On the Urgent Anger of Jesus. A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

In today’s Gospel we see an example of the anger of Jesus. In our Catholic and American experience we often see most anger as sinful. Further, many have remade Jesus into a friendly and harmless hippie. They screen out a large number of texts where Jesus, in the mode of the prophets, is urgent, demanding and even angry at the obtuseness, sloth and stubbornness so common to the human condition.  His is an urgency borne in love, and and anger meant to underscore the seriousness of of the choice before us, for against him and his Kingdom.

Jesus, of course, has sovereignty over his anger and expresses it to the perfect degree and always focused on the right and just object. This is not always the case with us. For most of us anger is an unruly passion and we do not always how and when to use it well.

Before looking at Jesus’ anger, lets look at our own experience and struggle with anger.

To begin with, some distinctions are in order.

  1. We ought first to distinguish between the internal experience or feeling of anger and the external manifestation of it.The internal experience of anger as a passionate response to some external stimulus is not sinful since we cannot usually and immediately control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals us that something is wrong, threatening or inappropriate as we understand or interpret the data. Sometimes our perceptions are incorrect but often they are not. Anger, in this sense, is not only sinless, but necessary as it alerts  us to the need to respond to something that is a threat or unjust and it gives us the energy to address it. It is a passion and an energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
  2. But it is possible that our anger can arise from less than holy reasons. Some of the things we fear, we should not fear. Some of our fears are rooted in pride, and an inordinate need for status and affirmation. Some of our fears come from misplaced priorities. For example we may be excessively concerned with money, property, popularity  or material things. And this concern triggers inordinate fears about things that should not matter so much. And this fear gives rise to feeling easily threatened at any loss or diminishment. This in turn triggers anger, since we sense that something is wrong or threatening. But we ought not be so concerned with such things since they are rooted in pride, vanity and materialism. In this case the anger may have a sinful dimension. rooted in the inordinate and sinful drives.
  3. Now external manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension when they are beyond what is reasonable. If I am experiencing anger there may be little or no sin in that. However if I express that anger by hurling insults, or physically attacking someone I may well have sinned by a sinful expression of my anger. However, it remains true that we live in thin-skinned times and people often take personal offense when they should not. We will see in a moment that Jesus did not often hesitate to describe his opponents’  in rather vivid ways.
  4. Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin.The Scriptures say, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4) So anger is not the sin. However, the object of anger or the expression of anger may become sinful.
  5. When is the external manifestation of anger an appropriate response?  Most simply put, anger is appropriate when its object is appropriate and reasonable.

For example, it is appropriate to experience anger when we see or experience injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. harnessed appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism. He elicited it,  and focused  its energy in productive ways. Notice that he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not to give the Civil Rights Protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to elicit a just anger on the part of many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist  injustice and effect change through non-violence. This sort of angry response was appropriate, reasonable and even holy. The tradition of non-violent resistance to injustice remains strong in those who protest abortion, and other sins, crimes and social injustices. It is the anger that motivates the desire to speak and the zeal to take action to rectify injustice.

Anger is also appropriate and even necessary in some forms of fraternal correction. To fail to manifest some level of anger may lead to the false conclusion that the offense in question is not really all that significant. For example if a child belts his brother in the mouth and knocks out a tooth a parent ought to manifest an appropriate amount of anger to make it very clear that this sort of behavior is intolerable. To gently correct a child in a smooth and dispassionate way with no inflection in the voice can lead to the impression that this really isn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. Again, note that the anger in question should be at a proper level, not excessive, and not too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.

Meekness– And this leads us to an important virtue, beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit which helps us to master anger: Meekness. In modern English, meekness has lost its original vigor and tends to signify a person who is a bit of a pushover and easily taken advantage of. But,  in its original meaning, meekness describes the vigorous virtue wherein one gains authority over their anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης) as the middle ground between being too angry, and not being angry enough. As we have noted, there is a place and a need for anger. The meek person has authority over their anger. They are able to summon its energy but control its extremes.  Hence the meek are far from weak. They are the string ones who have gained authority over their anger. St. John Chrysostom says in this regard: He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices. (Homily 11). St Thomas Aquinas says: Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason (II, IIae 158.8).

What of Jesus? One the one hand Jesus seems to have taught very strongly against anger:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:21-22)

On the face of it it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus broke his own rule for he exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus DOES clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful and hateful anger. Notice that he give two examples of the kind of anger he means. The first example is to use the term of contempt: Raca. This term is hard to translate so it is simply rendered in the Aramaic. Essentially what it means to do is to strip a person of any dignity and to regard them with utter contempt. The term fool; has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger her but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger would seem unreasonable given what we have said above and it would also call into question Jesus’ own example which includes not a little anger.

Most people are familiar with Jesus’ anger in the cleansing of the temple. But there are other places as well where he manifest not a little anger:

Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!”You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matt 23:29-33)

Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire!  He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?  He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God!” ( John 8:44-47)

Passages like these do not exhibit the “Mr Rogers” kind of Jesus common in the modern imagination. Jesus was no “Caspar Milquetoast.”  His vigorous anger is also on display in the video below.

What to make of Jesus’ angry displays?

  1. Not sinful – Clearly they are not sinful displays of anger since the scriptures assure us that Jesus never sinned (e.g. Heb 4:15).
  2. There may be an important cultural dimension to remember here. In the culture of the ancient Jews there seems to have been a wider acceptance of the expression of anger than in our own American setting. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was an expression more acceptable than our culture would usually permit. Turning over the tables etc. was a “prophetic action.” Prophets did things like this. In that culture it was more acceptable than perhaps in ours. But even we find a place for civil disobedience. We may not always like it, but we respect that it has a place in our culture.
  3. Yet Jesus clearly is angry. He is grieved at the hard heartedness of his opponents and his strong tone is an authoritative summons to repent. A lowered and lyrical voice might not convey the urgency of the situation. These are hardened men and there is a need for pointed and passionate denunciation. This is righteous anger.
  4. We ought to be careful before simply taking up Jesus angry tone for two reasons. First, he was able to see into their hearts and properly conclude as to the proper tactics necessary. We may not always be able to do this. Secondly, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone. It may be a less effective tactic in our setting and  prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.

But in the end, anger is not, ipso facto, sinful or wrong. It is sometimes the proper and necessary response. We do well to be careful with our anger, for it is an unruly passion. We ought to see above all the fruit of the Spirit which is meekness and ask to Lord to give us authority over our anger and a prudence as to its effective use.

I want, in future posts to explore more of this Gospel that I cover in my “live” homily” (see video below) and will do that later this week.

 This video shows Jesus’ anger:

And here is a video recording of my Homily:

On Restoring a Truer Vision of the Biblical Jesus

When I was a teenager in the 1970s Jesus was presented in less than flattering terms, at least from my standpoint as a young man at that time. The paintings and statues of that day presented Jesus as a rather thin, willow-wisp of a man, a sort of friendly hippie who went about blessing poor people and healing the sick. It is true he did that but usually left out of the portraits was the Jesus who summoned people to obedience and an uncompromising discipleship, the Jesus who powerfully rebuked his foes.

1970s Jesus was “nice,” and I should be nice too. In my 1970s Church we had no crucifix. Rather there was a cross and a rather slender and starry eyed Jesus sort of floated there in front of the Cross. The cross, it would seem, was all too much for a kinder gentler Jesus. The cross was, how shall we say…., so “unpleasant.”

Somehow, even as a teenager, I craved a stronger, manly Jesus. My heroes then were Clint Eastwood and I loved John Wayne movies which my father called to my attention. Now those were men. (I know these movies were often about revenge, but I’d learn about that later).

The “Jesus” I was presented with seemed soft and unimpressive compared to them and, teenager that I was, I was unmoved. Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? The basic message of Jesus 1970 was “be nice” but 1970s Catholicism (which Bishop Robert Barron calls “beige Catholicism”) stripped away the clarion call of repentance and trumpet-like command that we take up our cross, that we lose our life in order to save it.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually began to study the real Jesus, the one in Scriptures. He was nothing like the thin little williow-wisp of a man I had been taught. He was a vigorous leader, a man among men. Someone who was formidable and commanding of respect. Someone I could look up to.

What follows is a portrait of Jesus Christ that I culled from a few sources and adapted. I wish I could remember the sources to credit them here, but it was over twenty years ago in seminary that, from some dusty old books written long before the 1970s, I culled this portrait on the human stature of Christ. Note that the focus here is on the humanity of Christ. It presupposes his divine nature but focuses on the human nature and, as you will see draws most of its material straight from the Scriptures. As You can see the description is longish. In case you would rather print and read it later I have put it in PDF here: On the Human Stature of Christ

The exterior appearance of Jesus seems to have been a handsome one. A woman in the crowd broke out into praise of him with the words, Blessed in the womb that bore Thee and the breasts that nursed Thee. His response to her Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep itseems to suggest that she had bodily excellencies in mind as well as spiritual. The powerful impression which Jesus made on ordinary people certainly owed something to his attractive exterior which by its charm drew everyone to him and held them.

Even if this was due primarily to his spiritual and religious power, still, his eyes, with their burning, waking, reproving looks must have been especially striking. For example see how Mark remarks of the eyes of the Lord in the following passages: 3:5,34; 5:32; 8:33; 10:21; 23:27.

We also may cull from Scripture an impression of health, power, energy and well being in Jesus. Jesus seems to have been a thoroughly healthy man, not prone to fatigue and with a great capacity for work. We never hear that Jesus was visited by any sickness. A proof of his physical endurance is born out in Scripture. He was in the habit of rising very early (Mark 1:35). The hills and the lake were especially dear to him and after a long day he loved to climb some lonely height, or late in the evening get himself taken out on to the shimmering water of Lake Gennesareth and stayed out far into the night (cf Mk 4:35; 6:35). We also know that his public life was one of wandering through the mountain valleys of his homeland, from Galilee to Samaria and Judaea and even as far as to the district of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21). Despite these arduous journeys he counseled that one should travel light, bringing nothing for the journey, neither staff, money, nor bread, neither have two coats (Luke 9:3). Hunger and thirst must therefore have frequently accompanied him.

His last journey from Jericho up to Jerusalem was an astounding feat. Under a burning sun through a desolate, rocky waste he climbed some 3500 feet in a six hour climb. Despite this, he seems not tired, since that night he takes part in a feast at the house of Lazarus and his sisters (John 12:2). By far, the greater part of Jesus’ public ministry was spent out in the open, exposed to rigors of climate, in a life filled with labor and toil, with often little time eat (Mk 3:20; Mk 6:31). He owned no home and “had nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20) Hence he likely spent more than a few nights sleeping out in the elements. Only a sound body of physical stamina could have endured such as this.

And now to his mental stature itself. He faced many malevolent enemies among the Pharisees and Sadducees and dealt with them effectively, reducing them to silence (so much so that they began to plot his death). In addition there were tiring explanations to be offered to disciples who were often slow to learn. His self assurance is manifest. In the midst of a raging storm he went on peacefully sleeping till his disciples woke him. He immediately grasps the situation and rebukes the storm.

There was tremendous clarity in his thought. He had an absolute grasp of His goal which gave him an inflexibility and finality (in the good sense) of his will. Jesus knows what he wills and determinedly pursues it. This is evident even at twelve years of age in the temple.

The three temptations in the desert are turned back forcefully by the Lord. He is never deterred by opposition. There is opposition among the kindred of his own town, among his followers (cf esp. John 6:57) and even among the Apostles (cf esp. Matt 16:22). Here we have a man of clear will. He demands the same determination and certainty from his followers. No man, putting his hand to the plough and turning back is fit for the reign of God.” (Luke 9:62)

He bore so clearly the marks of the true, the upright, and the strong, that even his enemies had to declare when they came to him, Master, we know that thou art a true speaker and care not for the opinion of any man. (Mk 12:14) He shows forth a unity and purity and transcendence that reflect his interior life of union with the Father. His loyalty to the will of his Father is unwavering and clear even though it leads directly to the Cross. Jesus in every way is a heroic and epic figure in the purest sense of that word staking his life for a known truth and demanding the same of his followers.

Jesus was a born leader. When he calls his apostles, they immediately arise to follow after him. (cf esp Mk 1:16; 1:20) Again and again the Apostles note how they wondered among themselves about the marvels of his actions and even how these struck terror into them (cf esp. Mk 9:5; 6:51; 4:40; 10:24,26). At times they did not dare question him any further (Mk 9:3). The same wonderment affected the crowds.(cf Mk 5:15,33,42; 9:14). He spoke with towering authority and the people sought the loftiest images to in wondering who he could be. Is he John the Baptist? Elijah? Jeremiah or one prophets? (Matt 16:14) His spiritual power and authority discharged themselves in stern language and bold action when the powers of evil arrayed themselves against him. Demons trembled against his awesome power (Matt 4:10.) He also rebukes strongly the evil that is in men and warns them that they will not be worthy of him if they do not repent (Matt 13:41sq; 13:49sq; 25:1sq; 14sq; 33sq; 18:34; 22:7; 22:11sq.).

He is absolutely clear and unflinching in dealing with the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23:14,24,25). As shown above, he knows himself to be the Messiah and is anything but a fair-weather Messiah but follows the model of the prophets rebuking all enemies of the truth He proclaims. He speaks of hypocrites, serpents and generations of vipers and liars (cf Matt 23:33). He calls Herod a fox (Lk 13:32). Although he was never one to tread lightly, he never forgets himself or loses control. His anger is always the expression of supreme moral freedom declaring, for this I came into the World, that I should give testimony to the truth (John 18:37). Because He was so consistently true to His Father’s will his life was only “Yes and No” and he reacted with great severity against anything that was ungodly or hateful to God. He was ready to stake his own life for the truth and die for it.

To describe Jesus psychologically would be to describe his as a man of purposeful virility, absolute genuineness, austere uprightness, and heroic in performance. He knows the truth, knows himself and, with exact clarity, executes his mission.

I realize that people are pretty particular in how they envisage Jesus. I also think men and women have a very different starting point too. Please remember that I am not pontificating here, I am starting a conversation. So have at it!

Some Advice from Mother Church

Given our brief sampling of the Book of Ruth in daily Mass, perhaps a reflection is in order.

The detailed background to the text is too lengthy to go into here, but a few points will help. The story features three main characters: Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi. Boaz is clearly a picture (or “type”) of Christ. He was born and lives in Bethlehem; he ultimately acts as Ruth’s “kinsman-redeemer” by rescuing her from poverty and paying the price so as to cancel her debt. This, of course, is just what Christ does for us: He redeems us by His blood, canceling our poverty and debt. Ruth is a picture of the individual soul in need of Christ’s redemption and mercy. Naomi plays several roles in the book, but in the passage we will consider here she is a picture of the Church; she advises Ruth in what to do and draws her to Boaz, her redeemer.

Consider the following text and then let us see how Naomi symbolizes the Church.

Naomi said to Ruth, “Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.” “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered (Ruth 3:2-5).

The advice that Naomi gives to Ruth is very much in line with the instruction that our Mother the Church gives us. In our poverty and under the debt of our sin, we are exhorted by the Church to seek our “Boaz,” who is Christ. (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for supplying the alliterative headings below. They are his; the rest of the text is mine).

Be Firmly Convinced – Naomi says, Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Ruth knows her poverty, her pain, and her debt; so does Naomi. She exhorts Ruth to seek Boaz because he is near and can help. Boaz is wealthy and thus has the power to save Ruth, to draw her out of her overwhelming poverty; he has the capacity to cancel Ruth’s debt. She is to seek him at the threshing floor, where he is preparing and providing the bread that will sustain her. She must go, firmly convinced that Boaz will love her and save her.

So, too, does the Church exhort us: Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near (Is. 55:6). Yes, there is one among us, a near kinsman, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren (Heb 2:11); His name is Jesus. As God, He has the power to save us and to cancel our debt. Cast your cares on him, for he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus is at the threshing floor of His Church, preparing a banquet for you in the sight of your foe (Psalm 23:5). The grain He is winnowing is the Eucharistic Bread of His own flesh. Yes, says the Church, come to Jesus, firmly convinced of His love and His power to save.

Be Freshly Cleansed – Next, Naomi simply says, “Wash.” In other words, the first step in finding help from Boaz is to be freshly cleansed.

So, too, does the Church draw us to Christ with the exhortation to wash. Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Yes, the love of God will be poured forth on us and the cancellation of our debt will take place as we are cleansed of our sins.

Here are some other texts in which the Church—our Naomi, our Mother—exhorts us to be washed:

● Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:8).
● Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Cor 7:1).
● Wash and make yourselves clean (Is 1:15).
● Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the LORD (Is 52:11).
● And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name (Acts 22:16).
● Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:22).

Be Fragrantly Consecrated – Naomi says to Ruth, “and perfume yourself.” In other words, make yourself nice to be near; Come with an aroma that is sweet and pure.

So, too, does the Church, our Naomi, exhort us to be fragrantly consecrated. The fragrance we are called to is that of a holy life, which we receive in baptism. Our life in God should be like a sweet incense or perfume. Consider some of the following texts that the Church gives us:

● Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2).
● For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing (2 Cor 2:15).
● [The groom (Christ) speaks to his beloved:] You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices (Song 4:12).
● Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps (Ex 30:7).

Be Fitly Clothed – Naomi says to Ruth, “and put on your best clothes.”

Our Mother the Church also advises us to be fitly clothed. For a Christian, this means to be adorned in the righteousness that comes to us in Christ by baptism. In the baptismal liturgy, the Church says to the newly baptized of the white garment that he or she wears, You have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment, and bring it unstained to the Judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you may have everlasting life.

In other words, be fitly clothed. Wear well the garment of righteousness that Christ died to give you. Scripture, too, speaks of the garment in which we are to be fitly clothed:

● I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Is 61:10).
● Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev 19:7).

Be Fully Committed – Naomi continues, Then go down to the threshing floor, … until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down.

In other words, she is telling Ruth to place herself at the feet of her redeemer. This action of Ruth’s was a way of saying to Boaz, I put myself under your protection; I am fully committed to you.

The Church bids us to do the same: go to the threshing floor, to that place where the threshed and winnowed bread becomes the Eucharist.

Beneath or near every Catholic altar is the cross; on that cross are the uncovered feet of Jesus Christ.

The most sacred place on earth is at the feet of Jesus Christ. The Church, our Naomi, bids us to gather each Sunday at the altar, beneath the uncovered feet of Christ. The Church says to us just what Naomi said to Ruth: Place yourself at the feet of your Redeemer.

Be Faithfully Compliant – Naomi says to Ruth, confidently and succinctly, He will tell you what to do.

Here, too, the voice of the Church echoes what Mother Mary said long ago regarding her Son: Do whatever he tells you (Jn 2:5). How can our Naomi, the Church, say anything less or anything else? The Church has one message: Do whatever Christ, your redeemer, tells you.

So Naomi is a picture of the Church, Boaz a picture of Christ, and Ruth a picture of the soul in need of salvation.

How does the story end? I’m tempted to tell you to read it for yourself, but since Boaz is a picture of Christ you already know the ending. Ruth, firmly convinced, freshly cleansed, fragrantly consecrated, and fitly clothed, fully commits herself to Boaz and is at his feet. Boaz, who saw and loved Ruth before she ever saw or loved him (cf Ruth 2:5), arises and takes her as his bride, paying off all her debt and giving her a new life. Sound familiar? It is the story of salvation, if we but have eyes to see it.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Some Advice from Mother Church

The Wheat and the Tares

In daily Mass we have been pondering the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, from the Gospel of Matthew. In these difficult times for the Church, when there is a legitimate cry for reform, we do well to ponder its cautionary lesson. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching and leadership, the overall lack of self-discipline among Catholics, and the failure of bishops and clergy to discipline those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. The list of concerns is long, and in general I have been sympathetic to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.

However, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares cautions against overzealousness in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. He wants them to wait until the harvest. In many cases there will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now.

This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or to rebuke a sinner. There is certainly the need for discipline in the Church; other texts (e.g., Mat 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5) call for it as well. However, this parable is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to change the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.

We are going to need to depend on God’s patience and mercy if any of us are to stand a chance. People who summon the wrath of God upon (other) sinners may end up destroying themselves as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.

This parable summons us to find the proper balance between reform and patience. The guidance consists of four steps.

I. Wake up. Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”

Notice that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. It is a great mystery as to why God allowed Satan to do this in the first place, but there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. Part of the reason for this is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.

Don’t just blame the Church leadership (although we certainly deserve plenty of the blame). Many throughout the Church have been in a deep moral slumber. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” living unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents don’t know enough about what their children’s lives: what they are watching, what they listening to, where they are surfing on the Internet, and who their friends are. We rarely think of God or His plan for our lives. On the whole, our priorities are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged. We take little action other than to shrug our shoulders. We seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the ways of the world.

Church leadership has been too inwardly focused. Too many in the clergy have failed to warn of the wolf who wanders about looking to savage us. Clear teaching on moral issues has been sorely lacking in many ways and at many levels in the Church.

It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the gospel to a world that has lost it.

II. Wise up. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”

We must regain sobriety, part of which is understanding that we have an enemy who hates us: Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have been dismissive of his presence for far too long, as though he were a merely the villain in a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him—for we connive with him and also suffer from weakness of the flesh and susceptibility to the bad influence of the world—Satan is real. He is our enemy; he hates us, our children, and the Church. He hates anything and anyone holy or even on the path to holiness.

III. Wait up. His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest.”

We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. Yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner and ne’er-do-well, the Lord presents a balancing notion.

The Lord directs us to be prepared, in some cases to wait, and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rare) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely, but there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and the weeds to grow together. After all, sinners may repent; the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).

So, while there is sometimes a need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance it with patience. Wait. Place it in the hands of God. Give the sinner time to repent. Keep working and praying and teaching against all error, but do not act precipitously.

IV. Wash up. Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”

There is a harvest. Those who have sinned (or led others to sin) and have not repented are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.

The Lord is no pushover; He does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait He does not mean to say that judgment will never come, but His general advice is to leave it to Him. To us He says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready as well. Judgment day is surely coming, and every knee will bend to me. Everyone will have to render an account.”

That’s it. Wash up. Get ready! For now, the wheat and tares grow together, but later the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.

Here is the balance: God is patient, but there is ultimately a harvest. By God’s grace we must get ready for it. To the overly zealous God says, “Wait,” but to the complacent He says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Wheat and the Tares

No One Goes Away from Jesus Unchanged

blog1223The video below is a 2008 Coca-Cola commercial that takes up the theme of the star of Christmas.

Let us review the impact that the star of Christmas had on the wise men, the Magi.

  1. The star moved them to seek meaning outside themselves; it made them look out and up.
  2. The star called them beyond what was familiar in their own country and world and expanded their horizons toward Christ and His Kingdom.
  3. The star summoned them to seek Christ, and when they found Him, to worship Him.
  4. The star drew them to be generous to a poor family in Bethlehem; they made sacrifices as they lay costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before the Lord.
  5. The star roused them to conversion; they “returned to their country by another route,” following the straight and narrow path rather than the wide and destructive one.

Yes, no one encounters Jesus Christ and goes away unchanged. A blind man went away able to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk. The hungry went away satisfied, the ignorant instructed, the guilty forgiven, sinners converted.

The call of the nations to change and to new life began with a star. The light of the star opens the way to the Light of World, Jesus. The star of my life is Jesus.

In the commercial below we see Santa (a name that means “Holy One”) sending forth a star, one that touches people and radiates a light that transforms them.

  1. A woman sees the light of that star and is able to forgive her husband and be reconciled with him.
  2. A young soccer player sees the light of that star, surrenders his pride, and steps aside to let another share in and get a shot at glory.
  3. A young girl sees the light of that star and, giving up some of her own beauty, seeks to beautify a public park for others.
  4. A museum guard sees the light of that star and shows mercy to the guard dog with him (this was a silly one).
  5. A father sees the light of that star and allows his son a moment of growth.

Yes, there is something about that star that changes everyone who looks at it. They become more forgiving, more gracious, more aware of others, more connected to others, more loving. The light of the star, and the light of the world, is Jesus. His light is meant to have that same effect—and more besides.

In the background of the commercial an old Elvis song plays: “Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling in love with you. Shall I stay? Would it be a sin if I can’t help falling in love with you?”

Of course the love that is symbolized by the star is not the romantic love of the song but the brotherly and agape love that Christ gives. Like the Magi who found Christ by the star, no one sees the star of Jesus and encounters Him and then goes away unchanged. Indeed, if we authentically encounter Christ, we are equipped to love, just as the people in this commercial are. We are equipped to forgive, to bring healing, to help others find strength and glory in the truth, and to come to full maturity in Christ. A person who knows Jesus and has encountered Him cannot help loving others, not in some merely sentimental way, but with a strong and vigorous love rooted in the truth. This is the same love that Jesus has for us all.

At the end of the commercial is an exhortation in Spanish that translates as follows: “Give the world the best of you.” The best of me is Jesus.

What Does the Ascension Accomplish for Us? A Homily for the Feast of the Ascension

The Ascension of the Lord, Giotto (1304-06)
This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for although Christ our Head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He ascended, we too have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan; it is something I am actually experiencing. An old Baptist hymn says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love lifted me, when nothing else could help. Love lifted me.”

Yes, if we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.

I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event that the apostles witnessed. The Lord, by His own power, is taken to Heaven. In so doing He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again: Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in (Psalm 24:7). In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:

The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment. Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. As a summons to faith, Jesus had once said, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them by saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.

The Rescue – In the Ascension it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. In His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text, which affirms that: Therefore, it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier, just after His death, descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now, for those He had justified, came the moment to ascend with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradisiacal garden; they have entered Heaven.

The Rejoicing – Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today presents a song they likely sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord, the most high, the awesome, is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad, Jesus lifted me!” They were even singing this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher, than I’ve ever been lifted before!”

II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – When Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). So, when Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When Christ ascends, we ascend.

But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider the following humorous example about our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and push the button for the top floor, although the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, my whole body will get there (unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place). So it is also with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our head, we are already in glory. Some members of His body have already gotten there. We will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our head. If we hold fast and remain members of His Body, we are already enthroned in glory with Him. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.

III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven in order to abandon us. In fact, He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending (without abandoning us) He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:

Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit: Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). Later He says, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So, the Lord goes so that He might, with the Father, send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.

Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s Gospel is that there are often intentional double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes his resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us, from His Father’s right hand, to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus, the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! And it is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.

Help – At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links His ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12). We must not understand that asking in the name of Jesus is some incantation. To ask in His name means to ask in accordance with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the apparent and puzzling victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor….so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven, we have the help of the Lord’s grace, which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.

Habitation – Simply put, Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes indeed, He has the blueprints out and a hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us so that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.

Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher (than we’ve ever been lifted before). Yes, love lifted me, when nothing else could help; love lifted me.

 

Look for Christ in Advent and Do Not Be Dismayed

Wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.”

During Advent we are reminded to look to Christ and ask for His presence in our life so that we can become deeper, brighter, and richer by His grace. One of our unfortunate tendencies is to be dismayed by the world around us. We must be soberly aware of both the events and conditions in our world—sober, not drunk with excessive attention on 24/7 news feeds.

In our spiritual lives, too, we ought to be careful not to become consumed with lesser things and end up “majoring in all the minors.” We should be soberly grateful for signs and wonders such as the Shroud of Turin, the miraculous Tilma of Guadalupe, and the approved apparitions of our Lady. Special appreciation was given this past year to Our Lady of Fatima and to how presciently she set forth the struggles of our current age. Our Lady of Akita (Japan) also spoke very accurately to the current travails in the Church.

Here, too, sober gratefulness does not mean being drunk with an excessive preoccupation with the details of apparitions, miracles, and messages. Indeed, our Lady’s most basic message always boils down to this: Listen to my Son and do whatever He tells you. The basic meat and potatoes, the pure wine of the Christian, is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to look to Him, listen to Him, and judge everything by what He has taught us through His apostles in the New Testament and the teachings of the Church.

St. John of the Cross gives the following advice in a passage we read in this week’s Office of Readings:

Under the ancient law prophets and priests sought from God revelations and visions which indeed they needed, for faith had as yet no firm foundation and the gospel law had not yet been established. Their seeking and God’s responses were necessary. He spoke to them at one time through words and visions and revelations, at another in signs and symbols. But [these] were either partial glimpses of the whole or sure movements toward it.

But now that faith is rooted in Christ, and the law of the gospel has been proclaimed in this time of grace, there is no need to seek him in the former manner, nor for him so to respond. By giving us, as he did, his Son, his only Word, he has in that one Word said everything. There is no need for any further revelation.

This is the true meaning of Paul’s words to the Hebrews when he urged them to abandon their earlier ways of conversing with God, as laid down in the law of Moses, and set their eyes on Christ alone: In the past God spoke to our fathers through the prophets in various ways and manners; but now in our times, the last days, he has spoken to us in his Son. In effect, Paul is saying that God has spoken so completely through his own Word that he chooses to add nothing … he has now said everything in Christ.

Therefore, [to] anyone who wished to question God or to seek some new vision … God could then answer: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; hear him. In my Word I have already said everything. Fix your eyes on him alone for in him I have revealed all and in him you will find more than you could ever ask for or desire (St John of the Cross, the Ascent of Mount Carmel Lib 2, cap. 22).

This, then, is the substantial food of teaching and understanding: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, ascended and reigning; the Lord of history and of all that is.

This, too, is the truest message of our Lady: Listen to my Son if you seek blessings; if you fail to listen to Him, expect nothing but disaster—one you bring upon yourself.

During Advent this salutary reminder continues: Look to Christ. Let Him be born into your life. Listen to Him and allow Him to grow within you. Although He may come to you as an infant, He seeks to draw you to maturity. Be sober but not dismayed by the roaring and raging of this world. Christ has already conquered.

 

Three Images of a Christian – Which One Are You?

Consider the commercial below. It says a lot about how we can conceive of Christ, and the desire of some to refashion Him. Perhaps we do well to look at it by analyzing the dramatis personae (cast of characters) and weaving in the plot.

As the scene opens there are three women who come upon a car belonging to one of them. The car has been damaged and this little crisis sets the stage for the different notions of the sort of savior who is needed. Let’s look at each person in the drama and see what we can learn:

  1. The woman in the center is a sensible Christian. She is the owner of the car. She is unfazed by the damage to her car; she knows exactly what to do. She summons her insurance agent, who appears as if out of nowhere. She trusts him to handle everything and even encourages her friends to call on him.
  2. The insurance agent is a Christ figure. He wears a red tie, reminding us of the blood that was shed for us. He has a book in his hand in which everything is recorded. He arrives not only to bring help but to make a judgement. He consults his book and gets to work (cf Rev 20:12ff). His name is Rich; Christ is surely “rich” in grace (cf 2 Cor 8:9). Later on in the ad he will rebuke the darkness.
  3. The woman on the left is a worldly Christian. Although the Christ figure stands in her midst, she ignores him, wanting to see if she can come up with her own helper, a savior of her own making. It would seem that Rich, the Christ figure already standing there, does not suit her fancy. She wants one who is cute and more “sensitive.” An unchallenging agent is what she wants, one who will be more soothing, surely not one dressed in a business suit (as is Rich, the Christ figure with the red tie, who means business).
  4. The woman on the right is a carnal Christian. She is lustful, impetuous, and daring; she wants a man who is similar. She hardly notices the Christ figure, except to reject him with a sneer. She calls for her “savior,” one with a dark side, and he appears on the scene. He is a rogue, a thug; lustful, arrogant, irresponsible, and immature. He is the perfect projection of her carnal, lustful, fallen nature, and you can see it by the look in her eyes.

In the background, the Christ figure just keeps on working, as if to say, My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working (Jn 5:17).

Now the carnal thug is sitting on the car. Not only is he not helping, he’s making things worse. So the Christ figure says to him, “Hey, Darkside, get your feet off the car.” It’s as if he’s saying, “Be gone, Satan.”

Yes, there it is: the light rebuking the darkness. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Which one are you in this story: the carnal Christian, the worldly Christian, or the sensible Christian? What sort of a savior are you looking for?