The Story of St. Barnabas and how one of its sadder chapters can speak to us.

He was central to some of the most crucial moments in early Church history. He smoothed the entry of Saul, (St. Paul), the recent persecutor, into the Christian community, and summoned him to his first ministry. He sallied forth with Paul on the first great missionary outreach to the Gentiles and gave critical testimony at the Council of Jerusalem that welcomed Gentile converts as Gentiles. And then, quite suddenly, and for a rather sad reason, he disappears and we hear all but nothing of him again.A rift in the Christian community takes him from our sight.

Who was St. Barnabas and what can we learn from his story and near disappearance?

St. Barnabas was a Jew, a native of Cyprus, and was of the tribe of Levi. As such he likely served in the Temple as a priest, depending on his age at his conversion to Christianity. His given name was Joseph, but the Apostles called him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement” (cf Acts 4:36).

Likewise he was probably a wealthy man, for St. Luke presents him early in the book of Acts as a generous man who sold land to support the growing Church.

Most critically, it was he who vouched for the new convert Saul of Tarsus later known as Paul. For Paul  was viewed with suspicion by those in Jerusalem, including the Apostles, who only been recently targets of his persecutions (cf Acts 9:26).

Talk about one of the most pivotal introductions in history! Indeed it may be argued that this introduction changed the course of Western History and surely that of the Church. Barnabas smoothed the way for the Church’s most zealous missionary and her greatest Biblical Theologian, St. Paul. After Barnabas’ introduction, Paul was able to move freely about the disciples.

Some time after this, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch which was now growing and thriving congregation of both Jews and Gentiles. It seems clear he was not considered yet to be of the rank of apostle or bishop, (for Acts 13:1 calls him a teacher), it appears he went more to observe and be of help. Under his leadership and the leadership of others, the Church there thrived and grew quite quickly.

So Barnabas sent for Paul to come and join him. They work together for the period of at least a year, and it was at Antioch the disciples were called Christians for the first time (Acts 11:26). In so doing he continues to advance and build up Paul’s ministry in the Church. Frankly this too is a stunning moment in Church history, given us by Barnabas. It is not wrong to call St. Paul the protege of Barnabas.

At a certain critical moment leaders at Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul. And while it is debated by some, this is the clearest moment when we can now say they are ordained, and given the rank of Bishop and the title “Apostle.”

Missionaries – Having done this, the Church leaders at Antioch, directed by the Holy Spirit, send them forth on missionary work. This journey is what is now come to be known as Paul’s first missionary journey. It is interesting to note, that early in the missionary journey, Barnabas is always listed first, and then Paul. But rather quickly, in Acts 13:43, the order changes, and Paul is always listed first. This suggests a change in leadership.

They took with them on this first journey the cousin of Barnabas, John, who was called Mark. Somewhat early on this missionary journey, Mark decides he can no longer go on and turns away from the missionary trip. This will prove significant later on.

The last major role for Barnabas was in Acts, in the 15th chapter, at the Council of Jerusalem which was called to decide whether Gentile converts could become full members of the church without converting to Judaism. Barnabas, along with Paul, provided important evidence as to the zeal and conversion of the Gentiles.

A Sad moment – After the Council in Jerusalem Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch in triumph, their ministry vindicated. They planned another missionary journey together. But here comes the critical and sad moment, that sets forth our teaching:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left….(Acts 15:36-40)

A sad moment, but illustrating the human situation. Here are two men who have been like brothers. Paul owes his inclusion in leadership largely to Barnabas,  and together they had taught together, and journeyed hundreds of miles by ship and then by foot into the northern mountains making converts in effective ministry together. And, more recently they have just returned from Jerusalem, their vision and ministry approved and vindicated against nay-sayers among the brethren. And yet, at this magnificent moment Paul and Barnabas argue and part company over Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.

One of the things I admire most about the Biblical text is that it does not “clean up” stuff like this. Our heroes are not perfect men, they are flawed, and emblematic of the human condition: gifted and strong, but struggling too with the same issues and demons that haunt us all.

The lesson? God uses us even in our weakness. Who was right and who was wrong here? It is difficult to say. Two gifted men unable to overcome an impasse, alas, the fallen human condition. But God will continue to work. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.

Even more sad, this is the last we hear of Barnabas in any substantial way. He who had been so instrumental in the life of his protege Paul, and in the early Church, now exits the stage in the heat of an argument. The text says he and Mark sailed for Cyprus, then silence……

There is mention of him in Galatians but, given the vague timeline it is difficult to assume it takes place after the disagreement. It likely took place earlier and may illustrate that there were already tensions between Paul and Barnabas before the “Mark incident.” For it would seem that Barnabas was following Peter’s weak example of not eating with Gentiles, and this clearly upset Paul (cf Gal 2:13).

Healing? Yet, It would also seem that Barnabas continued to labor as a missionary for Paul makes mention of him to the Corinthians (cf 1 Cor 9:6). And although his reference is passing, it is not unrespectful. This suggests some healing of the rift, even if it does not mean they labored together again.

More healing? And even for John, called Mark (likely the same Mark who became secretary to Peter and authored the Gospel of Mark), it would seem Paul and he overcame their difficulties. For St Paul wrote to Timothy,  likely about the same Mark: Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry (2 Tim 4:11). Something of a redemption here for Mark and a healing for Paul.  The “useless” deserter Mark, now one who is helpful to Paul.

So, there is some sadness in the Story of Barnabas, Paul and Mark. Yet, God’s work continues. And, it would seem, healing came later. Yes, even in our weakness God can use us and heal us. And for those who despair of sin in the Church, and sin among the clergy, factions an infighting, always remember that, though sinful it is, God can make a way out of no way. Even in our weakness, (and often only because our weakness keeps us humble), God can do great things.

Maybe Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement”) can encourage us too. For if even saints struggled, were still used by God, and overcame, perhaps for us too. Be encouraged.

The Story of Hosea and What It Says About God

The story of the Prophet Hosea and his troubled marriage are a powerful testimony to us of our own tendency to be unfaithful to God but also of God’s passionate love for us. The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy and we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. But here are the basic facts along with some of the “fill in” required:

  1. Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2)
  2. Together they have three children each with symbolic names: Jezreel (for God is about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (not pitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people). It is also possible that these children were not of Hosea but rather of Gomer’s various lovers for, although they are born during the marriage, God later calls them children of harlotry.
  3. At some point, though the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Hosea’s wife Gomer, leaves him for a lover and enters into an adulterous relationship with him. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and likely anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea, but as we shall see, God’s reaction is well attested.
  4. After some unspecified period of time God instructs Hosea: Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1) Now, while the quoted text is not clear to specify that this is the same woman he is to love, the overall context of chapters 1-3 of Hosea demand that this is the same unfaithful wife, Gomer. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back Gomer and re-establish his marital bonds with her.
  5. Hosea has to pay a rather hefty price indeed to purchase her back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. (Hosea 3:2) The willingness of her paramour to “sell her back” indicates quite poetically that the apparent love of the world and all false lovers, is not a real love at all. It is for sale to the highest bidder.
  6. Prior to restoring her to any intimacy a period of purification and testing will be necessary: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you.” (Hosea 3:3)

This story is both difficult and beautiful. It’s purpose, as you likely know, is not merely to tell us of the troubled and painful marriage of Hosea. It’s truer purpose is to show forth the troubled marriage of the Lord who has a bride, a people, who are unfaithful to him. We, both collectively and individually, have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism and renewed by us on many other occasions. But all too often we casually sleep with other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps it is money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, philosophies or arts and sciences. Some have outright left God, others keep two or beds, still speaking of their love for God but involved with many other dalliances as well. Yes, this is a troubled marriage, not on God’s part, but surely on ours.

And through it all, what does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride and a quite a cost too: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid highly to draw us back to him. Even still we stray and often show little appreciation of his love. An old Gospel song says, “Oh Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”

A deeper look at Hosea also reveals a look into the grieved heart of God. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to look at describes God as grieved, angry, and weighing out his options; also as loving and almost romantic. At one level we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. God is said to be like this. But God is not angry like we are angry. He is not grieved like we are grieved not romantic like we are. Yet though we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor we cannot wholly set them aside as having no meaning. In some sense, God is grieved, angry, loving and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how he experiences these is mysterious to us but He does choose to use these metaphors to describe himself to us.

With this balanced caution. Let’s take a look at excerpts from the second Chapter of Hosea wherein God describes his grieved heart to us and also his plan of action to win his lover and Bride back. All of these texts are from the Second Chapter of Hosea.

  1. Thoughts of Divorce!Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. The text here suggests a God who is weighing his options. But perhaps the better explanation is that this line is for us who read so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. But he will not. For though we break covenant He will not. Though we are unfaithful God will not be unfaithful. If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:13)
  2. The bitter charge against her Let her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts….., “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing. But so often we do not thank him. We run after the world, and after the powerful, thinking it is they who provide our wealth. No. It is God. But instead we love the world and forget about God. We sleep with the world. We give credit to medicine, science and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry for we are enamored of secondary causes and not God who is the cause of all. So we get into bed with the world and its agenda and adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is grieved at our ingratitude and adultery and is presented here as a wounded and jealous lover. Is God this? Remember these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God is not grieved or angered in the way were are. And yet, we cannot wholly dismiss these words as having no meaning. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that, though he is not passionate as we are, neither are we to regard him as indifferent to our infidelity.
  3. Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishmentI will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully……., I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers……I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities……I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense…..If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them she shall not find them. This text could be seen as descriptive of God in a jealous rage. But as we shall see, God has a result in mind. He does not punish as some uncontrolled despot cruelly exacting revenge. He punishes as medicine. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not merely sinners in the hands of an angry God we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion.
  4. The hoped for result: Then she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.” God’s intent was to bring his bride back to sanity. To bring her to a place where she is ready to seek union once again. For without this union she will perish, but with it she will be united with the only one who ever did love her and can save her.
  5. Passionate loverSo I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked. See how God wants to get alone with his bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare again his love for her in a kind of marriage encounter weekend. She, now repentant and devoted, will renew her love as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that, when we die, we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world, lovers known as creature comforts, power, pride, poor priorities and the like. So as we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this he restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.
  6. Renewed CovenantI will make a covenant for them on that day……I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. ….and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” God renews the marriage bond with us, both corporately in the Church and individually!

Here then is the astonishing, undying and pursuant love of God for his bride the Church and for all of us. After all our whoring and infidelity we do not deserve it. But God is a passionate lover. As he said to Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God buy us back at a high price. Now to be sure, he did not pay Satan. Rather, the payment he rendered was an indication of high sacrifice he had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far and he had to journey far and carry us back.

This song says, Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.

The Resurrection Appearances Chronologically Arranged

This blog post is a follow-up from yesterday’s blog. You can read yesterday’s post by clicking HERE

When we encounter the resurrection accounts in the New Testament we face a challenge in putting all the pieces together in a way that the sequence of the events flow in logical order. This is due to the fact that no one Gospel presents all, or even most of the data. Some of the data also seems to conflict. I tried to show in yesterday’s blog that these apparent conflicts are not, usually, true conflicts. Another problem with putting all the facts together in a coherent and reasonably complete manner is that the time line of the events is often unclear in some of the accounts. Luke and John are the clearest as to the time frame of the events they describe but Matthew and Luke give us very few parameters. Both Acts and Paul also supply data wherein the time frame is not always clear.

Nevertheless I want to propose to you a possible, dare I claim, even likely, sequence of the Resurrection events. The work is my own and I make no claim that this scenario is certain or backed up by recognized ancient authority. St Augustine has done quite a lot of work in this matter and you can read that by clicking HERE. My attempts here are simply the fruit of 20+ years of praying over and pondering the events of those forty days between the Lord’s resurrection and ascension. My reflections are based as solidly as possible on the actual biblical data with a sprinkling of speculation. I realize that the attempt to do this will irritate some modern biblical scholars who, for reasons unclear to me, seem to insist it is wrong to attempt any synthesis of the texts.

Nevertheless, I boldly press on figuring that the average believer will benefit from it and find such a synthesis interesting. Take it for what it is, the work of an obscure pastor who has prayed and carefully sought to follow the sequence of the forty days. You may wish to offer correction or alternative interpretation and are encouraged to do so in the comments. I have posted a PDF of this Document that is easier to read here: The Resurrection Appearances Chronologically Arranged

In this year’s version I have included the hyperlinks to the biblical texts so that you can simply click on them to read the text and press back to return here.

  • I. The Morning of Day One
    • A. Very early in the morning a group of several women, including Mary Magdalene, approach the tomb to complete burial customs on behalf of Jesus (Matt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Jn 20:1).
    • B. They behold the tomb opened and are alarmed.
    • C. Mary Magdalene runs to Peter and John with distressing news of likely grave robbers (Jn 20:2)
    • D. The women who remain encounter an angel who declared to them that Jesus had risen and that they should tell this to the brethren (Mk 16:5 Lk 24:4; Mt 28:5).
    • E. They are filled with fear at first and depart from the tomb afraid to speak (Mk 16:8)
    • F. Recovering their courage they decide to go to the Apostles. (Lk 24:9; Mt 28:8)
    • G. Meanwhile Peter and John have gone out to the tomb to investigate Mary’s claim. Mary Magdalene followed them back out to the tomb arriving before they left. Peter and John discover the tomb empty though they encounter no angel. John believes in the resurrection. Peter’s conclusion is not recorded.
    • H. The other women have reported what the angels say to the Apostles. Peter and John have not yet returned and these remaining apostles are dismissive of the women’s story at first (Lk 24:9-11).
    • I. Mary, lingering at the tomb weeps and is fearful. Peering into the tomb she sees this time two angels who wonder why she weeps. Jesus then approaches her from behind. Not looking directly at Jesus, she supposes him to be the gardener. Then he calls her by name, and Mary, recognizing his voice, turns and sees him. Filled with joy she clings to him. (APPEARANCE 1) (Jn 20:16)
    • J. Jesus sends her back to the apostles with the news to prepare them for his appearance later that day. (Jn 20:17)
    • K. The other women have departed the apostles and are on their way possibly back home. Jesus then appears to them (Mt 28:9) after he had dispatched Mary. He also sends them back to the apostles with the news that he had risen and that he would see them. (APPEARANCE 2)
  • II. The Afternoon and evening of day one.
    • A. Later that Day, two disciples on their way to Emmaus are pondering what they have heard about rumors of his resurrection. Jesus comes up behind them but they are prevented from recognizing him. First Jesus breaks open the word for them, then sits at table with them and celebrates the Eucharist whereupon their eyes are opened and they recognize him in the breaking of the bread. (APPEARANCE 3) (Lk 24:13-30)
    • B. The two disciples returned that evening to Jerusalem and went to the Eleven. At first the eleven disbelieved them just as they had the women (Mk 16:13). Nevertheless they continue to relate what they had experienced. At some point Peter drew apart from the others (perhaps for a walk?) And the Lord appeared to Peter (APPEARANCE 4)(Lk 24:34; 1 Cor 15:5) who informed the other ten who then believed. Thus the disciples from Emmaus (still lingering with the apostles) were now told (perhaps by way of apology) that it was in indeed true that Jesus had risen (Lk 24:34).
    • C. Almost at the same moment Jesus appears to the small gathering of apostles and the two disciples from Emmaus. (APPEARANCE 5) Thomas was absent (although the Lucan text describes the appearance as to “the eleven” this is probably just a euphemism for “the apostles” as a group) They are startled but Jesus reassures them and opens the scriptures to them (Lk 24:36ff).
    • D. There is some debate as to whether he appeared to them a second time that night. The Johannine account has significantly different data about the appearance on the first Sunday evening from the Lucan account. Is it merely different data about the same account or is it a wholly separate appearance? It is not possible to say. Nevertheless since the data is so different we can call it (APPEARANCE 6) (Jn 20:19ff) though it is likely synonymous with appearance 5.
  • III. Interlude –
    • A. There is no biblical data that Jesus appeared to them during the week that followed. The next account of the resurrection says, “Eight days later” namely the following Sunday.
    • B. We do know that the apostles surely exclaimed to Thomas that they had seen the Lord but he refused to believe it. (Jn 20:24)
    • C. Were the apostles nervous that Jesus had not appeared again each day? Again we do not know, the data is simply silent as to what happened during this interlude.
  • IV. One week later, Sunday two.
    • A. Jesus appears once again (APPEARANCE 7) to the apostles gathered. This time Thomas is with them. He calls Thomas to faith who now confesses Jesus to be Lord and God. (Jn 20:24-29)
  • V. Interlude 2
    • A. The apostles received some instructions to return to Galilee (Mt 28:10; Mk 16:7) where they would see Jesus. Thus they spent some of the week journeying 60 miles to the north. This would have taken some time. We can imagine them making the trek north during the intervening days.
  • VI. Some time later –
    • A. The time frame of the next appearance is somewhat vague. John merely says “After this.” Likely it is a matter of days or a week at best. The scene is at the Sea of Galilee. Not all the Twelve are present. They have gone fishing, and Jesus summons them from the lakeside. They come to shore and see him (APPEARANCE 8 ) . Peter has a poignant discussion with Jesus in this appearance and is commissioned to tend the flock of Christ (Jn 21).
    • B. The Appearance to the 500. Of all the appearances you might think that this one would have been recorded in some detail since it was the most widely experienced appearance. Many accounts, it seems, would have existed and at least one would have made its way into the scriptures. Yet there is no account of it, other than it did in fact happen. Paul records the fact of this appearance: 1 Cor 15:6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (APPEARANCE 9) Where did this take place. What was it like. What was the reaction? We simply do not know. Proof once again that the Bible is not a history book in the conventional sense. Rather it is a highly selective telling of what took place, not a complete account. The Bible makes no pretenses to be something it is not. It is quite clear that it is a selective book: (Jn 20:30).
    • C. The Appearance to James. Here again we do not have a description of this appearance only a remark by Paul that it did in fact happen: 1 Cor 15:7 Then he appeared to James. (APPEARANCE 10) The time frame is not clear. Only that it happened after the appearance to the five hundred and before the final appearance to the apostles.
  • VII. The rest of the forty days.
    • A. Jesus certainly had other on-going appearances with the disciples. Luke attests to this in Acts when he writes: Acts 1:3 To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.
    • B. During this time there is perhaps the one appearance we can attribute to this time period as recorded by Matthew (Mt 28:16ff) and Mark (Mk 16:14ff). It takes place an “a mountaintop in Galilee.” Mark adds that they were reclining at table. For these notes this appearance (time frame uncertain) is referred to as (APPEARANCE 11) It is here that he give the great commission. Although Mark’s text may seem to imply that Jesus was taken up from this mountain, such a conclusion is rash since Mark only indicates that Jesus ascended only “after he had spoken to them” (Mk 16:19).
    • Evidently Jesus had also summoned them back to Jerusalem at least toward the end of the period of the forty days. There they would be present for the feast of Pentecost. We can imagine frequent appearances with on-going instruction for Luke records that Jesus “stayed with them.” Most of these appearances and discourses are not recorded. Luke writes in Acts: And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4)
  • VIII. The final appearance and ascension:
    • A. After forty days of appearances and instructions we have a final account of the last appearance (APPEARANCE 12) wherein he led them out to a place near Bethany, gave them final instructions to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit was sent. And then he was taken up to heaven in their very sight. (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11).

So here is a possible and, if I do say so myself, likely chronological sequence of the resurrection appearances. It is a kind of synthesis that attempts to collect all the data and present it in a logical order. There are limits to what we can expect of the Scriptural account, and fitting perfectly into a time frame and logical sequence is not what the texts primarily propose to do. Yet such a chronological sequence can prove helpful and it is in that spirit that I present this.

Here is a video I put together based on a song sung here at my Parish on Good Friday. It is sung by one of our Sopranos, Marjorie Boursiquot. It is arranged by Kenneth Louis, our director and composed by Long and Pote. The song is titled: “You Love Me” Prepare for a real treat:

What’s So Sinful About a Census and Why Did Israel Get Punished for Something David Did?

In Wednesday’s Mass, at the first reading from 2 Samuel 24, we hear the Story of How King David ordered a census to be taken. David’s general Joab strongly cautioned the King against such a measure, but David insisted on it anyway. Upon completion of the census the Prophet Gad informed David of God’s anger and intention to punish David and all Israel for this sin. God offered David the choice of a three year famine, three months of military fight from Israel’s enemies, or 3 day’s pestilence. David chose the three day’s pestilence, figuring it was better to fall by God’s hand than an enemy’s. 70,000 people died.

OK, some questions to be sure. The two central questions are:

  1. What’s wrong with a census?
  2. And Why did Israel get punished for something David did?

What’s wrong with a Census? – Rather than simply reinvent the wheel, I would like to point out that Sr. Ann Shields does a good job explaining what was wrong with David’s call for a census. You can listen to her recording here: Sr. Ann, Renewal Ministries. In effect she focuses on David’s lack of trust. For God had called David to trust in God, not in man, not in numbers. Sister rightfully points out that we have a tendency to rely too much on numbers. We tend to think that something is good, or right or successful, based on how many people attended, or how many support a cause or view. Of this tendency we must be very careful. Is our power or rightness rooted in numbers, in popularity, in profit, or in God? David in counting his people is, it would seem, seeking confidence in his numbers, rather than God,  and this is a sin. Since Sister Ann handles this very well, I want to refer you to her recording if you’d like to consider this more.

I would like to add to Sister’s reflection that David may also be guilty of pride here. For, he could well have considered with pride the fact that he had amassed a large number of people in reuniting the Israel and Judah, in conquering the Philistines and the Hittites et al. Taking a census was a way of flattering himself, and making a name for himself. The numbers ARE quite impressive. So impressive, in fact that we moderns doubt them: 800,000 men fit for military service in Israel, and 500,000 men in Judah. This number of over 1 million men does not include women, children or the elderly. Hence the full census number may have closer to 5 million. This seems an unlikely number, and opens up the great debate among biblical scholars about biblical numeration.  That debate is too much to handle in this post, and may be fit for later discussion. But for here,  let it be said, David was enthroned over a numerous nation and his census is a likely indication that he was quite proud of his accomplishment, and wanted that accomplishment recorded for history and/or his contemporaries: “David: King of multitudes!”

Yet again others point out the sinfulness of counting GOD’s people. These are not David’s people to number, they are God’s people. Since counting hints at accomplishment and control, David sins in trying to know a number that is none of his business, a number that is for God alone to know. For God numbers the people and calls them by name (cf Gen 15:15).

A final area of sinfulness surrounds the manner in which a census can be and often is an oppressive tool of government. Note that David is delivered a number of men “fit for military service.” Hence in the ancient world, a census was often a tool of military draft. It was also a tool used to exact taxes, and for Kings to measure power,  and manipulate and coerce based on that power. Even in our own time the taking of the Census every ten years is often steeped in power struggles, political gerrymandering, tax policy, spending priorities, the number of seats in the legislature, and the pitting of certain ethnic and racial groups against each other. A lot of mischief and political power struggles are tied back to the census, because numbers are powerful things. Those that have “the numbers on their side” get seats at the table. Those who do not, can wait outside. Thus, David, in amassing numbers, amasses power and the capacity to manipulate his people in sinful or unjust ways.

So a census is not a morally neutral thing, necessarily. While there may be legitimate needs for a country to amass data, it often happens that the data can be used in sinful or unjust ways, and lead to power struggles. With some of this reflection in mind we can see why it may have made some sense for the military commander Joab to advise David against taking a census.

Exactly where David’s sin lay, whether in a lack or trust, or pride, or acting as if they were his people, not God’s, or in amassing power, or in some combination of all these things, is not clear in the text. But God is clear: David has sinned, and he has sinned seriously. But this leads to a second and more difficult question.

Why did all Israel get punished for something David did? Here too there are a number of things for us to consider. But, as an opening disclaimer we ought to admit that there are some mysterious aspects of this incident and we may not be able to fully know the answer, just offer some speculation and issue some parameters. Let’s look at a few thought that emerge from the punishment of all Israel.

The main view emphasizes that the nation was not sin-free in the matter. The census story in 2 Samuel 24:1 begins by saying, The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again and incited David… to number Israel and Judah.  Hence God was angry with the whole nation for an undisclosed reason. And thus God permitted David to fall into this sin. Perhaps by way of speculation,  the Census was also a matter of national pride, as the people collectively thought with David, “Look how big and prosperous and powerful we have become.” This is only a speculation. But the point is that Israel is NOT sin free according to the text.

Another point must be to emphasize that our western and modern notion of individualism is not essentially a biblical view. We moderns tend to think, “What I do is my business, and what you do is yours.” We are thus outraged at notions that many would suffer for the guilt of one. But in the biblical worldview, we are all interconnected:  There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one member suffers, every member suffers; if one member is honored, every member rejoices. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a member of it (1 Cor 12:25-27). Dr. Martin Luther King said famously, Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere. This is the biblical vision.

The fact is, the decisions I make, affect people around me for better or worse. Even what we call “private” sins set evil loose, reduce goodness and make future and more public sins likely. We need to rediscover our interconnectedness in the modern Western World. We are our brother’s keeper, and what we do or fail to do affects others.

To those who would say this is not fair and that God is not “fair” in punishing Israel for what David did, there must be this strong advice: Be VERY careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were “fair” we would all be in Hell right now. Rather, it is mercy we should seek. “Fairness” is a bad bet, and will land us in Hell.

So, here are some thoughts on a “difficult” passage. Sr. Ann has some good insights to add if you click on the link above. This is a hard passage, but God knows how to shepherd us rightly, and there are times when tough measures are needed. We do not know exactly the nature of Israel’s sin that angered God, but God’s anger is his passion to set things right, and he’s getting us ready for the “Great Day.”

David, A Great King, Yet With a Critical Flaw. What is the Lesson for us Today?

Of all the great Patriarchs of the Old Testament, David is among the greatest. Warrior and King, composer and conqueror, unifier and organizer, a man after God’s own heart. He united not only the 12, often fractured Tribes of Israel, but, as a kind if priest-king, stitched together the religious faith of Israel with its governance. King among them, he also collected and disseminated the great prayer-book of Israel, the Book of Psalms, composing many of them himself. So great was David, that among the most well known titles of Jesus would be, “Son of David.”

And yet, like almost all the great figures of the Bible, David was a man who struggled and was flawed. His demons would lead him even to murder as he amassed power and wives. And though he brought unity and governance to 12 contentious tribes, his own family was in a ruinous condition: afflicted by a murderous internecine conflict which had David for its much of its sinful source, and which he seemed powerless to stop.

In the end his family intrigues would cause the delicate union of the Israel he had woven, to come unraveled. And in David’s flaws are important lessons for our times as well.

Let’s recall a few details of King David’s life and domestic difficulties and see where things unravel.

David was the youngest son of Jesse, of whom God said, I have provided a king for myself among [Jesse’s] sons (1 Sam 16:1).  Of David it is clear that he was chosen especially by God, for the Lord instructed Samuel to look for him saying, Do not consider his appearance or his height, ….The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart ( 1 Sam 16:7).

Yes, there was something about David’s heart that God loved. Whatever his later flaws, David had a heart for God, and God a heart for David. Upon Samuel’s anointing of David, the Scripture says: And from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. ( 1 Sam 16:13)

Unifier – Upon the death of Saul,  Ten Tribes from Israel in the north divided against Judah in the South, and war ensued. But through military action, and other more diplomatic efforts, David was successful in reuniting the Kingdom in 1000 BC. He drove out the Hittites to establish Jerusalem as the Capital. He also wove the kingship together with Israel’s faith in order to establish deeper ties among the Israelites. Thus Jerusalem also became the place of the Temple of God, and the Ark. It was during this time that David both collected, and probably wrote, a good number of the Psalms.

Yes here was the great man of whom God said I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). But God only seldom (such as with Mary) uses sinless humanity. We carry the treasure of God’s love in earthen vessels (cf 2 Cor 4:7). David’s strength was admixed with weakness and flaws, flaws which cascaded down through the lives of others, and gravely affected the Kingdom he was privileged to set forth.

Trouble begins with the fact that David had eight wives whose names we know: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah;  later Michal and Bathsheba. The Biblical text suggests he had other wives as well, upon settling in Jerusalem. From these David had 19 sons. Let the internecine intrigue and blood-letting begin.

Disclaimer – It is true that, as many will hasten to point out, that polygamy was common among the ancient patriarchs. Yes, it was. But that it was common does not shield from the fact that, as the Scriptures consistently show, Polygamy always brings terrible results: infighting, rivalries, and often murderous intrigue. I have written more in this problem here: Don’t Do Polygamy.

God in setting forth marriage in Genesis 1 & 2 prescribed one man for one woman in a stable and fruitful relationship. God created for Adam, only Eve, and not also Jane and Sue and Mary and Ellen and Samantha. And God said that a man (singular) shall leaven his father and mother (singular) and cling to his wife (singular) the TWO (not three or more) of the them shall become one (Gen 2:24).

Diversions from this God-given model bring only sadness and even death. David’s many marriages and sons by different mothers, is no exception, and the flawed family structure will bring real devastation not only to David’s family, but to all Israel.

First Degree Murder – David, already with many wives and competing sons, deepens the trouble when he has Uriah the Hittite killed, and takes his wife Bathsheba. The remarkably wicked act of murder rooted in lust and fear, shows a deep flaw in King David for which he is repentant, writing Psalm 51, the Miserere. But Bathsheba’s inclusion into the royal family only adds to the intrigue in the family, and the royal court. For she later advances the cause of  her son, Solomon, against David’s older sons.

Rape – Even prior to that pot boiling over, tragedy had struck elsewhere in David’s family, among his sons. His eldest Son and likely heir, Amnon grew desirous of, and eventually raped his half sister Tamar daughter of David by his wife Maacah. “Blended families” have a higher degree of sexual abuse for the rather obvious reason that step-relations include less sexual reserve than full-blooded ones.

Weak Father – After the rape, according to Scripture, And when king David heard of these things he was exceedingly grieved: but he would not afflict the spirit of his son Amnon, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn (2 Sam 13:21). This was a mistaken understanding of love. For the love of a Father for his son must include discipline, and insistence on what is right. Amnon had seriously sinned and owed restitution. David remained quiet when he should have spoke and acted.

Resentful Son – Hence, due to David’s inaction, one of David’s other sons (and full brother of Tamar), Absalom, grew furious at what was done to his sister. He thus plotted, and eventually killed Amnon, and then fled to the Land of Geshur. David now had lost two sons and had a daughter who had been raped.

For indeed, though eventually pardoned by his father, King David, Absalom had grown bitter against David and raised an effective rebellion against him. In the war that ensued, Absalom and his rebellion were put down, and Absalom killed.

David seemed well aware of his role in Abasolom’s rebellion and demise. He had said earlier, when one of Absolom’s followers came cursing  him:  If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’” David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.” (2 Sam 16:10-12) Upon Absalom’s death David cried: O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33).

Court and family intrigue continues right up to David’s death. The now oldest, and likely successor and son of David, Adonijah,  was ousted from succession by David’s wife Bathsheba who, working with Nathan,  promoted her son Solomon, while David lay feeble and largely forgetful. Claiming she had earlier secured a private vow from David regarding Solomon’s succession, she set loose a power struggle between Adonijah and Solomon. In the end Solomon prevailed over  Adonijah,  and, after David’s death Solomon had his half-brother (Adonijah) killed.

Like Father Like Son – Solomon, though a great king in his own right, inherited some of his father’s foibles. He ended with having 1000 wives and as Scripture says of him: King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women…As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:4-6).

The End of the Kingdom – So unraveled did Solomon become, and so disconcerting were his family and foreign intrigues, that shortly after his death, during the reign of his polygamous and expansionist son, Rehoboam.  Israel again broke apart into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. They would never reunite.

How remarkable that King David, so highly regarded, not only by humanity, but by God himself, would have such deep flaws. And how remarkable too that, being as gifted as he was, David also brought such pain and sorrow to his family and, by extension to Israel.

What are the lessons for us? Let’s begin with the negative.

The first lesson is that allowing the family to decay and drift from God’s intended structure and form brings great harm. David’s polygamy, his unlawful and sinful acquisition of Bathsheba, his playing of favorites, and his refusal to correct and punish Amnon for the rape of Tamar, all contributed to serious and deadly consequences. And these deadly consequences expanded far beyond David’s own family, and rippled through all Israel leading ultimately to its break down and demise.

Some may argue that norms for marriage and family were less clear at this early stage of Israelite history, and that we ought not project later norms back on these times. I beg to differ. For Genesis 1 and 2 clearly set for the norms of Marriage as God intends: one man for one woman in a stable fruit-bearing relationship till death do them part. One man clinging to one woman, being fruitful and multiplying through their children. This is God’s plan as set forth in Genesis 2.

The first lesson for us is that our family struggles and modern departure from biblical norms regarding the family also have grave effects that extend beyond merely our own families. As divorce and remarriage, single parenthood, homosexual unions, and (coming soon) polygamy, proliferate in our culture, increasingly grave effects befall us as our children. There is often lack of proper discipline and supervision, and a lack of proper role models, and often gravely dysfunctional settings. As a result,  our whole society grows weaker and more dysfunctional.

As the soil of the family grows ever thinner, we cannot expect to find the taller growths. And when the family is not strong, neither is the community, Church or nation. Birthrates fall and test scores fall, abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, single motherhood and divorce all rise.

Our children are in the balance, and we like David, seem to have little will or ability to change our ways. And though we see destruction, even death all around us, there seems little collective will to repent, live chastely and exemplify biblical marriage. In so doing we act not only sinfully, but also unjustly to our children, our community, our Church and nation.

And, as with ancient Israel, our future is tied to our decisions regarding our families. As our families go, so will the nation go. The Church will ultimately remain, but she is sorely weakened by our collective lack of resolve to restore our families.

This is lesson one.

Lesson twoDespite David’s committing of some pretty serious sins, to include premeditated murder; despite also his flaws and weakness, Scripture clearly attests God’s love for David. God’s himself says of that he is a man after My own heart (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). Yes, God had a heart for David, a special place in His heart.

And to be fair, David also had a great heart for God. It is true David was a sinner, and in several ways a very serious sinner. But he knew that, and was repentant (cf: 2 Sam 16:10-12; Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:11ff, inter al). He was a great King, to be sure, but also a humble man. In his final words near the end of his life, he advised: He that ruleth over men, must be just, ruling in the fear of God (2 Samuel 23:3). And though David sinned, he had a reverential fear for God rooted in love. He was a man after God’s own heart.

And herein lies the crux of this second lesson: God loves sinners, God uses sinners and flawed men and women. God can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way. Perhaps God should not have to, but he seems more than willing to use us, even in our brokenness.

Are there consequences to sin? Yes. But does God withdraw his love? Never. Even for those who finally refuse his Kingdom and it values, somehow his love reaches even into Hell. For how else could the souls there live without his sustaining love.

We should never doubt God’s love for us, no matter how deep our flaws or serious our sins. God will never forsake us. He may allow us to experience the consequences of our sins, as he did with David, and seems to be doing with us now, but God never withdraws his love or fails to shepherd us rightly. Whatever our sins, we have but to seek his mercy, like David, and accept his love. We are men and women after God’s own heart.

Painting above: David Repents from Wiki Commons

Reflections on the Soon to Be Released New American Bible (Revised Edition)

We have talked before here about some concerns in regard to the New American Bible. Both the translations, and especially the footnotes, are matters of concern. Now comes the news that a revised version is being issued March 9. Here are excerpts of  the press release:

The New American Bible, revised edition (NABRE), the first major update to the New American Bible (NAB) translation in 20 years, has been approved for publication…..The NABRE will be available in a variety of print, audio and electronic formats on March 9, Ash Wednesday.

            The new translation takes into account advances in linguistics of the biblical languages, as well as changes in vocabulary and the cultural background of English, in order to ensure a more accurate translation. This issue is addressed in the apostolic exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, in which the pope says, “The inculturation of God’s word is an integral part of the Church’s mission in the world, and a  decisive moment in this process is the diffusion of the Bible through the precious work of translation into different languages.”

            The new translation also takes into account the discovery of new and better ancient manuscripts so that the best possible textual tradition is followed. The NABRE includes the first revised translation of the Old Testament since 1970 and a complete revision of the Psalter. It retains the 1986 edition of the New Testament. Work on most books of the Old Testament began in 1994 and was completed in 2001. The 1991 revision of the Psalter was further revised between 2009 and 2010.

More here: http://www.usccb.org/comm/archives/2011/11-003.shtml

I have seen a few samples of the text and there are things to affirm.

1.  The dreadful 1991 Psalter is gone. So significant were the problems with the 1991 Psalter that the Vatican rescinded approval for its use in the liturgy. Among the problems with the older Psalter was  an excessive use of “inclusive” language. One of the main problems with this is approach is that it shreds the messianic psalms of their reference directly to Christ. For example, in certain Psalms the text, “Blessed is the man” is often a reference to Christ who alone fulfills the psalm perfectly. Man,  in such cases, does not merely mean, “the person who.”  However, the 1991 Psalter in current NAB versions renders this phrase,  Blessed is the Man as Happy those. In so doing, they  lose, not only the gender, (for Christ is male), but they also make the reference plural. Hence a reference to Christ is wholly obscured.

The new Psalter looks to have resolved this problem. I do not have access to the whole new Psalter so I cannot say if it will wholly resolve things. However, one psalm in the sample set  is psalm 8. The 1991 version crudely rendered verse 5-6 as What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor. The new text says, What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor.

2.  As for inclusive language in general the press backgrounder (found HERE) states the following:

Does this Bible use inclusive language?  This edition reflects the original meaning of the texts. Much of the original material, especially in thee narrative books, was gender specific and remains so. All references to God retain the traditional use of masculine pronouns. Where the original reference was gender neutral, the translation reflects that.

This is hopeful, for although some support “inclusive” language, we must remember that we are dealing with a sacred text. It is dangerous to claim to be “more enlightened” than the sacred texts, and then set about editing the text. Hebrew and Greek make greater use of nuance in grammatical gender than English and we ought to respect that fact since,  it was in these languages that God chose to set forth his relevation. We conform to the text, we do not merely conform it to us.

3.  It’s time for a new translation. A lot has happened since 1970, to which most of the current NAB Old Testament translation dates. Biblical scholarship has clarified texts. In English usage certain usages have change.  Of this last point the press release gives a few examples:

Samples of longer text changes are at the end of this document, but some words that no longer appear include “booty” (replaced with “plunder”), “cereal” (replaced with “grain”), and “holocaust” (replaced with “burnt offering”). That is because they have taken on new meanings for modern readers and could distract from the original intent of the Scripture. [1]

All this said, there remain some on-going concerns remain.

1.  The 1986 New Testament remains unchanged. There are significant issues in regard to that translation. For example, it renders Gabriel’s salutation to Mary as Hail favored one! (Lk  1:26) instead of the usual and traditional (and probably more accurate) Hail full of grace!  There is also the tendency to render the Greek word porneia (sexual immorality) as merely “immorality” (which could mean anything). This is a consistent problem in the Pauline corpus. We have discussed more on these issues here:  http://blog.adw.org/2010/08/puzzlement-over-porneia-and-a-pet-peeve/

2. There may be an interpretive key in the new translation of the Old Testament that many do not favor. In a text I was not given access to it would appear that a historicist approach is being taken. Here is an excerpt from the USA Today article that describes the problem:

One change may set off alarms with traditionalists, in a passage many Christians believe foreshadows the coming of Christ and his birth to a virgin. The 1970 version of Isaiah 7:14 says “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” The 2011 text refers to “the young woman” instead. It elaborates that the original Hebrew word, almah, may, or may not, signify a virgin.[2]

Now what this seems to indicate is what I call here a historicist approach. In this approach the interpretive key seeks to answer the question “How would a Jew of the 8th Century BC (in this case) understand this verse?” It is possible, and even probable, that a Jew of that era would think merely that a young girl would grow up, get married and have a baby.

But, frankly, I am not all that concerned with how a Jew of the 8th Century BC would understand it. For, as a Christian, I read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. And this text is clearly a reference to Mary and Christ. Almah signifies virgin, or young woman in Hebrew because, in that culture, young women were virgins (imagine that!).

New Testament Christians have rightly translated this verse as virgin because its reference to Mary is clearer and virgin is a perfectly acceptable way to translate Almah. But it looks like the editors of the NABRE want us to see it more as a Jew of the 8th Century BC would see it.

Catholic principles allow this interpretation but many do not prefer it since allusions are lost. St. Paul said regarding the Old Testament, these things were written for our instruction (Rom 15:4; cf 1 Cor 10:11). Jesus told the Jewish people of his day regarding the Old Testament: You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me (Jn 5:39).

Hence it seems more proper to read the scriptures not in an historicist sense, but as historical texts fulfilled in the New Testament, and understood in the light of the New Testament. I wish the NABRE would have used this approach which, at least according to this text, it did not.

3. The Footnotes of the New Testament are extremely problematic in places. At times they seem to directly question Catholic doctrine and the scriptural roots of it. We have talked more about that here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/09/new-american-bible-problems-on-purgatory/  I raised one problem, and commenters raised many other issues in the footnotes of the NAB New Testament.

It is my presumption that these bad footnotes will remain in the NT, even though the OT has been revised. Let us hope that the bishops will choose to pull the bad notes and replace them with better ones. Then the NAB will be “safer” for use by the inquiring faithful. Frankly, I struggle to hand it to the faithful with those footnotes. I have not seen the footnotes for the Old Testament in the NABRE and hope they will better annunciate the roots of Catholic teaching.

In the end, there is hope for this new translation. More will be known to us of this new translation next Wednesday when it goes live at the USCCCB website: http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/index.shtml

The NAB remains the most widely used Catholic Bible and is tied to the liturgy. This new version will require further review at the Vatican before it is approved for liturgical use,  but it is likely to take its place in the Catholic liturgy in the next few years. I look forward with hope to on-going improvements in the New Testament sections and will receive the revised Old Testament with great and hopeful expectation this Wednesday.

Photo Credit: USCCB (right click for poperties)

 

The Magnificat is a Bold Prayer!

I pray you might indulge me a little speculation that cuts against the usual “visuals” surrounding the Magnificat. And , if what I say does not please your sensibilities I ask pardon now, and once again your indulgence.

In our western culture we tend to think of Mary in very soft focus, humbly praying, head bowed, quiet and almost shy in her demeanor. And this may all be true. But as I read Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat day after day, and as I read it today’s Gospel, I cannot help but be struck at how bold and charismatic it is. Many of its phrases are taken from ancient Israel and stitched together by Mary in a wondrous and creative way. But as a prayer, it is no gentle meditation. It is one that makes you want to jump to your feet.

My soul Magnifies the Lord! My Spirit REJOICES in God my Savior!

 As I have prayed this prayer every day for the last 25 years I have come to experience that I cannot see Mary saying  this prayer with hands folded and head bowed. I see, rather, a joyful, young woman, filled with exuberance, head raised in serene confidence and hands upraised in joyful, yes, even charismatic,  gestures.  African American Catholics often refer to this joyful disposition as “havin’ church,” and would say something like: “Mother Mary and Sister Elizabeth were havin’ some church up in there!”

The scene sets up with Mary travelling “in haste” to see Elizabeth. Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth and John the Baptist starts leaping for joy in her womb. You might say he gets things started. The text from Luke then says Elizabeth “cried out with a loud voice: Most blessed are you among women…!” Mary goes on to respond how her soul rejoices in God her savior. No sour-faced saints here, these women are radiant with joy and exuberantly expressing it. Their havin’ church alright, joy beyond all measure is theirs.

This sort of exchange is not uncommon among some of the African American women in my parish. A not un-typical dialogue might go something like this:

A:    Girl,  you are looking radiant!
B:    Yes Lord! Your sister girl is blessed and highly favored! God’s been GOOD to me!
A:    Go on!…. God IS good!
B:    All the time!

Yes, it seems, from any straightforward reading of the Lucan text, that the Magnificat was not recited, it was boldly and joyfully proclaimed in a moment celebrated by two women. One who had come in haste bearing our savior,  and another, filled with the Holy Spirit and her infant dancing for joy in her womb. Two women filled with the joy of God, two women celebrating what God was doing in their lives. Mary proclaims, and she rejoices and says:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;  My spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 

And it is also a prayer that is also bold, even edgy in its critique of the social order:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.

Mary announces a great reversal that is come. Her Son Jesus echoed it: Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matt 19:30). Some may which to spiritualize these words, and they surely do have a spiritual meaning. But their critique of the vainglory of this world cannot simply be seen as an abstraction or a generality. They have real meaning for the social order here and now. They surely mean we must learn to esteem the poor, the disabled, the weak. In this world they may need us, but as for the world that is to come, we will need them and their prayers to gain entry. And they, if they had faith, will have first places of honor. The reversal is coming, be careful what you call a blessing and what you call unfortunate. Be careful who and what you esteem and who and what you do not esteem. Yes, this is a bold and edgy prayer. It cuts right to the heart of the world’s vainglory.

So again, I beg your indulgence. I am aware that many have rather specific notions of what Mary is, or should be like. The portrait I have here presented is not the usual one in Western culture. But in the end, at least here, I see a portrait of a joyful, exuberant woman who is bold, even edgy in expressing what God is doing for her and for all Israel.

How do you see it?

The Pope’s View of the Historical-Critical Method of Biblical Interpretation

I must that I was never all that enamored by the historical critical method of interpreting Scripture. I’ll say more of why in a moment. But some of you may be wondering what the historical critical method is. (If you want to skip my little lesson and some personal reflections of mine and go right to the Pope (instead of mere Msgr. Pope), the quote is at the bottom of the Page in bold italics).

The historical-critical method investigates the origins of a text and compares them to other texts written at the same time, before, or recently after the text in question. Did other ancient texts, whether biblical or non-biblical, adopt similar forms, use similar ingredients, story-lines, allegories, metaphors and the like. The Historical Critical method focuses on the sources of a document to determine who wrote it, when it was written, and where. What do we know of the author and his times? How was he influenced by them? What was his personal story? What other texts did he write and how do they compare what is before us? How does the writing we are studying compare to similar documents of the time? For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all very similar in terms of their basic content of what Jesus said and did. However they also have significant differences. How do we understand and explain the differences? Is one of the three “synoptic” (called this because of their similarity to each other) Gospels more historically reliable than the others as to detail? Why is the Gospel of John so different in tone and content that the other three and what are we to make of this? And so forth.

As such though, the historical critical method focuses primarily, almost exclusively, on the human origins of a text. Of itself this is not wrong, but it is incomplete. The Scriptures are a document of faith, more specifically of the believing community of the Church. They are inspired texts, with God the Holy Spirit as their ultimate author. Further, the role faith in the communities from which the biblical texts emerged is also a significant factor. Hence the biblical text is not merely understood as an historical utterance, but one that was understood and interpreted by those who believed and who also influenced the process of collecting the sacred writings and discerning what was of God. But this process was guided by the Holy Spirit.

The human dimension in all these things is important and essential and the historical critical method is right to explore this dimension, for God the Holy Spirit did not choose to act independently of the human personalities involved or of the believing community of the early Church. But neither was God wholly bound by these things or limited by them. Thus the historical critical method can only be one dimension of proper biblical understanding.

Regarding Sacred Scripture’s human dimension the Catechism has this to say:

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression. (CCC # 110)

My own struggle – As I have already admitted, I have struggled to be enthusiastic about the historical-critical method. This begins for personal reasons. When I was in Seminary the method was insisted on by some, (not all), of my professors as the only real and valid method of Scripture study. They were zealots of a sort and any suggestion of a world outside this method was dismissed by them. They also isolated themselves historically, since this method is rather a new one. Hence, just about anything written on scripture prior to 1900 was not considered very tenable by them. I remember once turning in a paper wherein I quoted a scriptural commentary from the 1870s. The Teacher simply circled the date in red and had nothing further to say of the point.

I was also troubled by the strong tendency of the historical-critical method to doubt the existence of the miracles recorded in scripture. Not all scholars do this, but the more usual explanation of the miracles were that they were either literary devices, or just epic legends that were common of ancient near eastern and middle eastern texts. Further, claims that Jesus made of his divinity were somehow to be understood as later additions, not something Jesus actually said. Many adherents of the historical critical method were also dismissive of John’s Gospel and tended to sniff at most details there. They considered what they called “the fourth Gospel” to be more theological reflection than actual history, hence it had little offer that they were not quite skeptical of. It did little good to quote John’s Gospel to some of my professors.

De-mystified – Generally speaking then, my experience of the historical-critical method was that it de-mystified the scriptures and saw them only in human terms. The over-arching role of the Holy Spirit as the true and primary author was set aside and, thus, Mark’s gospel was favored over say, John’s and so forth. Since some of my professors were zealots for the method. Asking questions, even in good faith, was considered a veiled rejection of the method and was not usually received well.

And yet I also knew the human dimensions and historical context of the Scripture were important. But getting past the odious qualities of zealots, and the over-emphasis they placed on the human, made it harder for me to learn from them or the method they proposed.

I write all this to introduce the Pope’s reflections on the historical critical method. At heart he is a professor and is thus very careful to distinguish and to realize that the truth is often found in dialogue with various disciplines. He is able therefore to take what is good in the method and describe what is lacking or in need of balance and correction. He does this gently yet clearly. I find his distinctions helpful, especially due to my personal history. I trust the Pope and need someone I trust to say to me, “There is something good here and worthy of acceptance, and there are also some tendencies to avoid.”

This excerpt is from the Pope’s recent book Light of the World. It begins with a question by Peter Seewald which articulates many of the concerns I just expressed and then there is the Pope’s answer.

SEEWALD: The historical-critical method had its merits, but it also led fatefully to an erroneous development. Its attempt to “demythologize” the Bible produced a terrible superficiality and a blindness toward the deeper layers and profound message of Scripture. What is more, looking back, we realize that the alleged facts cited for the last two hundred years by the skeptics intent on relativizing pretty much every statement of the Bible were in many cases nothing more than mere hypotheses. Shouldn’t we be much clearer than we have been that the exegetes have to some extent been practicing a pseudo-science whose operative principle is not Christian, but an antiChristian animus, and that it has led millions of people astray?

POPE BENEDICT: I wouldn’t subscribe to so harsh a judgment. The application of the historical method to the Bible as a historical text was a path that had to be taken. If we believe that Christ is real history, and not myth, then the testimony concerning him has to be historically accessible as well. In this sense, the historical method has also given us many gifts. It has brought us back closer to the text and its originality, it has shown us more precisely how it grew, and much more besides. The historical-critical method will always remain one dimension of interpretation. Vatican II made this clear. On the one hand, it presents the essential elements of the historical method as a necessary part of access to the Bible. At the same time, though, it adds that the Bible has to be read in the same Spirit in which it was written. It has to be read in its wholeness, in its unity. And that can be done only when we approach it as a book of the People of God progressively advancing toward Christ. What is needed is not simply a break with the historical method, but a self-critique of the historical method; a self-critique of historical reason that takes cognizance of its limits and recognizes the compatibility of a type of knowledge that derives from faith; in short, we need a synthesis between an exegesis that operates with historical reason and an exegesis that is guided by faith. We have to bring the two things into a proper relationship to each other. That is also a requirement of the basic relationship between faith and reason.

Just a final word of thanks to the Holy Father for the encouragement he gives me here. His charism is to strengthen and unify us (cf  Lk 22:31). His capacity to do this with clarity and gentleness is evident here. There are values to the historical critical method. And yet excesses must be avoided, distinctions made. I find this succinct answer, which he has elaborated in greater detail elsewhere,  of immense help.