A Study of Sloth in the Life of Lot

070115blogIn Bible Study in my Parish we  have been reading through Genesis. This past evening we read of Lot and the horrifying results of his decision to pitch his tent toward Sodom. We also see in his life a significant spiritual problem: sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. Sloth is a sorrow, sadness, or aversion to the good things God offers. Rather than being joyful and zealous to obtain these gifts, the slothful person sees them as too much trouble to obtain and is averse to the changes such gifts might introduce into his life. This is clearly the case with Lot, who resists the attempts of God to rescue him and his family from the sinful city of Sodom, which is about to be destroyed. Let’s examine his struggle in several steps.

I. Roots – Lot’s personal troubles were many, but for our purposes his problems began when he “pitched his tent toward Sodom” (Gen 13:12). Abraham and Lot had grown very rich (almost never a good thing in the spiritual life) and realized that their flocks were so large that one part of the land could not sustain them both. Thus they agreed to live in different sectors. Abraham left the choice of areas to Lot, who (selfishly?) chose the better part for himself. The area where Sodom was is now a deep desert, but at that time the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt (Gen 13:10). And thus it was that Lot took his family and pitched his tent toward Sodom.

II. Risks – But Sodom was a wicked city, filled with false worship, greed, insensitivity to the poor, and the approval and practice of homosexuality. I will not be writing on that in detail in this post, as I have already done so in previous ones.

But here is the risk that Lot takes: he turns his face toward Sodom and willingly exposes his family to the grave moral threats there. And it does indeed affect them. Ultimately, his wife cannot bear to leave, looks back, and is lost. His daughters escape, but later engage in the grave sin of incest. Lot, too, will find it hard to flee Sodom, finding God’s offer to save him to be too much trouble. He’d rather stay, whatever the risk.

If you’re going to swim in muddy water, you’re going to get muddy. And that mud gets in your ears and in your soul. This is what Lot risks and what results when he pitches his tent toward Sodom.

Many of us, too, think little about the risks that television, the internet, music, and culture pose to us and our children. Too easily we risk our eternal salvation and that of our children by pitching our tent toward Sodom through easy commerce with a world that is poisonous to our faith. Even if some things are troublesome, many of us make little effort draw back and limit, even in little ways, the influences that are contrary to our faith.

III. Resource – Lot has only one resource in his favor: Abraham is praying for his ne’er-do-well nephew. He asks God’s destroying angel to spare Lot and his family (Gen 19). God agrees to this and acts to save Lot in spite of himself. Really, it’s the only thing that saves Lot.

It is true that Lot was just, in the sense that he did not approve of the sin around him. But neither did he act to really protect himself or his family from it. Something about Sodom appealed to him. Perhaps he thought he could make money there (or perhaps the trains ran on time). Whatever the benefits, Lot weighed them more heavily than the risks.

And so, too, for many today, who leave the TV on no matter the risk because it entertains or has some other perceived benefit that outweighs the obvious risks. Or those for whom it’s just too much trouble to monitor the websites their children visit or the music they listen to.

It really is only Abraham’s prayers that save Lot, who would live with sinners, from dying along with them. Thus, don’t forget the power of prayer for some of the “ne’er-do-wells” you may know. God may act to save them before the Day of Judgment simply because you prayed for them.

IV. Root Sin – But here comes the heart of the story: sloth. The angel warns, “Flee!” But Lot hesitates. Fleeing is hard work; it means leaving things behind that you like. Perhaps Lot thinks, “Maybe the warnings of destruction are overblown; maybe it won’t really be so bad.” Here is what the story says:

As dawn was breaking, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “On your way! Take with you your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of Sodom.” When he hesitated, the men, by the LORD’s mercy, seized his hand and the hands of his wife and his two daughters and led them to safety outside the city. As soon as they had been brought outside, he was told: “Flee for your life! Don’t look back or stop anywhere on the Plain. Get off to the hills at once, or you will be swept away!” “Oh, no, my lord!” Lot replied, “You have already thought enough of your servant to do me the great kindness of intervening to save my life. But I cannot flee to the hills to keep the disaster from overtaking me, and so I shall die.  Look, this town ahead is near enough to escape to. It’s only a small place. Let me flee there–it’s a small place, is it not?– that my life may be saved.” “Well, then,” he replied, “I will also grant you the favor you now ask. I will not overthrow the town you speak of.  Hurry, escape there! I cannot do anything until you arrive there.” That is why the town is called Zoar (Gen 19:15-21).

Wow, this is sloth with a capital “S”! So lazy and settled in with sin has Lot become, that he’d rather accept death than expend the effort to flee. Not only that, he can’t even manage to rouse himself in order to save his family. It’s all just too much trouble. Sloth is sorrow, sadness, or aversion.

Thanks to Abraham’s prayers, the angels literally drag Lot and his family out of the city and repeat the warning: “Flee!” God who made you without you, will not save you without you. So Lot must cooperate. But still, Lot sees it as all just too much trouble. In effect, he says, “Man, those hills look far away. And they’re not nearly as nice as this valley. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get there. Do I really have to go that far?”

And here is another aspect of sloth: compromising with evil despite knowing the danger. Even if it occurs to many that some things in their lives need to change, they try to minimize those changes. The Lord tells us that we cannot serve two masters, that we cannot serve both the world and Him. In other words, we must decisively choose God over the demands of this world whenever there is a conflict. But many, realizing that this may introduce uncomfortable situations or have financial impacts, begin to negotiate with their conscience, saying, “I’m basically serving God … well, at least mostly. Maybe it’s enough if I do a few holy things and serve God for the most part. And then I can still serve the world and enjoy its fruits, too. Maybe I’ll serve God 80% and the world 20%. Hmm … well, maybe that’s a little too ambitious. After all I have a career and I don’t want to risk that promotion. How about if I serve God 60% and the world 40%? Is that enough?”

Thank God for His mercy! (And thank Abraham for his prayers.) We are a real mess. As the text shows, God will take the little he can get from Lot, at least for now, in order to save him. But God shouldn’t have to take this from us. Only grace and mercy can spare us from ourselves.

V. Results – But note this: grace and mercy need to have their effect. We cannot go on in sloth forever. We have to allow God to heal this deep drive of sin in us or we will be destroyed. Lot is saved for now, but great tragedy is still in store for him. His wife will turn back in longing for Sodom and be lost. His daughters cannot get Sodom out of them and will later turn to incest (Gen 19:30ff). And from this incest will be born the ancestors of the enemies who will later afflict Israel: the Moabites and the Ammonites.

And what of us today? What role have we played in pitching our tents toward Sodom? What happens to us and to our children and grandchildren when all we do is express shock at the condition of the world but expend little real effort to protect ourselves from it or actively change it? What happens to us when we learn to live off the fruits of our Sodom, and make easy compromises with the world in terms of greed, insensitivity to the poor, and sexual confusion? What happens when God’s plan to rescue us through the gifts of chaste living, generosity, and more simple living, is rejected as too much trouble or as requiring us to give up too many things that we like? Many think to themselves, “I know my favorite television show has bad scenes, but I like the story line and I want to find out what happens at the end of the season. I know I should be clearer and firmer with my children, but that leads to conflict and I hate conflict, and besides they’ll complain if they can’t have a smart phone. And it’s so much trouble trying to monitor their Internet activity.  And … and … and …”

What happens when we do this, when we slothfully reject God’s offer of a better, less-compromised way? Well, we don’t have look far; we know what happens. We and the people we love get lost, wounded, corrupted, confused, and even die, both physically and spiritually.

The virtues opposed to sloth are zeal and joy. Zeal for God’s truth and the beauty of holiness, and a joyful pursuit of the life God offers us are gifts to be sought. Sloth is very pernicious and has cumulative effects. We haven’t done well, collectively speaking. It’s time to turn more zealously to God, to appreciate the truth of what He has always taught.  It’s time to gratefully, joyfully study His ways, and live them and share them with others.

Here, then, is a study of sloth in the life of Lot, a lesson more necessary and urgent today than ever before.

Interesting too for our times, the one day we should rest, we don’t. Here’s an old song from the Moody Blues that recalls Sunday rest:

Did Noah Really Live to Be 950?

Noah – Lorenzo Monaco (1410)

I occasionally get questions about the remarkably long lives of the patriarchs who lived before the great flood. Consider the ages at which these figures purportedly died:

  • Adam – 930
  • Seth – 912
  • Enosh – 905
  • Jared – 962
  • Methuselah – 969
  • Noah – 950
  • Shem – 600
  • Eber – 464
  • Abraham – 175
  • Moses – 120
  • David – 70

How should we understand these references? Many theories have been proposed to explain the claimed longevity. Some use a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other pitfalls such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while still children themselves. Another theory proposes that the purported life spans of the patriarchs are just indications of their influence or family line, but then things don’t add up chronologically with eras and family trees.

Personally, I think we need to take the stated life spans of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason, the ancient patriarchs lived far longer than we do in the modern era. I cannot prove that they actually lived that long, but neither is there strong evidence that they did not. Frankly, I have little stake in insisting that they did in fact live to be that old. But if you ask me, I think it is best just to accept that they did.

This solution, when I articulate it, causes many to scoff. They almost seem to be offended. The reply usually sounds something like this: “That’s crazy. There’s no way they lived that long. The texts must be wrong.” To which I generally reply, “Why do you think it’s crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common replies:

  1. People didn’t know how to tell time accurately back then. Well, actually, they were pretty good at keeping time, in some ways better than we are today. The ancients were keen observers of the sun, the moon, and the stars. They had to be, otherwise they would have starved. It was crucial to know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to hunt (e.g., the migratory and/or hibernation patterns of animals through the seasons). They may not have had timepieces that were accurate to the minute, but they were much more in sync with the rhythms of the cosmos than most of us are today. They certainly knew what a day, a month, and a year were by the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars.
  2. They couldn’t have lived that long because they didn’t have the medicines we do today. Perhaps, but it is also possible that they didn’t have the diseases we do. Perhaps they ate and lived in more healthy ways than we do today. Perhaps the gene pool later became corrupted in a way that it was not back then. There are many things we cannot possibly know. The claim about our advanced technology (medicine) also shows a tendency of us moderns to think that no one in the world has ever been smarter than we are. While we surely do have advanced technologies, we also have things that make us more susceptible to disease: stress, anxiety, overly rich diets, pollutants, promiscuity, drug use, and hormonal contraceptives. There are many ways in which we live out of sync with the natural world. It is also quite possible that the strains of disease and viral attacks have become more virulent over time.
  3. Those long life spans just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to 930 mean that he attained great wisdom? But wait, David wasn’t any slouch and he only made it to 70. And if Seth was so influential (living to 912), where are the books recording his influence such as we have for Moses, who lived to be a mere 120? In other words, we can’t just propose a scale indicating influence or wisdom without some further definition of what the numbers actually mean.
  4. Sorry, people just don’t live that long. Well, today they don’t, but why is something automatically false simply because it doesn’t comport with today’s experience? To live to be 900 is preternatural, not supernatural. (Something preternatural is extremely extraordinary, well outside the normal, but not impossible.) In other words, it is not physically impossible in an absolute sense for a human being to live for hundreds of years. Most people today die short of 100 years of age, but some live longer. Certain closely related mammals like dogs and cats live only 15 to 20 years. Why is there such a large difference in life expectancy between humans and other similar animals? There is obviously some mysterious clock that winds down more quickly for some animals than for others. So there is a mystery to the longevity of various living things, even those that are closely related. Perhaps the ancients had what amounted to preternatural gifts.

So I think we’re back to where we started: just taking the long life spans of the early patriarchs at face value.

There is perhaps a theological truth hidden in the shrinking lifespans of the Old Testament. The Scriptures link sin and death. Adam and Eve were warned that the day they ate of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would die (Gen 2:17), but they did not drop dead immediately. Although they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As the age listing above shows, as sin increased, lifespans dropped precipitously, especially after the flood.

Prior to the flood, lifespans remained in the vicinity of 900 years, but right afterward they dropped by about a third (Shem only lived to 600), and then the numbers plummeted even further. Neither Abraham nor Moses even reached 200, and by the time of King David, he would write, Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong (Ps 90:10).

Scripture says, For the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Indeed they are, especially in terms of lifespan. Perhaps that is why I am not too anxious to try to disprove the long life spans of the patriarchs, for what we know theologically is borne out in our human experience: sin is life-destroying. This truth is surely made clear by the declining lifespan of the human family.

Does this prove that Adam actually lived to be more than 900 years old? No, it only shows that declining life spans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. God teaches that sin brings death, so why should we be shocked that our life span has decreased from 900 years to about 85? It is what it is. It’s a sad truth about which God warned us. Thanks be to God our Father, who in Jesus now offers us eternal life, if we will have faith and obey His Son!

How or even whether the patriarchs lived to such advanced ages is not clear, but what is theologically clear is that we don’t live that long today because of the collective effect of sin upon us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Did Noah Really Live to Be 950?

Did the Patriarchs Really Live to Be 900 Years Old? Perhaps, but Here’s Why We Do Not

I sometimes get questions about the remarkably long lives of the patriarchs who lived before the great flood. Consider some of their reported ages when they died:

  • Adam 930
  • Seth 912
  • Enosh 905
  • Jared 962
  • Methuselah 969
  • Noah 600
  • Shem 600
  • Eber 464
  • Abraham 175
  • Moses 120
  • David 70

How to understand these references? There are many theories that have tried to explain the claimed longevity. Some try to introduce a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other pitfalls such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while they are still children themselves. Another approach is to say that the “ages” of the patriarchs are actually just indications of their influence or family line. But then things don’t add up chronologically with eras and family trees.

Personally, I think we need to take the stated ages of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason, the ancient patriarchs lived far longer we do in the modern era. I cannot prove that they actually lived that long, but neither is there strong evidence that they did not. Frankly, I have little stake in insisting that they did in fact live that long. But if you ask me, I think it is best just to accept that they did.

This solution, when I articulate it, causes many to scoff. They almost seem to be offended. The reply usually sounds something like this: “That’s crazy. There’s no way they lived that long. The texts must be wrong.” To which I generally reply, “Why do you think it is crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common replies:

  1. They didn’t know how to tell time the way we do today. Well, actually, they were pretty good at keeping time, in some ways better than we are today. The ancients were keen observers of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. They had to be, otherwise they would have starved. It was crucial to know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to hunt (e.g., the migratory and/or hibernation patterns of animals through the seasons). The ancients may not have had timepieces that were accurate to the minute, but they were much more in sync with the rhythms of the cosmos than most of us are. They certainly knew what a day, month, and year were by the cycles of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars.
  2. They couldn’t have lived that long because they didn’t have the medicines we do today. Perhaps, but it is also possible that they didn’t have the diseases we do. Perhaps they ate and lived in more healthy ways than we do. Perhaps the gene pool later became corrupted in a way that it was not back then. There are just a lot of things we cannot possibly know. The claim about our advanced technology (medicine) also shows a tendency of us moderns to think that no one in the world has ever been smarter or healthier than we are. Our modern times surely do have advanced technologies, but we also have things that potentially make us more susceptible to disease: stress, anxiety, overly rich diets, pollutants, promiscuity, drug use, and hormonal contraceptives. There are lots of ways in which we live out of sync with the natural world.
  3. Those long years just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to 930 mean he attained great wisdom? But wait, David wasn’t any slouch and he only made it to 70. And if Seth was so influential (living to 912) where are the books recording his influence such as we have for Moses, who lived to be only In other words, we can’t just throw a scale out there indicating influence or wisdom without some further definition of what the numbers actually mean.
  4. Sorry, people just don’t live that long. Well, today they don’t. But why is something automatically assumed to be false simply because it doesn’t comport with lived experience today? It is not physically impossible in an absolute sense for a human being to live for hundreds of years. Most humans today die short of 100 years of age, but some live longer. Certain closely related mammals like dogs and cats live only 15 to 20 years. Why is there such a large difference in life expectancy between humans and other similar animals? There is obviously some mysterious clock that winds down more quickly for certain animals than for others. So there is a mystery to the longevity of various living things, even those that are closely related. Perhaps the ancients had what amounted to preternatural gifts. (A preternatural gift is one that is not supernatural (i.e., completely above and beyond our nature or ability to do) but rather one that builds on our nature and extends its capabilities beyond what is normally or currently experienced.)

So I think we’re back to where we started: just taking the long life spans of the early patriarchs at face value.

There is perhaps a theological truth hidden in the shrinking lifespans of the Old Testament. The scriptures link sin and death. Adam and Eve were warned that the day they ate of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would die (Gen 2:17). But they did not drop dead immediately, and though they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As the chart above shows, as sin increased, lifespans dropped precipitously, especially after the flood.

Prior to the flood, lifespans remained in the vicinity of 900 years, but right afterward they dropped by about a third (Noah and Shem only lived to 600), and then the numbers plummeted even further. Neither Abraham nor Moses even reached 200, and by the time of King David, he would write, Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong (Ps 90:10).

Scripture says, For the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Indeed they are, especially in terms of lifespan. And perhaps that is why I am not too anxious to try to disprove the long lifespans of the patriarchs. For what we know theologically is borne out in our human experience: sin is life-destroying. And this truth is surely writ large in the declining lifespan of the human family.

Does this prove that Adam actually lived to be more than 900 years old? No. It only shows that declining lifespans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. Since God teaches that sin brings death, why should we be shocked that our lifespan has decreased from 900 to 85 years? It is what it is. It’s a sad truth that God warned us about. Thanks be to God our Father who in Jesus now offers us eternal life, if we will have faith and obey His Son!

So how or even whether the patriarchs lived past 900 is not clear. But what is theologically clear is that we don’t live that long today because of the collective effect of sin upon us.

Things Are Often Not as They Seem – A Lesson from the Life of Moses

moses-0715We are currently reading the story of Moses in daily Mass. The story reminds us that not all things are as they appear, and that God’s ways are not our ways.

Moses’ early years are marked with clear signs that he is gifted and chosen. Drawn from the water by Pharaoh’s own daughter, Moses’ very own mother is chosen to be his caretaker and is paid for that privilege by getting to live in Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh pays for Moses’ diapers, his food, and his education. And he is unwittingly preparing and equipping his nemesis. God can be very sly!

But at age forty, Moses gets ahead of God (never a good idea). He grows angry at an Egyptian who is oppressing a Hebrew and ends up killing the Egyptian. Moses has to flee.

Now why has God let this happen? From our perspective, Moses was in the prime of his life. At forty, he has experience but has not lost his youth. He is educated, gifted, and has access to power and lots of connections in Pharaoh’s own palace. Moses is in a perfect position to lead the people out of slavery! Or so we think. Except for one problem: God doesn’t think so.

But why not? In a word, pride. Moses, in getting out ahead of God and trying to take things in his own hands, is exhibiting pride. God says, in effect, “You’re too proud. I can’t use you in this condition. It’s time for some lessons in humility.”

And so Moses learns humility. He is forced to flee (humiliating). He must live out in the desert (humbling). And he marries and has children (quite humbling indeed! J).

Ok, so a few years’ worth of humility lessons and then Moses gets started. No, not a few, forty years’ worth!

Now Moses is eighty. He’s feeble, leaning on a staff, and he stutters when he talks. And God comes and tells Moses that it’s time to lead the people out. Moses says, in effect, “Are you crazy? I’m old, I can’t speak, I’m feeble … I can’t do it.” And that’s just the attitude that God needs from Moses: that he can’t do it. And he couldn’t do it at forty, either; he just didn’t know it. God has to do it and Moses will be His instrument. But now this instrument will be docile in the hands of the artist, now Moses can be useful to God.

This is not the way we think. We equate ability and leadership with vigor, power, money, access, talent, etc. For us, the prime of life is in our thirties, forties, and fifties. But God’s ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts. Moses at eighty is what God needs. Moses at forty was not of use.

What are some conclusions we can draw?

First, be careful how you assess your own life. In typical earthly fashion most of us consider our prime as being those years when we were most in command of our gifts, when we were working, “making a difference,” earning an income. We measure human life in its prime in terms of money, power, access, physical strength, stamina, etc.

But has it occurred to us that our most powerful moments might be on our deathbed? For there we have many sufferings to offer and our prayers will pierce the clouds as never before. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the suffering, and the repentant.

I often counsel the bedridden, and the dying in this way: I tell them that we are depending on their prayers as never before because their prayers are more important than ever before. And even if they have a hard time, because of age and discomfort, formulating prayers, just one word on our behalf, “Help!” may change the history of the world. St. Augustine said, More is accomplished in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words (Letter to Proba).

Yes, be very careful how you assess your life’s worth. Our math is not God’s math; our thoughts are not His. God sizes us up quite differently.

Second, be careful how you assess the lives of others. Here, too, we tend to value those people who are powerful, have money, strength, beauty, talents, and “obvious” gifts. But the Lord warns us in many places that we should esteem the poor, the disabled, and the suffering. He says, Many who are last shall be first (Matt 19:30).

God also counsels that we ought to make friends among the needy and poor by our use of worldly wealth, so that when worldly wealth fails us (and it will), the poor and needy, those who benefitted from our generosity, will welcome us to eternal dwellings (See Lk 16:9).

Yes, befriend the needy, the disabled, and the poor. In this world they need us, but in the next world, we are going to need them! Those who have suffered and those who were poor due to injustice, if they have been faithful, are going to be in high places in Heaven. We’re going to have to get an appointment to see them! Things are not always as they appear. The poor, the disabled, and the suffering are quite often among the real powerhouses of this world.

So pay attention to what the story of Moses tells us. Not as man sees does God see (1 Sam 16:7). We are vainglorious and we look to worldly power and its categories. God is not impressed with our sandcastles, our big brains, and our bulging muscles. He bids us in stories like these to say, with St. Paul, Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10).

Things are often not as they appear to us. Put on your “God glasses” and by God’s grace see more as He sees.

Patriarchs Are People Too – A Reflection on the Fact That the Bible Speaks Frankly About the Faults of Our Heroes

PatriarchOver the years, I have written a number of articles on the men of the Bible: many of the patriarchs of the Old Testament such as Abraham, Moses, David, Eli, and most recently, Lot and Jacob. Likewise, I’ve written on Peter and Paul, and on John the Baptist.

I find the biblical portraits of these men (and also many women as well) fascinating and often brutally honest. The Scriptures seldom feature biblical heroes without flaws. Even if these epic figures eventually got their halos on straight, it certainly wasn’t that way from the start. With the possible exception of Joseph the patriarch, these men often struggled mightily to hear, comprehend, and heed the voice of God. And God often needed to purify them greatly for the tasks that He had for them.

And when I write of the struggles and imperfections of these biblical figures, I find that some of my readers take offense at my often frank discussion of their shortcomings. There is an old Latin expression Offensiva pii aurium, which means “offensive to pious ears.”

To illustrate, some years ago I wrote an article that described Solomon’s fall from grace. He who had begun in great wisdom declined to such an extent that he had over a thousand wives when he died, and his policy of increased taxes (multiplying gold) and a large military draft (multiplying horses) so oppressed his people that during the reign of his son, the Kingdom divided in two. Scripture said of him,

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-9).

Despite some pretty basic facts and Scriptures attesting to Solomon’s errors, some objected when I wrote of Solomon’s failings, saying that the Orthodox refer to him as “Saint Solomon” and posting icons in the comment section. Others took offense when I suggested that Solomon died less holy and wise than he began.

More recently, some readers bristled when I suggested that Lot suffered from sloth, and that his pitching of his tent toward Sodom was problematic and indicative of sinful attraction. The Bible says, “Flee fornication” (1 Cor 6:18) not “pitch your tent toward it.”

Some would prefer to interpret the meaning of the texts differently or at least to place a different emphasis. But Lot, who I would argue was not even one of the patriarchs, certainly lived a life filled with ambiguities deserving of scrutiny, and in his story is an admonition for us.

But despite objections that I should not besmirch the patriarchs by recalling their pasts, let me be clear that I mean no offense, either to the biblical figures or to readers. I do take the stories at face value, and I think that they are told in all their gory detail so that we can learn and understand that the patriarchs (and matriarchs, too) found their way to God often through great struggle and sin. Yet through it all, God did not give up on them, but rather kept calling, purifying, preparing, and finally perfecting them. Perhaps, then, there is hope for us!

The honest truth about the patriarchs is that they didn’t “have it all together” from the start. Abraham did heed God’s call to go to the Holy Land, but then he went to Egypt when famine struck, thinking that God could not take care of him. He ran to Pharaoh and put his wife into Pharaoh’s harem! He strayed with Hagar and even laughed at God’s promises on one occasion. Eventually Abraham came to the strong faith that we praise him for, being willing to offer his son Isaac back to God.

Moses committed murder and needed forty years of purification in the desert before God could use him. David both murdered and committed adultery. These were men who struggled. They were not perfect and were often capital sinners. But God still loved them and worked with them.

In this sense, these are beautiful stories. It is exciting and thrilling for us to see how God will not be overcome, and can write straight with crooked lines (even though He shouldn’t have to).

Here then, dear reader, is my apologia for my depiction of the patriarchs. Soon enough I will enter into an even worse fray, where political correctness is even more demanded: I will begin to feature the women of the Bible! Sorry y’all, but they weren’t perfect either. But here, too, is hope for us all. God does not call the qualified; He qualifies the called. He does not summon the perfected; He perfects the summoned.

It’s fine if you wish to disagree with my understanding of the text. But don’t presume impiety when the biblical text itself supplies a sordid past. And always remember, a saint is just a sinner who fell but got back up again. A saint is someone who stayed in the conversation.

Onward with the frank discussion of biblical figures, some of whom are now saints, but not from day one to be sure!

A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

4x5 originalOne of God’s stranger affections in the Old Testament is the special love He had for Jacob. We are currently reading this story in daily Mass.

The name Jacob, according to some, means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even in the womb, he strove and wrestled with his twin brother Esau. And although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel. Thus he was named Jacob (“grabber”).

And although he was a “mama’s boy,” he was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, favored him and schemed with him to steal the birthright from his brother Esau, by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretense.

Esau sought to kill him for this, and so Jacob fled north to live with Laban, an uncle who was even a greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years he labored for Laban, hoping to win his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! Only seven years later would Jacob finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it all. He was a schemer who was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.

Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. At the end of the day, God loves sinners like you and me as well. And in the story of Jacob, a hard case to say the least, God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5) and His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation.

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. And for reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He realized that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).

Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. But whatever the reason, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I. DISTRESSED man – The text says, So the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. (Gen 32:21-24)

Jacob is distressed. He has, somewhat willingly, and yet also for reasons of his own, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him. And thus Jacob is distressed and sleepless.

And so it is for many of us, that our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.

Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about how God works:

1. God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do! Oh how we love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who is God. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone; It’s time to think, it’s time to pray and look to deeper issues.

2. God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man?” The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him– the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. And here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, try new things, and discover strengths we did not know we had.

3. God brings Jacob to a place of desperation – The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our will. And thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night, and with the lesson that Jacob must learn to lean and to trust.

Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean, and he will never forget this lesson, since he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God beneath the stars and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with God, to wrestle with the issues in his life, with God. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. Jacob has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean, to trust, and to realize that he is dependent on God.

II. DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

If the “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would have to ask someone to “let him go,” and for Jacob, a mere man, to say to God, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, pulling from Jacob the required request. So the man says, “Let me go!” But God wants Jacob, and us, to come to the point when we say, “I will not let you go!”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, “Don’t go, I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I am sunk!”

God needs to get all of us to this place!

This critical moment has brought Jacob the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends on God. And this leads us to the next stage.

III. DIFFERENT Man – The text records, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).

Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. Previously, when his blind father, Isaac, had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”

But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth, replying, “My name is Jacob.” And in saying this there is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster!”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all his name “literally” implies of him has been true.

Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”

In being renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way, with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, and cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again; he would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).

Postscript – There is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become in the Book of Hebrews. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Yes, Jacob learned to lean. He limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Yes, that is a battle you cannot afford to win! Learn to lean and to delight in depending on God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?

You Have to Decide About Jesus, one way or the other- A Meditation on the Trial Before Pilate

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In the Matthean Passion account, we come to the trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate is a study in evasion and vacillation. Despite being a man of great political and worldly power, Pilate is indecisive, inwardly troubled, and quite incapable of doing what he knows is right. Despite the outward power he had, inwardly he was weak and morally compromised. And in his weakness, he does something very awful: he violates his own conscience and sentences an innocent man to death.

Let’s look at his story in five stages.

I. Attempted Avoidance – On a professional level, Pilate considered the whole matter brought before him to be a theological dispute among the Jews, and for this reason wanted nothing to do with it. Yet he could see a storm was brewing as the crowds grew larger and noisier. If there were a riot at Passover, his career as Governor of Palestine (not to mention future, even better posts) would be in jeopardy. Was there not some way out of this perilous matter of Jesus!?

On a personal level, Pilate is also troubled. His own wife, unnerved, tells him, Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matt 27:19). Yes, Pilate is anxious, unnerved, and seemingly quite avoidant of the whole matter. The last thing he wants to do is to have to make a decision one way or the other about Jesus.

But at the end of the day, every man, woman, and child on this planet is going to have to decide for or against Jesus. Pilate wants to avoid a decision, but ultimately, he cannot.

According to Luke’s Gospel, he seeks refuge in a jurisdictional solution:

On hearing [of Jesus’ actions in the north] Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 26:6-7)

“Ah!” thinks Pilate. “Here is a way out. Herod can save me from having to take a stand on Jesus! Whatever the decision, I can evade responsibility.” But in the end, Herod merely sent him back to Pilate without rendering a guilty verdict. Surely this would satisfy the crowd! But it does not.

Pilate (this also means you) is going to have to decide about Jesus, one way or the other. No one else can make this decision for him. His attempt to avoid taking a stand on Jesus has failed.

II. Calls for Compromise – So it is now clear that a crucial moment is coming for Pilate. The text says,

Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, “You have said so,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. (Matt 27: 11-14)

It is evident that Pilate wants Jesus to give him a way out. If only Jesus will speak in a manner that will reassure all present. If only Jesus will not so unsettle others with his divine claims. If only he would not stand out in such stark, black and white contrast; if only he would appreciate the need for a little more gray in this whole matter! Yes, if he will just compromise a little with his claims, all will be well!

But it will not be so for Pilate. Jesus remains silent to all the demands that he reassure others by diluting the truth or by compromising his message.

Many today are like Pilate, and seek to rework the true Jesus, to “tame” him, to paint a picture of him in soft focus and pastel colors. A “kinder, gentler” Jesus is trotted out by some, even by religious “leaders” in hopes of quieting the controversy and making it easier and more palatable for people to make a decision for Jesus.

But of course to decide for a fake Jesus is not the same as deciding for the real Jesus. A compromised, fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one can. Watering Jesus down, diminishing his moral demands or his summons to absolute faith in him, setting aside his insistence on being the central priority of our life even to the point of martyrdom, modernizing him, or seeking to turn him into a harmless hippie – none of this will work. One day you are going to have to decide on the real Jesus. Compromise will not work.

III. Substitution Stunt – Avoiding and compromising hasn’t worked, so Pilate tries substitution. It’s the old bait and switch. Let’s find something or someone to replace the decision. So Pilate trots out Barabbas.

Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him…But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matt 27:16-20)

Pilate thought that surely the crowd would not prefer the swindler and robber, Barabbas, to Jesus, who had been so popular earlier that very week. Pilate reasoned that it was only the leaders among the Jews who feared and hated Jesus, out of concern only for their own power. Yes, surely the crowds would favor Jesus from Galilee over Barabbas. Surely! This bait and switch, this substitution, would get Pilate off the hook so he wouldn’t have to decide about Jesus. Or so he thought.

But it will not work. The religious leaders have seeded the crowd. Barabbas is chosen. Pilate is still stuck with the Jesus question!

Here too, many of us try similar bait and switch tactics. Radically following Jesus is a bit too much for some. But how about buying off or deflecting the decision? Perhaps it amounts to writing a nice big check to charity, or engaging in some good work. Perhaps some religious ritual can buy some time or placate the Lord, who stands silently by waiting for an answer from me as to his Kingship in my life.

It is significant that the “substitute Jesus” that Pilate trots out for his bait and switch has the name “Jesus Barabbas” (a name that means “Jesus, Son of the Father”). Yes, the substitute that Pilate uses bears a name and title similar to the real Jesus. But he is NOT the real Jesus. And neither are our attempts at check writing or perfunctory religious observance (though having aspects of Christ) the real Jesus. Our substitution stunt, our bait and switch, cannot buy off the question, or avoid the decision we must make for or against the real Jesus. We too must ultimately face the “Jesus Question.”

IV. Refusing Responsibility – Exasperated, Pilate engages the crowd:

What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:23-25)

Pontius Pilate, the governor, the most powerful man in the region, the only one with the judicial faculty to hand a man over to death, stands before a crowd and claims that he is not responsible for what he does. He claims that, in violating his own conscience and handing over an innocent man to torture, he is innocent.

These are lies. Pilate cannot refuse to take responsibility for the decision he is making. He must be a man and own his choice. He has weighed the consequences. It will be either his career, or Jesus; it will be either his power and position, or Jesus; it will be either his eventual promotion, or Jesus. Having been weighed against career, power, and promotion, Jesus is dismissed by Pilate and handed over for torture and crucifixion.

But Pilate cannot avoid responsibility despite the theatrics of washing his hands. Jesus’ blood is on your hands too, Governor Pilate. Down through the centuries your responsibility resounds: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried.”

Yes, Pilate had to decide about Jesus one way or the other. And so do you and I. No attempted avoidance, no calls for compromise, no substitution stunts, no refusal of responsibility will work. You must decide, I must decide, one way or another, for or against Jesus. There is no third way. And if you think you can sit on the fence, know this for sure: one day Satan will say, “Come with me,” for Satan owns the fence.

You are free to decide, but you are not free not to decide. Jesus stands before you and “compels” a choice. What is your answer?

Here is a movie account of the trial from The Passion of the Christ. Note that both Pilate and Jesus speak in Latin. I think this is the director’s way of saying that Jesus, as God, is speaking personally to Pilate, thus he uses Pilate’s mother tongue.

“For Worldly Sorrow Brings Death.” A Meditation on the Sad End of Judas and What Might Have Been.

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As we continue to ponder some of the texts of the Matthean Passion Narrative, we turn to the difficult case of Judas. To many modern readers, Judas is something of a sympathetic character. Some of this is due to our (rather flawed) moral reasoning, reasoning that places exaggerated emphasis on subjective issues (such as intentions, feelings, etc.) and almost no emphasis on the objective morality of the act itself. Granted, both elements are important, but our modern emphasis creates a rather skewed tendency to evade personal responsibility and to overlook the objective harm of sin.

But, to be fair, the biblical text itself also evokes some sympathy for Judas, who deeply regretted what he had done and even went so far as to return the money. The text says,

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)

It is clear that Judas is sorrowful for his sin and this is surely one component of what we call contrition. He even returns the money, a further sign of his sorrow, and wishes to be free of any profit from his sin.

And yet we are also faced with the fact that he went and hanged himself, which, while further indicating his sorrow, remains objectively an act of despair. Instead of turning to Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end the pain of his guilt rather than facing the Lord, admitting his sin, and humbly seeking mercy from the Lord and His Body, the Church.

In this, Judas acts quite differently from Peter, who at first ran off in sorrow after denying the Lord, but did not turn in on himself. Rather, in spite of his humiliation, Peter remained rooted in the early community of the Church, and found healing with the Lord in an honest conversation at the lakeside (cf John 21). None of this could have been easy for Peter. Surely, a part of him wanted to run off and hide his guilt and shame from the Lord and from others. But unlike Judas, he stayed in communion with the early Church and let the Lord find him.

St. Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow for sin, and what he writes is instructive for us here when we ponder Judas and his fate:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)

And thus Godly sorrow draws us to repentance and back to the Lord. The Greek word here translated as “repentance” is μετάνοιαν (metanoian) meaning, more richly, “to come to a change of mind,” or “to change one’s thinking.” And this change “leads” us to salvation.

But what is salvation? It is not just to have a certain legal status; it is to be in a saving and transformative relationship with the Lord. And Godly sorrow leaves no regret because of this healing, merciful, and joyful relationship to which it restores us.

In this way, we can see how Judas’ sorrow was lacking in two important fruits. First, it did not lead him back to salvation, that is, back to Jesus. Second, it did not remove regret. Judas remained devastated and was not willing to seek to return to a relationship with Jesus. Why was this? It is hard to say. Perhaps he would have been too humiliated to face Jesus or the community. Whatever regret he had, he was not willing to share it humbly. And thus, instead of turning to the Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end his pain on his own terms rather than those of the Lord or his Body, the Church.

St. Paul says simply and bluntly of worldly sorrow: it produces death. It is known by its fruits: separation, isolation, inwardness, and finally death – both spiritual and physical.

So yes, Judas had sorrow for what he had done. But it was the wrong kind of sorrow, the worst kind of sorrow.

What became of Judas in terms of salvation? To many of us, despite a reflection like this, we retain the hope that perhaps he could ultimately have been saved. Was he? Here too we cannot certainly say. But Jesus himself gives us a rather sad clue when he says of Judas,

The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Mk 14:21)

It is difficult for us to imagine Jesus saying this about a man who is ultimately saved and makes it heaven. So while we’re not sure, it certainly doesn’t look too good for Judas!

Our sympathy for Judas has understandable roots. But in the end, his fatal flaw (and the difference between him and Peter) was that Judas repented unto himself, not unto the Lord. When you walk, sometimes you fall; but if you fall, make sure you fall on Jesus!

A final postscript to the sad story of Judas is to ponder what might have been. Can you imagine the glory of the moment, had Judas come to Jesus in sorrow and received mercy and forgiveness? Imagine beautiful churches all over the world named “St. Judas Parish,” “St Judas – Patron of Sinners,” “St Judas Refuge of Criminals,” “The Parish of St Judas the Reconciled.” Imagine the novenas and prayers of similar titles: “Novena to St. Judas, Patron of Lost Souls,”  “A Prayer to St Judas for a Worthy Confession.” Parishes might even have dedicated their “Lost and Found” department to St. Judas!

But none of this was to be, “for worldly sorrow brings death.” Save us O Lord from final despair!