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.

An Overlooked But Powerful Reading from the Christmas Cycle

There is a Scripture reading proclaimed at the Christmas Liturgy that usually gets overlooked. And yet it should elicit considerable reflection since it is proclaimed at the Christmas Midnight Mass, one of the Church’s most prominent Liturgies. It is from the Letter to Titus in the Second Chapter. I would like to reproduce it in full and then give some commentary following.

The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good
. Titus 2:11-14

  1. The Moral Life is a gift – The grace of God has appeared The Word Grace (χάρις – charis) most fundamentally means, “grace” but it also means “gift.” And this word “gift” needs to govern the whole remainder of the passage which is an exhortation to receive the gift of a new moral life in Christ. One of the biggest mistakes made by most Christians regarding the Christian moral life is that it is something we must, by our own flesh power, “do.” It is not. It is something we must receive as a gift. Without this understanding the Gospel is not good news at all, it is just a long and burdensome list of requirements that we must do “or else.” Frankly, some of the more demanding passages of the New Testament (e.g. that we should love our enemies, never have lustful thoughts and be perfect and the heavenly Father is perfect) ought to clue us in that this is going to have to be God’s gift and God’s work in us. This text is teaching us that the grace (gift) of God’s very own life is available to us. Jesus Christ wants to live his life in us and offers us that relationship. As he begins to live his life in us sin is put to death and the grace (the very life and love of God) comes alive in us. Of course we can then love our enemies because it is God who is doing this in us. Lust, greed, self-centeredness, anger, resentments, fear and the like all begin to die and are replaced by joy, serenity, peace, patience, chastity, love, generosity, self-control and the like. A completely new life is made available to us. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). This grace, (the gift of the very life of God) has now appeared in Jesus Christ and is available to you right now. Don’t leave this gift under the tree!
  2. The gift is offered to all – saving all – The gift is offered to all. As I live, says the Lord, I do not want the sinner to die but to turn to me and live! (Ez 33:11) No one can say they are excluded or that that they are not being offered the gift of a new life in Christ. Therefore the Church’s moral exhortation cannot exclude anyone. There are many today who want to claim exemption from some aspect of the moral law. The claim comes most commonly today from the Gay community who say that God “made me this way” and thus that the Law of Chastity does not apply for them in the same way as others. But this cannot be so for it would amount to a denial that God’s call was universal and that his grace is sufficient. No indeed, God can equip, empower and enable all of us, whatever our condition or apparent limitations to receive and live this new life. ALL are offered this grace. Don’t leave any gifts under your tree unopened!
  3. The gift does not just inform, it transforms and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires– The Greek word translated here as “training” is παιδεύουσα (paideuosa). First note it is a present participle which signifies an on-going action. As Catholics we see salvation as a process more than just an event. The training involved here is lifelong. We ought to have the experience that we are growing into the perfection that God has promised. I may not be what I want to be but at least I’m not what I used to be! Our training and transformation are on-going and lifelong. Secondly, we need to grasp what is meant by training. Some translators render this as “instructing.” But let’s be clear, our instruction is more than an intellectual thing. It is experiential as well. The Greek word παιδεύουσα is rooted in the Greek word paideuo which means to train up a child by discipline and instruction. Perhaps the best example we have of this today for adults is the notion of a personal trainer. A personal trainer does not just write instructions or talk over the phone. They show up and take you through the exercises personally. They point out bad form that will bring on injury and establish an exercise routine that works all the major muscle groups. They also impose a kind of discipline or routine until the next visit. This is what God wants to do for us. He wants to personally train us and build up strength in us so that we will recognize godless ways and worldly desires and he gives us the strength and will to reject them not merely because we have to but because we want to. Make sure you open and receive this gift from under your tree.
  4. The gift of a clear, clean, sober mind – and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age – The Greek word translated as “temperately” here is σωφρόνως (sophronos) and it more usually means sober, of sound mind, and by extension it can mean moderately or temperately. Obviously intemperate, extreme behavior causes our mind to be unsound. A good, clear mind is a gift that God wants to offer us by also giving us the gift to temper our behavior. To live justly is to be in right relationship with God and others, render to each what is due and receiving also what is due. This too is a very great gift to be sought. So often we are NOT in right relationships with God and others and the result is guilt, anger and frustration. The Greek word translated here as “devoutly” is εὐσεβῶς (eusebos) and it is an adverb meaning more commonly “reverently.” This helps us to understand the word more widely. To be devout is usually interpreted in religious terms as being prayerful. That is a good thing to be sure but the reverent behavior that is the gift here is to be respectful not only of God per se but also of everyone. The gift that the Lord offers in this verse is that with clear and sober minds we live in a right and reverent relationship with God and others. Don’t leave this gift under your tree either.
  5. The gift of hope – as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ – To live with hope is a very great gift. The Theological Virtue of Hope is the gift to have a confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. Therefore hope is not some vague wish, it is a confident expectation. We ought to live with great confidence for our God has the power to save and the will to save us. And if we but open the gifts under our Christmas Tree and allow them to flourish in our life we can look with confidence to our judgement and to the glorious second coming.
  6. A very personal gift – who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness – Notice again, the moral life is a gift. We are delivered from lawlessness. We are not just warned not to be lawless we are offered the gift of deliverance. And this gift isn’t something Jesus went and got at some store. He paid the price for it with his own blood. We are delivered from lawlessness by the precious blood of Jesus. This is a very personal gift. Now don’t leave it unwrapped!
  7. The gift of a willing heart – and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good – The final expression of the gift is that when we receive the gift of the moral life from Jesus we are not only cleansed, our desires begin to be reformed. Thus we do not keep the law merely because we have to but because we WANT to. We become eager and joyful at keeping God’s law, not resentful and mournful about it. What a gift. Don’t leave it to be lost under the tree!

So, King Jesus has a garden full of diverse flowers, diverse gifts. There are many gifts he offers us but the fundamental gift he offers us is the gift of a new life, a reformed and restored heart and mind, eager to do what is right. This is his gift to us this Christmas and every day.

A Man Who Saw by Hearing – A Meditation on the Gospel of the 30th Sunday of the Year

In today’s gospel there is a very familiar story of the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus. As with any familiar story, the danger is that we, upon hearing its opening lines say, “Oh that story,” and we just sort of tune out. But there are many things in the details of the story that we can easily miss. Ultimately the story of Bartimaeus is also our story, for we too must let the Lord heal our blindness and give us sight. One paradox of this gospel that we shall note, is that the man receives his sight as the result of hearing.

Let’s look at this gospel in 6 stages.

Stage I–Perception of the Problem–the text says, As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples, and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man sat by the roadside begging.

Bartimaeus has many troubles, he is blind, and he is poor. But although he is physically blind, he is not spiritually blind. For he knows he has troubles, he knows he is blind. And to know our troubles, to be in touch with our neediness, is an important spiritual insight that many lack.

It is possible for some to feel self-satisfied and to be unaware of how blind, pitiable, poor and naked they really are before God (cf Rev 3:17). Indeed, so poor and so needy that we depend on God for every beat of our heart. But some who are spiritually blind, lose this insight in becoming proud. They fail to ask for help from the Lord,  they fail to ask for grace. Jesus once said to the Pharisees Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but since you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:41)  In other words, physical blindness is not their problem, spiritual blindness is. And because they think themselves righteous on their own power, they do not need God nor do they truly seek him. Only humility and a true “vision” and experience of one’s poverty can help us to call out as we should.

But our blind man knows that he is blind and so he calls for help. As we shall see, however, his cries for help need some direction, a need to be properly specified and directed.

So we begin by simply noting this man is blind, but still, he has spiritual insight.

Do we have this? Do we really understand how blind we are? We struggle to see God, we struggle to see and understand ourselves, we struggle to see others with compassion and understanding. Indeed, God is more present to us than anything in this world. Yet, we see all the things of this world, and still struggle to see God. Neither do we see our own dignity, or the dignity and the gift of others,  yes, even the dignity of our enemies. We do not see or understand how things work together, and we struggle to see and find meaning in the events of our day. We are also blind to our sin, and we seldom understand what harm our sin actually does.

Yes, we have a great deal of blindness, we do struggle to see. But perhaps our worst blindness is it we do not even consider how blind we are. But too easily, like the Pharisees we go on thinking that we know a few things, and that therefore we know many things.

Consider the humility of the blind man, who knows he is blind who knows he needs help, and grace, and mercy. It is a humility that opens the door. Stage one in our journey must be the perception of the problem.

Stage II–the Proclamation that is Prescribed. – The text says  On being told it was Jesus of Nazareth who was passing by, he began to cry out and say “Jesus son of David have pity on me.”

Note the subtle but important transition here. Up until this point he was calling upon anyone, who happened to pass by, for help. But no mere passerby, nor anyone in this world, can ultimately help him with his real problem.

It is the same with us. Though we may turn to science, or medicine, philosophy, economics or politics, none of these can really help us. At best they can specify what is wrong, give us temporary medicines, passing comforts, etc. But all their solutions will be rooted in this world, which is passing away.

True vision can only be granted by the Lord, who opens for us a vision of glory, and who alone can draw safely to that place where joys will never end and visions never cease.

The blind man is told of the presence of Jesus. And hearing this, he directs his cry away from any mere passerby to the Lord who alone can heal him: Jesus, son of David, have pity on me! The world, and passersby can get him money, perhaps a meal, but only Jesus can give him meaning, the true vision that he really needs to see.

And do not miss this point that’s seeing comes paradoxically through hearing. For faith comes by hearing, and hearing from the word of God (cf Rom 10:17). It is a truth that faith is about hearing, not seeing. For most frequently, we doubt what we see. Even if our eyes see marvels, we think, “They have a way of doing that.” No, the eye is never satisfied with seeing (cf Eccl. 1:8). Faith comes by hearing, and faith is obedience to what is heard. We walk by faith, by an inner seeing, not by physical sight.

Thus, it is by hearing that the blind man will come to see Jesus who can help them to see. He hears from others that Jesus is passing by, and he takes up the proclamation that is prescribed, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me!”

Stage III–the Perseverance that Produces–the text says, And they rebuked him, telling him to be silent. Yet he kept calling all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “call him.” So they called the blind man saying to him, “Take courage; get up. Jesus is calling you.

Is it true fact, that those of us who seek to put our trust in the Lord, and call on him, will often experience rebuke, hostility, and ridicule from the world. Note that the blind man ignores all of this. And so should we. He has heard the Name above all names, who alone in heaven and earth can save, and he calls upon him.

Yes, Jesus does delay, he does not answer him right away. But the blind man persevered, calling out all the more, and eventually, Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”

Why does God delay? This is a very deep mystery, but it is clear that one of the effects of his delay would seem to be to test our faith and strengthen it. In the end, it is not an incantation that saves us, but faith. Simply shouting, “In the name of Jesus!” Is not enough. The Name of Jesus is not some incantation like, “Open sesame.” Rather, it is an announcement of faith, and faith is more than words. Ultimately, it is not words alone that save us, but the faith that must underlie those words, “Jesus! Save me”

Stage IV–the Priority that is Presented–the text says, He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.

Do not miss this important detail. His cloak was probably the most valuable thing he owned. In that climate, a very arid climate, it gets cool in the evening after sunset. The temperature drops rapidly. So critical was the cloak, that Scripture forbade the taking of a cloak as collateral for a loan:  If a man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it. (Deut 24:12-13)

But note, this man cast aside his cloak, and leaving it behind, he went to Jesus. Thus, he leaves behind perhaps the most valuable and necessary thing for his survival in this world. To miss a meal, might be inconvenient but it would not kill him. But to sleep one night, a cold night, without his cloak might well end his life through hypothermia. But leaving everything, he runs to the Lord.

What of us? What are we willing to leave behind to find Christ? An old gospel song says, I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold. Another old hymn says, There’s nothing between my soul in the Savior. Is there? Are you willing to leave it behind?? Are you and I free enough to do so?

Stage V–The Permission that is Procured–the text says, Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, Master, I want to see!

Why does Jesus asked this question? Can he not see what a blind man needs? Perhaps.

But honestly, healing takes courage. The fact is, in life, most seek mere relief. True healing takes courage because it brings change, and new demands. If the blind man is healed, it would no longer be acceptable that he should sit and beg. Having been healed, more will be expected of him. His life will be irrevocably changed.

Yes, to be healed requires courage. Many of us wonder, of the Lord’s delay in answering our prayers. Perhaps a question from last week’s gospel is applicable as we cry to the Lord: Do you have any idea what you are asking?” Often we do not.

Truth be told, most of us want relief more than healing. There is a big difference. The Lord is in the healing business, but most of us just want relief. Do not miss what the Lord says here. In effect, he says to the blind man, and to us, “Are you really sure you want healing?” The Lord respects us, and our freedom. He wants our consent before he goes to work. And often, though many of us think we want healing, we don’t really know what we are asking.

The Lord waits, until a request makes real sense. He knows that most of us are not always ready for what he really offers. He asks, and when our yes becomes definitive, he goes to work.

Stage VI – The Path that is Pursued–the text says, Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the way.

As we have already seen, true healing brings forth radical change. And now man who sat by the road begging, sees, but is also up and walking about. And what is he doing? He is  following Jesus. For faith has saved him, and faith not only gives sight, but summons us to obedience, an obedience that has us walk in the path of the Lord.

You see, (pardon the pun), faith is more than an offer of relief. True faith instills real change. A change in direction, a change in the way we walk.

And thus this gospel speaks to us of a man who was blind. And paradoxically he received his faith by hearing. For he heard of Jesus and called on him. Yes, his sight came from his hearing. And faith grants to vision by hearing. True vision, is to see Christ, and having seen him by hearing, to follow after him.

I have it on the best authority that as he followed Jesus up the road, he sang this song:

Why Children Singing Lennon’s “Imagine” At the Olympics Should Trouble You.

In the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremonies, there was the sad spectacle of a children’s choir singing the John Lennon song, “Imagine.” While some just think of the song as “pretty” the radical atheist/globalist words are a direct attack on things central to the existence of any civilization. Lennon imagines, with approval, a world without God, religion, or country. In effect no piety, no loyalties, and nothing worth dying for. He also dismissed the idea of heaven, hell, and more than implies that religion, faith and God are the source of violence, greed and disunity.

As you will see below, there is strong evidence that John Lennon himself later distanced himself from many of the notions celebrated in the song lyrics.

I wonder if the kids knew how truly empty, dark, unrealistic, and dystopian the world they sang of was. I wonder too, if the organizers of the opening ceremonies understood the irony of singing of world without countries, even as athletes marched in under different flags from different countries prepared to compete.

Here are some of the lyrics of Lennon’s song:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions ….etc.

So there it is, a world without faith, religion, Church, Country, piety, patriotism and the free market economy. The song implicitly endorsed atheistic Communism, or at least Socialism in its dream of “no possessions.” Imagine, was perhaps the most secular and radical of popular songs ever written, dripping with contempt, deconstructionist, revolutionary, and reductionist, a Magna Carta for secular humanism, and Communism.

And yet, it would seem John Lennon either disavowed much of the song, or never meant it in the first place. In a 1980 interview given shortly before his death, perhaps his last, he says some remarkable things that indicate a very different John Lennon than the song portrays. The interview (quoted below in a secondary source) seems largely forgotten since Lennon’s murder wholly changed the conversation and froze his image as the “60s radical.” It would seem he was far from that when he died. I am only here quoting a small part of the article, which you can read in its entirety here: Stop Imagining

Here are the pertinent excerpts:

In his definitive song, “Imagine”….[Lennon]  famously dreams of a world with “no possessions.” The mature Lennon explicitly disavowed such naïve sentiments:

I worked for money and I wanted to be rich….What I used to be is guilty about money. … Because I thought money was equated with sin. I don’t know. I think I got over it, because I either have to put up or shut up, you know. If I’m going to be a monk with nothing, do it. Otherwise, if I am going to try and make money, make it. Money itself isn’t the root of all evil.

The man who famously called for imagining a world with “No religion” also jettisoned his anti-theism.

“People got the image I was anti-Christ or anti-religion,” he said. “I’m not at all. I’m a most religious fellow. I’m religious in the sense of admitting there is more to it than meets the eye. I’m certainly not an atheist.”

Even more shocking to the idea of Lennon as a secular leftist, or a deep thinker, the man rejected evolution.

“Nor do I think we came from monkeys, by the way,” he insisted. “That’s another piece of garbage. What the hell’s it based on? We couldn’t’ve come from anything—fish, maybe, but not monkeys. I don’t believe in the evolution of fish to monkeys to men. Why aren’t monkeys changing into men now? It’s absolute garbage.”

……His final interviews make clear he was above all concerned with his family.

“I’m not here for you,” he said, speaking to his fans. “I’m here for me and [Yoko] and the baby.” He revered the institution of marriage, explaining how much it meant to get the state approving his union with Ono. “[R]ituals are important, no matter what we thought as kids. … So nowadays it’s hip not to be married. But I’m not interested in being hip.” [1]

So there it is, the revolutionary, it would seem, either reconsidered, or never fully embraced the radicalism of the song “Imagine.” Elsewhere in the article he is quoted as saying,

“It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t, when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes. That’s the hardest one.

I do not hold John Lennon up as anything other than he was, a singer and composer, and quite a good one at that. I personally cannot stand it when we elevate movie stars, and entertainers to the status of cultural and political experts. But given the fact that others do, it is worth noting that one of the icons of the secular humanist movement and the radical left, made something of a journey back to traditional values, family, faith, and personal accountability.

I do not sanction everything Lennon says in the article, I only note the journey he made and claim the hope that Lennon did not die the radical atheist some thought him to be. I pray too others will and are making the journey he apparently did.

Fundamentals for Fruitful Discipleship – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter

In this Easter Season, we continue to reflect on how the Risen Lord Jesus minsters to us and supplies our needs. Last week we considered Him as our shepherd. This week we learn how He is the vine and we the branches, wholly dependent on Him for everything. As we consider how He cares for us as His disciples, we need to rescue the word “care” from its rather sentimental modern sense. True care does not merely include pleasant things such as providing food and shelter. Sometimes care involves difficult things, but ones that are necessary to discipline and purify us so that we grow and bear more fruit. Thus, the Lord speaks of “pruning” in this passage. While caring, pruning is not often pleasant, but it is proper care. Let’s look at how the Lord cares for us so that we can be true disciples.

The Lord presents us with four basic principles that assist us in being better, more fruitful disciples.

I. The Purpose of Disciples – The text says, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit … Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.

The purpose of a vine is to bear fruit. What are the fruits that the Father seeks? Surely justice, righteousness, and holiness are chief among them. The Letter to the Galatians speaks of them in this way: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:23). Surely, we can add virtues and fruits such as generosity, chastity, mercy, forgiveness, and zeal for God and His kingdom. These are among the fruits God seeks, and which are the purpose of the vine, His son Jesus, whom He sent to nourish us so that these fruits would come to pass.

Yet there are some branches that, though they take nourishment from the vine, do not bear fruit. Not only do they fail to bear fruit, they often harm the vine by drawing strength away from the fruit-bearing branches.

I know little of grapes, but for many years now I have grown tomatoes. As the tomato plant grows, small shoots emerge from the base of the vine branches. These are usually called “suckers,” because they draw strength away from the main branch where the tomatoes are growing. These suckers should be plucked for the health and vigor of the plant and the best development of the fruit.

God will often do the same. In our modern age, with its stress on individualism, hearing that God cuts off unfruitful branches strikes us as unmerciful and harsh. However, God has in mind not just the individual, but the strength and fruitfulness of the whole vine. Failing to bear fruit does not just affect the individual; it affects the whole vine. Therefore, God, as a loving vine-dresser, cuts away the harmful branches. Your life is not just about you. My life is not just about me. We exist in myriad, complex relationships with one another, and God must care for all of them. Because the purpose of the vine is to bear fruit, God tends the vine with that in mind.

The text goes on to say that severed branches wither and that “people” will gather them and throw them into the fire. If I don’t know who I am and whose I am, if I am no longer rooted in Christ, anyone can name me and carry me off. Yes, without the stability of abiding on the vine, I can get “carried away” by worldly things. In this way, I wither and die spiritually; the slightest breeze can blow me about. Like any dried and withered branch, I am good for nothing but to be thrown into the fire. Unless Christ carries me and sustains me, I am carried away by others, who cast me into the fire.

II. The Pruning of Disciples – The text says, and every [branch] that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.

Most of us who have cared for roses know how important pruning is. Without this careful and necessary cutting, the rose bush grows long and gnarly. It expends its strength more on the branches than on the flowers. Little by little the flowers become smaller and less beautiful; the leaves lose their beauty, shape, and color, becoming smaller and lighter green. Eventually the rose bush looks little better than a weed.

I imagine that if a rose bush could talk, it would protest and cry out in pain every November as I descend upon it and cut back its growth to a mere one foot above the ground. In May, though, the gorgeous roses in the front yard are a masterpiece and all the pain of November is forgotten.

Pain and pruning are part of the Christian journey; God knows what He is doing. We often do not, and like the roses in November that cry out in pain and protest, we look for answers. Yet no more than I can explain my purpose to the roses (they are only rose bushes, after all), can God explain to us what He is about (we are mere mortals with minds too small to comprehend the whole picture).

Just the same, November pruning gives way to May glory; God the vine-dresser knows what He is doing.

Note, too, that the Lord says that His Word “prunes” us. If we let the Word enter us uncompromised and unabridged, we read, For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12). Yes, God’s Word can humble our pride, cut to the quick our distorted and wrongful thinking, and hold us accountable. It can cut away error and mend the decayed wounds of sin.

We must allow the Word of God to be what it is. Too many of us seek a filtered and watered-down version of God’s Word. No! Let the undiluted Word go to work, of which Scripture itself says, Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29)

A pruned vine bears abundant fruit. None of us like pruning, but nothing is more necessary.

III. Persistence of Disciples – The text says, Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.

In this short Gospel, the word “remain” occurs seven times. Do you get the point? Remain! The Greek word μείνατε (meinate) is the plural imperative of the verb meno, meaning, “to abide.” To abide means to remain habitually or to stay somewhere. It speaks of stability and persistence.

It is clear that a branch must always stay attached to the vine or else it is doomed. Absolutely nothing is possible to a branch (except to wither and die) unless it is attached to the vine 24 x 7 x 365. Nothing could be clearer in this analogy than this truth.

Yet it seems very unclear to the average disciple of Jesus, who so easily walks away, finding abiding both tedious and difficult. Then we wonder why our spiritual life is tepid and its fruits lackluster! We can’t have even a mediocre spiritual life apart from Christ; the text says we can’t do anything at all but be scattered.

How do we abide with and in the Lord? Scripture distinguishes four ways. We abide and experience union with the Lord through

HIS WORDIf you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (Jn 15:7). Anyone who loves me will be true to my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him (Jn 14:22).

HOLY COMMUNION –  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (Jn 6:56).

PRAYER (especially communal prayer) –  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20).

KEEPING HIS COMMANDMENTSThose who keep his commandments abide in him and He in them (1 John 3:22).

Yes, abiding is accomplished through prayer, Scripture, sacraments, fellowship, and walking uprightly. This Gospel could not be more clear: abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide. Seven times the word is used.

Do you get it? Abide. Abide persistently.

IV. The Produce of Disciples – The text says, If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Attached to and abiding in the vine, we will produce abundant fruit. Note that this is linked to a kind of fruitfulness in prayer that comes from the Father’s good pleasure.

Why is He pleased to answer our prayers if we abide? Because He can trust us with His blessings. In effect, He can say, “Here is someone who is close to my Son, who habitually remains with Him and abides with Him. Yes, here is someone I can trust with blessings. Here is a wise steward who is in union with my Son.” Scripture speaks often of the correlation between wise stewardship and blessings:

  • (Luke 16:10-11) Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
  • (Matt 25:21) His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
  • (Luke 12:48) From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Do you want more? Then use well what you already have. Be someone whom the Father can trust because you stay close and abide with His Son. Be like those who can say, with mother Ruth, Wherever you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay (Ruth 1:16). Be like the man who said to his wife, “If you ever leave me, I’m going with you.”

Abide, abide, abide.

The Cross Wins, It Always Wins. A Meditation on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Gospel today is, to the world and to those who are perishing, utter madness, utter foolishness. For Christ, in effect, declares that dying (to this world) is the only way to true life. While the world’s so-called wisdom declares to us that the way to life is power, prestige, possessions and popularity, Jesus says, die to all that and you’ll find true life.

The word “paradox” refers to something that is contrary to the usual way of thinking. And the true gospel, (not the watered down, compromised one) is a real insult to the world.

Indeed, most of us struggle to understand and accept what the Lord is saying. But the Lord can give us a heart for what really matters, a heart for God, for love, and for the things waiting for us in heaven. But the way to this new life is through the Cross. Jesus had to go to the cross and die to give us this new life. And we too must go to his cross and die with him to this world’s agenda in order to rise to new life.

To those who would scoff at this way of the Cross there is only one thing to say, “The Cross wins, it Always wins.

Let’s examine the Lord’s Paradoxical Plan to save us and bring us to new life.

I. The Plan of Salvation that is Acclaimed: As the Gospel opens we find a rather strange incident. The text says,  Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

What is odd is the apparent “over-reaction” that Jesus has to the simple fact of some Greeks wishing to speak to him. From this seemingly simple and unremarkable (to us) fact, Jesus senses the stunning fact that his “hour” has now come. Yes, now the time for his glorification, that is, his suffering, death and resurrection, to take place. He goes on later to say, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Yes, all this from the simple fact that certain Greeks, i.e. certain Gentiles wish to speak to him.

Even more remarkable, is that nothing in the text indicates that Jesus in fact goes over to speak to them. Having given this stunning soliloquy and announced that the drama was to unfold, there is no evidence that he eagerly goes to the Greeks to evangelize them. We will see why this in a moment.

But first let us examine why this simple request throws the whole switch on for Holy Week to unfold. In effect, the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills a critical prophecy about the Messiah wherein He would gather the nations unto himself and make of fractured humanity one nation, one family. Consider two prophesies:

  1. I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the Lord in clean vessels. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord….All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord. (Is 66:18, 23)
  2. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Is 56:6-7)

Thus we see that one of the principle missions of the Messiah would be to save, not only the Jewish People, but all people and to draw them into right worship, and unity in the one Lord. Jesus explicitly states elsewhere his intention to gather the Gentiles:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:14).

And so it is that this apparently simple request of the Greeks (Gentiles) to see Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, carries such significance for him (and us).

But why not run and greet them at once? Simply put, the call and salvation of the Gentiles must wait for the death and the resurrection of Jesus to be accomplished. It will be his atoning death that will reunite us with the Father and with one another. A simple sermon or slogan like “Can’t we all get along” isn’t going to accomplish the deeper unity necessary. Only the Blood of Jesus can bring true Shalom with the Father and wit one another, only the blood of Jesus can save us.

Consider this text from Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both {Jews and Gentiles] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph 2:13ff)

Thus, nothing but the Blood of Jesus can make us whole, can save us or make us one, either with the Father or each other. There is no true unity apart from Christ and he secures it by his blood and the power of his cross. Only by baptism into the paschal mystery do we become members of the Body of Christ and find true and lasting unity, salvation, and true peace.

So the door has opened from the Gentiles side, But Jesus knows the way through door goes by way the Cross. His apparent delay in rushing to greet the Gentiles makes sense in this light. Only after his resurrection he will say, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.... (Matt 28:19) for now there is the power through baptism to make all one in Christ. The Price of our salvation, our new life, our peace with each other, and the Father, is the death and Resurrection of Jesus. And thank the Lord, Jesus paid that price. An old songs says Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan! Oh, the grace that brought it down to man! Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span! At Calvary!

II. The Plan of Salvation Applied – Jesus goes on to say Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

Now while it is true that Jesus pays the price for our peace and unity, with the Father and which each other, it is also true that he sets forth and prescribes a pattern for us and applies it. Note that Jesus says, Amen, Amen I say to YOU….and again he says, Whoever serves me must follow me.

Thus the pattern of his dying and rising to new life must also be applied to the pattern of our life. And if we seek unity and peace and to enjoy this new life with the Father, we must die to rise again. We must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If we want peace we have to be willing to accept the pattern of dying fro it and rising to it.

How must we die for this? Well we have to die to:

  1. Our ego
  2. Our desire for revenge
  3. Our hurts from the past
  4. Our desire to control everything
  5. Our sinful and unbiblical agendas
  6. Our irrational fears rooted in ego and exaggerated notions
  7. Our hatreds
  8. Our unrealistic expectations
  9. Our stubbornness
  10. Our inflexibility
  11. Our impatience
  12. Our unreasonable demands
  13. Our greed
  14. Our worldliness

Yes, we have to be willing to experience some sacrifices for unity and to obtain new life. We have to let the Lord put a lot of sinful and unhealthy drives to death in us. New life does not just occur, Peace and unity do not just happen. We have to journey to them through Calvary. We too must allow the Lord to crucify our sinful desires and thereby rise to new life.

But remember, the Cross wins. It always wins.

III. The Plan of Salvation At day’s end. – Jesus speaks of a great promise of new life but presents it in a very paradoxical way. He says: Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

In other words, if we are not willing to follow the pattern he sets forth above of dying to ourselves and to this world, we cannot truly live. And if we go on clinging to our worldly notions of life and live only for ourselves, and for power, possessions, popularity, and prestige, we are already dead. For indeed, if we live only for the things of this world (and many do), ours is a cruel and laughable fate, for we die and lose all. Yes, total losers.

But if we allow the Lord to help us die to the this world’s agenda, to its pathetic charms, then, and only then do we pass increasingly to real life, to true unity with the Father and to deeper unity with one another in Christ.Only then does a newer, deeper life dawn upon us and do we see our lives dramatically transformed day to day.

Jesus had to die to give this to us. And in order to have it bestowed on us, and we must be configured to Christ’s death to this world in order to live in him and find this new life. We die to a sinful and overrated world, to live in a whole new way in a life open to something richer than we can ever imagine.

Note too, Jesus calls this new life, “eternal life.” But eternal life means far more than to live forever. Rather “eternal,” while not excluding the notion of endless length,  more deeply means “to become fully alive.”

And for those who know Christ, this process has already begun. At age 50, my bodily life has suffered setbacks. But spiritually I am more alive than I ever was at 20, and wait till I’m 80! Our bodies may be declining, but our souls are growing younger and more vibrant, more fully alive, if we love and trust Christ. Yes, I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, less sinful, less angry, less anxious, more compassionate, more patient, more alive!

But all of this comes from dying to this world, little by little and thus having more room for the life Christ offers.

What is the price of our Peace and our new life? Everything! For we shall only attain to it by dying to this world. And while our final physical death will seal the deal, there are all the ten thousand little deaths that usher in this new life even now. Our physical death is but the final component of a lifelong journey in Christ. For those who know Christ, the promise then will be full. For those who rejected him, the loss will be total.

An old song says, Now I’ve given Jesus everything, Now I gladly own Him as my King, Now my raptured soul can only sing Of Calvary!

Yes, the promise is real, but it is paradoxically obtained. The world calls all this foolishness. But you decide. Choose either the “wisdom of this world” or the folly of Christ. As for me, call me a fool, but make sure you add I was a fool for Christ. I do not mind. The cross wins, it always wins.

This song says:

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
On Calvary.

Refrain:
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

Now I’ve given Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing
Of Calvary!

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!

 

Eyes that Are Humble – A Meditation on the Conversion of St. Paul

Today in daily Mass we read the well-known story of St. Paul’s conversion. There is a detail in the story that I have often pondered. Although I am speculating on the specifics, I think it ought not to be overlooked. Even my choice of the words “speculating” and “overlooked” (both of which refer to the eyes) indicate that we ought to “give an eye” to St. Paul’s eyes.

As you probably recall, St. Paul was not just struck down on the road to Damascus—he was blinded as well.

Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank (Acts 9:8-10).

Having persecuted the Lord, Paul was now confronted with the darkness of sin and unbelief. It is as though the Lord wanted nothing to distract Paul as he pondered his experience, neither the delights of food and drink nor the delights of the eye. It was a kind of dying and being with Christ for three days in the tomb before rising. Like the dead, Paul was unable to eat and was enveloped in complete darkness of blindness. He could do little during that time but think and pray.

And pray he did!

[The Lord said to Ananias,]“Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”

… Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.

Through Word and Sacrament, Paul’s eyes were healed—or were they? Surely they were, for in the years that would follow, Paul saw well enough to travel the world speaking of Christ.

I’m convinced that some vestige of blindness, some physical memory remained in Paul’s eyes for his entire life, something to remind him of his need for mercy and to keep him humbly mindful of how that mercy was extended.

As background, we do well to recall the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God one night. Jacob proved strong in that great contest, so strong that God gave him a new name, Israel, which means “he wrestles (or struggles) with God.” God also left Jacob with a permanent memory of that nighttime battle. Scripture says that God knocked out Jacob’s sciatic muscle (Genesis 32:32), such that he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff. It was a reminder to Jacob that he was always to lean on the Lord (Heb 11:21).

So, too, perhaps, for St. Paul. Although he persevered through three dark days with God and although his eyesight was restored, it would seem that some weakness remained in his eyes. Later, St. Paul would speak of an ailment, a mysterious thorn in his flesh (2 Cor 12:7). Three times he begged God to remove it but the Lord told him to endure it for the sake of humility.

What was it? What was this mysterious physical affliction? I’m convinced that it had something to do with his eyes. Paul told the Galatians,

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me (Gal 4:13-15).

While I am speculating, it seems to me that Paul had something to akin to conjunctivitis (pink eye), an affliction that make the eyes fill with a sticky yellowish discharge and become red. It can be extremely contagious and is often repulsive to others. Indeed, it was quite difficult to endure in the era before modern medicine.

Whatever his actual affliction, it seems (if the Galatians text is acknowledged as descriptive) to have involved Paul’s eyes, the same eyes that had been healed but perhaps with a reminder left in them of the need for humility and for remembrance of how God saved him.

What is your thorn? What is your limp? What is your conjunctivitis? All of us have things that keep us humble. They remind us of our need to lean on God and to look to Him, not with haughty eyes, but with eyes that are humble, respectful, and grateful.

This song says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus”

A Concern for a Vague Translation in the Lectionary and a Missed Moment for Teaching

This past Sunday featured a reading from 1 Corinthians 6 that was unfortunately vague in its English translation.  The text said, “Avoid immorality,” (1 Corinthians 6:18) hides the more specific meaning of the text. “Avoid immorality?” It may as well have said “Do good and avoid evil.” Nothing could be more vague.

For the record the Greek text is Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν (Pheugete ten porneian) which is accurately and easily translated: Flee fornication (sexual immorality). It is a powerful admonition in the Greek, and just about every other English version of the Bible, except the Revised New American Bible (RNAB). I checked twenty other translations, and they all say “Flee fornication” or “Flee sexual immorality.”

It is a clarion call to chastity that is so necessary to hear in this sex saturated culture? Sadly our vague lectionary translation misses a teachable moment.

Fundamentally there are two problems with this translation.

In the first place, πορνείᾳ (porneia) (which is a specific reference to sexual immorality) is translated vaguely as “immorality.”

Immorality can mean practically any sin. If I were to say, “That group is immoral,” I could mean almost anything from it being greedy, or racist, or violent, or just promoting some sinful activity. Frankly sex is not the first thing that comes to mind when the word immorality is encountered.

But πορνείᾳ (porneia) is a specific word referring to sexual immorality. Usually it refers to pre-marital sex (fornication), but sometimes it may be used to refer to other sexual sins, depending on the context, like incest or adultery.

So problem one is that “immorality” is so vague as to be inaccurate.

In the second place “avoid” (as in “avoid immorality”) is profoundly weak as a translation of Φεύγετε (pheugete) which means, quite simply, “Flee!” It is a present, active, imperative verb in the second person plural. As an imperative it is thus a command, and merits the exclamation point: You (all) flee!

Strong’s Greek dictionary of biblical terms defines the verb as “to flee, escape or shun.

One might argue that “avoid” captures the word “shun” which is the third meaning. No it does not. “Shun” is a strong word, “avoid” in English is exceedingly more vague. “Avoid” says, “other things being equal, you ought to steer clear of this, if it is not too much trouble.”  “Avoid” is friendly advice. “Shun” indicates a strong detestation.

Flee, which is the first first meaning is an unambiguous command of warning, one which calls for immediate action due to something that is more than a small threat.

This Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó) is used 29 times in the new Testament (see here) and in no case is “avoid” the best or proper translation. In fact to use “avoid” would yield often times unintelligible, sometimes comical results. Consider some of the following verses and mentally try to substitute the word “avoid”

  1. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt (Matt 2:13)
  2. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism he said unto them O generation of vipers who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come (Matt 3:7)
  3. And they that kept [the pigs] fled into the city and told every thing and what was befallen to the possessed of the devils (Matt 8:33)
  4. When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet stand in the holy place whoever reads let him understand  Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains (Matt 24:16)
  5. the disciples left [Jesus] and fled. (Matt 26:56)
  6. the woman fled into the wilderness (Rev 12:6)

In other words “fled” or “flee” is the first, and best translation of the Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó), followed by “escape.” “Avoid,” just doesn’t capture what is being said.

Pastorally, this is a lost moment for Catholics with the translation “Avoid immorality.” Not only is the meaning obscure, but the imperative voice of the Greek is almost wholly lost by the vague and suggestive “avoid.” Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? (cf 1 Cor 14:8). The clarion call of this text is to get way as far, and as fast as possible, from fornication. This trumpet-call is reduced to barely a kazoo by the translation, “avoid immorality.” And even if a listener does finally get that “immorality” here means “sexual immorality” he or she will hardly be moved by the word avoid.

The bottom line is that 1 Corinthians 6:18 (Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν. πᾶν ἁμάρτημα ὁ ἐὰν ποιήσῃ ἄνθρωπος ἐκτὸς τοῦ σώματος ἐστιν· ὁ δὲ πορνεύων εἰς τὸ ἴδιον σῶμα ἁμαρτάνει) is better and correctly translated as:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 

OR:

Flee fornication. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but the fornicator, sins against his own body.

In other words, Run! Flee! Head for the hills! Get as far and as fast away from fornication as you can.

Do you get it? Probably not if you heard the Lectionary version last Sunday: Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Not exactly a clarion call.

This is surely something to bring to the attention of the Bishops as a new Lectionary is prepared. Rest assured I will surely bring it to the attention of a few bishops I know. I pray you might do the same.

Painting at top: St. Paul Writing at his Desk by Rembrandt