The Washington Post recently published and article by Reza Aslan entitled Five Myths about Jesus.
At one level the article is the “usual fare” from those who wish to discredit the Biblical text and make a little money in the process. Indeed our deconstructionist times love to heap scorn on our Sacred text. Almost no other ancient text receives the scrutiny and cynicism that our Scriptures, especially the New Testament does. I’ll take it as a compliment. Jesus is “public enemy number 1″ to the West. Neither Buddhist, Hindu, nor even (strangely) Muslim texts receive such scorn or scrutiny. But Jesus has to go, and one way to accomplish this is to seek to discredit our Sacred Text and subject it to a scrutiny that is extreme, unreasonable, and a standard to which almost no other ancient text is subject. But again, take it as a compliment.
As for Mr Aslan’s article, while there are many specific flaws in his article, the one overarching flaw is a flaw that is common to most 20th and 21st century historical scholars. And the flaw is the hubris that we, some 20 to 21 centuries removed from the events described, somehow know better than the ancients what really happened in biblical times. Never mind that! Yet, Luke, for example, claims to have interviewed eyewitnesses and claims to carefully mapped out the historical events surrounding Jesus:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Never mind all that, our intrepid author, Mr. Aslan, 21 centuries later somehow knows better than Luke who lived then and walked with the eyewitnesses. He also knows better than Matthew and John, James, Peter, and Jude who all walked with the Lord. He dismisses what they have all written as “shrouded in legend and myth” and couches what he says as reputable “biblical scholarship.”
In effect we are left to choose between someone who lived in the time coterminous with the events described, versus someone who lived more than 2000 years later. I for one, choose those who actually knew Jesus, and witnessed what he did. I further choose others like Luke and Mark who knew and interviewed the eyewitnesses and who wrote in the lifetime of those witnesses, such that had they lied or erred, correction and rejection would have been forthcoming. Yes, I choose the accounts of the actual witnesses whose accounts have been subject to 2000 years of scrutiny and have withstood those fierce winds.
Yet there are those who proudly suggest they now know better, that modernity has been able to somehow assemble a greater command of the fact. This is hubris.
This hubris was common among the so-called “Jesus Seminar,” a gathering of questionable scholars somehow claiming to know what Jesus actually said and did not say. A remarkable pride actually, but a pride not uncommon for us moderns who tend to look askance at ancient times as infantile and far less sophisticated than our own glorious times.
Articles like Mr. Aslan’s, say a lot more about us, than the events they claim to demythologize, or the ancients they disrespectfully dismiss as either mistaken or liars.
As to the particular charges that Mr. Aslan raises, we can answer them rather quickly:
1. He first says, – It is a myth that Jesus was born in Bethlehem: The first Christians seem to have had little interest in Jesus’s early years. Stories about His birth and childhood are conspicuously absent in the earliest written documents…..but prophecies require[d] the messiah, as a descendant of King David, to be born in David’s city: Bethlehem. But Jesus was so identified with Nazareth, Not being born in Bethlehem….Simply put, Luke places Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there but because that story fulfills the words of the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem . . . from you shall come for me a ruler in Israel.”
In the world of normal people, the fulfillment of a prophecy is evidence for the veracity of something. But in the twisted world of many Bible “scholars” the fulfillment of prophecy is contraindicative and produces suspicion. Mr. Aslan goes on to cite very questionable and murky histories about the first Century census that dislocated Mary and Joseph. Really what he does is to cite a lack of evidence for such a census. (But of course Luke IS evidence). And Aslan’s argument from silence really proves little or nothing except silence. Census taking was a common thing at the time and there is no reason to doubt Luke’s attesting to it.
He also uses a tired old tactic of saying that if something was not said in the earliest documents, it therefore isn’t true. But this does not follow. I may meet you and tell you nothing of the circumstances of my birth for months or years into our friendship. But it does not follow that I was not in fact born in St. Francis Hospital, Evanston Ill in 1961. Everything is not disclosed at once, it cannot be.
Once again we are simply told to trust our author over the actual source documents in which eyewitnesses were interviewed, eyewitnesses describe the events of Jesus birth. The Gospel states quite plainly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Why doubt this? At the end of the day, I would rather trust someone who lived at the actual time of the events than someone 21 centuries removed. Jesus was born in Bethlehem no reason to doubt it.
2. He says Jesus had brothers, Despite the Catholic doctrine of His mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, we can be certain that the historical Jesus came from a large family with at least four brothers who are named in the Gospels….Even the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus’s brother James….Some Catholic theologians have argued that the Greek word the Gospels use to describe Jesus’s brothers — “adelphos” — could also mean “cousins” or “step-brothers,” and that these could be Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. While that may be true, nowhere in the New Testament is “adelphos” used to mean anything other than “brother.” So there is no rational argument for viewing Jesus as an only child.
Note that he says “it may be true” that adelphos can mean cousin. But then he simply rejects it with a circular logic that the New Testament never uses the term this way. But how can he know this without the full genealogy of each adelphos of Jesus? Again we are simply asked to believe something because he and scholars he agrees with say so.
And, while this issue has been much debated among Christians for some 500 years, it was not widely debated prior to that. Early Christians, less remote from the events of the New Testament, had no trouble accepting that Mary had no other children or that adelphos could mean cousin.
Further, if Jesus was a member of a large family as Mr. Aslan asserts, we have some puzzling things that take place in the Gospels. For example, Jesus seems to find it necessary to entrust his mother to the care of John, a non-blood brother. Strange thing if they were other brothers on the scene. Further, Mary’s question to the angel “How shall this be since I know not man?” while mysterious, does seem to imply that Mary did not anticipate having children at all let alone Jesus. However one wants to interpret her question, it does remain a puzzling inclusion in the text if, in fact, she had many children.
But the bottom line is, the Church received from antiquity the teaching that Mary remained a virgin before during and after the birth of Christ. Why should you or I believe our intrepid author, 21 centuries later, simply because he overrules with those in the scene, and what subsequent early centuries attested to?
3. His third “myth” that Jesus did not rally have twelve disciples is trifling, and I won’t even spend time on it. You can click through to the article using the link above to read his point.
4. He denies that Jesus was tried before Pilate: In his 10 years as governor of Jerusalem, Pilate eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands to the cross, and the Jews lodged a complaint against him with the Roman emperor. Jews generally did not receive Roman trials, let alone Jews accused of rebellion. So the notion that Pilate would spend a moment of his time pondering the fate of yet another Jewish rabble-rouser, let alone grant him a personal audience, beggars the imagination.
So once again we are being asked to deny the evidence of four Gospels, several more references in the Acts and Epistles, and the evidence of most early Creeds. Why? Because Reza Aslan says so. Again I choose the massive evidence of the First Century documents over Mr. Aslan’s mere assertion that it seems unlikely.
Further his argument does not address the facts. Pilate attended with concern to the “Jesus matter” because he feared a riot. It was Passover and about a million Jews where in the and around the city. The concern for the riot got his attention. This does not “beggar the imagination” that Pilate might have sought to quell a riot and a “rabble” led by the High Priest himself.
5. Finally he denies that Jesus was buried in a tomb saying The primary purpose of crucifixion was to deter rebellion… the criminal was always left hanging long after he died; the crucified were almost never buried. Because the point of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten witnesses, the corpse would be left to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a trash heap….[not] in an extravagant rock-hewn tomb fit for the wealthiest men in Judea.
But Mr. Aslan omits two important facts. First it was Passover, and for this reason, the Romans deferred to requests that the bodies not be left out. Secondly, the burial in the tomb was favor to a wealthy and likely powerful man, Joseph of Arimathea.
Thus, however unlikely Mr. Aslan thinks the facts, they are reasonably explained to any reasonable listener.
We end where we began: the need for seculars and other non-Christians (I think Mr Aslan is Muslim) to debunk and try to disarm Christ and his Church. Why this need? Why do they seem to fear the untamed Jesus of Scripture? Were they as secular or as unconvinced as they say, they would not exhibit such need and passion to undermine him, they would just ignore us. But why the need to destroy, to undermine, why the passionate intensity? Does anyone passionately attack other religious traditions, to include Protestantism?
The answer seems clear enough to me, and I am complimented by it. Namely this, that Christ and His Church are public enemy # 1. Any read of history shows that we are not going away and that we have endured, even thrived in every upheaval. Civilizations and empires have come and gone in the age of the Church, nations have risen and fallen, heresies and silly theories have come and gone. And here we are, obnoxiously still standing foursquare against secularism, unbelief, Islamic Terrorism, and every error, every doctrine of demons. Strike us and we just get stronger, the blood of martyrs soaks into the ground and becomes seed.
The “Five Myths” column is a collection of either tired old theories, or simply claims that lack any basis other than Mr. Aslan pridefully says so. The Washington Post is just showing its true colors in publishing such stuff. But long after the Post is gone, (and it seems to be fading fast) the Church will still be here, perhaps suffering, perhaps thriving, but here, always here, by Christ’s promise. It isn’t human power, its God-power.
Attacks like these are ultimately a compliment and my mind drifts back to an old gloss: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” ….Why is that?
And to my brethren in the ranks of the faithful: Keep Calm and Viva Christo Rey!
In the Gospel for today about the rich man and Lazarus the Lord gives us some important teachings on judgment and on hell. Now it is a fact that we live in times where many consider the teaching on Hell to be untenable. Many struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful and forgiving can assign certain souls to Hell forever. No matter that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture and quite a lot by Jesus himself, the doctrine does not comport well with many modern notions and emphases of God, and, hence many think it has to go.
But this reading goes a long way to address some of the modern concerns about Hell and so we ought to look at it. Prior to doing that however it might be important to state why Hell has to exist. I have done that more extensively on this blog here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/07/hell-has-to-be/ However I summarize that lengthier article in the next paragraph
Hell has to exist essentially for one reason: “Respect.” God has made us free and respects our freedom to chose his Kingdom or not. Now the Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values and these values are realized and experienced perfectly in heaven.
The values of the Kingdom of God include: Love, kindness, forgiveness, justice to the poor, generosity, humility, mercy, chastity, love of Scripture, love of the truth, worship of God, God at the center and so forth.
Now the fact is that there are many people in our world who do not want a thing to do with chastity, or forgiveness, or being generous and so forth. And God will not force them to adopt and live these values. While it is true that everyone may want to go to heaven, heaven is not merely what we want, it is what it is, as God has set it forth. Heaven is the Kingdom of God and the values thereof in all their fullness.
Hence there are some (many, according to Jesus) who live in such a way that they consistently demonstrate that they are not interested in heaven, since they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom values. Hell “has to be” since God respects their freedom to live in this way. Since they demonstrate they do not want heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”
In a way this is what Jesus says in John’s Gospel when he states clearly that judgment is about what we prefer: And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). So in the end you get what you want, light or darkness. Sadly many prefer the darkness. The day of judgment discloses our final preference and God respects even the preferences he would not want for us.
Now this leads to today’s Gospel which we can see in three stages.
I. The Ruin of the Rich Man - As the Gospel opens we see described a rich man (some call him Dives, which simply means “rich”). There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.
Now it is clear he lives very well as has the capacity to help the poor man, Lazarus, outside his gate. But he simply does not.
His sin is not so much one of hate, but of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the most significant Kingdom values, that of the love of the poor. His insensitivity is a “damnable sin” in the literal sense since it lands him in Hell. So the ruin of this rich man is his insensitivity to the poor.
Now the care of the poor may be a complicated matter and there may be different ways of accomplishing it, but in no way can we ever consider ourselves exempt from caring for the poor if it is in our means to help them. We simply cannot avoid judgement for our greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading from Amos regarding those who are insensitive to the poor: The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done! (Amos 8:7) God may well “forget” many of our sins (cf Is 43:23; Heb 8:12) but apparently, trampling the poor and disregarding their needs isn’t one of them.
Hence this rich man has willfully and repeatedly rejected the Kingdom and is ruined by his greed and insensitivity. He lands in Hell since he doesn’t want heaven where in the poor are exulted (cf Luke 1:52)
Abraham explains the great reversal to him: ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
II. The Rigidity of the Rich Man- Now you might expect the rich man to be finally repentant and to have a change a heart but he does not. Looking up into heaven he sees Lazarus next to Abraham. But rather than finally seeing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, the rich tells Abraham to send Lazarus to Hell with a pail of water in order that the rich man might be refreshed. He still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him). He sees Lazarus as a “step and fetch errand boy” and wants him to come to Hell.
Notice too, the rich man does NOT ask to be admitted to heaven! He is unhappy with where he is, but still does not seem to desire heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. So he has not really changed. He is regretful of his currently tormented condition but does not see or desire heaven as a solution to that. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. He wants to draw him back to the lower place he once occupied.
Now this helps explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person which we must come to accept. Namely, that we come to a point in our life where our character is forever fixed, where we no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear. Perhaps it is death that effects this fixed quality.
The Fathers of the Church often thought of the human person as clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is on the wheel and moist it can be molded, changed and fashioned. But there comes a moment when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (and fire is an judgment day (cf 1 Cor 3:15)) and in that fire it’s shape is forever fixed and cannot be changed.
The rich man now manifests this fixed quality. He has not changed one bit. He is unhappy with his torments and even wants to warn his brothers. But he apparently does not intend to change, or somehow experiences his incapacity to change.
Hence, the teaching that Hell is eternal since, having once encountered our fiery judgment, we will no longer be subject change. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision which God in sadness respects) is forever fixed.
III. The Reproof for the Rest of Us – As already noted, the rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. Perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn his brothers they would repent!
Now let’s be clear, we are the rich man’s brethren. And we are hereby warned. The rich man wants exotic measures but Abraham says no, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ The rich man replied, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Of course, this reply is dripping with irony given Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
That aside, the fact is we should not need exotic signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the Prophets” is a Jewish way of saying, they have Scripture.
And the scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to heaven and we have but to follow it. We ought not need an angel or a ghost, or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church are sufficient.
Their instructions are clear enough: Daily prayer, daily scripture, weekly Eucharist, frequent confession and repentance all lead to a change of heart wherein we begin to love the Kingdom of God and its values. We are more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, self controlled and so forth.
In the end we have to be clear: Hell exists. It has to exist for we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer our choice.
You and I are free to choose the Kingdom of God, or not. This Gospel also makes it clear that our choices lead ultimately to final and permanent choice wherein our decision is forever fixed.
The modern world needs to sober up. There is a Hell and its existence is both reasonable and in conformity with a God who both loves us and respects our freedom.
Herein we ought to consider ourselves reproved, if we have any non-biblical notions in this regard. Popular or not Hell is taught, as is the sobering notion that many (sadly) prefer the darkness of it to the light of God’s Kingdom.
My mind drifted back to a photo album my father once assembled not long before his death. In the frontispiece he etched a quote, from Psalm 103:
But as for man, his days are like the grass,
or as the flower of the field.
The Wind blows and he is gone,
And his place never sees him, anymore.
Indeed, our lives do pass swiftly. I often wonder of the many men who once lived in my old rectory, this place that never sees them anymore. One day I will be swept from here, a distant memory in some old pictures in the archive.
There are some other painfully beautiful lines in Psalm 90 which say,
O Lord, you have been our refuge
from one generation to the next.
Before the mountains were born
or the earth or the world brought forth,
you are God, without beginning or end.
You turn men back to dust
and say: “Go back, sons of men.”
To your eyes a thousand years
are like yesterday, come and gone,
no more than a watch in the night.
You sweep men away like a dream,
like the grass which springs up in the morning.
In the morning it springs up and flowers:
by evening it withers and fades….
Our life is over like a sigh.
Our span is seventy years,
or eighty for those who are strong.
Make us know the shortness of our life
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Lord, relent! Is your anger for ever?
Show pity to your servants.
In the morning, fill us with your love;
we shall exult and rejoice all our days.
Give us joy to balance our affliction
for the years when we knew misfortune.
Show forth your work to your servants;
let your glory shine on their children.
Let the favor of the Lord be upon us.
Yes, lines like these swept across my mind as I viewed this beautiful video, a commercial really. From Infancy to 70 in just under a minute and a half.
As the commercial ends and she moves off, a golden sunset is casting its orange and gold rays. Here too I recalled the moving lines of an old hymn:
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong. Or as the old Douay beautifully put it: The days of our years are threescore and ten. But if in the strong they be fourscore.
There is an unfortunate tendency in our times to confuse or equate kindness with charity. There is the tendency to prioritize never offending or upsetting others, over proclaiming the truth. And while it is true that kindness and not intentionally hurting other’s feelings or causing offense is a good thing, it is not so good that the truth should be suppressed in order to accomplish it.
But, it is a sadly common today. Consider a priest, who, in order not to give offense or cause others to be upset, does not preach important aspects of the Gospel or the moral law. Consider the strange modern phenomenon of parents who want to be their children’s a friend and almost seem to feel fear of their children’s anger, so they do not discipline, they do not correct. Consider a family gathering when one or more of the members around the table are involved in serious and unrepentant sin, yet in order to “keep the peace,” instructions are given not to mention such unpleasant things, or to do or say something about it since it might upset someone.
Yes, many people mistakenly equate charity with kindness and refuse to insist on accountability, to warn of sin, or to distinguish error from truth. Yet these things are a necessary part of true charity. In so doing, some feelings maybe hurt. And while upsetting people is not directly intended, it is sometimes a necessary component of fraternal correction.
Without such necessary correction, one’s feelings may be spared, but ones soul may in fact be lost!
Consider a medical analogy. What if a patient went to the doctor, who, observing the test results could see that the patient had a very serious cancer that needed immediate attention. But what if that Doctor were to say to himself, “I don’t want to upset the patient. I don’t want to cause him grief.” And so the doctor either says nothing, or even lies and says “You’re fine go home, rest assured.” We would say that this doctor is guilty of malpractice. The charitable thing to do is speak the truth to this person, along with reassurance and proposed solutions, or at least ways to ameliorate the problem.
And yet when it comes to spiritual or moral truth, it is precisely malpractice that many Christians exhibit. We would not call the lying doctor charitable, or even kind. He is simply guilty of malpractice.
So it is with God’s prophets who are called to speak the truth. We are guilty of malpractice if we don’t speak it in love. Priests who do not teach their congregations on critical moral issues or warn sinners are guilty of malpractice, they are not charitable, they are not even kind, though they may get credit for it. Neither are parents who do not discipline their children or insist upon the truth. Likewise for any Christian who walks through this hell-bound sin-soaked world and says little.
We may all get credit for being nice, and popular, but to suppress the truth is neither charitable nor is it kind. Frankly, it is a form of cruelty.
It is true, that we ought to look for the best opportunities to speak to others, simply blurting out the truth without charity, might be ineffective. And truth without charity really isn’t truth. We may also look for and ponder ways of speaking that will not cause undue grief or anger, we may understand that some issues are more important deal with first, before others etc.
But we cannot endlessly delay what must be done. To fail to speak the truth is not love, it is not charity, it is not kindness. It is really just self-serving and its ugliness is compounded by the fact that we so easily congratulate ourselves for being tolerant, kind and nice. But none of these notions should be confused with holiness or Charity. They are more about “me” and protecting and advancing “me” and steering clear of unpleasantries. Never mind that some people I am being “nice” and “kind” to may go to Hell for my silence.
Jesus, who is Love, who is charity, often said things that shocked and provoked. Indeed, he incited enough anger to get killed.
We need to be careful about expressing our anger (unlike Jesus). Two days ago there was a lot of unholy and unnecessary nastiness in the combox. This post reminds us to speak the truth, and not equate mere kindness with Charity. However, it is not a license to be nasty, harsh, personal and mean. Truth spoken without love really isn’t truth. For, instead of serving truth, it harms it and makes it seem odious.
But that said, we have diverged from the virtues and mistakenly equated kindness with true charity. Jesus was not “kind” by any modern standard. He was, like any prophet, plain spoken and did not hesitate to pierce to the root of every human heart
Evil triumphs when the good remain silent. Too easily are the words fulfilled which say, The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. (Yeats). Love and charity do not exempt us from speaking the truth.
Consider a five year old child who, though physically the size of a five year old, had not yet learned to talk or walk, who could only lay in his crib and who ate no solid food, only mother’s milk. Most of us would consider this a great tragedy. It would be a case of arrested development. And surely, as he failed to pass expected milestones and make the usual progress in maturity, his parents would consult doctors and experts in an anxious search for the cause of the problem and a cure. No one would fail to see the problem or shrug it off.
Now, compare the response above to the usual response to arrested development in the spiritual order.
Consider a young adult, say 25, who had gone on to physical maturity, and even earned a college degree. Perhaps he has just landed a job in a cutting edge field and is both technically smart and talented. But, despite being a highly trained expert in his secular field, his spiritual development is arrested and he has progressed little since second grade. In some ways he has even gone backward since, in second grade, he still knew his Act of Contrition and the Hail Mary.
Now, though thank God, he still goes to Mass, he is incapable of expressing much of anything about his faith. He knows there is a God and has heard about Jesus but does not know for sure if Jesus is God, he thinks so but he’s not sure. He is aware of the Bible’s existence but cannot name all four Gospels and would not even be sure exactly where to find them in the book. He’d eventually find them but it would take a lot of time. Names like Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Peter, Judas, et al., sound familiar to him, but he cannot tell you much about them, except that they are in the Bible. He has heard the word sacrament but cannot give an example of one and is not sure he’s received them or if that is just something priests and nuns get. Every now and then he thinks to pray but he really does not know what to say or how to do it. Sometimes he remembers a prayer from Mass, but when he tries to say it, he gets stuck since there aren’t other people around him saying it and helping him along. He DOES know the Our Father though! We have to give him that.
Now, mind you, this is a smart guy, he has a lot of knowledge in his field which is highly technical. A lot of people seek him for technical advice and he is a real problem solver in the corporation, keeping the computers and other critical peripherals updated and in good functioning order. But spiritually he is an infant.
The interesting question is, why did his parents and parishioners not experience alarm as they noted arrested spiritual development in him? As he began to go from second grade to third and forth, not only did NOT progress, but he actually got worse. Why did his parents not sound an alarm? Why did the pastor and catechists not experience shock that he seemed to show no progress in the Spiritual life? As his age drew him into high school, not only did his knowledge of the faith not increase but his moral life now began to slide. Soon his language grew bad, he resented authority, was looking at porn on the Internet. His parents were irritated by this, but not really alarmed enough to intensify his recourse to the sacraments or augment his spiritual training. Spiritually he was frozen in time. But no one seemed to notice or care.
But, by God, when almost failed a math course his parents went into action and hired a tutor! After all, this might threaten his getting into a good college! But his failure to grow spiritually never much fazed them. When he went to college they drove up with him, looked at the dorms, met a few of his teachers and attended orientation sessions for new students. But they never thought to meet the College Chaplain or ever to ask who would be spiritually teaching or pastoring their son. You know, that sort of stuff doesn’t really occur to you to ask about.
Well, you get the picture:
- It starts, really, with low expectations. Most people don’t really expect that they should grow much in their faith. Advanced knowledge and deep prayer are for priests and nuns. Too many lay people just don’t expect much, and thus are not alarmed when they and their kids know next to nothing about the faith.
- Further, the faith is sort of a side issue to many. What really matters is that you study hard to get a career that will unlike the American Dream. Never mind that worldly things don’t last, or that it’s pointless and harmful to climb the ladder of success when it is leaning up against the wrong wall. We’ll think about all that tomorrow. For now just keep pursuing your dreams.
- Finally the sense that faith really matters at all is muted today when many have an unbiblical view that almost everyone goes to heaven. This removes any motivation to grow in the faith or be serious about living it in a counter-cultural way. To put it in a worldly way: why work hard or seek to develop yourself when the paycheck has already been deposited, and you’ll get paid no matter what, and can never lose your job?
Scripture – So here we are with a lot Christians who have a very bad case of arrested development. Scripture says:
- We have much to say….but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14)
- Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. (1 Cor 3:1-2)
- Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Cor 14:20)
- My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.” (Jer 4:22)
- When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. (1 Cor 13:11)
- It was [the Lord] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Eph 4:11-15)
So then, Scripture is clear that the normal Christian life is
- To be constantly growing in our faith.
- To go from mother’s milk (of elementary doctrines) to the solid food of more advanced understanding.
- To go from being young students to mature teachers.
- To exhibit mature knowledge of the faith and also a behavior that bespeaks mature Christianity.
- To go from being worldly in our priorities to being spiritual.
- To be able to aptly distinguish false doctrine from true doctrine.
- To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and ephemeral fads.
Yes, this is the normal Christian life. Maturity pertains to the human person in general and it certainly ought to pertain to men and women of faith. I pray you who read this blog are well along this path and are seeking to grow. I presume it, in fact.
But many are not Maturing. And I wonder if enough of us in the Church today see this as the horrifically strange and tragic phenomenon that it is. It is really far stranger and far more tragic than a five year old still lying in a crib, speechless and on mother’s milk. It is vastly more serious than the high schooler who is failing math and needs a tutor. To fail math may impact college and a career, but these are passing consequences. To fail in faith impacts eternity, not just for me but others.
Why are we so serious about passing worldly threats and not so about threats that have eternal consequences? In the end arrested spiritual development is by far the most serious of all developmental issues. A parent may give their child every good thing, but if they do not ensure the gift of strong and mature faith, they have given their children nothing but sand slipping thorough their fingers.
Only what you do for Christ will last. Pray God we get our priorities straight and make sure we ourselves and everyone grows up in the Lord. It is true that we must accept the Kingdom of God like a little child in order to enter it. But this text refers to our dependance not our ignorance. God made us to know him and to fail in this way is to miss the whole point and dignity of our life.
In daily Mass for the past number of days we’ve been reading from the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. These books deal with the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity.
Most modern-day Christians have only a passing knowledge of these aspects of ancient Jewish history and these events may seem to have little to say to us. But in fact, they speak quite powerfully of very important human struggles today. Thus, a review of these historical events seems in order, as well as an application of them to our life and struggles today.
To begin, the Jewish people, as descendants of Abraham, received the promise of a Land to call their own. This Holy and Promised Land, in the region of Palestine, was shown to Abraham, and his descendants dwelt there briefly.
However, due to famine, Abraham’s grandson Jacob, and his 12 sons moved to Egypt. Thankfully, one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, going on ahead to Egypt had become the Prime Minister of Pharaoh. So Jacob and his sons were warmly welcomed there, even if Joseph’s presence there had been due to the devilish means of his brothers.
And yet, sadly, there was a Pharaoh that arose who knew not Joseph (Ex 1:8), and in short order, the people of Israel were enslaved for over 400 years in Egypt! The Holy and Promised Land now seemed a distant, even a cruel memory.
But God, with strong hand and outstretched arm, through Moses and Joshua did finally lead them into the land of promise. And, as they entered there, God warned them sternly as detailed in the book of Deuteronomy, that the blessings would be theirs in abundance, but if they did not keep the Law, many curses would come upon them.
Sadly, as we know, the Law was not kept. It is the human condition, we rebel even when we are warned. And though prophet after prophet warned Israel and Judah to repent, the repentance was not forthcoming.
Thus, in 721 BC the Assyrians laid waste the whole of the northern Kingdom of Israel and ten of the Tribes were swept away, the so-called “Ten lost Tribes of Israel.” Judah in the south along with the Levites alone remained.
And in Judah too, after a brief period of reform, the people descended into sinful disregard of God’s Law again. After many warnings from the prophets, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, along with the Temple. They carried off the survivors of that war to live in exile in Babylon.
As they were led there, they sang this song, and swore a kind of vow: If I ever forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! (Psalm 137).
While in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah instructed the people that they would tarry there for about 80 years, but they should not forget the Lord! They should still live according to his ways and remember that he would one day lead them back to their land.
In an almost miraculous turn of events, within eighty years, the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and God inspired Cyrus, the King of the Persians, not only to allow the Jewish people to return to their Land, but he even offered a sum of money to help them in rebuilding!
But many of the Jewish people had begun to set down roots in Babylon. Some became successful there, indeed many. And thus, many of the people who heard this news that they could return to the Land of blessing and promise, were not all that thrilled by it.
The Holy Land, was, for most of them, either a distant memory, or a place they had never been to in the first place. Many had become very accustomed to Babylon thinking, “Sure, it’s a little hot here in the summer, but I own a nice little jewelry shop on the corner Tigris and Euphrates Avenues…My kid is the captain of the basketball team at Babylon U. Why should I go to all the trouble of journeying some 500 miles across the desert, to go to a ruined land, no matter how promised or holy?… I’ve got it pretty good here.”
And, so many of the descendants of those who sang, “If I ever forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither…” did indeed forget Jerusalem! And note this, the Land that was now available to them was not just any land, it was Holy Land! It was a place of promise and a place of God’s blessings.
For most of us modern Westerners, Land is simply something own, perhaps for a time. And when it is no longer useful, we sell it. But in the ancient world land was sacred, and the Holy Land for the Jewish people, was the most sacred of all. The refusal to return to the Sacred and Promised Land is spiritually very significant.
Nevertheless, most preferred to stay in Babylon. Only a small remnant, with Ezra & Nehemiah made the journey and began the work of rebuilding.
And in all of this, is a kind of paradigm, a kind of moral lesson for us. For, it is too easy for us to prefer the “Babylon” of this world to the Holy and Promised Land of Heaven. Somehow, we perceive, (and rightly so) that the journey to Heaven is not an easy one, requiring some sacrifices and the forsaking of the things of this world.
For many of us the journey can seem too hard, just too much trouble, and so we give way to sloth. Instead of being joyful at what God offers, we are sorrowful, even averse to it; thinking it all too much trouble.
Just as most of the people in Babylon had never really seen the promised land, only heard of it, so too for us. For many, heaven seems theoretical and distant, and instead of trusting that it is a glorious goal, the place of our greatest blessings, we choose rather to throw in our lot with this world, and its current blessings.
So instead of joyfully setting out on a journey, however arduous, we wonder what is on TV tonight, and we continue to set our roots in the “Babylon” of this world.
Here’s a moral tale about sloth, which is sorrow, sadness or aversion at the good things that God is offering because we think of them as simply “too much trouble.”
Only a small remnant of the ancient Jews returned to the Holy Land. And maybe this is what the Lord was thinking when he said that the road to destruction was wide and many followed it, and the road to salvation was narrow, difficult and a way that few found.
There is a beautiful song that says “I want to make heaven my home.” And in this, there is a kind of prayer that we ought to say, wherein we ask the Lord to make firm our decision and conviction to set out for heaven and not look back.
The Babylon of this world will continue to entice us, and we need to be sober at the remnant theology evident in the fact that most never returned to the Holy Land. And we must be sober at the sad remark of the Lord that only a few really want heaven.
So pray every day for the joy and zeal that are the virtues opposed to sloth.
Indeed, these ancient historical events, seemingly up obscure too many moderns, do in fact have a lot to teach us.
What will it be? The Babylon of this world, or the Holy Land of heaven? you decide.
Catholics have often endured the charge that we are an unbiblical Church. Strange accusation, really, for the Church that collected the Scriptures, determined the canon of Scripture and preached it for 1,500 years before there ever was a Protestant denomination. The fact is we are quite biblical and often in ways that are stunningly powerful.
For the Church, the Scriptures are more than merely ink spots on a page. The Scriptures are manifest and proclaimed in how we live, how we are organized hierarchically, our sacraments, our liturgy and even in our buildings.
Long before most people could read, the Church was preaching the Gospel. And to do so, she used the very structure of her buildings to preach. Many of our older builds are a sermon in stone and stained glass.
The Scriptures come alive in our art, statues, paintings, and majestic stained glass windows that soar along the walls of our Churches like jewels of light. Even the height and shape of our older churches preach the word. The height draws our sights up to heaven as if to say, Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 3:1). And the shape of most of our older churches is the shape of a cross. As if to say, May I never glory in anything, save the Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14).
My own Parish Church is a sermon in stone and wood and glass. It is designed around the Book of Revelation, Chapters 4 and 5 in which John is caught up into heaven and describes it in detail. The fundamental design of the sanctuary drawn from Revelation 4 and 5 includes the throne-like altar (Rev 4:2), seven tall candles around the throne (Rev 4:5), the four living creatures in the clerestory windows above the altar (Rev 4:6-8). At the center of the altar is the tabernacle wherein dwells the Lamb once slain who lives forever, Jesus (Rev 5:6). Around the throne (altar) are seated the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4:4) symbolized by the 12 wooden pillars on the back sanctuary wall and the 12 stained glass windows of the Apostles in the transept windows. The multitude of angels who surround the throne (Rev 5:11) are symbolized by the blue and gold diamonds on the apse wall.
I have assembled pictures of these details along with the scripture texts from Revelation in the following PDF document: Holy Comforter Church in Washington DC and the Book of Revelation
In effect the builders of my Church (built in 1939) were saying, when you walk into this church, you have entered heaven. Indeed, it is a replica of the heavenly vision of John. And when we celebrate the liturgy it is more than a replica for we are taken up to heaven in every Mass where we join countless angels and saints around the heavenly altar. There we worship God with them. We don’t have to wait for some rapture, we go there in every Mass.
But there is more! For what John saw in heaven is none other than what God had prescribed to Moses. Moses was told quite explicitly by God how to construct the ancient sanctuary, the tent of Meeting in the desert. The layout, materials and elements are all carefully described.
And, having given these details God says, Now have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you. (Exodus 25:8-9) And again God later says, See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain (Ex 25:40). And yet again God repeats: “Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain (Ex 26:40).
The Book of Hebrews, commenting on this pattern says why God insists on the following of the pattern so exactly: They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. (Heb 8:5). In other words, the Ancient Temple was a replica, or a pattern really of the heavenly sanctuary.
Most older Catholic Churches maintain the basic pattern of what Moses was shown. Note this diagram, comparing the layout of the sanctuary in my parish church, Holy Comforter St Cyprian (HCSC) with the layout temple:
In the photo just below, you can see the remarkable similarity more visually. The pattern is even etched on the floor of my church which echoes a detail about the layout of the temple that Ezekiel described:
So there were four tables on one side of the gateway [of the sanctuary] and four on the other–eight tables in all–on which the sacrifices were slaughtered. (Ez 40:41)
Here below (on the left) is a depiction of the setup of the Tent of Meeting as it was when the people were still in the desert, next to a picture of my parish church sanctuary showing the remarkable similarity:
Note the way the scroll work on the floor of my parish (right) matches the four tables on either side in the sanctuary where the animals were slaughtered. The fiery square and horned altar in the photo of the temple (left) is represented by the horned square on the floor of my church (right). In the photo on the left of the ancient sanctuary, the holy place, and the holy of holies towers in the back, as does the high altar and tabernacle in my parish church on the right.
Simply put, the builders of my parish church remarkably depict the ancient temple and also the vision of heaven in the book of Revelation. This is what Church building should do: exemplify the heavenly sanctuary, a plan which God himself gave. Sadly, modern architecture has departed from the plan significantly. But in recent years, there has been something of a return, a trend for which we can only be grateful.
The Catholic Church is surely a biblical Church. My very building shouts the Word! We Catholics preach the word not only with ink and speech, but also in stone, wood, glass, liturgy and the arts, all to the glory of God.
Here is a video of some of the details of my parish.
One of the more frequent concerns expressed by many Catholics is level of talking and other noise in churches in recent decades. Many of us who are a bit older remember a time when to walk even into a rather full Church was to walk into a realm of great silence. People just didn’t talk in church. One would enter, find their pew, genuflect, and then kneel for private prayer before Mass began. When Mass concluded, one might kneel for a brief while for prayer, but then leave quietly, not talking until in the vestibule or outside the church. Even most masses were all but whispered by the priest. I even remember as a child that in the examination of conscience we used, “talking in church” was listed among the sins to be confessed.
Obviously, in most parishes, the days of strict silence are all but gone. The change is not just in churches, but to some extent is in the wider culture as well. I remember also as a child, rather strict ushers going up and down the aisles of movie houses enforcing silence. When one entered the courtroom, one was expected to maintain silence. And even in more formal concert settings, like at the Kennedy Center, one would often see signs as you entered the concert hall: “Silence.”
Most of this is gone now both in the Church, and in our modern culture, so dominated by informality at almost every level. Americans are almost never formal, almost never dress-up, nor do we observe most other formalities we used to, like silence. So our loud churches, bespeak both cultural and ecclesial trends.
Legitimately, many Catholics ask if there are to be no limits. As sound levels after Mass reach “cafeteria- like” proportions, many ask their pastors to please make announcements, and somehow enforce silence before and after mass.
Generally, most requests go unheeded, leading many Catholics to bemoan the lack of clerical leadership or the enforcement of any discipline within the Church. Such complaints are not wholly out of line, and these are in fact the days when clerical leadership is often lacking in many areas.
However, the lack of enforced silence may not be in fact simply a lack of leadership. Many pastors seek to balance competing and legitimate goods when it comes to the matter of silence in churches. Perhaps it is good to review a few of the competing issues, all good in themselves, that seem to hang in the balance when it comes to this question. Let’s look at them one by one.
1. Koinonia - In Acts 2:42 are described the four pillars of the Catholic life: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And hence we note a very Catholic vision of the life of the early Christians. There is devotion (not a mere dabbling) in the Apostolic teaching which includes both Scripture and Tradition. There is the “breaking of the bread” i.e. the Eucharist and, by extension, the whole of the sacramental life. There is prayer, both private and public, devotional and liturgical. Finally there is “fellowship.” The Greek word here is κοινωνίᾳ (koinonia), a word that is a noun referring literally to “what is shared in.” By extension it means: contributory help, participation, communion, or spiritual fellowship.
While the expression and experience of koinonia has varied over the centuries, it remains one of the four pillars of the Christian life as denoted in Acts 2:42. And while it is true, as we have commented here before, that there are many excessive flourishes justified in the the name of “community,” the solution to the modern problem of a self enclosed, self-referential, and anthropocentric expression of “community” is not to banish the concept, but to balance it.
And while strict silence in churches may have its appeal, there are legitimate concerns raised by enforcing it today as we shall see, since it may be in tension with legitimate concerns for the communal nature of Sunday Mass. Hence, point two.
2. The church as a place of prayer. Other things being equal, one of the first things one associates the church building with is prayer! And thus, one rightly expects the church building to be a place that in fact does encourage and foster prayer.
However, there are different types of prayer. There is public, liturgical prayer, and there is private devotional prayer.
As a general rule, especially on Sunday and other designated Mass times, the parish church is not a private chapel, but rather, is first and foremost a place of public prayer where the faithful gather as a group. The church is usually large, to accommodate numerous people, and it has pews or benches (not usually personal chairs and kneelers), where people, sitting in groups, with their clergy orient themselves in such a way as to foster the communal worship of God.
And while there are often separate shrines and chapel areas, the main purpose of the church is together a large number of people together, so that they may worship and praise God together. Sunday morning, especially, is it time for communal, rather than private prayer. And though private devotional prayer is essential and required for every Catholic, that is not the main focus of Sunday morning or of the main nave of the church.
To be avoided is an attitude which might say something like, “I go to church on Sunday to pray to God, not to be bothered by other people.” No, Sunday morning is a day of communal prayer to God. Even in relatively quiet parishes, there are going to be crying babies, the sound of shuffling feet, coughs and sneezes, and any number of things.
One of the concerns therefore the pastors face in fielding request to enforce stricter silence is that the concept of community as we saw in point one, and communal prayer is an important value to inculcate and balance with which the concept of strict silence. Frankly koinonia, is in some tension with strict silence among the faithful. People who are together tend to talk, at least at certain moments, such as greeting one another.
Keeping the church with an atmosphere conducive to private prayer, while a good value, is not the first and most essential focus of Sunday morning in the Catholic Parish. Rather, it is to provide an atmosphere conducive to the gathering of God’s people, so that they may together turn their worship and praise to Him. This will necessarily involve noise, setting up, some announcements, directions, the singing of hymns and prayers etc.
3. The presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament - It is a frequently given reason that the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle should command a silent reverence from us. And historically this response was widespread.
However, some also argue that Jesus enjoyed company, and attended many parties, sometimes with a rather rough and unrefined crowd. And hence, we can also exhibit some interaction in church and that this would not necessarily displease him.
There is a humorous story told to me once on retreat wherein:
A young Italian couple went to their parish priest and said that they were poor and could not afford to rent a hall. Might they use the parish courtyard for a brief reception after the wedding? The Pastor graciously agreed.
But on the day of the wedding heavy rains made the use of the courtyard impossible. So the request was made if perchance they could use the back of the church, just for a “brief” reception. They promised to keep the noise down and only drink “a little” wine. The pastor reluctantly agreed.
But, as is often the case, the wine flowed in abundance and the volume increased. The wine flowed some more, and the volume went up some more!
The pastor was now fuming in the sacristy and about to go and thrown them out went his neighboring priest and friend came by. He inquired as to the anger of the pastor who replied, “Listen to all the noise they are making, and in the house of God, Don Camillo! And they are drinking much wine!” “Ah, but Father, they are a poor couple and it is raining. They had to use your church. Besides, Jesus went to loud weddings and made wine in abundance. Surely he understands!”
The pastor responded, “I know that! You don’t need to quote the bible to me! I know Jesus went to loud weddings and I know they drank wine! You don’t need to tell me all that! But there, they did not have the Blessed Sacrament present!“
Lots of Christological layers going on in that parable!
And though we ought to avoid behaving in the Church of God in ways that take no notice of the Lord’s presence in the tabernacle, it does not follow that Jesus is offended that the members of his body enjoy the company of one another.
Here again, balance is required between koinoina and devotional prayer that recognizes the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle in a posture of silent adoration.
4. The nature of human dynamics. When it comes to the level of noise, it is a common experience that noise levels gradually increase, in large human gatherings. As background noise begins to increase, people talk louder in order to be heard. This further increases the overall noise level, and the volume continues to go up and up.
Some years ago in elementary school I remember that the teachers would sometimes put the lights out in the lunch room to call us to silence. We would then asked to be more quiet, and the volume levels the “reset” to a lower level. But gradually, for the reasons stated, they began to go back up again. Off the lights would go again. The rebukes from the teachers were issued, “Talk more quietly!” And things quieted down, but them went back up, the cycle repeated.
Alas, it seems to be the human condition. And, the acoustics of many churches don’t help. Even subdued talking in the back, as ushers greet and instruct the faithful, echoes and create a lot of background volume, causing other people to talk louder etc.
Hence without very strict rules, forbidding all talking, volume levels are going to tend to increase when some modest conversation is allowed. Perhaps in such a settings, the best a pastor can do is to give gentle reminders to the people to speak quieter and less. But even with momentary moderation in the volume of noise in churches, the volume will go up over time for the reasons stated.
5. General cultural shifts and expectations. If, the only real solution is the strict enforcement of silence, this sort of solution tends to run afoul of cultural expectations, when it comes to parish life today. Like it or not, there is an expectation that parish communities should be places where people are welcomed, and where there is a “warm, friendly and courteous” atmosphere.
We’ve already discussed that there are cultural shifts in America involved here. And while many of us who are older may remember a time when things were more disciplined or orderly, from our perspective, those days are now largely gone.
Most pastors do not want their parish church to be identified as a place where people are harshly rebuked, and warned to avoid any conversation or human interaction that might make noise. And while some might praise a certain parish church for its quiet reverence, most pastors are aware that the current culture tends to favor a more casual, open, “warm and friendly” setting.
And while some who read this may lament this fact, it is hard to deny that this is the kind of culture we largely have today.
However, it seems very legitimate to suggest that things are currently out of balance in this regard. But to ask one pastor, or parish to take on the whole culture in this regard may not always be realistic, and pastors do legitimately struggle how to find ways to keep the noise levels lower, without offending against notions of community today.
5. The role of certain specific cultural settings. Many of us, who come from a Northern European cultural stock, often identify silence with reverence, and reverence with silence. For us, it is a no-brainer.
But for people from many other cultures, the identification of silence with reverence is not so obvious. In the African-American community, (to include also Africans of Caribbean and Continental origin), warmth and hospitality are very important and intertwine with reverence. Lively praise and worship are also considered a high form of reverence.
The idea of sitting silently in the church, with a rather serious look on one’s face, seems somewhat irreverent in such settings. God is to be praised joyfully. My neighbor is to be greeted. To be reverent is to celebrate, to be overtly joyful. In settings like this, the European expression of reverence often seems to be “sour-faced Saints” or perhaps the expression of one who has recently suffered the death of a loved one.
The general understanding of reverence in these settings is that God is worthy of our highest and most joyful praise.
Further, in the Black churches the thought of entering and not greeting your fellow parishioners seems strange. As a general rule African American culture is more extroverted and has thus embraced the current cultural trends to be more effusive in the house of the Lord.
I know less of Latino culture, but there seem to be similar experiences there.
Say what you will about which approach might be best, but the fact is there are very different cultural experiences at work in what we call reverence. This is not just another form of relativism, for relativism regards matters of truth. That God is to be revered cannot be set aside. But how this is expressed does vary. Some do so by quiet solemnity. Others by joyful exuberance.
Both sorts of reverence are spoken of in the Bible. At times, Jewish and early Christian worship are described there as rather noisy affairs. At other times there are references to bent knees and bowed heads.
Thus, when there are requests that “Father do something about all the talking and noise” many pastors are conflicted. There IS a value to preserving greater quiet in our parish churches, especially before Mass, and encouraging prayer. But cultural trends and differences do exist and they are not all bad.
Koinonia is a pillar of Church life. Helping Catholics to meet and forge relationships in Christ is to be encouraged. One might wish that this took place outside the church building, but practically, inside is when most of the people are together and seek each other out.
And the conversation isn’t all frivolous. There are concerns expressed, and significant news shared. There are prayer requests and invitations made to important gatherings and meetings in the parish etc. And yes, there is also banter of a less edifying sort.
Perhaps the best that Pastors can do to remind the faithful occasionally to balance the virtue of fellowship with the respect for the fact that there is also a place for private prayer after, and especially before Mass. Silence is more reasonably expected when entering the Mass. After Mass it is just going to be more difficult to expect it in most places, given culture and the legitimate need for communal fellowship.
I suspect there will be strong opinions in the combox. I will largely refrain from interjecting much to give you all the chance. I DO ask for you to consider mutual charity, whatever your preference. There are legitimate concerns for the volume of noise in most parishes. But there are also other things in the balance. This is what I mean by the title “Pastoral perspectives” At least consider this much, that Pastors have a lot on their minds when it comes to taking a stand on this issue. There are many legitimate things they must balance. Please avoid vitriol, ridicule and adding more heat than light. Amor suprema lex.
The Lord Jesus gives a penetrating analysis of the state of the sinner and some very sobering advice to we would-be saints in today’s Gospel. Let’s look at the Gospel in two stages: The Analysis of the Sinner and the Advice to the Saints.
I. ANALYSIS OF THE SINNER - The Lord Jesus describes a sinful steward in the opening lines of this gospel. Let’s look at the description:
A. DELUSION (of the sinner)- Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward – Notice he is called a steward not an owner. God is the owner of everything, we are but stewards. A steward must deal with the goods of another according to the will of the owner. This is our state. We may have private ownership in relation to one another. But before God we own nothing, absolutely nothing.
Part of the essence of sin is to behave as though we were the owner. We develop an arrogant attitude that what I have is really mine to do with as I please. We think, “It’s mine, I can do what I want with it…..I call the shots…..I can do as I please with my own body….” and so forth. But the fact is everything belongs to God.
Scripture affirms, The earth is the LORD’S, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Ps. 24:1). Even of our bodies which we like to think of as ours, Scripture says: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). And old song says, “God and God alone created all these things we call our own. From the mighty to the small, the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone….” So the Lord defines the sinner as a steward, though the steward acts as if he were an owner.
B. DISSIPATION (of the sinner) - who was reported to him for squandering his property. The Lord here describes the essence of many of our sins: that we dissipate, we squander the gifts of God. We waste the gifts we have received and using them for sinful ends.
For example in greed we hoard the gifts he given us to help others. Instead of helping, we store them up only for ourselves. Yet all the goods of the world belong to all the people of the world and they ought to shared to the extent that we have excess.
Other examples of squandering the things of God are in gossip, lying and cursing wherein we misuse the gift of speech; in laziness wherein we misuse the gift of time; in all sin wherein we abuse and squander our freedom. This is dissipation, this is the squandering of God’s goods.
God has given us many good things, and instead of using them to build the Kingdom, we squander them and dissipate the kingdom.
C. DEATH (of the sinner) – He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ – Here the Lord teaches and reminds us that someday we will all be called to account and our stewardship will end. Elsewhere scripture reminds us So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body (2 Cor 5:9 ).
We have an appointed time to exercise our stewardship but our stewardship will end and the books will be opened. Here too Scripture reminds: And books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. (Rev 20:11)
While it is true that many pay little heed to the fact of judgement Scripture warns Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bids his time. Of forgiveness be not over-confident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy, my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger are alike with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed (Sirach 5:4).
Every steward (us) will die, our stewardship will end, and we will be called to render an account. It thus follows that we ought to listen to the advice which the Lord next gives.
II. ADVICE TO THE SAINTS- After analyzing the sinner the Lord has some advice for those of us sinners who want to be saints. He gives Four principles we ought to follow:
A. Principle of INTENSITY - The text says, The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting shrewdly. For the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. –
The Lord is telling us here many of the worldly are more crafty in what matters to them than the Spiritually minded in what (supposedly) matters to them. The fact is many of us are very intense and organized when it comes to worldly matters. We spend years of preparation in college training for careers. We work hard and are dedicated to climbing the company ladder.
In worldly expertise many are dedicated to developing skills, and becoming incredibly knowledgeable. In earning money and holding a job many display great discipline, getting up early to go to work, working late and hard to please the boss.
But when it comes to faith many of the same people display a third grade knowledge of things spiritual and show little interest in advancing in the faith or of praying. They will please the boss, please man, but not God. Parents will fight for scholarships for their children to get into the best schools. Students will compete for scholarships. But when it comes to saving truth, the pews are empty, Sunday School is badly attended.
To all this, the Lord says to us here that the spiritually minded ought to show the same intensity, organization, dedication and craftiness that the worldly show in their pursuits. We ought to be zealous for the truth, for prayer, for opportunities to sharpen our spiritual skills and increase our holiness. We ought to be as zealous to be rich in grace as we are to be rich in money. So the first principle the Lord gives us is intensity.
B. Principle of INVESTMENT - I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. -
As to what the Lord means by “dishonest wealth”, read here: What does the Lord mean by “Unrighteous Mammon”
The Lord tells of how the dishonest steward made use of the money at his disposal to make friends who would help him in the next stage of his life. How about us? Are we willing to use our money and resources to bless others, especially the poor, who can bless us in the next stage of our life?
On the day of your judgment will the poor and needy be able to speak up on your behalf? Will they be among the angels and saints who welcome you to eternal dwellings? I don’t know about you, but I am going to want the poor to pray and speak to God on my behalf the Day I am judged. Scripture says that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and needy.
In this world the poor need us, but in the next world we are going to need them. In this world those with money and power get heard, in the Kingdom it is the poor and suffering who get heard. It is a wise investment to bless the poor and needy.
In effect the Lord Jesus tells us to be wise in our use of worldly wealth. Just as the world tells us to take our wealth and invest it wisely so that it will reap future rewards, so the Lord says the same thing. He says, “Use your money wisely. Invest it well.” How? By storing it up it up in up in heaven. How do we do that? By giving it away! Then it will really be yours.
You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead. Scripture elaborates this elsewhere: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17) Notice how the passage says that through their generosity here the rich lay up treasure in heaven.
This is the scriptural principle and the great paradox in the Kingdom of God: that we keep something eternally by giving it away. We save our find our life by losing it, we keep out treasure and store it in heaven by giving it away.
So invest my friends, invest wisely! Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matt 6:20)
C. Principle of INCREASE – The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?
What is the “small matter” of which the Lord talks and in which we can prove trustworthy? The small matter is money. We make money the most important thing in life. But Spiritual matters are more important.
Scripture attests to this clearly: The Book of 1st Peter says our faith is more precious than fire-tried gold. The Book of Psalms (19:10) says The words of the Lord are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
So God says let’s see how you are in the small but significant matter of money, then I’ll see if you are able to able to handle bigger blessings. Do you think you can handle heaven and the spiritual blessings of holiness? Well let’s see, if you are trustworthy with worldly wealth, God will give you true wealth. If you’re trustworthy is what belongs to God, he’ll give one day what is yours.
You want more even here? Use well what you’ve already received. Then God will know he can trust you with more. You want increase? A gospel song says: You must faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life.
D. Principle of INDIVISIBILITY – No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.
Pay attention. To serve, means to obey. Most people obey money, affluence and worship the American standard of living before they obey God. They meet their world obligations first and then give God what is left over.
But we are called to obey God alone, to have an undivided heart. The wording here is strong You CANNOT obey the world (money) and think you’re also going to obey God. You have to choose what will be more important.
Now don’t tell me we don’t need a lot of grace and mercy here! Money and the lure of the world is very powerful. It’s to get on our knees and pray for a miracle to prefer God to the world.
This song says, You must faithful in a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life…. The sung builds to wonderful refrain: Well done good and faithful servant, Well done!
The commercial in the video below has a surprise ending. We are led through a very traditional story line about a child who can’t wait for Christmas. But then comes the twist at the end. You may wish to view it before you read any further commentary by me, lest my comments, give the surprise away.
As I saw the video I was first reminded of the Scripture which says, It is more blessed to give than to receive. ( Acts 20:34) And also the scripture that says, God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:7)
But there is something more than a cheerful giver illustrated in this video. Indeed, the young boy in the commercial is an urgent giver, a giver who cannot wait to give the gift he has to offer. The days and moments creep by. When will he finally be able to give the gift! And finally the day comes. Finally!
I knew this rang strangely familiar to me. Somehow it spoke of a Biblical theme. And then it hit to me. Yes! This was Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem, urgent and eager to give us the gift of our salvation, earnest to snatch us from the kingdom of darkness and translate us to the Kingdom of light. Of this almost impatient desire in Him Scripture says:
- As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)
- Jesus exclaimed, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! (Luke 12:49)
- Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!…“Now my soul is troubled, yet what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour! Father, glorify your name!”….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 people to myself.” (John 12 28-31)
Scripture says that as his Apostles followed him up the road to Jerusalem for his final journey they were “amazed and afraid.” (cf Mk 10:32). Along the way, seeing his determination to go to Jerusalem and fearful of his own predictions he would die, the disciples protested: But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going there? (John 11:8). Finally seeing his determination Thomas, likely in exasperation, said, Let us also go, that we may die with him! (John 11:16).
Yes, Jesus set his face like flint to Jerusalem, eager to give the gift of salvation. What distress, what impatience until he could give the gift! Resolutely he went forth with eagerness.
Think on these things as you watch this video.
The Lord tells a familiar parable and how a certain rich man had a harvest too big for his barns, do built bigger barns. But he dies surrounded by his riches, and the Lord calls him a fool since he thought somehow that his wealth could sustain him for years and did not consider his judgment.
There comes the memorable line that concludes the parable:
Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.
While this line may invite a post describing at length a list of what matters most to God, I’d like to limit the reflection more on how we are usually most anxious and concerned about what matters far less to God.
The well known passage begins with a man is concerned about money and that he should get some share of the family estate which his brother is withholding. Surely Jesus who cares about justice will side with him!
But the reaction of Jesus indicates a kind of irritation with the nature of the request. In effect he says, “Look, this sort of stuff is small potatoes. You’re all concerned about the wrong thing. You have far bigger issues in your life you ought to be thinking about (like greed, and a host of other sinful drives that will destroy you). These ought to concern you more than money and fair share. I have not come to be a banker, a real estate attorney, a probate judge, or a financial adviser. You need to get your focus and priorities right.”
Here of course is a kind of paradigm (or example) of a common human problem, and that is, that we often get all worked up about the wrong things and pay little attention to things that matter far more. Consider a few examples:
I. In listening to people pray at public gatherings, including myself, it is interesting how most of the prayers (almost 100%) deal with worldly matters. “O Lord, fix my finances, fix my health, fix my spouse, fix this or that situation so I am more comfortable and better situated, help me get a promotion at work.” None of these things are wrong to pray about, but notice the worldly and passing quality of most of it. It is almost as if we were saying to God, “Just make this world a better and comfortable place for me. Give me enough health, friends, money and creature comforts, and that’s all I need, I’ll just stay here forever!” In a way it’s a terrible thing to say to God and surely there are things for which we should ask that matter more to God.
I am sure God waits for the day when we will finally say from our heart, “Lord give me a closer walk with you….help me hunger for your justice, righteousness, truth and holiness. Help me repent of my sins and desire greater holiness. Help me yearn for the day when I can come and live with you and grant me the grace to be prepared to enter your presence. Take away my sinful attachments to this world and make my heart’s truest desire to be You and the joys waiting for me in heaven with you.” I am sure God’s waits for the day, for these are things that matter to God.
In the end, nothing matters more to God than you, yourself, and that you be made ready to be with him forever. Money, who cares? Health? That passes anyway, as does the body, and worldly glories. But the soul? Now here is something that matters particularly to God. But we go one praying for money, health, greater comforts, etc. Not wrong per se, but not the true priority, a priority which is often wholly neglected by us.
II. What then is our greatest problem? Lack of money, health or resources? No! Our greatest problem is our sin. Jesus says, If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to loose part of your body than to have it all cast into hell (Matt 5:30).
What is Jesus saying? He is saying that it is more serious to sin than to lose your hand, or your eye, or your foot.
Now we don’t think like this. If I were to lose my hand in some terrible accident, I would hate this day for the rest of my life. Indeed, it would be terrible. But why don’t I think this way about my sin? To God my sin is a far greater problem than a financial shortfall, or even bodily loss.
My sin matters to God, because he sees what it does to me, and that it is a far greater danger for me than any other worldly danger or problem. And yet, most of us pay little heed to this and are un-alarmed by it. But we sure know how to hit the panic button if we lose our job or get a diagnosis of cancer.
Our priorities are wrong and we are not rich in what matters to God. That is, we are not rich in repentance, cries for mercy, and a sober understanding of our truest and deepest problem, our sin.
III. And look how we too often raise our children. Almost all the focus is on worldly success. Johnny might know little or nothing about God, the Mass, Scripture or Sacraments, but let Johnny bring home a bad report card, and the reaction is quick. Here is a problem to get to the bottom of, because if Johnny doesn’t get better grades, he might not get into the premier local High School, and then, might not get into the best college, so he can make a killing, (oops, I mean a living).
So, the parents go into action. Perhaps a tutor is hired to help with math etc. Meanwhile Johnny barely knows the Our Father, doesn’t have a clue at Mass, his moral life is heading south, and all he knows about Adam and Eve is that they were “in the Bible or something.” Finally Johnny’s scores are better and he proceeds apace to the finest local High School.
One day his father proudly says to the Catholic pastor, “Great news! John has gotten a full scholarship to Princeton.” And the pastor says “Great!” When what he should say to the father is “OK fine. Now let’s find out who is going to preach the gospel to him up there. You know that it will be, (like most college campuses), a moral cesspool of fornication and drinking. So, if we’re not serious about John’s spiritual life, he may go in there, come out a big-wig lawyer, and yet be heading straight for Hell. So what’s the plan for his spiritual welfare and growth?”
But do the pastor or parents really give any thought to this? Usually not.
And so John climbs the ladder of success but it’s leaning up against the the wrong wall.
Too often parents, pastors, families and parishes are not rich in what matters to God. Our children hear that they should study hard, get good grades etc., to make it in this world. Of itself this is not wrong. But their souls are more important, and matter more to God. How well do we teach and equip them to care for the vineyard of their own soul? How does this compare to worldly preparations? And do we conform to what matters more to God?
Well, perhaps this is enough. But the point here is that too often, too many of us are not rich in what matters to God. We too easily resemble the man in the crowd who was asking Jesus, the Savior of the world from sin and hell, about money. A sad demotion of Jesus to be sure, but also highly disclosing of a basic human tendency of caring more about passing worldly things, than eternal lasting things or God himself. Too easily we store up riches for ourselves but are not rich in what matters to God.
Help Lord! We need a new mind, but even more, a new heart.
Impatience is a human problem, but we moderns must surely suffer from it more acutely. This is because many of our modern conveniences create the illusion, and to some extent the reality, of instant results. Flip a switch and the lights come on. Instant downloads supply our computers with music, games, software, and almost instant information.
Any delay in this process almost certainly infuriates us. The journey from east to the west coast used to take many months in a wagon train. And now it is accomplished in four to five hours. Despite this marvel, even a 20 minute flight delay infuriates us.
I remember as a child that we would be enticed to buy a certain product, say cereal, by being able to cut off the box tops. And, having saved four of them, I could mail them in to the address, to get a certain die cast or plastic toy, or other promotional product offered by the cereal company. Instructions always said, “Allow 3 to 4 weeks for delivery.” This is almost unthinkable today. What child would spend months eating cereal, clipping boxtops, and then wait 3 to 4 weeks for delivery?!
Yes, patience is a human problem, but it has a certain modern intensity about it. Expectations are premeditated resentments, and we have a lot of expectations about instant results. Thus resentments are always near at hand.
In the spiritual life especially and in personal growth we must learn to slow down to a more human pace, and also the pace of God. To many of us moderns, God is infuriatingly patient and slow. He, and the Church seem to think in terms of centuries, not a 24 hour news cycle.
And He leaves many things unresolved for quite a long time. Where was he when Hitler and Stalin and Mao and any number of unjust rulers were plying their wares? Why does he not thunder from heaven more often, as we sometimes read in the Old Testament?! Why does He not send jagged lightning bolts to destroy sinners from the face of the earth? (are you so sure you would escape?) And when will the Church he founded “get with the program” and start denouncing and excommunicating those who sinfully dissent?
Of course, while there is a place for discipline, even excommunication, the Lord warned of acting too hastily in the parable of the weeds and the wheat. The impatient field hand zealously wanted to rip out all the weeds, but the owner warned that the wheat might be harmed as well.
Many of us may well wonder what harm could come from wiping out a few sinners from the face of the Earth or expelling a few more heretics. The Lord does not explain why, but simply warns that hasty and severe actions may cause harm even to the wheat.
Yes, we are an impatient lot, no only with others, but also with ourselves. Why, we wonder can we not simply overcome certain sins by sheer force of will? Why are we not instantly more chaste, more generous, more kind, more zealous, simply by deciding to be so!? Why do prayers of deliverance and exorcism not have instant effects? Why does confession not solve sin at once by its grace?
In an instant result society, discouragement is right at hand. And even when we do make progress, suddenly setbacks are at hand. “I was doing so well!” We think.
Most confessors know by experience that perseverance is good and holy, but impatience is devilish. It is especially devilish because it tries to masquerade as piety, saying “You ought to be a saint by now!” But it is really pride. Yes it is pride to think you can go from 0 to 100 and skip all the steps the rest of us poor slobs need to make. Who am I to think I can simply lay hold of holiness by a few decisions? Holiness is far higher than I imagine in my reductive insistence that I ought to be able to lay hold of it in a moment. No, this is a journey, a journey with setbacks, and progress in fits and starts. Frankly even a lifetime may not be enough and purgatory is a likely pit stop for most of us after death.
Why so slow? Because grace builds on nature. And it is our nature to change slowly, almost imperceptibly. When I was an infant I looked nothing like I do today. Frankly my mother was grateful that I did not come forth from the womb at six feet tall and 200 lbs. No, I came forth at six pounds, sickly and dying. I was baptized immediately since I was not expected to survive. But having recovered, I have progressed today to what and who I am. But at no point could my growth be perceived. It was slow, steady, and also marked by setbacks, injury, and also growth spurts.
If this is the case with our bodies, it is also with our soul, which is the form of our body. I have made remarkable spiritual progress in the last thirty years of my life. But day by day, I noticed little change. Yet, by the grace of God I am what I am.
Sudden a rapid growth seldom lasts an is usually called cancer, a deadly disease. Healthy growth is organic, steady, slow, and almost imperceptible.
Impatience is a form of pride and it is not in wisdom that we indulge it. Scripture says,
Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. See, the rash have no integrity; but the just one who is righteous because of faith shall live. (Habakkuk 2:2-4).
Finally some words of reminder and comfort. I am not going to say who wrote these words because I have sometimes discovered that we care more who said something, than what is said. You can Google a phrase and find easily enough who wrote this. But for now let the words themselves have the necessary impact. I have little doubt these words will bless you as they have often blessed me.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability,
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
This video pokes fun at our impatience in modern culture and how it breeds resentment: