By Breaking a Wooden Yoke, You Forge an Iron Yoke!

Monday of last week (18th Week of the year) there was a powerful passage from the Book of Jeremiah. It is practical, profound, and sweeping in its implications, and it comes to us from the Lord through the mouth of Jeremiah the Prophet:

By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

Rather than looking at the historical meaning (i.e., that God was going to use Assyria to humble Israel), let’s consider what it means for us today.

What is the wooden yoke if it is not the cross? Indeed, the Lord says as much: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt 11:28-30).

The Lord has a paradoxical answer for us who labor and are heavily burdened. He tells us to take the yoke and burden that He has for us. The yoke is a symbol for the cross, and like most yokes, it connects us with another—the Lord! To be sure, God does have a yoke for us. We do need purification and discipline. However, the yoke He has for us is “easy.” The Greek word used is χρηστός (chrestos), which also has the connotation of being well-fitting, serviceable, or adapted to its purpose. The Lord’s yoke for us is productive unto the end He has in mind: our healing and salvation.

Do not turn the yoke (cross) into something abstract or think of it only in terms of major things such as cancer. The cross also has real, practical, daily dimensions such as exercising self-control and moderation. The cross (yoke) includes resisting sin, forgiving, and living chastely and courageously despite difficulties or persecution. These crosses are common to all true Christians. There are also some specific crosses that each of us carries, ones that the Lord permits for our humility and purification. Perhaps it is a physical illness or infirmity; maybe it is a spiritual emotional struggle; perhaps it is the loss of a loved one, job, or home.

These things are the wooden yoke, the cross of the Lord, and He carries it with us for we are yoked with Him (praise God). Because these burdens are from Him, they are well-suited to us; they are just what we need to avoid even worse things, including Hell itself.

What if we break and cast aside the wooden yoke, as many do today by ridiculing the Christian moral vision and the wisdom of the cross given to us by Jesus?

By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

How is this? Consider the toll that indulging in the moment can take: 

    • In rejecting the wooden yoke of moderation, chastity, and the limits of God’s moral law, we forge the iron yoke of addiction, obesity, financial trouble, sexually transmitted diseases, broken families, and all the heartache that follows. Pornography, lust, alcohol, and drugs enslave with an iron yoke.
    • In refusing the grace to forgive, we fuel violence and conflict. Many wars in the world today are fought over grievances that stretch back hundreds or even thousands of years.
    • Our greed fuels an insatiable desire for more, and we begin to live beyond our means or to live in such a way that bring us more stress than happiness.
    • Even the simple neglect of our daily duties causes work to pile up and seem overwhelming.
    • Our culture has become ever more severe as we abandon the wooden yoke of common moral standards and simple human decency. What we end up with is a culture that is more unforgiving and severe than ever. General moral standards give way to selective moral outrage resulting in: cancel culture, growing lists of grievances, and an easily offended victim-culture,  a bewildering list of words  are now forbidden and an outright criminalizing of views contrary to the sexual revolution. It is an iron yoke.  

All of these iron yokes, and more come upon us because we break the wooden yoke of the cross. To be sure, fulfilling our daily duties, living moderately, chastely, and soberly are all crosses because they involve some degree of self-denial, at least in the moment. However, the wooden yoke is a lot easier than the iron yoke that results if we cast aside the more manageable, and well-fitting yoke of the cross.

Pay attention, fellow Christian, Satan is a liar. He offers to lift the gentle yoke of the Lord. He expresses “outrage” that the Lord should require any suffering or discipline from us. He “takes our side” and utters a complaint on our behalf, but he is a liar and a fraud. Once we let him lift the wooden yoke he locks us in an iron yoke. Do not forsake the wooden yoke of the cross, for if you do, an iron yoke is sure to follow.

It is a simple pearl of wisdom, yet it is so often ignored: By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

Four Proofs Advanced by Jesus to Show His Divinity

In the Gospel for Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent (John 5:31-47), Jesus sets forth a case for his divinity and presents evidence to his Jewish listeners of his divine status. He does not just come out of Galilee calling himself God. He demonstrates his power and calls other witnesses to testify.

Lets look at the case Jesus sets forth: 

I. The Testimony of John the BaptistBut there is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that the testimony he gives on my behalf is true. You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth. I do not accept human testimony, but I say this so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light.

John was a revered prophet. Even his enemies admitted his holiness and that he feared no man and sought to flatter no one. John spoke truthfully of Jesus even when it cost him his followers and his own fame. Scripture says,  They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him. John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven….The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom stands and listens for him and is overjoyed to hear the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase; I must decrease. The One who comes from above is above all. (Jn 3:26-32).

So John the Baptist, a revered and respected prophet testified to Jesus.

II. The Miracles He Wrought But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.

The scriptures record 37 miracles by Jesus (you can see the list here: 37 Miracles) which included the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, walking on water, raising the dead, healing multitudes from countless illnesses, casting out fierce demons, and calming storms. Of course, the 37 recorded miracles (some which affected multitudes) were only some of the miracles he worked. As St. John notes There are many more things that Jesus did. If all of them were written down, I suppose that not even the world itself would have space for the books that would be written. (Jn 21:25)

So, the miracles testify to his divinity.

III. The Testimony of the Father Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf. But you have never heard his voice nor seen his form, and you do not have his word remaining in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent.

The Father testified at Jesus’ Baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But Jesus is more likely speaking here of the interior graces the Father is sending to them so that they may believe. Jesus says elsewhere: No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from Him comes to Me. (Jn 6:44-45). This indicates an inner inspiration and assistance the Father is providing for them (and us) to believe in Jesus. Even if it is not the grace of faith per se, it is an antecedent grace calling them to faith.

Therefore they are not without supernatural help, and are without excuse for their stubbornness to be docile to the promptings of the Father.

IV. The Scriptures – You search the Scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life.

Jesus fulfilled hundreds of Scriptures that pointed to his coming, his miracles, his divinity (e.g. Psalm 110), his virgin birth, that he would be born in Bethlehem, be called a Nazorean, feed the multitudes, heal the blind, weak, lame and deaf, raise the dead, and bear our sins, and that by his wounds we would be healed. The list goes on and on. Anyone wishing to look at the evidence cannot honestly deny that he is the promised Messiah and Lord. 

John 5 of course is not the only place where Jesus teaches on his divine nature and status as Messiah. Here are but some passages 

Jesus teaches that He is superior to the angels.

  • The angels are His servants and minister to Him (Mt 4:11 Mk 1:13; Lk 4:13).
  • The angels are His army (Mt 26:53).
  • The angels will accompany Him at His second coming and do His will (Mt 16:27; 25:31; Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26).

Jesus appropriates divine actions unto Himself and thus sets forth an assimilation unto the Lord God.

  • He declares that it was He who sent the prophets and doctors of the Law (Mt 23:34; Lk 11:49).
  • He gives the promise of His assistance and grace (Lk 21:15).
  • He forgives sins, which power belongs to God alone (e.g., Mt 9:2).
  • He, by His own authority, completes and changes some precepts of the Law (Mt 5:21ff).
  • He declares Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath (Mt 12:8; Mk 2:28; Lk 6:5; Jn 5:17).
  • Like the Heavenly Father, He makes a covenant with His followers (Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20).

Jesus makes divine demands upon his followers.

  • He rebukes some for lack of faith in Him (Mt 8:10-12; 15:28).
  • He rewards faith in Him (Mt 8:13; 9:2; 22:29; 15:28; Mk 10:52; Lk 7:50; 17:19).
  • He demands faith in His own person (Jn 14:1; 5:24; 6:40,47; 8:51; 11:25ff).
  • He teaches that rejection of Him and His teachings will be the standard of final judgement (Lk 9:26; Mt 11:6).
  • Jesus demands supreme Love for Him, which surpasses all earthly loves (Mt 10:37,39; Lk 17:33).
  • He accepts religious veneration by allowing the falling to the feet, a veneration due to God alone (Mt 15:25; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 28:9,17).

Jesus teaches that His own death will be an adequate atonement for the forgiveness of the sins of the whole human race (Mt 20:28; 26:28).

Jesus appropriates to Himself the office of Judge of the World, which according to the Old Testament (e.g., Ps 49:1-6), God would exercise (e.g., Mt 16:27). His judgment extends to every idle word (Mt 12:36), and will be final and executed immediately (Mt 25:46).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus indicates that

  • He is eternal “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58);
  • He has full knowledge of the Father (Jn 7:29; 8:55; 10:14ff);
  • He has equal power and efficacy with the Father (Jn 5:17);
  • He can forgive sins (Jn 8:11);
  • He is Judge of the World (Jn 5:22,27);
  • He is rightly to be adored (Jn 5:23);
  • He is the light of the world (Jn 8:12);
  • He is the way, the truth, and the light (Jn 14:6);
  • His disciples may and ought to pray to the Father in His name (Jn 14:13ff, 16:23ff);
  • His disciples may pray to Him (Jesus) (Jn 14:13ff, 16:23ff);
  • the solemn confession of the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” is acceptable and in fact an act of faith (Jn 20:28).

Jesus calls himself the Son of God.

  • Jesus first reveals Himself to be the Son of God in the temple, when He remarked to Mary and Joseph that He must be about His Father’s business (Lk 2:49).
  • Jesus claims to be both Messiah and Son of God in the presence of the Sanhedrin (Mk 14:62). The Sanhedrin perceive this as blasphemous.
  • Jesus tells a story of himself in the Parable of the vineyard and the evil tenants, thus confessing himself to be the only Son of God.
  • Jesus speaks of being one with the Father (“The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30,38). The Jews respond by accusing Him of blasphemy.

And many other passages could be listed.

Consider for a moment being a Jew of the First Century, deeply rooted in an understanding of monotheism (i.e. there is only One God) and hearing this sort of talk and these sorts of claims. Would you believe? Or scoff and even shout “blasphemy!”

In a certain sense it is a frightening question. But consider this too, Jesus did give evidence in abundance as to who he was and that his claims were true. In last Thursday’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that there are four things that made the unbelief of some inexcusable. It is combination of external evidence, testimony and internal testimony.

This video is from John 8, not the passage for Thursday. But here he speaks in greater depth about their resistance to the Father’s testimony.

On the Urgent Anger of Jesus. A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

In today’s Gospel we see an example of the anger of Jesus. In our Catholic and American experience we often see most anger as sinful. Further, many have remade Jesus into a friendly and harmless hippie. They screen out a large number of texts where Jesus, in the mode of the prophets, is urgent, demanding and even angry at the obtuseness, sloth and stubbornness so common to the human condition.  His is an urgency borne in love, and and anger meant to underscore the seriousness of of the choice before us, for against him and his Kingdom.

Jesus, of course, has sovereignty over his anger and expresses it to the perfect degree and always focused on the right and just object. This is not always the case with us. For most of us anger is an unruly passion and we do not always how and when to use it well.

Before looking at Jesus’ anger, lets look at our own experience and struggle with anger.

To begin with, some distinctions are in order.

  1. We ought first to distinguish between the internal experience or feeling of anger and the external manifestation of it.The internal experience of anger as a passionate response to some external stimulus is not sinful since we cannot usually and immediately control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals us that something is wrong, threatening or inappropriate as we understand or interpret the data. Sometimes our perceptions are incorrect but often they are not. Anger, in this sense, is not only sinless, but necessary as it alerts  us to the need to respond to something that is a threat or unjust and it gives us the energy to address it. It is a passion and an energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
  2. But it is possible that our anger can arise from less than holy reasons. Some of the things we fear, we should not fear. Some of our fears are rooted in pride, and an inordinate need for status and affirmation. Some of our fears come from misplaced priorities. For example we may be excessively concerned with money, property, popularity  or material things. And this concern triggers inordinate fears about things that should not matter so much. And this fear gives rise to feeling easily threatened at any loss or diminishment. This in turn triggers anger, since we sense that something is wrong or threatening. But we ought not be so concerned with such things since they are rooted in pride, vanity and materialism. In this case the anger may have a sinful dimension. rooted in the inordinate and sinful drives.
  3. Now external manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension when they are beyond what is reasonable. If I am experiencing anger there may be little or no sin in that. However if I express that anger by hurling insults, or physically attacking someone I may well have sinned by a sinful expression of my anger. However, it remains true that we live in thin-skinned times and people often take personal offense when they should not. We will see in a moment that Jesus did not often hesitate to describe his opponents’  in rather vivid ways.
  4. Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin.The Scriptures say, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4) So anger is not the sin. However, the object of anger or the expression of anger may become sinful.
  5. When is the external manifestation of anger an appropriate response?  Most simply put, anger is appropriate when its object is appropriate and reasonable.

For example, it is appropriate to experience anger when we see or experience injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. harnessed appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism. He elicited it,  and focused  its energy in productive ways. Notice that he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not to give the Civil Rights Protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to elicit a just anger on the part of many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist  injustice and effect change through non-violence. This sort of angry response was appropriate, reasonable and even holy. The tradition of non-violent resistance to injustice remains strong in those who protest abortion, and other sins, crimes and social injustices. It is the anger that motivates the desire to speak and the zeal to take action to rectify injustice.

Anger is also appropriate and even necessary in some forms of fraternal correction. To fail to manifest some level of anger may lead to the false conclusion that the offense in question is not really all that significant. For example if a child belts his brother in the mouth and knocks out a tooth a parent ought to manifest an appropriate amount of anger to make it very clear that this sort of behavior is intolerable. To gently correct a child in a smooth and dispassionate way with no inflection in the voice can lead to the impression that this really isn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. Again, note that the anger in question should be at a proper level, not excessive, and not too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.

Meekness– And this leads us to an important virtue, beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit which helps us to master anger: Meekness. In modern English, meekness has lost its original vigor and tends to signify a person who is a bit of a pushover and easily taken advantage of. But,  in its original meaning, meekness describes the vigorous virtue wherein one gains authority over their anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης) as the middle ground between being too angry, and not being angry enough. As we have noted, there is a place and a need for anger. The meek person has authority over their anger. They are able to summon its energy but control its extremes.  Hence the meek are far from weak. They are the string ones who have gained authority over their anger. St. John Chrysostom says in this regard: He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices. (Homily 11). St Thomas Aquinas says: Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason (II, IIae 158.8).

What of Jesus? One the one hand Jesus seems to have taught very strongly against anger:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:21-22)

On the face of it it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus broke his own rule for he exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus DOES clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful and hateful anger. Notice that he give two examples of the kind of anger he means. The first example is to use the term of contempt: Raca. This term is hard to translate so it is simply rendered in the Aramaic. Essentially what it means to do is to strip a person of any dignity and to regard them with utter contempt. The term fool; has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger her but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger would seem unreasonable given what we have said above and it would also call into question Jesus’ own example which includes not a little anger.

Most people are familiar with Jesus’ anger in the cleansing of the temple. But there are other places as well where he manifest not a little anger:

Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!”You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matt 23:29-33)

Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire!  He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?  He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God!” ( John 8:44-47)

Passages like these do not exhibit the “Mr Rogers” kind of Jesus common in the modern imagination. Jesus was no “Caspar Milquetoast.”  His vigorous anger is also on display in the video below.

What to make of Jesus’ angry displays?

  1. Not sinful – Clearly they are not sinful displays of anger since the scriptures assure us that Jesus never sinned (e.g. Heb 4:15).
  2. There may be an important cultural dimension to remember here. In the culture of the ancient Jews there seems to have been a wider acceptance of the expression of anger than in our own American setting. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was an expression more acceptable than our culture would usually permit. Turning over the tables etc. was a “prophetic action.” Prophets did things like this. In that culture it was more acceptable than perhaps in ours. But even we find a place for civil disobedience. We may not always like it, but we respect that it has a place in our culture.
  3. Yet Jesus clearly is angry. He is grieved at the hard heartedness of his opponents and his strong tone is an authoritative summons to repent. A lowered and lyrical voice might not convey the urgency of the situation. These are hardened men and there is a need for pointed and passionate denunciation. This is righteous anger.
  4. We ought to be careful before simply taking up Jesus angry tone for two reasons. First, he was able to see into their hearts and properly conclude as to the proper tactics necessary. We may not always be able to do this. Secondly, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone. It may be a less effective tactic in our setting and  prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.

But in the end, anger is not, ipso facto, sinful or wrong. It is sometimes the proper and necessary response. We do well to be careful with our anger, for it is an unruly passion. We ought to see above all the fruit of the Spirit which is meekness and ask to Lord to give us authority over our anger and a prudence as to its effective use.

I want, in future posts to explore more of this Gospel that I cover in my “live” homily” (see video below) and will do that later this week.

 This video shows Jesus’ anger:

And here is a video recording of my Homily:

The Message of the Letter to the Hebrews

Christ at the Last Supper – Duccio (1311)

This week in daily Mass, we are reading from The Letter to the Hebrews, one of the most underappreciated books of the New Testament. It has long been one of my favorites from which to teach; in it we are summoned to faith in Jesus, our Savior and Great High Priest.

The opening lines in the Latin Vulgate are exquisite, particularly to those who can read and recite Latin well.

Multifáriam, multísque modis, olim Deus lóquens pátribus in prophétis. Novíssime, diébus istis locútus est nobis in Fílio.
(In many and varied ways, God once spoke to our fathers through the prophets. In these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son.)

Though many doubt that St. Paul wrote Hebrews, I believe he did; it is here that we best see his priestly identity as an apostle, his deep knowledge of the Temple rituals and how they pointed to Christ and are perfected by Him.

The Letter to the Hebrews does not begin with the usual epistolary greetings and salutations, though it does end with them. Throughout, the text “sounds” more like a sermon. The audience of the letter is clearly Jewish Christians; the writer is exhorting them not to fall back on Jewish rituals, which cannot save, but rather to cling ever more closely to Christ, who alone is savior and Lord.

Hebrews was surely written before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. (References to the Temple speak of sacrifices as still going on there.) It occurs to me that the context of Hebrews is that of the years from 65-70 A.D., a time during which wars and rumors of wars were growing. Indeed, the tragic Jewish war began in 66 A.D. The Romans had had more than enough of Jewish Messianism and uprisings. It was a horrible, bloody war that cost the lives of more than one million Jews. During this period, Jewish nationalism was on the rise, likely even among those who had become Christians.

Politics has a strong pull, and it is in this context that the author addresses his audience. In effect, his position is that they should not return to what cannot save merely out of some sense of loyalty to a doomed nation. Jesus had prophesied the tragic destruction of Jerusalem in the Mount Olivet discourse recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13, and Luke 21). With the war clouds gathering, this was the time to cling to Him ever more!

What follows is a quick summary of the exhortation in the Letter to the Hebrews. (In most cases I have not cited chapter and verse below because I pulled from many parts at once.)

Jesus is Lord: Particularly in the first three chapters of Hebrews, the author reminds his audience of the glory of Christ.

Jesus Christ is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. Having provided purification for sins, He now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Christ is far superior to the angels, as the name He has inherited is excellent beyond theirs. To which of the angels did God ever say, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father,” or “I will be His Father, and He will be My Son”? When God brings His firstborn into the world, He says: “Let all God’s angels worship Him.”

Yes, God has subjected all things to Him, leaving nothing outside of His control. Christ is crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone, bringing many sons to glory. By His death Christ destroyed him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and freed those were held in slavery by the fear of death.

Jesus is the True High Priest: The author of the Letter to the Hebrews then goes on to describe how Jesus has a true priesthood, greater than that of the priests in the Temple.

Jesus has been counted worthy of greater glory than Moses. He is the great high priest who has passed through the heavens, entering the inner sanctuary behind the curtain. Jesus has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. Indeed, God the Father says of Jesus His Son, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood, why would there have been a need for another priest to appear, one in the order of Melchizedek and not in the order of Aaron?

Jesus is the Perfection that was Promised: The Letter to the Hebrews is essentially an exhortation not to leave the perfect to go back to the imperfect. The Temple and what takes place there is now no more than a movie set filled with actors playing their roles. Jesus is the true and perfect High Priest, who enters into the true and actual Holy of Holies. The Temple rituals merely point to what Jesus actually does:

Jesus is the true High Priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in Heaven and who ministers in the sanctuary and true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not man. He entered the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made by hands (that is, not of this creation).

Because every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, it was necessary for this One also to have something to offer. He did not enter by the blood of goats and calves, but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, thus securing eternal redemption. If the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that their bodies are clean, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, purify our consciences from works of death so that we may serve the living God?

Jesus has established the New Covenant in His Blood: The author exhorts his audience not to return to the Old Covenant from the New Covenant. To this he adds this warning:

By speaking of a new covenant, He has made the first one obsolete, and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear (Heb 8:13).

Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think one deserves to be punished who has trampled on the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant that sanctified Him, and insulted the Spirit of grace?

Do not throw away your confidence; it holds a great reward. You need to persevere, so that after you have done God’s will, you will receive what He has promised.

What is the meaning of this letter for us who read it so long after the Jewish war of 70 A.D? It is simply this:

We are easily mesmerized by politics and cultural movements, exhibiting more loyalty to them that to our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Distracted by modern ideas and urgencies, we forsake the message of Christ. We’ll salute Christ, but only if His message agrees with our views and priorities. The Letter to the Hebrews tell us not to give our heart to what cannot save, not to return to the obsessions of a worldly kingdom of darkness now that we have been summoned to the Kingdom of Light.

Jesus deserves your highest loyalty; He alone can save you. Put not your trust in princes and in mortal men in whom there is not help (Psalm 146:3-4). If we forsake Christ for something lesser, do we not treat lightly His blood, which sanctified us, and insult the spirit of grace? Are you worthy of Jesus Christ or are you just worthy of a political party or some popular ideologies of this passing world?

 

Who is the Thief? Exploring One of Jesus’ More Provocative Images


One of the more interesting and surprising images the Lord used for Himself was “thief.” There is a reference to this in the first reading for this Wednesday of the 29th week of the year. I’ll comment more on that passage in a moment, but first here are some other texts in which He used this imagery:

  • But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:33; Lk 12:39).
  • Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (Rev 3:3).
  • “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed” (Rev 16:15).

St. Peter also used the image of a thief, but perhaps out of reverence for Christ, applied it more to the Day of Judgment.

  • But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10).

In today’s first reading, which we will discuss in more detail, St. Paul used a similar image.

  • Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:1-4; 8-9).

It is provocative and even shocking that Lord would compare Himself to a thief. Let’s consider some of the implications.

1. By this image the Lord turns the tables. Thievery suggests unjust possession. In this sense, the Lord is clearly not a thief; He is using a simile. He says that He is like a thief, not that He is a thief. Indeed, how can the owner of all things unjustly possess what is already His?

The impact and indictment of the reference is on us, not on the Lord. That He would seem to any of us to be like a thief is indicative of our injustice, not His. Too easily we forget that the things we call our own are God’s and God’s alone. We are stewards, not owners. When the Lord comes to take what is rightfully His—and has always been—we should be grateful to hand it back with interest (see the Parable of the Talents). To those who have forgotten that they are mere stewards, the Lord will seem to come to steal from them. They will see His coming as threatening because He will put an end to their schemes and worldly wealth.

Because they wrongly see these things as theirs, they will see Him as a thief—or worse, a robber. In the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 21:30ff) the Lord says that they will beat His prophets and even kill His Son. The injustice and crime is theirs. God cannot steal what He already owns. The vineyard was His and He rightly sought His portion. Murderously, they sought to withhold what they thought was theirs but in fact was not.

The Lord’s ways are justice and truth. God will take back all that is His. We will pay for what we have stolen through greed, injustice, selfishness, lust, and gluttony. To some who forget that He is the true owner of the vineyard, He may appear to be like a thief, but it is really we who are thieves. We will cry “Thief!” but the Lord will simply reply, “You are the man; it is you who have said it” (see 2 Sam 12:7; Matt 26:64).

2. By this image the Lord speaks to the hidden quality of His presence to some. In using the image of a thief (Κλέπτης (kleptes) in Greek) the Lord speaks of a stealthy, hidden presence. Thieves do their work in hiding or when we are unaware. A robber, on the other hand, confronts you, taking what he wants with violence while you can only watch helplessly.

The word thief here is indicative of the Lord’s hidden presence. The Lord is not a thief, but He seems like one to those who are forgetful of His presence. Don’t fool yourself, thinking that He is not in the house of your life; He sees and knows everything.

3. By this image the Lord puts to the lie the illusion of our own hiddenness. Thieves work in hiding. Many people who sin and misuse what the Lord owns often forget that to God, nothing is hidden. Thus they meet the definition of a thief because they attempt to take or misuse secretly what is not theirs to begin with.

God may seem hidden and distant, but He is not. He sees everything, knows everything, and is reckoning everything. Every “hidden” deed of ours is written in the book. An ancient hymn says,

Lo the Book exactly worded
Wherein all has been recorded
Thence shall judgment be awarded.

When the Judge his seat attaineth
And each hidden deed arraigneth
Nothing unavenged remaineth (Dies Irae).

God is watching and He is closer to you than you are to yourself.

4. By this image the Lord exhorts us to remember and to be ready. A recent break-in at my rectory motivated me and the staff to become more careful and vigilant. But why should the loss of passing goods cause us more concern than the certain arrival of the Lord, the true owner of all things? Although He may seem to come like a thief, He is not a thief. The real questions I should be asking myself are these: Am I a thief? Have I used what God owns in ways that are against His will or that displease Him? If so, He will come when I least expect it and take what I wrongfully think is mine. I may think Him a thief, but He is not. As true owner, He cannot unjustly possess what is already His.

We had better think about this now because the Lord is already in the house and His presence will be disclosed at any moment. Are you ready? Are you watching? Be vigilant. The Judge stands at the gate, but He has the key, not you.

Is He a thief? No. Are you a thief? Am I?

Epilogue: There came a moment in Jesus’ life when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and Judas, who was a thief (see John 12:6), led a band of brigands to arrest Him. Stepping forward, Jesus turned the tables on them and said, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mk 14:48) Yes, He turned the tables on them and on the temple leaders who sponsored them. They saw Jesus as a usurper, as one who came to steal their priesthood and leadership. He was no thief, no robber. He was the great High Priest, the One who came to fulfill everything that they were supposed to be preaching. It was they who sought to kill him and unjustly possess the vineyard for themselves. To thieves, robbers, and murderers, Jesus was like a thief, but He was not. They were thieves—and even worse, robbers and murderers.

When Jesus says that He may be coming like a thief, be careful; He may be holding up a mirror to you!

On Restoring a Truer Vision of the Biblical Jesus

When I was a teenager in the 1970s Jesus was presented in less than flattering terms, at least from my standpoint as a young man at that time. The paintings and statues of that day presented Jesus as a rather thin, willow-wisp of a man, a sort of friendly hippie who went about blessing poor people and healing the sick. It is true he did that but usually left out of the portraits was the Jesus who summoned people to obedience and an uncompromising discipleship, the Jesus who powerfully rebuked his foes.

1970s Jesus was “nice,” and I should be nice too. In my 1970s Church we had no crucifix. Rather there was a cross and a rather slender and starry eyed Jesus sort of floated there in front of the Cross. The cross, it would seem, was all too much for a kinder gentler Jesus. The cross was, how shall we say…., so “unpleasant.”

Somehow, even as a teenager, I craved a stronger, manly Jesus. My heroes then were Clint Eastwood and I loved John Wayne movies which my father called to my attention. Now those were men. (I know these movies were often about revenge, but I’d learn about that later).

The “Jesus” I was presented with seemed soft and unimpressive compared to them and, teenager that I was, I was unmoved. Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? The basic message of Jesus 1970 was “be nice” but 1970s Catholicism (which Bishop Robert Barron calls “beige Catholicism”) stripped away the clarion call of repentance and trumpet-like command that we take up our cross, that we lose our life in order to save it.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually began to study the real Jesus, the one in Scriptures. He was nothing like the thin little williow-wisp of a man I had been taught. He was a vigorous leader, a man among men. Someone who was formidable and commanding of respect. Someone I could look up to.

What follows is a portrait of Jesus Christ that I culled from a few sources and adapted. I wish I could remember the sources to credit them here, but it was over twenty years ago in seminary that, from some dusty old books written long before the 1970s, I culled this portrait on the human stature of Christ. Note that the focus here is on the humanity of Christ. It presupposes his divine nature but focuses on the human nature and, as you will see draws most of its material straight from the Scriptures. As You can see the description is longish. In case you would rather print and read it later I have put it in PDF here: On the Human Stature of Christ

The exterior appearance of Jesus seems to have been a handsome one. A woman in the crowd broke out into praise of him with the words, Blessed in the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that nursed Thee. His response to her Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep itseems to suggest that she had bodily excellencies in mind as well as spiritual. The powerful impression which Jesus made on ordinary people certainly owed something to his attractive exterior which by its charm drew everyone to him and held them.

Even if this was due primarily to his spiritual and religious power, still, his eyes, with their burning, waking, reproving looks must have been especially striking. For example see how Mark remarks of the eyes of the Lord in the following passages: 3:5,34; 5:32; 8:33; 10:21; 23:27.

We also may cull from Scripture an impression of health, power, energy and well being in Jesus. Jesus seems to have been a thoroughly healthy man, not prone to fatigue and with a great capacity for work. We never hear that Jesus was visited by any sickness. A proof of his physical endurance is born out in Scripture. He was in the habit of rising very early (Mark 1:35). The hills and the lake were especially dear to him and after a long day he loved to climb some lonely height, or late in the evening get himself taken out on to the shimmering water of Lake Gennesareth and stayed out far into the night (cf Mk 4:35; 6:35). We also know that his public life was one of wandering through the mountain valleys of his homeland, from Galilee to Samaria and Judaea and even as far as to the district of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21). Despite these arduous journeys he counseled that one should travel light, bringing nothing for the journey, neither staff, money, nor bread, neither have two coats (Luke 9:3). Hunger and thirst must therefore have frequently accompanied him.

His last journey from Jericho up to Jerusalem was an astounding feat. Under a burning sun through a desolate, rocky waste he climbed some 3500 feet in a six hour climb. Despite this, he seems not tired, since that night he takes part in a feast at the house of Lazarus and his sisters (John 12:2). By far, the greater part of Jesus’ public ministry was spent out in the open, exposed to rigors of climate, in a life filled with labor and toil, with often little time eat (Mk 3:20; Mk 6:31). He owned no home and “had nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20) Hence he likely spent more than a few nights sleeping out in the elements. Only a sound body of physical stamina could have endured such as this.

And now to his mental stature itself. He faced many malevolent enemies among the Pharisees and Sadducees and dealt with them effectively, reducing them to silence (so much so that they began to plot his death). In addition there were tiring explanations to be offered to disciples who were often slow to learn. His self assurance is manifest. In the midst of a raging storm he went on peacefully sleeping till his disciples woke him. He immediately grasps the situation and rebukes the storm.

There was tremendous clarity in his thought. He had an absolute grasp of His goal which gave him an inflexibility and finality (in the good sense) of his will. Jesus knows what he wills and determinedly pursues it. This is evident even at twelve years of age in the temple.

The three temptations in the desert are turned back forcefully by the Lord. He is never deterred by opposition. There is opposition among the kindred of his own town, among his followers (cf esp. John 6:57) and even among the Apostles (cf esp. Matt 16:22). Here we have a man of clear will. He demands the same determination and certainty from his followers. No man, putting his hand to the plough and turning back is fit for the reign of God.” (Luke 9:62)

He bore so clearly the marks of the true, the upright, and the strong, that even his enemies had to declare when they came to him, Master, we know that thou art a true speaker and care not for the opinion of any man. (Mk 12:14) He shows forth a unity and purity and transcendence that reflect his interior life of union with the Father. His loyalty to the will of his Father is unwavering and clear even though it leads directly to the Cross. Jesus in every way is a heroic and epic figure in the purest sense of that word staking his life for a known truth and demanding the same of his followers.

Jesus was a born leader. When he calls his apostles, they immediately arise to follow after him. (cf esp Mk 1:16; 1:20) Again and again the Apostles note how they wondered among themselves about the marvels of his actions and even how these struck terror into them (cf esp. Mk 9:5; 6:51; 4:40; 10:24,26). At times they did not dare question him any further (Mk 9:3). The same wonderment affected the crowds.(cf Mk 5:15,33,42; 9:14). He spoke with towering authority and the people sought the loftiest images to in wondering who he could be. Is he John the Baptist? Elijah? Jeremiah or one prophets? (Matt 16:14) His spiritual power and authority discharged themselves in stern language and bold action when the powers of evil arrayed themselves against him. Demons trembled against his awesome power (Matt 4:10.) He also rebukes strongly the evil that is in men and warns them that they will not be worthy of him if they do not repent (Matt 13:41sq; 13:49sq; 25:1sq; 14sq; 33sq; 18:34; 22:7; 22:11sq.).

He is absolutely clear and unflinching in dealing with the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23:14,24,25). As shown above, he knows himself to be the Messiah and is anything but a fair-weather Messiah but follows the model of the prophets rebuking all enemies of the truth He proclaims. He speaks of hypocrites, serpents and generations of vipers and liars (cf Matt 23:33). He calls Herod a fox (Lk 13:32). Although he was never one to tread lightly, he never forgets himself or loses control. His anger is always the expression of supreme moral freedom declaring, for this I came into the World, that I should give testimony to the truth (John 18:37). Because He was so consistently true to His Father’s will his life was only “Yes and No” and he reacted with great severity against anything that was ungodly or hateful to God. He was ready to stake his own life for the truth and die for it.

To describe Jesus psychologically would be to describe his as a man of purposeful virility, absolute genuineness, austere uprightness, and heroic in performance. He knows the truth, knows himself and, with exact clarity, executes his mission.

I realize that people are pretty particular in how they envisage Jesus. I also think men and women have a very different starting point too. Please remember that I am not pontificating here, I am starting a conversation. So have at it!

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.

I Did Not Know Him. A Meditation on a Saying By St. John the Baptist

In Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29ff), John the Baptist speaks of Jesus, calling Him superior, pre-existent, and anointed by the Holy Spirit. What also stands out is that John twice says, “I did not know Him.” This seems odd given that they were cousins. While it is possible that the text merely means they were not well acquainted, there is likely a deeper explanation. It is as if John is saying, “I knew him, but I never reallyknew Him. I never reallysaw until now the full depths of Him. I did not fully realize His glory until God showed me.”

That John missed seeing these deeper realities is understandable, as the Lord hid these qualities to some extent.In Philippians we read,

[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to cling to; rather, he emptied himself by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he thus humbled himself becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father(Phil 2:6-11).

Jesus, though eternally God, cloaked His glory;He allowed Himself to be seen by most as a mere man. Such is the humility of our Lord!

John is now permitted to see more,and he beholds something of the glory of Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. This is why he cries out, “I did not know him.” We must make a similar journey to the Lord, allowing our faith and understanding of Him to deepen. Is this merely Jesus, the ethical teacher from Nazareth? No, He is far more; He is the Lord! This is our journey with and to the Lord.

Even with one another, there may come a day when we feel compelled to say of someone we have known, “I did not know him.”There are times we see into the depths of a person we thought we knew well only to discover something more (whether good or bad), something surprising.

Sometimes we are surprised in a negative way, such as when someone we thought we knew well does something shocking and sinful. I choose not to dwell on that here. Most of us have had such times when were surprised, were shocked, or even felt betrayed, wondering if we ever really knew the person at all.

In a more positive sense,we ought to presume that there are depths to a person that we do not see or understand. Each of us has some unique glory, some particular gift or role in God’s kingdom, and too often we fail to remember this.

I had such a moment when my sister Mary Anne died.She had been mentally ill all her life, tortured by paranoid schizophrenia and dark voices in her head. Frankly, she frightened me; at other times she annoyed me. When she was taking her medications, she was nearly normal, even if a bit exotic in her thoughts. She loved God; she prayed and dreamed of a normal life with marriage and children. But I never really knew how to interact with her, so I often avoided her.

In 1991 Mary Anne died in a fire,and because her skin had been singed the funeral directors could not adjust her face. Hence, they recommended only a private viewing, with a closed casket for the remainder of the time. At the private viewing I could tell that she had died weeping. I saw her pain as I had never seen it before. It pierced me through, and I wept. I wondered if I had ever really known her, if I had ever really understood her pain and her dignity. I was sad that it took her death for me to understand the depths of her struggle and to recognize her dignity and future glory. The Lord says that many who are last will be first (Mat 19:30).

Many of us never really know the pains and sorrows others have endured. There’s an old spiritual with these lyrics: “Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.”

Yes, some of the troubled and “troublesome” people we encounter have sorrows and difficulties that are hidden from us.Most are troubled for a reason. Remembering this may not excuse bad behavior,but it surely helps us be more compassionate and patient.

Most of us fail to appreciate the glory of others.Each person we encounter has a mystery and glory that is caught up into the very love of God. God knew each one of us before we were born (Jer 1:5). He knit us together in our mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and every one of our days was written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). This is true even of our enemies.

Often, we fail to recognize the deep mystery of every human person and to reverence it.St. John the Baptist’s declaration “I did not know Him” reminds us all to be careful toward one another and reverential toward the hidden mystery of all God’s children.

In Heaven there is something called the “communion of saints.”Experiencing this will not merely be like being in a crowd of strangers. Rather, we shall see one another more deeply than we can now imagine. We will see each other in the light of God, knowing one another and ourselves more the way He does. There will be understanding, appreciation, and mutual respect that we can’t even fathom now.

God gave St. John the Baptist insight into the glory of Christ, a glory that was preeminent and divine such that he could say, “I did not know Him.”May God grant us insight into the lesser—though still wonderful—glory in one another. We will never fully know one another here in this world, but may our “I did not know him” be replaced by reverence before the mystery of the human person.