A Plea From Moses for Mercy Is Needed for Us As Well.

The first reading from Thursday’s Mass (of the 4thWeek of Lent) features the golden calf incident. God, likely trying to draw mercy from Moses, threatens to destroy the people for their infidelity. But as the text says,

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? …Let your blazing wrath die down; relent in punishing your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky… (EX 32:7-14)

The Responsorial Psalm (106) for Thursday summarizes things well.

Our fathers made a calf in Horeb
and adored a molten image;
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bullock.

 They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Wondrous deeds in the land of Ham,
terrible things at the Red Sea.

 Then he spoke of exterminating them,
but Moses, his chosen one,
Withstood him in the breach
to turn back his destructive wrath.

And all this, in our current crisis inspires also a model for prayer. I want to be clear that I am not concluding that God is directly punishing us, but he has permitted this. And, as we know, the people of Bible used times like these to repent and call on God. As I prayed these readings today at a private Mass the following prayerful thoughts came to mind:

Lord God we are in a great crisis, a worldwide crisis. I am going to guess we probably had this coming. For, we have collectively forgotten you, we have been ungrateful and done every sort of wicked deed. We have been greedy, wasteful, worldly, unchaste, unfaithful to marriage and family life, and have aborted our own children by the tens of millions. Yes Lord we have sinned and been stubbornly unrepentant. But Lord, I am, like Moses, asking your mercy. Even though we may not deserve it, I ask it anyway. Please Lord spare us from this disease and the economic collapse that will cause additional lives and harm. A miracle Lord, yes, we need a miracle. Please Lord, as you once did for King David and stopped the pestilence of that day at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, please do this now for us. Save us also from our excessive fears which have so seized many of us. For the sake of Christ’s sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world;  Have mercy.

Saving for a Rainy Day (like today) as Modeled in Scripture

In the young adult Bible study at my parish (conducted on Zoom during the current crisis) we have been reading through the Book of Genesis. Most recently, we’ve been studying the story of Joseph the Patriarch. Genesis 41 features the memorable story of how Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of the seven cows and the seven sheaves of grain. God’s word always seems to be right on time: this story gave us an opportunity to discuss the anxiety brought about by the pandemic, with a particular focus on the fact that most of us were caught unprepared.

Let’s ponder a very simple yet often-forgotten principle taught in Chapter 41 of Genesis.

The basic story is that Pharaoh is having troubling dreams that his advisors cannot explain. In the dream, Pharaoh sees seven fat cows near the banks of the Nile. These cows are devoured by seven skinny cows, who nonetheless remain skinny. He also sees seven sheaves of plump, ripe wheat devoured by seven withered sheaves (cf Gen 41:17-24). Pharaoh is told that a gifted man named Joseph, currently in jail, is able to interpret dreams.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream as follows (as poetically rendered in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat):

Seven years of bumper crops are on their way
Years of plenty, endless wheat and tons of hay
Your farms will boom, there won’t be room
To store the surplus food you grow

After that, the future doesn’t look so bright
Egypt’s luck will change completely overnight
And famine’s hand will stalk the land
With food an all-time low

Noble king, there is no doubt
What your dreams are all about
All these things you saw in your pajamas
Are a long-range forecast for your farmers

And I’m sure it’s crossed your mind
What it is you have to find
Find a man to lead you through the famine
With a flair for economic planning

But who this man could be I just don’t know
Who this man could be I just don’t know
Who this man could be I just don’t know!

Joseph advises Pharaoh to decree that one-fifth of the harvest be set aside during the seven years of plenty to prepare for seven years of famine. All other excess should also be stored rather than squandered. In this, then, are some lessons for us:

First, famines, economic crises, and other disasters will inevitably come for us who live in this Paradise Lost. It is important to expect them and to plan for them. It’s been quite some time since something this serious has befallen us in the United States. Even September 11, 2001, a tragedy to be sure, didn’t keep us down for long; we recovered rather quickly. In retrospect, this quiet period made us a bit complacent; we stopped storing provisions “for a rainy day.”

My grandparents’ generation (“The Greatest Generation”) endured numerous hardships and disasters: two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish Flu epidemic, which alone killed 675,000 Americans. They were more accustomed to the vicissitudes of life than we seem to be, and it affected them in many ways. One thing that I especially recall of that generation was that most of them were frugal; they were relentless savers. Even when I was very young, my grandparents made sure I had a savings account. My maternal grandmother opened an account on my behalf and seeded it with a modest sum. My siblings and I were encouraged to learn the discipline of saving money for the future.

And all of this is well rooted in the biblical teaching of Joseph, who admonished Egypt to save in plentiful times because difficult days were inevitable.

More recent generations, including mine, have fallen short in this. We tend to spend whatever we have, and the only saving we do is for retirement. But unexpected events often come before retirement. Many of us spend more than we earn and use credit foolishly. In doing this, we fail to respect the biblical wisdom taught by Joseph.

With the heavy restrictions imposed (rightly or wrongly, properly or excessively) by civil authorities, too many people have found that they have little to nothing set aside to get them through business declines or temporary unemployment. Government payments/loans may be justly offered because the economic downturn was driven by an external event. But the current situation still illustrates a problem: most of us are unprepared for even a few months of reduced or no income.

Perhaps we can learn the lesson our ancestors lived: we must save for the proverbial rainy day. With Joseph the patriarch to encourage us, we need to rediscover the merits of saving. This is perhaps a small and obvious lesson, but apparently it hasn’t been obvious enough.

A Solemn Reminder from The Lord Jesus in This Time of Crisis

Jesus said something in yesterday’s Gospel (4thSunday in Lent) that I think we can apply to our current troubles:

While it is daytime, we must do the works of Him who sent Me. Night is coming, when no one can work (John 9:4).

A purely natural understanding would be that the passage is merely noting that worked stopped at sundown by necessity in those times, but of course the text is far deeper. Let’s ponder two related spiritual meanings and apply them to this time of crisis.

First, as St. Ambrose observes of this text, “Daytime is this present life; night is death and the time that follows death” [*]. He then warns us have a sober fear of death and to realize that now is the time to accept what God is offering because tomorrow is not promised.

In the midst of this pandemic, we are enduring something of a foretaste of “death.” For most of us the crisis will not result in our physical death, but many things we freely did just a couple of weeks ago are for the time being dead to us. We cannot do much of the work we normally do; we cannot follow through on most of the plans we made. A “night” of sorts has come upon us. However, many things arestill available to us, things we may have previously neglected: prayer, reading of Scripture, repenting of our sins, spending time with family, calling old friends. How will we use this time?

Second, this passage resonates with the great battle between light and darkness, the predominant theme of John’s Gospel.The battle cry is announced in the Prologue:

In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it(John 1:4-5).

In John chapter 3, Jesus sets forth the drama of the battle for each individual:

And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God(John 3:19-21).

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus heals the man born blind and brings him into the Kingdom of Light. This Gospel also demonstrates the spiritual darkness of those who stubbornly resist Jesus, the Light of the World. From Jesus comes this warning and judgment:

For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind(John 6:39).

And then Jesus’ “hour” came: the hour to confront the kingdom of darkness through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Judas goes out to betray Jesus, and of this event John simple writes,

And it was night (John 13:30b).

Jesus’ words in Sunday’s Gospel remind us of the great battle that is all around us. It is a battle for souls, beginning with our own, but extending to family and friends. In our complacency, we often forget this great and dramatic battle. Many of our diversions and preoccupations are not available to us in this crisis; we are heading into a kind of spiritual desert. We have to take the time to ask ourselves important questions: Where am I going with my life? Do I know the Lord? Are my priorities pleasing to Him? Am I fulfilling my responsibility to teach the faith to my family and to announce the kingdom to others? For what sins do I need to repent? For what should I be grateful? When “normal life” resumes, what will I have learned? Will I apply it?

Yes, in a time like this we can see more clearly the dramatic battle that each of us is caught up in. Take some time to better engage the battle, for yourself and for others. If you find a good fight, get in it. The fight for souls is a good one! Pray, fast, talk, and witness. Seek the light of the many online offerings from the Church and from fellow believers that have proliferated in recent weeks.

Use this time wisely. The virus may go away, but the battle will continue until your final breath.

Defying Reality, as Seen in a Commercial

The following commercial inadvertently highlights some interesting moral and spiritual issues. It is an advertisement for some sort of virtual reality (VR) game and encourages us to “defy reality.” The protagonist is a young man engulfed in the VR world of Star Wars, where he valiantly slays dangerous enemies attacking from all directions. He is then jolted back to reality and confronted by an older man who chides him with “You used to be such a nice boy; now look at you!” The young man responds to the confrontation with reality by retreating back into his VR world.

In the largely adolescent culture that seems to have taken over, norms and limits are seen as undesirable and unreasonable. Those who summon us to reality are viewed merely as hopelessly out-of-touch scolds.

To be sure, games, movies, fantasy, and other diversions have their place, but there isa real word that must be accepted for what it is. Real life can be incredibly beautiful, but it also can be hard; we don’t have light sabers at hand to solve our problems. Indulging in too much fantasy can make us resentful of the real world and its legitimate demands.

Fantasy also reinforces the flawed notions of existentialism and solipsism, namely, that we can just make things up and declare our own meaning. Our culture is currently suffering from these ideas; the most extreme example is so-called “transgenderism,” in which individuals indulge the fantasy that they are something other than the males and females they are. Ideologues who promote this fantasy then demand that the rest of us go along with it, threatening punishment if we refuse. More widely, our culture is also marked by its inordinate focus on the individual at the expense of the common good. Virtual reality games are certainly not the sole cause of this, but they do help to reinforce it.

Finally, engaging in too much retreat into fantasy tends to make reality seem boring by comparison. Most video games are fast paced, requiring split-second decisions and rapid-fire responses. Many require violence in order to “win.” Too much of this can make ordinary human interactions seem dull and slow. A college student going from playing a VR game one moment to taking notes in a lecture hall the next must cross a wide gulf.

Much more could be said on this topic, but Friday posts are meant to offer brief insights taken from the current culture world. Ponder the following advertisement and ask yourself, “Is it really healthy to defy reality?”

 

 

On the Loss of Faith as a Cause of Our Current Crisis

In the Liturgy of the Hours this week, we read a remarkable attributed to St. Macarius, a bishop of the early Church. I marvel at its vivid imagery, and yet at the same time, questions arise in my mind as to the general application of the text. In effect, the text states that if the soul does not have Christ living within, it falls into utter disrepair and a contemptible state.

Allow me to have Bishop Macarius speak for himself, after which I would like to pose a few questions.

When a house has no master living in it, it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse. So too is a soul which has lost its master, who once rejoiced there with his angels. This soul is darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame.

 Woe to the path that is not walked on, or along which the voices of men are not heard, for then it becomes the haunt of wild animals. Woe to the soul if the Lord does not walk within it to banish with his voice the spiritual beasts of sin. Woe to the house where no master dwells, to the field where no farmer works, to the pilotless ship, storm-tossed and sinking. Woe to the soul without Christ as its true pilot; drifting in the darkness, buffeted by the waves of passion, storm-tossed at the mercy of evil spirits, its end is destruction. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ to cultivate it with care to produce the good fruit of the Holy Spirit. Left to itself, it is choked with thorns and thistles; instead of fruit it produces only what is fit for burning. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ dwelling in it; deserted and foul with the filth of the passions, it becomes a haven for all the vices (St. Macarius, bishop, Hom. 28: pp. 34, 710-711).

This is a remarkably vivid, creative description of the soul without Christ, of one who has turned aside from the faith. To be sure, St. Macarius speaks in a general way. Each person’s personal journey will be affected by many factors: how absolute his rejection of the faith is, how influenced he is for better or worse by the people and culture around him, how operative he has allowed their natural virtues to be, and so forth. Hence, we ought not to simplify the lives of unbelievers. They come in many forms and degrees.

If we apply St. Macarius’ teaching to the sexual scandal currently rocking the Church worldwide, we can note that one of the causes rightly assigned to it is a loss of faith. How is it possible for a man who once consecrated himself to God and who daily celebrates the sacred mysteries of the sacraments to so violate the Sixth Commandment and his promise of celibacy? In many cases this is not a one-time fall in weakness but a repeated action. How can a cleric live such a double life? Somewhere this man has lost the faith, either substantially or totally. As his sinful notions harden and his rationalizations grow, surely his soul darkens. As Macarius notes, the Holy Spirit cannot bring forth fruits in a soul in which mortal sin goes on unconfessed, and woe to the soul no longer indwelled by Christ. The filth of sin and the darkness of denial grow ever worse. This is why we must pray for the conversion of sinners: O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, especially those in most need of thy mercy.

We see this also in the wider culture, where many live openly in sin and irregularity. Abortion, fornication, cohabitation, homosexual acts, rampant divorce, and (assisted) suicide once shocked us and brought shame and sorrow. Today they are called rights and are often celebrated; it is those who remained shocked and saddened who are excoriated.

This sea change also illustrates St. Macarius’ words, for we see how our culture suffers gravely from a lack of faith as it has “kicked God to the curb.” It is not an exaggeration to describe the Western world as a house that has no master living in it … increasingly dark, vile, and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse … darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame. Increasingly, this is our lot in the West.

The #MeToo movement and the current anger about sexual abuse by clergy demonstrate that we as a culture do occasionally awaken to the increasing toll of the sexual and cultural revolution; we do occasionally engage in some degree of self-correction. Too often, however, our outrage is both selective and short-lived. Sexual abusers of every sort are rightly denounced, but there is little evidence that we are willing to consider the overall “pornification” of our culture as another contributing factor. It seems unlikely that the current celebration of sexual misconduct, confusion, and immodesty in movies, music, and popular culture is going to be included in our national examination of conscience.

Thus, our overall culture remains in great disrepair. As St. Macarius describes, we are adrift like a pilotless ship, foul with the filth of the passions, and a haven for all the vices. It is clear that our jettisoning of the faith and of biblical norms is having increasingly devastating effects on every level. We have become more coarse, base, and disrespectful of one another; we are exploitative, wasteful, and often ungrateful for what we have; we are increasingly impatient, resentful, and sullen at even the slightest inconvenience or problem.

By abandoning the first three commandments that refer to our relationship with God, we undermine the seven commandments that regulate our relationship with one another as well. This is central to St. Macarius’ point. When a house [or culture] has no master living in it [because we have collectively shown God the door], it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse.

Help us, Lord, to rediscover the beauty of your truth. We have suffered by pushing you to the margins. Though even in more religious times we were not free of sin, we have only made things worse by departing from you. Bring us back as a nation, O Lord! Help us to be more faithful and to enjoy more than ever before the beauty of your truth and order. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

A Grief Observed

I like many of you am grieving these days. I will not speak directly to it here, but I think you know why I am grieving.

I don’t do grief well. But I have learned to study it in others and thus find my way.

My father died more than 10 years ago, and except for essential papers related to his estate, I simply boxed up most of his papers and stored them in the attic of my rectory for future attention. At long last I am sorting through those boxes. Among his effects were also many papers of my mother’s, who died about two years before he passed away.

I discovered many things that moved me. As I read through the various papers, I was reminded that many of us never really know the pain and grief that others bear. In particular, I was struck by the poignant file that was simply labeled, “Mary Anne.” (A photo of my father and sister is at right).

My sister Mary Anne was tragically afflicted with mental illness from her earliest days. My parents knew there was trouble early on when she did not speak a word until she was well past two, and even then only at home. She had a pathological shyness that led her to shut down in the presence of others outside the home. The counselor at her elementary school spoke of Mary Anne as “disturbed” and insisted on psychiatric care for her by the time she was six.

Discretion and brevity limit what I intend to share here, but Mary Anne was deeply troubled. By age 13, she had to be hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in 15 different mental hospitals and 6 different group homes. She was often able to visit with us and even stay over on weekend passes. She had stretches during which she was stable, but soon “the voices” would return, as would the dreams that afflicted her. Her psychotic episodes often led to running away, outbursts of violence, and attempts at suicide.

Through all of this, my parents fought very hard for her, and to be sure she got the care she needed. This often led them to various courts and generated much correspondence with insurance companies, state mental health officials, and private hospitals where she was confined. Indeed, during her lifetime my parents made many sacrifices for Mary Anne, both financial and personal, to ensure her care. At one point in the early 1970s, aware that Mary Anne felt isolated in the house with three brothers and desperately wanted a sister, my parents even went so far as to seek to adopt a baby girl.  They filed paperwork and came very close, but the plan ultimately fell through. The baby sister we never had …

Maryanne died in a fire in the winter of 1991 at the age of 30. She likely had a hand in that fire; she had set fires before when the “voices” told her to. I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept when I saw her. The funeral director explained that there was little he could do since her skin had been singed in the fire. She had clearly been crying when she died—a grief observed.

My father wrote this on the frontispiece of her file:

Mary Anne Pope was our first child.
She led a tortured existence during a short life
and fought hard against great odds.
We remember her for her courage
.

And as I read my own parents’ touching recollections of Mary Anne, I could not help but moved, too, by their own pain. Such a heavy grief punctuates each page. I give them great credit for the fact that they insulated the rest of us, their three sons, from the most of the dreadful details of poor Mary Anne’s struggle. They kept their pain largely to themselves and stayed available to us. It is true that there were episodes we had to know about, but as a young boy and teenager I saw in my parents only strength and stability when it came to this matter. I saw my father’s grief and pain for the first time as he wept, standing there at the funeral home looking at my sister—It was a grief observed.

After my sister’s death, my mother’s grief grew steadily worse, causing her struggle with alcohol to worsen as well; she became increasingly incapacitated. Her life ended tragically and suddenly on a cold February day. My father had looked away for only a brief moment, going into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and mom wandered out into a snowstorm. Incapacitated by alcohol and disoriented, she died of hypothermia. We found her body only after three days of searching, when the snow melted a bit. She had died almost a mile away, near the edge of the woods—In her death it was another a grief observed, it was her grief.

My father never quite forgave himself for letting her slip away. The open front door, a first sign of trouble; the searching on a dark, frigid, and stormy night; the steady awareness, “She’s gone.” Those memories haunted him. In the months that followed, he often wondered how he could go on when half of him was gone. He, too, was gone within two years. His congestive heart failure worsened and he died in 2007, literally and figuratively of a broken heart—a grief observed.

All these thoughts swept over me as I looked through this file labeled simply, “Mary Anne.” I too am grieving

There is an old spiritual that says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” And it is a mighty good thing that he does know. Sometimes the grief is too heavy even to share, even to put into words. But Jesus knows all about our troubles. There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation that refers to those who have died in the Lord: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:4-5)

For my brave parents and courageous sister, who all died in the Lord but who died with grief, I pray that this text has already been fulfilled, and that they now enjoy that everything is new—a grief observed no longer.

Requiescant in pace

I made this video on what would have been my parents 50th anniversary. I picked the song “Cold enough to snow,” since it spoke to my Father’s grief in losing mom on that snowy night.

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.