One of the most powerful things Jesus said from the Cross was, “Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” It is beautiful in its graciousness and loving in its leniency.
But it is also enigmatic. Did they not in fact, know exactly what they were doing? They had been plotting for several years to set up Jesus and trap him. They infiltrated his ranks and found a betrayer. They held a mock trial full of false and contradictory testimony and references to his teaching that were completely out of context (Mk 14:53). Even Pilate marveled at their obsession and rush to execute a seemingly harmless and unpretentious Galilean who spoke of a kingdom, “not of this world.” They jeered at him from beneath the Cross and walked away self-righteously to prepare the Sabbath which was a solemn one that year (Jn 19:31). Yes, it seems they knew exactly what they were doing.
And further, there is no evidence that they sought forgiveness. They were proud of what they had done and would continue to persecute the early Christians with the same bloody resolve.
“Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” An extravagant mercy to be sure but also a puzzling one that seems to jettison the accountability of which Jesus often spoke; that we would be accountable even for every idle word (Mat 12:36).
St Aelred provides a loving, even daring reading of the Lord’s forgiveness which we read in the Breviary last Friday:
It was not enough to pray for them: he wanted also to make excuses for them. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. They are great sinners, yes, but they have little judgment; therefore, Father, forgive them. They are nailing me to the cross, but they do not know who it is that they are nailing to the cross: if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; therefore, Father, forgive them. They think it is a lawbreaker, an impostor claiming to be God, a seducer of the people. I have hidden my face from them, and they do not recognize my glory; therefore, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (From the Mirror of Love by Saint Aelred, abbot; Lib 3, 5: PL 195, 382).
This passage does two things. First it is a beautiful interpretation of the Lord’s merciful prayer. Second, it helps contextualize the Lord’s extension of mercy and not over-apply its meaning to every sinner everywhere. They are to be spared the sin of deicide (the killing of God), but they are not being given a blank check for all their sins. Such a stance would rob the human person of his freedom and dignity, in effect assuming that people are just too stupid to go to hell or be responsible for what they do. It would also force a kind of general absolution on people even when they did not seek or want it. Most of us have some occasions of invincible ignorance (an ignorance of the facts that is hard to overcome), but most of us also know exactly what we are doing in most cases. Of such things we will be accountable if we do not first seek the Lord’s mercy. Many sins we also commit in weakness not in malice. But weakness is not powerlessness. And hence, here too, we must seek mercy and strive to grow in strength.
God’s mercy is precious. But repentance is the key that unlocks its floodgates. May Lent continue to be a time that we acknowledge our need for God’s mercy and seek it constantly.
We are beginning to read from the Book of Job in daily Mass. One of its core issues is the problem of suffering and why God allows it. If God is omnipotent and omniscient then how can He tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where is God when a woman is raped, when genocide is committed, or when evil men hatch their plots? Why did God even conceive the evil ones and let them be born?
The problem of evil cannot be answered simply; it is a mystery. Its purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. Scripture says that “all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes” (Rom 8:28). But how this is often difficult for us to see. Anyone who has ever suffered a tragic and senseless loss or has observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask why. And the answers aren’t all that satisfying to many.
As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers but few are forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind, questioning Job’s ability to even ask the right questions. In the end, though, He is God and we are not. This must be enough for us and we must look with trust to the reward that awaits the faithful.
One of the most perplexing aspects of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America as a whole, there is much less suffering than in many other parts of the world. And even here, some go through life strong, wealthy, and well-fed while others suffer crippling disease, sudden losses, financial setbacks, and burdens. And while a lot of our suffering comes from our own poor choices and/or lack of self-control, some of it seems unrelated. The most difficult suffering to accept is that inflicted on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no ill effects: parents who mistreat or neglect their children, those who exploit the poor or unsuspecting for their own gain exploited, etc.
Suffering is hard to explain simply or to merely accept. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. When interacting with those who are deeply disturbed by the problem of evil, a healthy dose of sympathy, understanding, and a call to humility will be more fruitful than forceful rebuttal.
A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. (Note that these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery) and they are humble for they admit of their own limits.)
The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Although we only get a brief glimpse of the Garden of Eden, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of it and that Adam and Eve caused their entry, despite being warned that this would be the result of eating from the forbidden tree.
Even in Eden the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So even in paradise the mystery of evil lurked.
In a way, the tree and the serpent had to be there. We were made to love; love requires freedom; and freedom requires choice. The yes of love must permit of the no of sin. In our rebellious no both we and the world unraveled, ushering in death and chaos. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this fact came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth, the vast majority of it by my reckoning. The suffering caused by natural phenomena is also linked to sin—Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation rather than to serve in the real paradise.
The link between human freedom and evil/suffering also explains God’s usual non-intervention in evil matters. To do so routinely would make an abstraction of human freedom and thus remove a central pillar of love. But there is mystery here, too, for the Scriptures frequently recount how God did intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, and to shorten famines and plagues. Why does He sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here, too, there is a mystery of providence.
The lengthiest Biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job. There, God shows an almost shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and sets a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit to test Job’s faith and strengthen it. In the end Job is restored and re-established with even greater blessings; it is a kind of foretaste of what is meant by Heaven.
The First Letter of Peter also explains suffering in this way: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7). In other words, our sufferings purify us and prepare us to meet God.
Does this mean that those who suffer more are in need of more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that greater glory is awaiting them. The Scriptures teach, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:16-17). Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. Those who suffer more, but endure it with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering it will be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal when many who are last shall be first (Mat 20:16), when the mighty will be cast down and the lowly exalted, when the rich will go away empty and poor be filled (Luke 1:52-53). In this sense, it is not necessarily a blessing to be rich and well-fed, unaccustomed to suffering. The only chance the rich and well-heeled have to avoid this is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim 6:17-18).
As to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering, we can only point to Christ, who did not exempt Himself from the suffering we caused by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.
I’m sure you can add to these points. Be careful with the problem of evil and suffering; there are mysterious dimensions that must be respected. The best approach in talking to others may be with an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with it. The “answer” of Scripture requires faith, but the answer appeals to reason. Justice calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we can see only a little. The appeal to humility in the face of a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist than would “pat” answers, which could alienate them.
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.
Continuing this small series on the decline of culture, a word from the Prophet Amos in today’s reading (Thursday of the 13th week of the year) paints a brief picture of what happens when we a nation demand that the Word of God be banished from it hearing. The picture is not complete and may need a bit of adjustment to fit our times but the basic parameters are clear. Let’s look at an excerpt from the reading and seek to apply it.
Amos has been ordered by the Amaziah, priest at Bethel to be silent and go away. This may seem astonishing coming from the High Priest at shrine of Bethel, but many of the religious leaders were corrupted and tied to political leaders more than to the Lord. Hence, Amaziah silences Amos with the authority of Jeroboam, King of Israel. Amos replies:
You say: prophesy not against Israel, preach not against the house of Isaac. Now thus says the LORD: Your wife shall be made a harlot in the city, and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword; Your land shall be divided by measuring line, and you yourself shall die in an unclean land; Israel shall be exiled far from its land. (Amos 7:15-17)
In effect Amos says, “Fine, you will soon discover the cost of banishing the Word of God from your midst; great disasters will befall you.” All these things and more befell Israel when the Assyrians conquered them in 721 BC. Banishing God’s word left Israel without the warnings and the strength that comes from knowledge of and respect for God’s Words. As such they grew weak, for when the faith is not strong neither is the family and close-knit kinships that make for a strong and united nation. When human relationships are beset with injustice and sin, divisions increase and become bitter.
In our own time the Word of God and religious influence have also, in increasing stages been banished. Prayer is banished from schools and many public events. Nativity sets and other reminders of the faith such as crosses are more difficult to display. In many newer towns it is difficult to get zoning that permits the building of churches in prominent locations. And, in large numbers most Americans seldom if ever go to church any more. There is a bland secularism where God and the faith are seldom on many peoples’ minds. There is also a militant secularism that strongly opposes any religious influence. This too is having many negative effects, some of which have been detailed in my previous columns from this week. But for today, Let’s take Amos’ list and adapt it to our own times.
Your wife shall be made a harlot in the city – It was common in ancient warfare to kill at great number of men but allow the women and girls to live. What Amos likely meant was that many women, destitute and without husbands, fathers or sons, would be reduced to the cruel of fate of prostitution to survive or be used as sex slaves. In our own time we do of course observe that sex trafficking (another name for sexual slavery) has very sadly resurfaced to serve the sex industry: pornographers and pimps, all those who sexually exploit vulnerable women and children. It is a grave sin! But in a wider sense in our culture we also observe that many people “play the harlot” through widespread sexual promiscuity. As the word of God is increasingly banished from our culture, men and women engage in many forms of illicit sexual activity from pornography, fornication, adultery, homosexual acts and cohabitation. While these things were not unknown in more religious times, they were considered shameful and sinful. But in these times of a secular and non-biblical worldview, these sins are widely approved of and even celebrated. Hence vast numbers in our culture play the harlot and even vaster numbers approve and celebrate this.
and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword– As always it is children who most pay the price for adult misbehavior. Since 1973 in the US alone, more than 50 million children were aborted. They literally fell by the sword and other deadly means. 85% of abortions are performed on single women which causally links most abortions to fornication and unchastity. A vast number of other children fall by a more figurative swords as they are subject to the seemingly endless suffering wrought on them by adult sexual confusion and misbehavior: single-motherhood, absent fathers, higher poverty rates, divorce and all the frustration and confusion it causes them (with daddy this weekend, mom next weekend) and dubious experiments of “gay” adoption. Every child deserves to have a married father and mother stably present in their lives manifesting the masculine and feminine genius of being human. Today, less than half of children experience this, and it becomes like a sword that cuts them to the heart. Add to this, early exposure to pornography many of them face and the heavy promotion of contraception, homosexual acts and transgenderism foisted on them even in very early years of the government school system. It is no wonder so many of them fall by swords of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, sexual objectification, sexual abuse, loneliness and an ever-deepening sexual confusion that could not even be imagined just ten years ago. God’s Word provides clarity on the selfishness and sinfulness of sexual misbehavior. But we have collectively banished this Word from our culture and some even call Scripture hateful and outdated. Having sown the wind, we are now reaping the whirlwind.
Your land shall be divided by measuring line– A “measuring line” is a biblical expression that usually refers to a just judgment that comes upon a person or nation; good results for just behavior, bad results for sinful behavior. The people of Amos time came up short; and so have we. Our land today is a crisis of division that threatens our very existence as a country. Not since 1861 have our political divisions been so deep. It is not at all a remote idea that certain regions and states in the U.S. will begin a secessionist movement. In an earlier column this week I traced the tyranny of relativism and how it has intensified our divisions and made reasoned discussions nearly impossible. In this climate, the “winner” of a debate is the one who yells the loudest, or has the greater power, or publicity. Our culture has become fierce and contentious and both social and regular media help to further overheat it. Many of the very ones who speak of tolerance end up being the very one who use raw judicial power to get their way and demand that we will either comply with their agenda or face increasingly punitive measures. Our divisions are very deep in this country now, so deep as to reach the boiling point. As we discussed in a previous column this week, the biblical worldview used to provide a general framework for consensus. But having jettisoned that, deep tyrannical divisions are now emerging. Our land has been measured and found wanting, yes we are lacking the Word of God.
and you yourself shall die in an unclean land; Israel shall be exiled far from its land – While actual exile for most of us is unlikely just now, we do increasingly experience an alienation from this Land. Most of us who are older, barely recognize the America we once knew, especially as regards family life and free speech. That America was flawed, to be sure, but still functional and with a central vision and dream, the “American dream.” That America was confident, perhaps to a fault, and we admired our founding principles even if we lived them imperfectly. We were also a very religious country and the land of the free and the home of the brave, and the biblical framework helped us to mend or worst flaws. The abolitionists and the Civil Rights leaders emerged from the churches. That America is hard to find now and it is hard not to feel like an exile in a foreign land at times. But God has left the building and collectively we showed him the door.
Yes, life gets pretty miserable without God and when we banish his Word from our midst. Amos says it plain.
Last Sunday’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus points to a supreme irony in the Gospel of John: Jesus’ very act of raising Lazarus from the dead confirms the Jewish temple leaders in their conviction to kill Him. The contrast could not be clearer. Jesus, who brings life, is opposed by the death-dealing conviction of His opponents. This is but one example of Johannine irony serving to highlight the differences between Jesus and His opponents.
As we approach Holy Week we encounter a lot of contrasts and ironies in John’s Gospel account of the Passion. We do well to look at some of them.
Irony is a literary technique that highlights a striking difference between two or more situations; this difference is known by the audience or readers while the characters in the narrative are unaware.
Another form of irony uses words to express something quite different from their typical meaning. A blind man may “see” better than those with vision. One considered a teacher may be ignorant of truths apparent to the most unlearned and simple of people.
The irony in the story of Lazarus comes several verses after the portion we read this past Sunday. The pertinent passage reads,
Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas did not say this on his own. Instead, as high priest that year, he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to gather them together into one. So from that day on they plotted to kill Him. As a result, Jesus no longer went about publicly among the Jews, but He withdrew to a town called Ephraim in an area near the wilderness. And He stayed there with the disciples (John 11:45-54).
Yes, this passage is dripping with irony. The occasion of Jesus raising a man from the dead causes the Pharisees to plot His death. He who gives life must be put to death.
A second irony is that Caiaphas “accidentally” speaks the truth. He conspires in murder, but his office of prophet remains! He cannot help but speak the truth because he is High Priest. His prophecy is true, but only in a way very different from what he intends. He is like Balaam’s donkey, which spoke the truth, but as a beast, knew not of what it spoke. Thus Caiaphas is a prophet, but only in an accidental, unknowing way.
Yes, John’s Gospel is rich with irony—in a gleeful, sharp, sarcastic way. We human beings are prone to becoming fodder for irony because we are so fickly and inconsistent; we often play into divine plans even as we resist them!
Consider some other examples of Johannine irony:
I. Straining gnats and swallowing camels – Jesus has been brought before Pilate on trumped up charges. Yes, they have an innocent man on trial and conspire to have him murdered. Yet despite this wickedness, John reports, the Jewish leaders did not enter the Praetorium [the Governor’s palace] to avoid being defiled and unable to eat the Passover (Jn 18:28).
They are more concerned with the ritual impurity of entering the house of a Gentile than the fact that they are conspiring to murder an innocent man (who happens to be the Son of God)!
Yes, this is dripping with irony, a kind of sarcastic and tragic irony. In their foolishness and blindness, they will consider themselves worthy to eat the Passover because they did not enter the house of a Gentile. Never mind that they have conspired to murder an innocent man.
II. Who is really blind here? – In the story of the man born blind (John 9) there are numerous ironies. The blind man himself says to the Pharisees who interrogate him, That is remarkable indeed!You do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes (Jn 9:30). In other words, who is really the blind one here? Why should the student have to teach the teacher?
The blind man (who ironically can now see better than the supposed teachers and enlightened ones) instructs them of what they should know: Never before has anyone heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, He could not do anything like this (Jn 9:32-33).
Jesus later doubles down on the irony by declaring, within earshot of the religious leaders, For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind (Jn 9:39). They then continue, foolishly and blindly, to take the bait: Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, “Are we blind too?” “If you were blind,” Jesus replied, “you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (Jn 9:40-41).
The caustic irony cannot be missed. The rhetorical question remains, “Who is really blind here?”
III. The “enlightened” ones stumble about in the dark – One of the themes in John’s Gospel is the battle between light and darkness. This theme is announced in the prologue: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5). Jesus is the Light of the World, but men have shown that they prefer the darkness due to their wickedness (See John 3:19).
Jesus also says,Are there not twelve hours of daylight? If anyone walks in the daytime, he will not stumble, because he sees by the light of this world. But if anyone walks at night, he will stumble, because he has no light (Jn 11:9).
When Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John merely says, “It was night.” He is not just telling us the time of day. Darkness now has its hour. Although Judas and his conspirators consider Jesus misguided and dangerous, they think that they are the enlightened ones, knowing better than Jesus, who is the true Light.
Here comes the irony: Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane. He and His apostles made it there by the light of Passover moon and because Jesus is the light of the World. In a scene dripping with irony, John notes that as Judas approached the moonlit garden he brought a band of soldiers and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees. They arrived at the garden carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons (John 18:3). Yes, they stumble about on a moonlit night needing torches and lanterns to find their way.
IV. The arresters are arrested – Jesus, knowing their intentions and noting that they have trouble seeing, stepped forward and asked them, “Who are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered. Jesus said, “I AM.” And Judas His betrayer was standing there with them. When Jesus said, “I AM” they drew back and fell to the ground (Jn 18:4-6).
This is a kind of comedic irony. Sent to arrest Jesus, they are arrested by Him! The implication is that He almost needs to help them up from their fall. They are so overwhelmed by the authority of Jesus and His Divine Name that they fall backwards to the ground.
Some argue that their falling to the ground is a voluntary sign of reverence for the Divine Name. Maybe, but if so, then this is merely another supreme irony: that they would show reverence for the Divine Name while at the same time assisting in an act of betrayal and in the arresting of an innocent man.
V. The decider is indecisive – The description of the trial before Pilate in John’s Gospel is an ironic portrait of Pilate. Though possessed of great local power and the ability to decide Jesus’ fate in a way that will be unquestioned, Pilate is weak and vacillating. He is this way because of his ambition. He fears the crowd and their capacity to riot. Such an occurrence would be a huge blot on his record and likely prevent his future advancement.
Deep within his conscience, Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges. He correctly suspects that the Jewish leadership has brought Him up for unjust reasons and are serving their own interests more so than justice or religious conviction.
In chapters 18 and 19, John paints a physical picture of Pilate’s vacillation by describing his going in and out of the Praetorium (Governor’s palace) numerous times. In 18:28, Pilate goes out to address the Jews. In 18:33 He goes back into the Praetorium to speak with Jesus. In 18:38, Pilate goes back out to the Jews to say that he finds no guilt and tries to negotiate Jesus’ release. In 19:1, Pilate is back in the Praetorium and yet another compromise indicates that Jesus should be scourged but not killed. In 19:4, Pilate goes back out to the Jews hoping that the scourging of Jesus will have satisfied them. Though he said he had found no guilt in Jesus, he presents Him again after His scourging! Why have Jesus scourged (a terrible punishment) if he found no guilt in Him? Of course the Jewish leaders were still not satisfied and demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s fears grow and in 19:9 he goes back into the Praetorium to speak yet again with Jesus. Although Pilate asserts that he has the power to kill or release Him, Jesus looks at this deflated and fearful man and reminds him that he would have no power at all if God had not bestowed it on him. Finally, Pilate emerges one last time in 19:13 and in anger violates his own conscience and hands Jesus over to be crucified.
The dramatic irony is hard to miss. Here is a seemingly powerful man with the office to decide life or death, yet indecisive. He is a vacillator, swaying in the breeze of public opinion. On seven different occasions he goes into or out of the Praetorium. John’s portrait of this leader is dripping with irony. Pilate is more a follower than a leader.
VI. The judge is put on trial – John describes another irony within this irony. Although Jesus is on trial, at a key point He turns the tables on Pilate and it is Pilate who is on trial.
Usually in a trial the defendant is required to answer questions. Pilate begins by asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn 18:33) Jesus turns the tables on Pilate and asks him, “Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?” (Jn 18:34) Later, when Pilate asserts his authority to pass sentence on Jesus, Jesus reminds him that he would have no authority if God had not granted it to him.
Finally, when the critical moment to pass judgment comes, John writes,When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (Jon 19:13). The Greek text is ambiguous as to who is sitting on the judge’s seat. Does the “he” who sat down on the judge’s seat refer to Pilate or to Jesus? Historically, it was Pilate who sat in the judge’s seat, but grammatically it is ambiguous.
John underscores the irony: Who is really being judged here? Clearly it is actually Pilate who has come under judgment for violating his conscience and succumbing to fear. Yes, it is another dramatic irony wrapped in a grammatical ambiguity.
There are other ironies in John’s Gospel (such as Nicodemus, the enlightened teacher who comes to Jesus by night but needs to be taught Jn 3:10), but allow these examples to suffice.
The use and uncovering of irony is a memorable way to teach. John and the Holy Spirit who inspired him do not hesitate to make use of it. Ultimately, irony exists because we human beings are fickle and often pretentious. Such qualities are the fuel of irony.
Many of the psalms and proverbs of ancient Israel are in the form of poetry. In ancient Jewish poetry, however, the rhyme is not in the sound; it is in the thought. Consider a couple of examples from the psalms and note how each couplet consists of a thought in the first line followed by the same idea stated in a slightly different way in the line that follows:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together,
against the LORD
and against His Anointed One:
“Let us break their chains
and cast away their cords.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord taunts them(Psalm 2:1-3).
Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD,
or declare all his praise?
Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times! (Psalm 106:1-3)
Recognizing that the second part of each couplet fleshes out the concept presented in the first part, we learn several things from Psalm 106: the goodness of the Lord is manifested in His steadfast and enduring love, reciting the mighty deeds of the Lord is a way of praising Him even if insufficiently, and observing justice means always doing what is right.
If we apply this same insight in studying the Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the Second Week of Lent), we can better understand Jesus’ meaning:
Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned (Luke 6:37).
Considering these verses as a pair helps us avoid a common misunderstanding. Many people today try to shame Christians who criticize or “judge” the behavior of public sinners. For example, if we state that fornication or homosexual acts are morally wrong, we often hear something like this: “You’re judging me! You’re not being a very good Christian because Jesus says not to judge.” This is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ message. Jesus does not forbid all judgments (that would be absurd); rather, he forbids the judgment of condemnation. We can see this in the couplet from Luke above: the second part fleshes out the first part. Jesus is warning us against the judgment of condemnation.
What does it mean to condemn? Most literally and etymologically, it means to consign someone to Hell (something that is not within our power to do). It comes from the Latin con (with) and damnare (to damn; harm; pronounce as unfit, reprehensible, or deserving of severest censure.) The Greek word καταδικάζω (katadikazo) used in this passage has a similar meaning. The prefix “kata” intensifies dikazo (judge) making that judgment severe.
Thus, the Lord is warning us against pronouncing unnecessarily severe punishment or condemnation. People need time to repent. Correction or rebuke, which are sometimes necessary, should be designed to assist a person in reflecting and repenting, not to crush or humiliate him.
Later in this same passage Jesus further warns, For the measure you measure to others will be measured back to you(Luke 6:38). If you are needlessly severe with others, God will use this standard to evaluate and punish you. Because we’re all going to need grace and mercy from God, we do well to show mercy to others. As James says, Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13). (I have written more on this matter in a previous post: Can We Influence How God Will Judge Us?.)
Thus, the Lord does not forbid us to judge between good and bad behavior. We are expected to make such judgments and to distinguish between right and wrong. Further, He does not forbid us to correct one another. In fact, Scripture consistently counsels that we correct the sinner. (I have written in more detail on that in this post: Correcting the Sinner Is an Essential Work of Charity.)
Attempting to shame Christians into remaining silent rather than correcting others is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ message in these and similar passages. Taking a text out of context is a pretext of sorts. In this case the reason behind it is to attempt to silence criticism of immoral behavior. Also, notice that when someone rebukes you for correcting or “judging,” he is doing precisely the same thing to you! In calling you out, the person is violating his own rule. Recognize this hypocrisy and do not be fooled by this misinterpretation of Jesus’ words.
In Bible Study in my Parish we have been reading through Genesis. This past evening we read of Lot and the horrifying results of his decision to pitch his tent toward Sodom. We also see in his life a significant spiritual problem: sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. Sloth is a sorrow, sadness, or aversion to the good things God offers. Rather than being joyful and zealous to obtain these gifts, the slothful person sees them as too much trouble to obtain and is averse to the changes such gifts might introduce into his life. This is clearly the case with Lot, who resists the attempts of God to rescue him and his family from the sinful city of Sodom, which is about to be destroyed. Let’s examine his struggle in several steps.
I. Roots– Lot’s personal troubles were many, but for our purposes his problems began when he “pitched his tent toward Sodom” (Gen 13:12). Abraham and Lot had grown very rich (almost never a good thing in the spiritual life) and realized that their flocks were so large that one part of the land could not sustain them both. Thus they agreed to live in different sectors. Abraham left the choice of areas to Lot, who (selfishly?) chose the better part for himself. The area where Sodom was is now a deep desert, but at that time the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt (Gen 13:10). And thus it was that Lot took his family and pitched his tent toward Sodom.
II. Risks – But Sodom was a wicked city, filled with false worship, greed, insensitivity to the poor, and the approval and practice of homosexuality. I will not be writing on that in detail in this post, as I have already done so in previous ones.
But here is the risk that Lot takes: he turns his face toward Sodom and willingly exposes his family to the grave moral threats there. And it does indeed affect them. Ultimately, his wife cannot bear to leave, looks back, and is lost. His daughters escape, but later engage in the grave sin of incest. Lot, too, will find it hard to flee Sodom, finding God’s offer to save him to be too much trouble. He’d rather stay, whatever the risk.
If you’re going to swim in muddy water, you’re going to get muddy. And that mud gets in your ears and in your soul. This is what Lot risks and what results when he pitches his tent toward Sodom.
Many of us, too, think little about the risks that television, the internet, music, and culture pose to us and our children. Too easily we risk our eternal salvation and that of our children by pitching our tent toward Sodom through easy commerce with a world that is poisonous to our faith. Even if some things are troublesome, many of us make little effort draw back and limit, even in little ways, the influences that are contrary to our faith.
III. Resource – Lot has only one resource in his favor: Abraham is praying for his ne’er-do-well nephew. He asks God’s destroying angel to spare Lot and his family (Gen 19). God agrees to this and acts to save Lot in spite of himself. Really, it’s the only thing that saves Lot.
It is true that Lot was just, in the sense that he did not approve of the sin around him. But neither did he act to really protect himself or his family from it. Something about Sodom appealed to him. Perhaps he thought he could make money there (or perhaps the trains ran on time). Whatever the benefits, Lot weighed them more heavily than the risks.
And so, too, for many today, who leave the TV on no matter the risk because it entertains or has some other perceived benefit that outweighs the obvious risks. Or those for whom it’s just too much trouble to monitor the websites their children visit or the music they listen to.
It really is only Abraham’s prayers that save Lot, who would live with sinners, from dying along with them. Thus, don’t forget the power of prayer for some of the “ne’er-do-wells” you may know. God may act to save them before the Day of Judgment simply because you prayed for them.
IV. Root Sin – But here comes the heart of the story: sloth. The angel warns, “Flee!” But Lot hesitates. Fleeing is hard work; it means leaving things behind that you like. Perhaps Lot thinks, “Maybe the warnings of destruction are overblown; maybe it won’t really be so bad.” Here is what the story says:
As dawn was breaking, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “On your way! Take with you your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of Sodom.” When he hesitated, the men, by the LORD’s mercy, seized his hand and the hands of his wife and his two daughters and led them to safety outside the city. As soon as they had been brought outside, he was told: “Flee for your life! Don’t look back or stop anywhere on the Plain. Get off to the hills at once, or you will be swept away!” “Oh, no, my lord!” Lot replied, “You have already thought enough of your servant to do me the great kindness of intervening to save my life. But I cannot flee to the hills to keep the disaster from overtaking me, and so I shall die. Look, this town ahead is near enough to escape to. It’s only a small place. Let me flee there–it’s a small place, is it not?– that my life may be saved.” “Well, then,” he replied, “I will also grant you the favor you now ask. I will not overthrow the town you speak of. Hurry, escape there! I cannot do anything until you arrive there.” That is why the town is called Zoar (Gen 19:15-21).
Wow, this is sloth with a capital “S”! So lazy and settled in with sin has Lot become, that he’d rather accept death than expend the effort to flee. Not only that, he can’t even manage to rouse himself in order to save his family. It’s all just too much trouble. Sloth is sorrow, sadness, or aversion.
Thanks to Abraham’s prayers, the angels literally drag Lot and his family out of the city and repeat the warning: “Flee!” God who made you without you, will not save you without you. So Lot must cooperate. But still, Lot sees it as all just too much trouble. In effect, he says, “Man, those hills look far away. And they’re not nearly as nice as this valley. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get there. Do I really have to go that far?”
And here is another aspect of sloth: compromising with evil despite knowing the danger. Even if it occurs to many that some things in their lives need to change, they try to minimize those changes. The Lord tells us that we cannot serve two masters, that we cannot serve both the world and Him. In other words, we must decisively choose God over the demands of this world whenever there is a conflict. But many, realizing that this may introduce uncomfortable situations or have financial impacts, begin to negotiate with their conscience, saying, “I’m basically serving God … well, at least mostly. Maybe it’s enough if I do a few holy things and serve God for the most part. And then I can still serve the world and enjoy its fruits, too. Maybe I’ll serve God 80% and the world 20%. Hmm … well, maybe that’s a little too ambitious. After all I have a career and I don’t want to risk that promotion. How about if I serve God 60% and the world 40%? Is that enough?”
Thank God for His mercy! (And thank Abraham for his prayers.) We are a real mess. As the text shows, God will take the little he can get from Lot, at least for now, in order to save him. But God shouldn’t have to take this from us. Only grace and mercy can spare us from ourselves.
V. Results – But note this: grace and mercy need to have their effect. We cannot go on in sloth forever. We have to allow God to heal this deep drive of sin in us or we will be destroyed. Lot is saved for now, but great tragedy is still in store for him. His wife will turn back in longing for Sodom and be lost. His daughters cannot get Sodom out of them and will later turn to incest (Gen 19:30ff). And from this incest will be born the ancestors of the enemies who will later afflict Israel: the Moabites and the Ammonites.
And what of us today? What role have we played in pitching our tents toward Sodom? What happens to us and to our children and grandchildren when all we do is express shock at the condition of the world but expend little real effort to protect ourselves from it or actively change it? What happens to us when we learn to live off the fruits of our Sodom, and make easy compromises with the world in terms of greed, insensitivity to the poor, and sexual confusion? What happens when God’s plan to rescue us through the gifts of chaste living, generosity, and more simple living, is rejected as too much trouble or as requiring us to give up too many things that we like? Many think to themselves, “I know my favorite television show has bad scenes, but I like the story line and I want to find out what happens at the end of the season. I know I should be clearer and firmer with my children, but that leads to conflict and I hate conflict, and besides they’ll complain if they can’t have a smart phone. And it’s so much trouble trying to monitor their Internet activity. And … and … and …”
What happens when we do this, when we slothfully reject God’s offer of a better, less-compromised way? Well, we don’t have look far; we know what happens. We and the people we love get lost, wounded, corrupted, confused, and even die, both physically and spiritually.
The virtues opposed to sloth are zeal and joy. Zeal for God’s truth and the beauty of holiness, and a joyful pursuit of the life God offers us are gifts to be sought. Sloth is very pernicious and has cumulative effects. We haven’t done well, collectively speaking. It’s time to turn more zealously to God, to appreciate the truth of what He has always taught. It’s time to gratefully, joyfully study His ways, and live them and share them with others.
Here, then, is a study of sloth in the life of Lot, a lesson more necessary and urgent today than ever before.
Interesting too for our times, the one day we should rest, we don’t. Here’s an old song from the Moody Blues that recalls Sunday rest:
One of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.
But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.
Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:
Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).
Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).
Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58, 83, and 109) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.
Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”
A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?
While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.
St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:
First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.
Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.
Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.
So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)
To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).
Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.
It is as if God is saying,
I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.
It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.
As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.
Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.
Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 ) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.