In the gospel today, Jesus cuts right across the modern Western tendency to oppose love and law, and law and joy. Though we oppose them, Jesus joins all three concepts and summons us to a new attitude. Let’s take a look.
I. Connections – Jesus says, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.
Note here how the Lord joins three concepts: love, law, and joy. This is precisely the opposite of what Western culture does. The best that Western culture will admit of law is that it is a necessary evil. While this is the best assessment of it, the more routine assessment is that law is somehow an unloving imposition by the powerful on the weak, the hierarchy on the laity, the (evil, oppressive, Pharisaical, etc.) Church on decent people.
But whereas the modern world disconnects law from love, Jesus links the two. How do we both experience and show love? Jesus says that we do so by keeping the commandments. Jesus sets forth a vision whereby we, having experienced God’s love, desire and rejoice in His commands. We also show love to the Lord through this very obedience and joyful adherence to His commands. And this loving obedience goes even further by setting forth an abundant joy through the very keeping of those commands.
Again, this is completely contrary to modern notions. The “loving” God, according to the world, has few or no rules; He affirms, encourages, accepts, and includes. Or so goes the thinking.
But the real Jesus is far more complex. He is surely loving, especially of sinners. He encourages, includes the outcast, and so forth. But He also speaks of sin and rebukes it. He embraces the sinner, but directs, “Sin no more.” He sets forth a demanding moral vision, even as He shows mercy. In this gospel, Jesus joins love and the law, and says that the law brings joy. They are not opposed; they are not either/or, they are both/and. There was a lot more to Jesus than just being the “affirmer in chief,” who went about saying nothing but pleasant things. In fact He often held many very contrary ideas in tension and balance.
Consider the following portrait painted by Ross Douthat in his book Bad Religion, How We Became a Nation of Heretics.
Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a [careful and] wise ethicist the next. … He promises to set [spouses against one another and] parents against children, and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. … He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping.
Douthat goes on to conclude:
The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. … [Where heresy says which one] Both, says orthodoxy….The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus. .
The point here is to note that Jesus, who is love, does not hesitate to teach on many moral topics and warn sinners of judgment. He both personally, and through his inspired Apostles, speaks with clarity about anger, greed, malice, neglect of the poor, divorce, fornication, adultery, impure thoughts, homosexual acts, lack of faith, revenge, dishonesty, the sin of human respect, false and worldly priorities, and countless other things.
In today’s gospel, not only does Jesus link love to the keeping of the commandments, He also says that the keeping of the commandments leads to joy.
Of this, I am a witness. God’s law gives joy to my heart. As a priest, I live as a celibate, like Jesus, and my life is very fulfilling. I have been faithful to my celibate commitment without fail. I have not strayed from proper boundaries; I do not look at pornography; I am not in any way sexually active with women or anyone else. In all this I am not repressed; I am not sad or lonely. My life is joyful; I am fulfilled and see my celibacy as a gift. To those who cannot marry, whether because they are homosexual, too young, or have not met the right person, I say that God can and still does bless you. Living celibately is fulfilling and joyful for those who are temporarily and/or permanently called to it.
The Church cannot and will not affirm or call good what God calls sin, whether it is greed, violence, or (more controversially) homosexual acts or illicit heterosexual acts. In so doing we are not any more unloving, repressed, or sad than Jesus is—and He is none of these things. Neither can we affirm any other acts or attitudes that the Bible calls sinful. These things are all taught in love and they bring joy to those who will accept them.
The Lord is no liar, and He promises that love, His commandments, and joy are all interrelated. I am a witness that this is true. Thus, note the connection between love, law, and joy.
II. The Core – The Lord says, This is my commandment, Love one another as I have loved you. While it is true that the Church, and all of us as individuals, must speak the truth, we must speak it in love. We are not out to win an argument, to overpower, or merely to criticize. Our goal is to love. It is not helpful, and quite likely harmful, to correct people whom we do not first love.
Hence the Lord’s command to love one another is at the core of any preaching or teaching task. There are many today who declare that they do not experience love from the Church, only “denunciations.” It is a hard thing for the Church to convey our love to a large number of people, to a nation, or to a culture. But to the degree that we have failed to love or to convey that love, we must repent and strive even harder both to love and to express that love.
That said, the mere fact that we announce God’s law and summon others to it does not make us unloving. As we have seen above, Jesus links these concepts. There is no doubt that some will take offense no matter what we say or how we say it. But the fact that others are angry or hurt does not necessarily mean that we have done or said something wrong. Jesus, who was sinless, offended many and was a sign of contradiction both then and now.
But as for the Church, we must never fail to ask for a deepening love for all, even for those who hate us, misunderstand us, and misrepresent us. The core of Jesus’ teaching is “Love one another.”
Jesus goes so far as to say that we must be willing to endure martyrdom in order to speak the truth to others. He says, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Are you and I willing to endure hatred? Are we willing to be spat upon and laughed at? Are we willing to be called hateful, bigoted, homophobic, backward, repressed, intolerant, and so forth in order that others can hear the truth? Jesus was willing because He had the kind of love to stay in the conversation even when many (though not all) hated Him. What are you willing to bear to proclaim the truth in love?
III. Camaraderie – Jesus also links friendship to the knowledge of His law. He says, You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
And here is another connection that Jesus makes that the modern world rarely does. The world thinks of rules, laws, and commandments in terms of slavery and subservience. But Jesus links these to friendship. A friend knows what his friend is about and gladly seeks to understand and support him. Scripture says, Happy are we, O Israel, for what pleases God is known to us (Baruch 4:4).
Yes, true friendship means seeking to know and understand one’s friend and to accomplish what is important to him. Many today call themselves friends of Jesus but they give Him little more than lip service. A true friend of Jesus is delighted to know His will and to accomplish it.
IV. Call – Jesus says, It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. This I command you: love one another.” And thus, in the final lines, we are reminded that the Lord, who has chosen us, can and will equip us to live His law, to bear fruit in the keeping of the commandments, and to be someone whom the Father can trust with blessings.
To be rebellious and resentful is to be untrustworthy of further blessings. But here again, the Lord stresses that the keeping of the commandments is linked to love and to further blessings.
The commandments bring joy; they are rooted in love and bring blessings. Do you believe this? Or will you accept the worldly thinking that opposes love and law, law and joy, and law and friendship? The choice is yours. As for me, I am already a witness that the law is love; it is joy; it is friendship. Yes, I am a witness. How about you?
This song rejoices in the Light of Jesus, the clear Sun (Son) of Righteousness, who shows the way to the Father:
There is a stereotype regarding men and women that says that men like to solve problems while women like to seek sympathy and see a problem as a way to relate. OK, there is some truth here, but it is more of a vague tendency than a strong trait, and there are exceptions on both sides. The video below depicts the stereotype quite humorously.
But there is a human problem, shared by most of both sexes, wherein people seek relief more so than healing. Healing takes guts; it requires courageous change and often involves difficult choices. Many would rather seek quick answers than face the deeper issues that often drive their struggles. Thus a person may want relief from anxiety but not want to look at his lack of faith, or the unrealistic expectations and perfectionism that may drive his anxiety and low self-confidence. Many would prefer to take a pill to solve their problems (ignoring the potential side effects) instead of looking at the lifestyle choices that often underlie their issues.
We all need some sympathy, but we also need to be summoned to examine how we contribute to our own malaise. Consider that as you enjoy this humorous video.
In the first reading at today’s Mass is recounted the Council of Jerusalem, which scholars generally date to around 50 A.D. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church, since it would set forth an identity for the Church that was independent of the culture of Judaism per se, and would open wide the door of inculturation to the Gentiles. This surely had a significant effect on evangelization in the early Church.
Catholic ecclesiology is evident here in this first council in that we have a very Catholic model of how a matter of significant pastoral practice and doctrine is properly dealt with in the Church. What we see here is the same model that the Catholic Church has continued to use right up to the present day. In this and all subsequent ecumenical councils, there is a gathering of the bishops, presided over by the Pope, which considers and may even debate a matter. In the event that consensus cannot be reached, the Pope resolves the debate. Once a decision is reached it is considered binding and a letter is issued to the whole Church.
All these elements are seen in this first council of the Church in Jerusalem, though in seminal form. Let’s consider this council, beginning with some background.
1. Bring in the Gentiles! Just prior to ascending, the Lord gave the Apostles the great commission: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Hence, the Gentiles were now to be summoned and included in the ranks of discipleship and of the Church.
2. But the Church was mighty slow in beginning any outreach to the Gentiles. While it is true that on the day of Pentecost people from every nation heard the sermon of Peter, and more than 3000 converted, they were all Jews (Acts 2). In fact, it seems that at first the Church did little to leave Jerusalem and go anywhere at all let alone to all the nations.
3. Perhaps as a swift kick in the pants the Lord allowed a persecution to break out in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). This caused the gospel to begin a northward trek, into Samaria at least. Samaritans, however, are not usually considered Gentiles, since they were a group that had intermarried with Jews in the 8th century B.C. There was also the baptism of an Ethiopian official, but he, too, was a Jew.
4. Fifteen Years? The timeline of Acts is a bit speculative. However, if we study it carefully and compare it to some of what Paul says (especially in Galatians), it would seem that it was 12 to 15 years before the baptism of the first Gentile took place! If this is true then it is a disgrace. There was strong racial animosity between Jews and Gentiles, and that may explain the slow response to Jesus’ commission. It may explain it, but it does not excuse it.
5. Time for another kick in the pants. This time the Lord goes to Peter, who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa, and by means of a vision teaches him that he should not call unclean what God calls clean. The Lord then sends to Peter an entourage from Cornelius, a high Roman military official seeking baptism. Cornelius, of course, is a Gentile. The entourage requests that Peter accompany them to meet Cornelius at Cesarea. At first, he is reluctant. But then recalling the vision (kick in the pants) that God gave him, Peter decides to go. In Cesarea, he does something unthinkable: Peter, a Jew, enters the house of a Gentile. He has learned his lesson and as the first Pope has been guided by God to do what is right and just. After a conversation with Cornelius and the whole household, as well as signs from the Holy Spirit, Peter baptizes them. Praise the Lord! It was about time. (All of this is detailed in Acts 10.)
6. Many are not happy with what Peter has done and they confront him on it. Peter explains his vision and also the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, insisting that this is how it is going to be. And while it is true that these early Christians felt freer to question Peter than we would the Pope today, it is also a fact that what Peter has done is binding even if some of them don’t like it; what Peter has done will stand. Once Peter has answered them definitively, they reluctantly assent and declare somewhat cynically, “God has granted life giving repentance even to the Gentiles!” (Acts 11:18)
7. Trouble is brewing. So, the mission to the Gentiles is finally open. But that does not mean that the trouble is over. As Paul, Barnabas, and others begin to bring in large numbers of Gentile converts, some among the Jewish Christians begin to object that they are not like Jews and insist that the Gentiles must be circumcised and follow the whole of Jewish Law—not just the moral precepts but also the cultural norms, kosher diet, purification rites, etc. (That is where we picked up the story in yesterday’s Mass.)
8. The Council of Jerusalem – Luke, a master of understatement, says, “Because there arose no little dissension and debate …” (Acts 15:2) it was decided to ask the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to gather and consider the matter. So the Apostles and some presbyters (priests) with them meet. Of course Peter is there, as is James, who was especially prominent in Jerusalem among the Apostles and would later become bishop there. Once again, Luke rather humorously understates the matter by saying, “After much debate, Peter arose” (Acts 15:7).
Peter arises to settle the matter since, it would seem, the Apostles themselves were divided. Had not Peter received this charge from the Lord? The Lord had prophesied, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat but I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). Peter now fulfills this text, as he will again in the future, and as will every Pope after him. Peter clearly dismisses any notion that the Gentiles should be made to take up the whole burden of Jewish customs. Paul and Barnabas rise to support this. Then James (who it seems may have felt otherwise) rises to assent to the decision and asks that a letter be sent forth to all the Churches explaining the decision. He also asks for and obtains a few concessions.
So there it is, the first council of the Church. And that council, like all the Church-wide councils that would follow, was a gathering of the bishops in the presence of Peter, who worked to unite them. At a council, a decision is made and a decree binding on the whole Church is sent out—very Catholic, actually. We have kept this Biblical model ever since that first council. Our Protestant brethren have departed from it because they have no pope to settle things when there is disagreement. They have split into tens of thousands of denominations and factions. When no one is pope, everyone is pope.
A final thought: Notice how the decree to the Churches is worded. It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (Acts 15:28). In the end, we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of faith and morals. We trust that decrees and doctrines that issue forth from councils of the bishops with the Pope are inspired by and authored by the Holy Spirit Himself. And there it is right in Scripture, the affirmation that when the Church speaks solemnly in this way, it is not just the bishops and the Pope speaking as men, it is the Holy Spirit speaking with them.
The Church—Catholic from the Start!
Prudence is often misunderstood by those who reduce it to mere caution or reluctance to act. It is true that sometimes prudence indicates caution and that hasty action is seldom prudent. However, sometimes it is prudent to act quickly. Having long discussions about the best way to put out a house fire before acting is not prudent. Quick, expedient action is the best means to an end in this case. This is sometimes the case in less obviously urgent matters, too, such as stemming the inflence of an erroneous teaching that may otherwise confuse or scandalize the faithful. Sometimes a carefully planned and gradual response is best. At other times a quick denunciation of the error is ideal. Prudence is the virtue that sees the best way and commands the will to execute that approach.
Let us consider more fully what prudence is by reviewing the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Thelogica (II, IIae 47). The following is my meager attempt at a summary. Read St. Thomas directly if you seek further clarification.
St. Thomas states that It belongs to prudence chiefly to direct something to a right end; and this is not done aright unless both the end be good, and the means good and suitable (II, IIae 49.7, respondeo). So, prudence is the knowledge of how to act or conduct one’s life rightly, what to avoid or seek in the concrete and particular situations that make up our daily life. While prudence belongs to the intellect, since it so fundamentally guides the will, it also has the quality of a moral virtue. Prudence does not so much determine what is right and wrong as it regulates the means to determine what is moral and good. In effect, prudence discovers what is good by taking counsel, judging what is discovered, and then commanding the will to execute what we ought to choose.
Since prudence is a virtue, not merely an ability, it is oriented to what is good and morally upright. If perchance one were to speak of “prudence” that was oriented to what was sinful or evil we should rather refer to it as “craftiness” or “cunning,” but not prudence, properly understood.
Finally, although prudence can exist as a natural virtue, the Christian tradition usually speaks of it in a way that is charged by supernatural grace and informed by the Wisdom of God as well.
Prudence is fundamental enough that we may and ought to speak of it as having “parts,” which St. Thomas calls “quasi-integral” parts. This is because none of the parts replaces prudence as a whole or describes it alone, but together all the parts make it what it is. Thomas enumerates eight of these parts in the Summa (II IIae 49):
1. Memory – Since experience helps us to discover what is true in the majority of cases, memory of that experience is an important part of prudence.
2. Understanding – This refers to a kind of “grasp” or right estimation of things and what is to be done, rather than the kind of understanding we attribute to the intellect’s ability to synthesize or comprehend mere processes.
3. Docility – The ability and willingness to be taught, especially by our elders and those with greater experience, is part of prudence, since none of us can personally know and experience all the possible scenarios and matters for decision. Stubbornly opinionated people are almost never prudent since they are not open to being taught or to considering that their experience and prudential judgement can be assisted and augmented by teaching from others.
4. Shrewdness – The ability to rapidly estimate what is suitable and proper in a given circumstance both serves and is a part of prudence. While docility looks to the experiences of others, shrewdness is an aptitude for acquiring a right estimation of what is to be done. “Shrewdness” here is not understood in its pejorative sense, wherein it refers to mere cunning or craftiness, but rather it refers to the gift of being able to come quickly to a proper estimation of the good.
5. Reason – Since prudence involves accepting counsel and then taking account of a situation, it is necessary that one be able to reason well. And since prudence belongs to the intellect, reason both serves and is a part of prudence. “Reason” here, however, means not so much logical analysis as the right use of our mind, wherein we properly equip our mind and then use its faculties in a way that is adept but also humble.
6. Foresight – This is the ability to see something distant, namely how future contingencies (or consequences) bear upon what is to be done now.
7. Circumspection – This is the ability to compare the proposed course of action to the current circumstances and see how other things and people will be affected.
8. Caution – Since falsehood is often found along with what is true, and evil mixed with good, prudence needs a caution that is sober about this and seeks to avoid evil and grasp that which is good. Prudence needs a caution that looks to avoid evil—not just the evil of doing something, but also the evil of doing nothing.
And thus we reflect a bit on prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues. Continue to ask God for a healthy prudence, for frequently we err not in determining what is good, but on the best way to accomplish that good. Prudence opens doors and keeps us on course toward that which is truly good. And while at times prudence points to bold action, at others it counsels steady perseverance so that we attain the good without setting loose that which is inordinate or evil. Indeed, Lord save us from being “do-gooders” who lack prudence and may thereby set loose more evil than we seek to end!
At first glance, counseling the doubtful may seem rather similar to instructing the ignorant. However, teaching has learning as its goal while counseling aims to assist with decisions. Certainly giving counsel often includes some aspects of teaching, such as providing information and perspective, but its primary purpose is to assist a person in coming to a decision. This distinction is contained in the root meanings of the words “counsel” and “doubtful.”
The English word “counsel” comes from the Latin consilium (con (with) + silium (a decision)). So to counsel means to assist someone in the act of deciding, not just to give vague or generic advice.
As such, counsel is connected to the virtue of prudence. Prudence is that virtue which directs particular human acts toward a good end. In modern usage, prudence (and by extension, counsel) has often been equated with caution. But prudence is not caution per se; it is a virtue that sees the best way forward given the goals in mind. It is true that both prudence and counsel would avoid rash decisions until things have been properly considered. But of itself, the “prudent” response to a situation is not always the cautious one. Sometimes the prudent thing to do involves a bold or zealous response. Aristotle and classical philosophy defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium (right reason applied to practice). Prudence and counsel seek the best way forward toward a goal based on the situation and the available options.
However, since we are speaking here of counseling the doubtful as a spiritual work of mercy, the goal in this case refers to that which is moral and rooted in our final end of holiness and salvation. Thus while “counsel” in the general sense could include helping a person decide the best way to repair a car, when speaking of the spiritual work of mercy, such worldly issues are not our focus. Rather, the spiritual work of mercy to “Counsel the doubtful” is concerned with holiness and our goal of dwelling with God in Heaven forever. Finding a “good” way (recta ratio) forward is not mere expedience; it is what is moral, upright, and holy.
The work of giving counsel here is directed to the “doubtful.” Here, too, we need to rescue the word a bit from modern notions, which often associate doubt with skepticism. While a doubtful person may be skeptical of certain truths, “doubt” here is understood in a way that emphasizes the need to make a decision.
The word “doubt” comes from the Latin word dubius meaning “uncertain.” However, even more deeply, the word has roots in the Latin word duo (two). The Latin word dubium is a choice between two things. Even in English there is that strange (silent) “b” in the word “doubt.” This points to another related English word, “double,” which comes from the same Latin root (dubius). And thus the doubtful are the undecided, those of two minds on a certain matter, or, more pejoratively, the “double-minded.”
So we have come to a more precise description of the spiritual work of mercy we call “Giving counsel to the doubtful.” It is that work which helps the undecided (or those of two minds on something) to come to a good and upright decision rooted in the call to holiness and the goal of attaining Heaven by God’s grace.
Counsel of this sort is an integral part of prudence. According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica II-IIae 47-48), an act of prudence involves three things: taking counsel (looking about for the means suited in the particular case to reach the goal of moral virtue), judging soundly the fitness of the means suggested, and commanding its employment.
What a beautiful work of mercy it is to help better orient others toward their heavenly goal by assisting them in choosing the most virtuous and holiest way forward in a difficult or puzzling situation! Clearly, though, if we are to be equipped to provide this beautiful work of mercy, we must first be docile to the will and mind of God. We must be well instructed in heavenly wisdom, which is often paradoxical to the worldly-minded. The capacity to give spiritual counsel grows out of a deep prayer life, the study of Scripture, and the experience (and suffering) of living as a faithful Christian in the world.
Though in rare cases the gift to give counsel can be infused (i.e., poured into the soul by God), in most cases the gift deepens over time, assuming one is prayerful and attentive and docile to divine teaching. And thus our prayer, study, and life experiences are not only for our own sake, but for that of others as well.
St. Paul gives some wise counsel to those of us who would strive to accomplish this spiritual work of mercy:
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness ... (2 Tim 3:14-16)
Similarly, St. Paul exhorts Titus to show forth the fruit of such devoted learning:
And as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine. … In all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach (Titus 2:1, 7-8).
And thus we are equipped to counsel the doubtful, to assist them (and ourselves) to become more deeply rooted in the decision to follow Jesus, to choose the Lord and the things awaiting in Heaven, to leave behind double-minded ways and duplicity, to decide for what is right, good, noble, and holy.
This is a great and wonderful work of mercy.
The second reading from today’s Mass is very Catholic and too informative to let pass without comment. It presents a highly organized Church, possessing some of the structures we know today in full form. Granted, some of these structures are in seminal (seed) form, but they are there.
We will also notice qualities of the original kerygma that are at variance with what some modern thinkers declare should be the methodology of the Church. The soft, cross-less Christianity of many today, who replace the cross with a pillow and insist on merely inclusion and affirmation, is strangely absent in this early setting.
Let’s look at the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 14:21-27) and see the true path of priests, teachers, and leaders in the Church. Four steps are prescribed for our consideration. The Apostles went forth announcing, admonishing, appointing, and accounting.
I. Announcing – The text says, After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples …
Notice that happiness is linked to the harvest. Proclaiming the Good News, they yield a great harvest. As Catholics, we are not sent out to proclaim a mere list of duties. We are sent to proclaim the Gospel. And the Gospel is this: that God has loved the world and sent His Son, who by dying and rising from the dead has purchased for us a whole new life, free from sin and the rebellious obsessions of this world. He is victorious over all the death-directed and sinful drives of this present evil age. Simply put, He has triumphed over these forces and enabled us to walk in newness of life.
We are sent to announce a new life, a life set free from the bondage of sin, rebellion, sensuality, greed, lust, domination, and revenge. We are sent to announce a life of joy, confidence, purity, chastity, generosity, and devotion to the truth rooted in love.
Yes, here is a joyful announcement rooted in the cry Anastasis (Resurrection)! The old order of sin is gone and a new life of freedom from sin is here!
Did everyone accept this as good news? No. Some, indeed many, were offended and sought to convict Christians as “disturbers of the peace.” Some don’t like to have their sin and bondage called out as such. They prefer bondage, sin, and darkness to light, holiness, and freedom.
But at the end of the day, we as Catholics announce what is intrinsically good news and we ought to start proclaiming it with joy. We must announce it joyfully, as something wonderful, freeing, and true rather than sounding like bitter, angry people who are just trying to win an argument.
II. Admonishing – The text says, They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
Notice first that preaching (teaching) is a process. You don’t just preach or teach once and move on; you return and reiterate. They are retracing their steps back through towns that they have already evangelized. They do not just come, have a tent revival, and then move on. They return and, as we shall see, they establish the Church.
Notice what they do:
1. Encourage – They strengthen the spirits of the disciples.
2. Exhort – They exhort them to persevere in the faith.
3. Explain – They explain by saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
Let’s focus especially on the last the point. In effect, they announce and teach, “If you’re not willing to endure the cross, no crown will come your way. If you can’t stand a little disappointment sometimes, if you can’t stand being talked about sometimes, if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you, NO CROSS, NO CROWN.”
Yes, beware of cross-less Christianity. We do have good news to proclaim, but there is also the truth that we get to the resurrection and the glory through the Cross. There is a test in every testimony, a trial in every triumph. There are demands of discipleship, requirements for renewal, laws of love, and sufferings set forth for Saints.
Good preaching combines hardship and happiness in one message. It is a joy to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, who endured hostility, hardship, and the horrors of the Cross but triumphed over all of it, showing that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. Yes, He has caught the wise in their craftiness and shown that the thoughts of the wise of this world are futile (cf 1 Cor 3:20). He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them (paradoxically) by the Cross (cf Col 2:15).
Thus, Saints Paul and Barnabas announce the Cross, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Many today insist that the Church soft-pedal the Cross, saying that we should use “honey, not vinegar.” No can do. We joyfully announce and uphold the paradox of the Cross and must be willing to be a sign of contradiction to this world, which sees only pleasure and the indulgence of sinful drives as the way forward, which exalts freedom without truth or obedience, and calls good what God calls sinful.
Too many so-called Christian denominations have adopted the pillow as their image and a “give the people what they want” mentality. This is 180 degrees out of phase with the Cross.
The Catholic Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members, but to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ. Jesus announced the Cross without ambiguity, saying as He went out to die, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to me (John 12:31-32).
So we announce the Cross not merely as suffering, but as life, power, and love. It is possible, by the power of the Cross, to live without sin, to overcome rebellion, pride, lust, and greed. It is possible by the power of the Cross to learn to forgive and to live the truth in love.
And the world will hate us for this. But such hardships, such crosses are necessary preludes to the hallelujah of Heaven. The Church can do no less than to point to the Cross. The center of our faith is the Cross, not a pillow. The Cross is our only hope. Ave Crux! spes unica nostra! (Hail O Cross! our only hope!)
Yes, the Church announces the Cross and admonishes a world obsessed with pleasure and passing, fake happiness.
III. Appointing – The text says, They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.
And thus we see the ordination of priest leaders in every place. “Priest” is just an English mispronunciation of “presbyter.” Paul and Barnabas did not simply go about vaguely preaching and then moving on. They established local churches with a structure of authority. The whole Pauline corpus of writings indicates a need to continue overseeing these local churches and to stay in touch with the priest leaders established to lead those churches.
Later, St. Paul spoke of the need for this structure in other texts, for example when he wrote to Titus,
This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).
This appointment was done through the laying on of hands and today is called ordination. It was a way of establishing order and office in the Church to make sure that the work continued and that the Church was governed by order. This is why we call the Sacrament involved here the “Sacrament of Holy Orders.”
Note, too, that a critical task for leaders in the Church is to develop and train new leaders. Too many parishes depend on charismatic and gifted leaders and are left with a void rather than an ongoing ministry when those leaders die or must move on. This should not be so. Part of being a good leader is to train new leaders.
IV. Accounting – The text says, From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.
Note that Saints Paul and Barnabas are now returning to render an account of what they have done. Accountability is part of a healthy Church. Every priest should render an account to his bishop, and every bishop to his Metropolitan and to the Pope. Today’s ad limina visits of bishops to the Pope are the way this is done. Further, priests are accountable to their Ordinary through various mechanisms such as yearly reports and other meetings.
A further background to this text is that Paul and Barnabas are returning to Antioch because it was from there that they were sent forth by the local bishops and priests on this missionary task.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3).
St. Paul was not the “lone ranger” some think him to be. He was sent and was accountable. As we read elsewhere,
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days (Gal 1:15-18).
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain (Gal 2:1).
The preacher and teacher must be accountable: For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom 14:10-12).
And thus we see some paths for priests, preachers, teachers, and leaders. We must announce the Gospel as good news, with joy and confidence. We must admonish a world (and some Church members) obsessed with pleasures to embrace the Cross as our only hope. We must continue to develop, train, and appoint leaders to follow after us. And we must be accountable to one another.
A nice, quick portrait of some healthy traits for the Church!
The gospel from Sunday (John 15:1-8) presents us with an important meditation on the difference between love and kindness. Perhaps some further reflections from this gospel are in order today.
There is an unfortunate tendency in our times to reduce love to kindness. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so is rebuke. It is an immature notion of love that reduces it merely to affirming, or that refers to proper correction as a form of “hate.”
We saw in yesterday’s gospel that proper care involves the Lord “pruning” us so that we bear more fruit. But in soft times like these, many would not consider pruning, which is painful, to be proper care. Any reasonable, mature, balanced assessment yields the truth that pruning is necessary and is part of proper care.
Though I am less familiar with grape vines, I know my roses. And while I feed and water them, treat their common diseases, and pull the weeds that seek to choke them, I also prune them—sometimes quite severely. At this time of year, my fall pruning vindicates itself as proper care—the first rosebuds and the luxuriant foliage are in glorious evidence! Through the year I will continue all my care, including pruning, cutting away diseased branches, and shaping the plants. Who of you will question me for what I do to my beautiful roses?
It is no less the case with us that the Lord must prune us. And who would question the Lord for this necessary work? Yet many in our times do question Him and His Body, the Church, for doing just this.
First of all, He does this by proclaiming His Word: You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you (Jn 15:3). In this proclamation is a kind of pruning of the intellect; our worldly thinking and priorities are pruned away by the truth of God’s wisdom and His Word, which is like a scalpel or pruning hook.
Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:12-13).
The Word of God prunes away our error by shining the light of truth on our foolishness and worldliness; it exposes our sinfulness and silly preoccupations. It lays bare our inordinate self-esteem and all the sinful drives that flow from it: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. A steady diet of God’s Word prunes and purifies our mind, reordering it gradually.
Yet for many of us, the Word of God alone (while sufficient in itself) is not enough due to our stubbornness and tendency to rationalize our bad behavior and “stinking thinking.” Too easily we call good or “no big deal” what God calls sin and surround ourselves with teachers and “experts” who tell us what our itching ears want to hear (cf 2 Tim 4:3).
And thus further pruning is needed. Such further pruning can be accomplished in two ways: active and passive purification. Active purifications are things that we undertake ourselves such as fasting or other mortifications. These help to prune away what stunts healthy growth and the fruits of righteousness.
But honestly, none of us will ever really do enough active purification to accomplish what is really needed—not even close. Consider an analogy I have used before: could you perform an appendectomy on yourself? Of course not! First, you could not really see enough to be able do it properly. Second, you would never be able to inflict that much pain on yourself. Such things must be accomplished for us by others.
Therefore, since active purifications are not enough to prune us properly, we must also accept passive purifications. Passive purifications are those things that God does or allows in order to prune us. And frankly some of them are quite painful: serious losses or setbacks, struggles with our health, difficulties in marriage or other vocations, the death of loved ones, the end of relationships, humiliating occurrences, accidents, and so forth. Other passive purifications are less painful, involving minor irritations, disappointments, or discomforts.
And when these occur we cry out in pain. Pruning hurts. But it may well be just what we need. The honest truth is that we human beings are so gifted, talented, and capable that if we didn’t have a few things to keep us humble, we’d be so proud we’d just go to Hell.
So God prunes. And whether we like to admit it or not, it is a form of care. We need these passive purifications; we need the pruning that keeps us bearing the fruit of holiness and righteousness.
In soft times like these, when the application of limits or the use of the word “no” is deemed “unloving” or “hateful,” we who would be Christians and light to the world must become clearer ourselves about the need for pruning. Even in the Church there is a hesitancy to speak of this need or of anything considered “negative” or “challenging.” To all this we can only reply that it is necessary at times for the surgeon to wield the scalpel, the vinedresser to apply the pruning sheers, the Lord to use passive purifications. It is hard and painful at times, but there is no other way given our stubborn and sin-prone souls.
There is also a communal dimension to this that was mentioned in yesterday’s gospel: He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit (Jn 15:2). This is not the pruning of a single branch; it is the cutting away of any branches that do not bear fruit and thus sap energy from the others.
In these highly individualistic times it is harder for people to grasp the common good and why it is sometimes necessary for the Lord to wholly remove from His Body (the Church) those who refuse to bear fruit. But the common good really is the answer.
And now back to my roses: one of my rose bushes tends to go wild. In the last two years it has become gnarly, losing its shape. Its roses have lost their wedged-tulip shape and are becoming small and rounded. I have taken to pruning it severely in the hopes of saving it. So far this has yielded limited success. This year, if it does not respond and return from the wild side, I will have to remove it. This is not only due to my preferences; I am concerned that the other bushes will cross-pollinate with it and also lose their dignity and form. One wild rose bush tends to exert its influence on others. Who of you will question me for what I do to protect my roses?
And who of us should protest against God for what He does to keep His vine strong and Heaven pure?
Pruning is needed both to help us bear fruit and to save us. It falls to us, like a faithful remnant, to recover this notion and teach it without apology or embarrassment. God knows what He is doing. He knows what makes for good disciples and perfect souls. It is hard, though, and it’s OK to ask God to be gentle with us. But in the end, may God never do anything less than is necessary to prepare heavenly glories for us.
In this Easter Season, we continue to reflect on how the risen Lord Jesus minsters to us and supplies our needs. Last week we considered him as our shepherd. This week we learn how He is the vine and we the branches on the vine, wholly dependent on Him for everything. As we consider how he cares for us as his disciples, we need to rescue the word “care” from its rather sentimental modern sense. True care does not merely include more pleasant things such as giving food and shelter and other basic needs. Sometimes care involves difficult things necessary to discipline and purify us so that we grow and bear more fruit. Thus the Lord speaks of “pruning” in this passage which, while caring is not often pleasant. But it IS proper care. Thus, lets look at how the Lord cares for us so that we can be true disciples.
The Lord presents us with four basic principles that assist us in being better, more fruitful disciples.
I. The Purpose of Disciples – The text says, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit….Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.
The purpose of a vine is to bear fruit. And what are the fruits that the Father seeks? Surely justice, righteousness, and holiness are chief among them. The Letter to the Galatians speaks of them in this way: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:23). Surely we can add virtues and fruits such as generosity, chastity, mercy, forgiveness, zeal for God and His kingdom, and so forth. These are among the fruits God seeks, and which are the purpose of the vine, His son Jesus, whom He sent to nourish us so that these fruits would come to pass.
And yet there are some branches that, though they take nourishment from the vine, do not bear fruit. And not only do they fail to bear fruit, they often harm the vine by drawing strength away from the fruit-bearing branches.
I know little of grapes, but for many years now I have grown tomatoes. As the tomato plant grows, small shoots emerge from the base of the vine branches. These are usually called “suckers,” since they draw strength away from the main branch where the tomatoes are growing. These suckers should be plucked for the health and vigor of the plant and the best development of the fruit.
God will often do the same. In our modern age, with its stress on individualism, hearing that God cuts off unfruitful branches strikes us as unmerciful and harsh. But God has in mind not just the individual, but the strength and fruitfulness of the whole vine. Failing to bear fruit does not just affect the individual; it affects the whole vine. So God, as a loving vinedresser, cuts away the harmful branches. Your life is not just about you. My life is not just about me. We exist in myriad complex relationships with one another, and God must care for all of them.
Since the purpose of the vine is to bear fruit, God tends the vine with that in mind.
The text goes on to say that severed branches wither and that “people” will gather them and throw them into the fire. If I don’t know who I am and whose I am, if I am no longer rooted in Christ, anyone can name me and carry me off. Yes, without the stability of abiding on the vine, I get “carried away” by worldly things. And thus, I wither and die spiritually; the slightest breeze can blow me about. And like any dried and withered branch, I am good for nothing but to be thrown into a fire. Unless Christ carries me and sustains me, I am carried away by others, who cast me into the fire.
II. The Pruning of Disciples – The text says, and every [branch] that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Most of us who have cared for roses know how important pruning is. Without this careful and necessary cutting, the rose bush grows long and gnarly. It expends its strength more on the branches than on the flowers. Little by little the flowers become smaller and less beautiful; the leaves lose their beauty, shape, and color, becoming smaller and lighter green. Eventually the rose bush looks little better than a weed.
Now I suppose that if a rose bush could talk, it would protest and cry out in pain every November as I descend upon it and cut back its growth to one foot above the ground. But in May, the gorgeous roses in the front yard are a masterpiece and all the pain of November is forgotten.
Pain and pruning are part of the Christian journey; God knows what He is doing. We often do not, and like the roses in November that cry out in pain and protest, we look for answers. And yet no more than I can explain my purpose to the roses (they are only rose bushes, after all), can God explain to us what He is about (we are mere mortals with minds too small to see the whole picture).
But just the same, our November pruning gives way to May glory; God the vinedresser knows what He is doing.
Note, too, that the Lord says that His Word “prunes” us. For if we let the Word enter us uncompromised and unabridged, we read, For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12). Yes, God’s Word can humble our pride, cut to the quick our distorted and wrongful thinking, and hold us accountable. It can cut away error and mend the decayed wounds of sin.
But we must allow the Word of God to be what it is. Too many of us seek a filtered and watered-down version of God’s Word. No! Let the undiluted Word go to work, of which Scripture itself says, Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29)
A pruned vine bears abundant fruit. None of us like pruning, but nothing is more necessary.
III. Persistence of Disciples – The text says, Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
In this short Gospel, the word “remain” occurs seven times. Do you get the point? Remain! The Greek word μείνατε (meinate) is the plural imperative of the verb meno, meaning, “to abide.” To abide means to remain habitually or to stay somewhere. It speaks of stability and persistence.
It is clear that a branch must always stay attached to the vine or else it is doomed. Absolutely nothing is possible to a branch (except to wither and die) unless it is attached to the vine 24 x 7 x 365. Nothing could be clearer in this analogy than this truth.
And yet it seems very unclear to the average disciple of Jesus, who so easily walks away, finding abiding both tedious and difficult. And then we puzzle as to why our spiritual life is tepid and its fruits lackluster. We can’t have even a mediocre spiritual life apart from Christ; the text says we can’t do anything at all but be scattered.
How do we abide with and in the Lord? Scripture distinguishes four ways. We abide and experience union with the Lord through
- HIS WORD – If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (Jn 15:7). And again, Anyone who loves me will be true to my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him (Jn 14:22).
- HOLY COMMUNION – He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (Jn 6:56).
- PRAYER (especially communal prayer) – For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20).
- KEEPING HIS COMMANDMENTS – Those who keep his commandments abide in him and He in them (1 John 3:22).
Yes, abiding is accomplished through prayer, Scripture, Sacraments, fellowship, and walking uprightly. And this Gospel could not be more clear: abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide. Seven times the word is used.
Do you get it? Abide. Persistently abide.
IV. The Produce of Disciples – The text says, If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Attached to and abiding in the vine, we will produce abundant fruit. Note that this is linked to a kind of fruitfulness in prayer that comes from the Father’s good pleasure.
And why is He pleased to answer our prayers if we abide? Because He can trust us with His blessings. In effect, He can say, “Here is someone who is close to my Son, who habitually remains with Him and abides with Him. Yes, here is someone I can trust with blessings. Here is a wise steward who is in union with my Son.” Scripture speaks often of the correlation between wise stewardship and blessings:
- (Luke 16:10-11) Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
- (Matt 25:21) His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
- (Luke 12:48) From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
You want more? Then use well what you already have. Be someone whom the Father can trust because you stay close and abide with His Son. Be like those who can say, with mother Ruth, Whereever you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay (Ruth 1:16). And be like the man who said to his wife, “If you ever leave me, I’m going with you.”
Abide, abide, abide.
My mother died a little more than ten years ago, quite tragically and suddenly. At first her presence seemed so far away, her soothing voice with its gentle mid-western accent, gone. But then about six months ago, in my heart and deep in my thoughts, I had a sense that suddenly she moved closer to me. Perhaps her purgation was at an end, or perhaps some roadblock in my own heart moved. But there she was, and once again I vividly felt her tender prayers. Thank you, Lord.
With Mother’s Day not far off, the following video showed up in my subscription list from Igniter Media. As the video shows, perfect mothers do not exist—real ones do. And it is the real ones who love and care for us. I learned so much from my mother, even in her struggles. She was my mother, the mother God wonderfully gave me, the mother whose sacrifices I could never number. She was so human and yet so godly, so down-to-earth and practical and yet so heavenly and spiritual. She was not a perfect mother, and I was not a perfect son. But she was perfectly my mother, and I was perfectly her son, in God’s design.
Enjoy this video.
There is a brief interaction between Jesus and certain unbelieving Jews on the Temple Mount which illustrates the rather common human tendency to demand that God be God on our terms, not His. Here is that dialogue:
And Jesus walked about in the temple area on the Portico of Solomon.
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him,
“How long are you going to keep us in suspense?
If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered them, “I told you and you do not believe.
The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me.
But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep (Jn 10:22-25).
Their demand to be told plainly is, in effect, a way of insisting that Jesus be the Christ, the Messiah, on their terms. It is as if they are saying, “OK, Jesus, repeat after me. Say, ‘I am the Messiah. I am the one you have been waiting for.'”
But of course the problem with Jesus saying this is that they would have heard the word “Messiah” on their terms, not His. They would have understood the Messiah and His role with their flawed worldly notions. They expected a Messiah who would ride in on a warhorse, gather an army, defeat and slaughter their Roman oppressors, and reestablish the Kingdom of David in worldly prosperity, power, and glory.
This was “Messiah” on their terms, but not His. Jesus would not be reduced to some military general or political figure. He is God and Lord. He does not fit into our neat little reductions and often foolish distinctions, factions, and parties.
Early on, Jesus, though accepting the title among the apostles discreetly (e.g., Mat 16:16-17), would not let them spread this word (Mat 16:20). This was because of the mistaken notions of Messiah described above. Only at the end, under oath and with the Cross in sight, did Jesus finally accept the title. But even then He did so with distinctions that both elevated the Messiah beyond some earthly kingship (to a heavenly one) and delineated His role as the suffering servant.
Pope Benedict, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, describes Jesus’ public declaration of His role as Messiah as follows:
According to Mark, the high priest’s question is: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus answers “I am; and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mk 14:62). … The high priest’s question [to] Jesus about his messiahship refers to it in terms of Psalm 2:27 and 110:3 using the expression, “Son of the Blessed”—Son of God. … Jesus then explains more closely, basing himself on Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13, how messiahship and sonship are to be understood … he explains how he wants his mission to be understood. From this we may conclude that Jesus accepted the title Messiah, with all the meanings accruing to it from the tradition, but at the same time he qualified it in a way that could only lead to a guilty verdict [but] He left no room for political or military interpretations. … He claims to sit at the right hand of the power, that is to say, to come from God in the manner of Daniel’s Son of Man, in order to establish God’s definitive Kingdom (Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 2, pp. 180-181).
And therefore Jesus was Messiah, all right, not only in the humble sense of suffering servant, but also in the more glorified sense of the Son of Man described in Daniel. He is God and Lord, judge of the living and the dead, and He will come on the clouds one day and be seen by all for who He really is. Thus, a kind of high Christology and suffering servant meet in Christ, the true Messiah. He is not high enough for the political glories of this world, yet at the same time He is too high for this world, which would seek to restrain Him in “manageable” glories and roles so that His “handlers” could also benefit from His office.
But Jesus will not be handled or managed by us. He will not do our political bidding, join our parties, or be our candidate. He is too much for us. He bursts our notions and exceeds our expectations. Not only is He outside our box, He is outside our world. He is God on His terms, not ours.
Now this is important, since many in our world today seek to define God on their own terms. In effect, we moderns say, “Be God on my terms,” or “I will believe in you if you conform to my expectations. Tell me plainly, in my terms, if you will be the kind of God I expect and want you to be.” The ecclesial version of this is “When the Catholic Church conforms to my views and expectations I will put faith in her and join, otherwise I won’t.” And thus God and the Church He founded are not to be discovered, they are to be reworked according to modern sensibilities. In terms of God, we used to call this idolatry. In terms of the Church, this is called “designer religion.”
Try for a minute to step back and be appalled at the arrogance of this modern trend. So many in our culture think they have a perfect right to design God rather than to go out and meet Him on His own terms, as revealed in Scripture and the ancient Tradition of the Church. For many today, it is God in the image of man, not man in the image of God.
To the ancients who took this stance Jesus simply said, “You are not my sheep.” Not a good thing to hear from the lips of the Savior! To them He had given the proof of miracles, the testimony of John the Baptist, the voice of the Father in their hearts, and the fulfillment of countless Scriptures. To us today He gives the miracle of a two-thousand-year-old Church and Tradition, the testimony of countless saints, the voice of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and His revealed Word, tested time and time again and found to be true and reliable.
To those who are not His sheep, no explanation is possible. To those who are, no explanation is necessary. Pray for many massive and sudden conversions. Ask for a miracle to break the arrogance of our times, which dare to say to God, “Be God on my terms or be gone.”
To instruct comes from the Latin in + struere, which means to build up or (even more literally) to pile up. In English, there is also the notion of strewing something. For example, to strew hay or to say that the seed has been strewn. Thus, to instruct means to disperse knowledge or build someone up in what is learned.
These days, the word “ignorant” is most often used in a negative or pejorative sense. And thus to say that someone is ignorant usually means (in modern English) that he is stupid or foolish. But more literally and less pejoratively, the word simply refers to someone who does not know something. And while some ignorance can be said to be inexcusable (in that a person should know better), it can also be more innocent: one simply does not happen to know something and can benefit from instruction in the matter.
And this is what is meant by the spiritual work of mercy “Instruct the Ignorant.” All of us can benefit from proper instruction by those who know more about a certain subject or issue than we do. And it is a work of mercy when someone takes the time to instruct us. It is an even greater work of mercy when the knowledge conferred is something essential or saving for us.
Can any of us ever really be grateful enough for all those who took the time to teach us down through the years, whether it was as young children in school, or as we grew through maturity and into a career, or even today as we learn new technologies or new issues and things that are on the scene? A patient and generous teacher is a great gift. And indeed the knowledge we gain is so enormously valuable as to be literally invaluable.
Yes, to instruct the ignorant is a great great work of mercy, and knowledge is one of our most precious gifts.
In speaking of instructing the ignorant as a spiritual work of mercy, at least two things are meant. First, because the intellect is a faculty of the soul, our human spirit is nourished by all instruction.
Second, however (and more particularly), the Church has in mind the kind of instruction that most benefits the soul: instruction in religious truth rooted in the Holy Scriptures and in the Sacred Tradition of the teachings of the Church. If secular instruction can benefit us unto worldly ends, how much greater the benefits of religion instruction that has heavenly and eternal rewards.
The goal of religious instruction is always to place one into a saving relationship with God. And thus the goal is not to simply help people know about the Lord, but to know the Lord, and by that relationship with Him in the truth, to be saved. What an enormous boon, what a wealth and treasure it is to know the sacred truths of God!
Psalm 119, the longest in the Bible, goes on for 176 verses praising the glory of God’s truth, which is more precious than gold many times refined. The book of Baruch says, Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us! (Baruch 4:4) Yes, how I love your law, O Lord.
The second and more particular sense of instructing the ignorant, however, seems to have been largely lost. Many otherwise good and conscientious parents place a low priority on the religious instruction of their children. Math and science classes must be passed; if trouble emerges a tutor needs to be secured! School attendance is essential, for indeed the child’s future very much depends on success in academic subjects. But there seems to be little concern if children do not grasp religious truths or balk at attending Mass.
Even more than understanding worldly truths, laying hold of sacred doctrine is essential for children’s eternal salvation. But too few parents have any sense of urgency about conveying these truths.
Part of the problem is theological, since many today have a diminished sense of the possibility of Hell, erroneously thinking little of the Day of Judgment for which we should have a holy fear and sobriety, not to mention a careful preparation.
Sociologically, however, the problem seems to have its roots in the last two centuries, when the religious instruction of youth was largely consigned to priests and religious. The idea of parents as the chief educators of their children in the ways of faith was largely eclipsed by a ceding of this authority to a professional class. And thus the Catholic school system, one of our greatest strengths and assets, also has had unfortunate and unintended consequences at the family level.
Today there is a greater emphasis from the Church on the need for parents to be equipped for their role as the primary educators of their children. But effective programs are still hard to come by. In my own parish, I have made the instruction of parents the most critical pillar in our Sunday school program. While the children are in the classroom, I am in the cafeteria teaching the same material to the parents. Nothing is more essential for parents than to hand on the saving truths of the faith to their children. Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov 22:6).
Instructing the ignorant: a great and wonderful spiritual work of mercy whereby souls are saved; the wonderful, astonishing, and inestimable gift of knowledge, given like food for the soul and light for the mind.
Be extravagant in teaching your own soul by frequent recourse to Holy Scripture and all sources of good knowledge and holy wisdom. Be extravagant in sharing what you have learned with others.
Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies …
Your statutes are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
My heart is set on keeping your decrees
to the very end.
Your statutes are wonderful;
therefore I obey them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple (Psalm 119).
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down” (Rev 10:1-4).
A similar passage occurs in the Book of Daniel, where, having had certain things revealed to him, he is told,
But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end (Dan 12:4).
And to the Apostles, who pined for knowledge of the last things, Jesus said,
It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power (Acts 1:7).
In all these texts we are reminded that there are some things, even many things, that are not for us to know. This is a warning against sinful curiosity and a solemn reminder that not all God’s purposes or plans are revealed to us.
Several reasons come to mind for this silence and for the command to seal up the revelation of the seven thunders:
- It is an instruction against arrogance and sinful curiosity. Usually, especially in our modern setting, people think they have right to know just about anything. The press speaks of the people’s “right to know.” And while this may be true about the affairs of government, it is not true about people’s private lives, and it is surely not true about all the mysteries of God. There are just some things that we have no right to know, that are none of our business. Much of our prying and nosing around is a mere pretext for gossip, and for the opportunity to see others’ failures and faults. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that more than half of what we talk about all day long is none of our business.
- It is a rebuke of our misuse of knowledge. Sadly, especially in the “information age,” we speak of knowledge as power. We seek to know in order to control, rather than to repent and conform to the truth. We think that we should be able to do anything we know how to do. Even more reason, then, that God should withhold from us the knowledge of many things, seeing as how we have confused knowledge with wisdom, and have used our knowledge as a pretext to abuse power, to kill with nuclear might, and to pervert the glory of human life with “reproductive technology.” Knowledge abused in this way is not wisdom; it is foolishness and is a path to grave evils.
- It is to spare us from the effects of knowing things we cannot handle. The very fact that the Revelation text above describes this knowledge as “seven thunders” indicates that these hidden utterances are of fearful weightiness. Seven is a number that refers to the fullness of something, so these are loud and devastating thunders. God, in His mercy to us, does not reveal all the fearsome terrors that will come on this sinful world, which cannot endure the glorious and fiery presence of His justice. Too much for this world are the arrows of His quiver, which are not exhausted. Besides the terrors already foretold in Scripture, the seven thunders may well conceal others that are unutterable and too horrifying for the world to endure, a world that is incapable of enduring His holiness or of standing when He shall appear.
What, then, is to be our stance in light of the many things too great for us to know and which God mercifully conceals from us? We should have the humility of a child, who knows what he does not know but is content that his father knows. One of the psalms says,
O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
even so is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and forever (Psalm 131 in toto).
Yes, like a humble child we should seek to learn, realizing that there are many things that are beyond us, that are too great for us. So we should seek to learn, but in the humility that is the reverence for the truth, a humility that realizes that we are but little children, not lords and masters.
Scripture says, Beyond these created wonders many things lie hid. Only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).
Thank you, Lord, for what you have taught us and revealed to us. Thank you, too, for what you have mercifully kept hidden and which is too much for us to know. Thank you, Lord. Help us learn and keep us humble, like little children.