In this week’s Office of Readings comes a crucial question from Elijah. It came at a time of widespread apostasy among the Jewish people. Elijah summoned a multitude to Mt. Carmel in the far north of Israel:
Elijah appealed to all the people and said, “How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.” The people, however, did not answer him (1 Kings 18:21).
The Baals were the gods of the Canaanites. It had become expedient and popular to worship them because the ruling political leaders, the apostate King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel, had set forth the worship of the Baals by erecting altars and sacred columns. All who wished their life to go well and to have access to the levers of prosperity were surely “encouraged” to comply. Jezebel funded hundreds of prophets of Baal and the goddess Asherah. She also had many of the prophets of Israel killed and forced others into hiding. Through a policy of favoritism and fear, the true faith was being suppressed and false ideologies were being promoted.
At a critical moment Elijah thus asked his question. In effect he told them that they needed to decide whether to serve the Lord God out of courageous fidelity or the Baals out of cowardly fear.
We, too, must decide. In our times, the true faith has been undermined in the hearts of many by plausible liars, cultural war, and political correctness. Those who strive to hold to the true faith are called hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. A legal framework is growing that seeks to compel compliance to the moral revolution and abandonment of the biblical worldview. Social pressures are at work as well, seeking to force compliance through political correctness, through suppression of speech and ideas, and through the influence of music, cinema, and art.
The same question must be asked of us:
How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him (whatever the cost). If Baal is your god, follow him! If you prefer what is popular, trendy, politically correct, and safe, go for it. But understand that if you do so, your decision is increasingly for Baal, not the Lord. In a culture that insists you celebrate fornication, homosexual acts, transgenderism, abortion, euthanasia, and all sorts of intemperance, realize that your decision to comply amounts to a choice for Baal.
Some claim that they are not really making a fundamental choice against God and for the modern Baals. Rather, they prefer to think that they are being “tolerant,” that they are pleasant moderates seeking to build bridges and keep the faith “mainstream.”
Today the lines are starkly drawn. The choices required of us are clear. The ancient maxim has never been more true: tertium non datur (no third way is given). Jesus says, You cannot serve God and mammon (Mat 6:24). James adds, Adulterers! Do you not realize that a friendship with the world is enmity at God? (James 4:4) Elijah’s question cannot be watered down. There are two sides in the moral battle of our times: choose a side.
In Elijah’s time, the people did not want to answer. The text says that they just stood there, silent. But silence does not make the question or the choice go away. Indeed, prolonged silence to so fundamental a question becomes an answer in itself. Silence and fence-sitting are not valid answers when the lines are so clearly drawn.
To the fence-sitters is directed this warning in the form of an old story:
A man once refused to take sides in the critical and disputed matters of his day, nobly declaring that he was tolerant of all views. Taking his seat on the fence he congratulated himself for his moderation and openness; others did too. One day the devil came and said, “Come along now, you’re with me.” The man protested, “I don’t belong to you. I’m on the fence!” The devil simply replied: “Oh, but you do belong to me. I own the fence.”
“How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”
Many wonderful articles have already been published in reference to the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict. I can only affirm much of what I have read as to his scholarship, and the dignity with which he conducted the Office of the Papacy. To have such a renowned theologian as pope makes one think of Pope Gregory the Great who like Pope Benedict would have prefered the quiet of the monastery to the heavy weight of the chair of Peter.
Neither Gregory or Benedict had it easy. Tumultuous waves rocked the barque of Peter during Gregory’s time as the Roman Empire continued to crumble and the Lombards made their steady advance. Pope Benedict XVI endured the storms of the collapsing Western culture, lamenting that the lights were going out in Europe and he warned us of the “dictatorship of relativism” that we now know all too well.
Surely, if the lights were going out in the dying West, the Church must all the more be as a lighthouse in the deepening dark. I was certain that Pope Benedict was just the man the Lord could use. But Pope Benedict also sensed the wolves were near, and asked us to pray that he not flee from them. Sadly, as we know, for reasons of his own, he chose to step aside. I cannot doubt that he thought it best for the Church, but I must still lament the loss of his light in a world sinking into deeper darkness and murky confusion. It is zero-dark thirty for the Western world we once called Christendom. And we, the Church, called to be the light of the world, are terribly divided and caught in a morass of scandal, ambiguity and confusion.
I can only ask God to receive Pope Benedict XIV into the arms of His mercy and permit his prayers for us to be like a ray of light shining past the barrier of death on a gloomy and storm-tossed world. Permit my informal cry like a son to his father: “Papa Ratzi pray for us! And we too prayer for your repose, dear and Holy Father.”
Sometimes when you struggle to cry, humor has a role in releasing sorrow and also pent up joy. In that vein, I’d like to include a short video I put together many years ago that celebrated the photogenic quality of Pope Benedict. His face is wonderfully expressive. I hope you might enjoy a one minute diversion down memory lane as a moment too of prayer.
I also put together another video of the Pope as a pilgrim and world traveler set to Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Enjoy a toe tapper of a song with photos showing the Pope’s far flung travels.
As we wrap up November and the traditional meditation we make on the four last things (death, judgement, heaven and hell), A classic meditation of St. Cyprian comes to us in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is a meditation on a fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to truly have God, and the things waiting for us in heaven, as our highest priority.
St. Cyprian Writes:
The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?
John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live forever. (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314)
It is amazing how much loyalty and sweat-equity we give to a world that hates us. Whatever gains we get they are short-term and then we lose everything and are consigned to a stone-cold tomb. What a joke, and the joke is on us. But still we toe the line and follow the world’s demands like slaves to a master; we make compromises and bow before the trinkets of this world, forsaking the unlimited treasure of heaven. Be assured of this that this world and the Prince of this World ( Satan) will never relent in their demands until every last ounce of our integrity is gone; until we are completely compromised and conformed to the futile and wicked ways of a sinking ship. And all the while we think we can keep loyalty to God on some back burner. No, be assured, as Cyprian reminds, the more we embrace the darkness, the harsher to true light seems; the more we grow spiritually weak by indulging the flesh, the more unreal and unrealistic do God’s ways seem. And thus we grow averse to what we say we we love. But as Cyprian reiterates and Scripture teaches:
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God…..Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:4,8)
The Lord Jesus, of course, had first said,
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matt 6:24)
We ought to long for heaven and to be free of this exile but as Jesus teaches, where our treasure is, our heart will also be. And so we cling to our trinkets. St. Cyprian continues:
How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world! Instead we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.
And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we should rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ.
It is indeed a strange truth that so many of us prefer this earthly bondage and devilish exile and are so averse to death! Understandably we fear the process of dying, or might feel the obligation to accomplish certain tasks (like raising children), but really, for those who love God, the day we day to this world is the greatest day of our life. We may have to journey through purgatory, but even that is so much more blest than this valley of tears and danger. And So Cyprian concludes:
We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.
What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!
There is the glorious band of apostles, there, the exultant assembly of prophets, there, the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There, in triumph, are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.
My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently. (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314)
Whether we cling to world or not: Slowly we die to this world as we see our skills, strength and looks begin to fade in late middle age. As old age sets in we say farewell to friends, perhaps a spouse, perhaps the home we owned. Our eyesight, hearing and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults, and complications begin to set in. For those who are faithful it begins to occur that what matters most is no longer here; that our true treasure is in heaven and with God. Slowly the lust of this world dies and a gentle longing for what is above grows.
As November ends, remember the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Prepare eagerly to meet God, run toward him with joy and confidence, calling on Him who made you for himself. Death will surely come. Why not let it find you joyful, victorious and confident; eager to go and meet God?
We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.
What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.
The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.
As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.
Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:
Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).
All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.
But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:
Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).
Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!
I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.
At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.
Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.
On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.
Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”
Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.
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
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.” 
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.
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 WORD – If 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 COMMANDMENTS – Those 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.”