and Sacraments touch and interact with the body. Presence is crucial.
Even for most Protestants whose belief in sacraments is minimal and whose services are more apt for livestreaming, they still see fellowship as important. You can’t get real fellowship online, you just have to be there for one another.
Christ has a mystical body and it is essential that the members of his Body gather every Sunday: Christ the head, and his members together. In the Catholic Liturgy we experience the presence of Christ in the faithful gathered, and in the priest through whom Christ ministers. We hear his voice in the Word proclaimed and are fed by his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.
I do not expect the Governor to know all this. But, all the more reason for him to act with care and not speak so publicly of things he knows not. Catholics and other Christians are not frivolous in our need to gather. Our souls are just as important, if not more so, than our bodies. Sacraments and Sacred worship ARE essential in our lives, despite what some other governors and mayors have asserted. We should be expected to engage in prudent precautions like anyone who goes anywhere else. But government officials should not under-estimate our need to assemble for Sacred Worship even if they do not personally understand or share our beliefs. Our beliefs and practices far outdate this pandemic, this Country, and this culture. We will be here when all these things pass, as worldly things do. But the Word of the Lord remains forever.