Rediscovering the “Plot” of Sacred Scripture Is Essential to Evangelization

One of the most significant losses in the modern era is that the biblical narrative is no longer in the hearts and minds of most people. Scripture is the history of the human family, told in story form by God Himself. He tells us how and why we were made and why, as well as what happened to make things the way they are today. Why do we experience infinite longing though we live in a finite world? Why do we struggle with sin? How can we be rescued from sin and death? How can we find true satisfaction? The biblical narrative answers all these questions and more.

The biblical story or narrative mediates reality to us in a memorable way. God, like any good father, tells us our story and asks us to pass it on to our own children. To know our story is to understand ourselves in relation to God, the world, and others.

And what a story it is! It has more passion, conflict, and drama than any great epic. Although it has been called “the greatest story ever told,” most people no longer know the details of the story. As a result, they are detached from the reality the story mediates. Many are adrift in a world of little meaning—or competing “meanings”—with no way to sort it all out. They have few answers to the most basic questions about the meaning of life, the role and meaning of suffering, our ultimate destiny, and so forth. Without the story, life loses its meaning.

As an example of the widespread loss of the biblical narrative, I’d like to relate an experience I had a few years ago. I was talking to a group of Catholic seventh graders and at one point referred to Adam and Eve. As our discussion progressed it became clear that they did not really know who Adam and Eve were or what they had done. One young man piped up and asked, “Aren’t they in the Bible or something?” No one could come up with anything remotely specific. I resolved that day to scrap our compartmentalized religious programs and change the instruction at every grade level to a “back to basics” approach emphasizing the biblical narrative.

How has this loss of the narrative happened? Some argue that the Church stopped telling the story. If you have poor preaching and poor catechesis, pretty soon no one knows the story anymore. I don’t doubt there is some truth to this, but it hardly seems likely that “the Church” just decided one day to stop telling the story. Rather, what seems to have happened is that we stopped telling the story effectively. I believe that we lost touch with the “plot” of Sacred Scripture and because of this were no longer able to present the story in a compelling way.

What exactly is a plot? The plot in a story is the focal point to which all the events and characters relate. It is like the hub of a wheel around which everything else revolves. If it is to be engaging, a plot involves some sort of conflict or problem that must be resolved. This holds our interest as we wonder how the problem will be resolved. If in the first scene in the story everything is fine, and in scene two everything is fine, and in scene three everything is still fine, people start tuning out. It is the conflict, problem, or negative development that renders the plot interesting. Plots usually have five stages:

1. Exposition – In this stage we are introduced to the main characters and elements of the story.

2. Rising Action (Conflict) – This is the portion in which the conflict or problem that is focus of the story is introduced and developed.

3. Climax – This is the turning point of the story. The conflict has reached its acme and the tension is nearly unbearable. Here there is often an epic struggle, physical or otherwise, frequently involving a heroic figure or some striking event, in which the central conflict is addressed.

4. Falling Action – During this stage, events occur that will help to fully resolve the central conflict, and we see the effects of the climax on the characters and on proceeding events.

5. Resolution – This is the final portion of the story. The main conflict has been largely resolved and any “loose ends” are tied up. We learn of the final outcome for the main characters, which often involves either a return to normalcy or the attainment of some higher state than existed previously. The reader often experiences emotional catharsis at this point, as the tension/anxiety has dissipated.

Let’s identify these stages in Sacred Scripture:

Exposition God created Man as an act of love and made him to live in union with his God. In the beginning, Adam and Eve accepted this love and experienced a garden paradise. The heart of their happiness was to know the Lord and walk with Him in a loving and trusting relationship.

Rising Action/ConflictMan, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his creator die in his heart. He willfully rejected God, who had given him everything, by listening to an evil tempter who had given him nothing. Adam rebelled against God and refused to be under His loving authority and care. This led to a complete unraveling of everything. Paradise vanished and Adam and Eve experienced the disintegration of their innermost being.

Confused, ashamed, angry, accusatory, and embarrassed, they withdraw into hiding and cover up. They can no longer tolerate the presence and glory of God, who still loves them, and must now live apart from Him. God makes an initial promise to one day bring healing but when He will do so is not clear. This is the initial conflict or negative development that defines the plot and rivets our attention.

How will this tragic development be resolved? Will Adam and Eve turn back to God? Will they ever be able to experience peace in His presence again? How will Adam and Eve recover from their self-inflicted wounds? A great love story between humanity and God has soured. Will our lovers ever reunite? Will paradise reopen again? When will God act? How?

Things go from bad to worse: Adam and Eve’s rebelliousness is passed on to their children, as we see when Cain kills his brother Abel. Wickedness multiplies so rapidly that God must act. First, He humbles mankind by confusing the spoken languages at Babel. Later, He brings the flood, practically starting all over again.

In a sudden plot development, God chooses Abram and his descendants to set the stage for a final conflict with His opponent, the devil, and to restore Man. Through a series of covenants and actions, God prepares a people to receive the great Savior, who will resolve this terrible problem. First, however, God must take this chosen people through a series of powerful purifications so that at least some of them can be made humble enough to receive the cure and be healed. God purifies them through slavery in Egypt, a terrifying but glorious freedom ride through the desert, the giving of the Law, and the settlement in the Promised Land.

They are still rebellious, however, and more drastic purifications are necessary: invasions by Assyrians and Babylonians, exile, and then return to their land. Throughout, God sends prophets to rebuke and console them. The conflicts and waiting are been continuously escalating.

Climax – The curtain rises, and we see a small backwater town of perhaps 300 people called Nazareth. An angel, dispatched from God, greets a humble virgin named Mary. God’s plan to save His people begins unfolding not with a king or a military commander but with Mary of Nazareth. It’s a great paradox but a fitting one. Whereas Eve had said no, Mary—the new Eve—says yes. Mary’s “fiat” opens the door to our Savior, our God-hero, wonderful counselor, Father forever, and Prince of Peace (Is 9:6). He is named Jesus for He would save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21).

After living in obscurity for thirty years in Nazareth, Jesus steps forth into public ministry. For three He announces the gospel and summons the human family to faith and trust.

Then, in a crucial and epic battle between God and the devil, Jesus mounts a cross and defeats the devil at his own game. By dying He destroys death! The devil seems victorious, but on the third day our Savior and God-hero, Jesus, casts off death like a garment. Forty days later, He ascends and reopens the gates of paradise.

Falling Action – Now that the epic battle has been won, Jesus sends out apostles to announce the Good News of His victory over sin and death. His apostles go forth with this message: the long reign of sin is over; through grace it is possible to live a transformed life, one no longer dominated by sin, anger, resentment, fear, bitterness, greed, lust, and hatred but by love, mercy, joy, serenity, confidence, holiness, chastity, and self-control. A new world has been opened. Up ahead lie open the gates of paradise.

Resolution God has resolved the terrible consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve, just as He promised. Things do not just return to normal, however. They return to “super-normal,” for the paradise that God now offers is not an earthly one but a heavenly one. Its happiness is not merely natural; it is supernatural. We, the reader, experience the catharsis of knowing that God is faithful and that He has saved us from this present evil age.

Notice that the plot hinges on a crucial negative development: sin. Without that there is nothing compelling about the story. This is how the Church failed to hand on the narrative effectively: by downplaying the negative development necessary to make it interesting.

About fifty years ago there seems to have been a conscious effort on the part of the Church to move away from talking vigorously about sin. It was said that we should be more “positive” because you can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar. Crucifixes (too negative!) were removed from Churches and replaced with crosses featuring “Resurrection Jesus.” Thinking our numbers would increase if we were a “kinder, gentler Church,” we set aside the key element of the plot. The story now was that everything is pretty much fine and just about everyone will go to Heaven. In the end, all we had to say was “God loves you.”

Our narrative no longer made a lot sense. The Church became increasingly irrelevant. If I’m really OK, why should I go to Mass? Why receive the sacraments? Why pray? Why call on God at all? If I’m fine, why do I need a savior? Who needs Jesus, God, or religion? And then there were the obvious critiques: Church is boring; the Bible is boring. Well, sure, a story without a well-developed plot is boring. In fact, if it is poorly developed enough, I might just stop reading the book or walk out of the movie—and that is just what people have done. Fewer than one-fourth of Catholics today attend Mass regularly.

To the majority of people, even Catholics, the story is irrelevant and uncompelling. Why? Because we jettisoned the “negative development” that makes a good plot. Without a rich understanding of sin, salvation makes little sense.

Most people no longer “get” the story because the whole point has been lost. People don’t usually remember stories that are boring or make little sense to them.

So it is that I found myself in a class of Catholic seventh graders who had barely heard of Adam and Eve.

It’s time to rediscover the central element of the “plot” of Sacred Scripture: sin. It’s time to talk about it, creatively, in a compelling way. In so doing we will once again set forth a riveting story and help people to rediscover the greatest story ever told.

Note: I originally published a version of this article about nine years ago in “Homiletic and Pastoral Review.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Rediscovering the “Plot” of Sacred Scripture is Essential to Evangelization

Does God Approve the Abuse of Women?

One of the darker passages in Scripture comes just after the fall of Adam and Eve. Announcing the consequences that they have ushered in, God says to Eve,

I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children; yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master (Gen 3:16).

The Hebrew word מָשַׁל (mashal) means “to have dominion, reign, or ruling power over another.” The New Jerusalem Bible (the most widely used Catholic Bible outside the U.S.) translates this final phrase this way: and he will dominate you.

While the text is not absolutely clear, the mastery or dominance spoken of in Genesis does not seem to refer to benign headship by the husband, but rather a relationship marked by tension and easily open to abuse.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains the following commentary on this topic:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination (CCC # 400).

Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character (CCC # 1606).

According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust … Nevertheless, the order of creation persists, though seriously disturbed. To heal the wounds of sin, man and woman need the help of the grace that God in his infinite mercy never refuses them (CCC #1607-1608).

In calling Genesis 3:16 a dark passage I merely call to attention to the concern of some that God seems to approve of this domination, that abuse and exploitation by men is meant to be women’s lot, by God’s will.

I do not agree with this interpretation; not everything reported or described in the Bible is approved. Eve’s experience is the result of Original Sin and the poisonous climate it introduced. While God reports the effect and even connects himself to it by way of primary causality, He spends the rest of Scripture addressing and healing the sin and its effects.

Thus, the thought that this passage gives even tacit approval to the abuse of women cannot stand. Some in the past may have invoked it to excuse abusive behavior, and most of the criticism of the passage is based on the possibility of such a misinterpretation.

That said, I have seen the passage strangely and sadly fulfilled in a small number of women I have counseled who suffer from physical and/or emotional abuse by husbands or boyfriends yet remain with them or repeatedly return to them. In this, there is a kind of fulfillment of the text that a woman’s desire will be for her man, but he will (abusively) dominate her. (There are, of course, many other potential factors such as low self-esteem, poor family role models, and financial pressures.)

There is a fine line between passion and anger, between a man who is a virile go-getter and one who turns on a dime to rage and abuse. Powerful men are attractive to some women, but some powerful men are also overly aggressive and hot-tempered. Their strength and their struggle are closely related. Many women know this intuitively, even if they have not consciously worked it all out. What they like in their man is closely related to what they hate and/or suffer from.

So, I am not so sure that every woman who returns to an abuser is simply lacking in self- esteem or is trapped in some way. Some return knowing exactly what they are doing, despite counsel to the contrary; their reasons are caught up in the complicated intersections described above.

I am not reporting this behavior with approval. I am simply observing it and trying to understand it. Like most of you, I would counsel a woman who is being physically abused to stay away unless and until the man has received help to ensure an end to his sinful behavior. Some women in such situations do not, however, and I cannot merely write them off as foolish for it.

Let us be clear: whatever the choice of the woman, to remain or to leave, the one who abuses is guilty of a great sin that the Scriptures cannot interpreted as approving in any way whatsoever.

All of this reminds me of a popular but dark song from 1978, when I was in high school: Jackson Browne’s “You Love the Thunder.” My interpretation of the lyrics is that the man singing is telling the woman that she likes his anger (thunder) and abuse (rain) because they’re worth it given what else he brings.

I remember being quite alarmed by the words and troubled that no one else seemed bothered. (I was and still am very attuned to lyrics, but most of my high school peers never seemed to pay much attention to them; they just liked the melodies.) The lyrics seem at best arrogant and at worst a celebration of anger and abuse.

Consider the darkness of these lyrics:

You love the thunder and you love the rain
What you see revealed within the anger is worth the pain
And before the lightning fades and you surrender
You’ve got a second to look at the dark side of the man

You love the thunder, you love the rain
You know your hunger, like you know your name
I know you wonder how you ever came
To be a woman in love with a man in search of the flame

Draw the shades and light the fire
For the night, it holds you and it calls your name
And just like your lover knows your desire
And the crazy longing that time will never tame …

These lyrics point to those sad words of Genesis: “… your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master,” but the song points to a Genesis 3:16 that is frozen in time, having made no progress out of the climate of sin. Jesus came to heal that and to restore God’s original plan for marriage in which a man clings to his wife in love and out of delight says, “She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Loving the “thunder” and “rain” is not the way forward but the way backward.

So, no, God does not approve or affirm the abuse of women—or of men, for that matter. God points to it and then sets about healing it.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Does God Approve the Abuse of Women?

Many Titles of Christ from Scripture

JesusThere are many, many different titles of Christ in both the New and Old Testaments. If one studies them carefully, they can provide a “mini-catechesis” of the Lord Jesus.

Presented below are more than 150 different titles of Christ. For each title, I have included a link to the Scripture from which it was drawn. The list was compiled from various sources, but most come from The Catholic Source Book, which was compiled and edited by Fr. Peter Klein. In addition, some years ago my readers helped me to expand the list to its current state.

I have placed the list in PDF format here, in case you’d like to save it for future reference.

Titles of Jesus Christ in Scripture:

Advocate – 1 John 2:1

Alpha and Omega – Revelation 1:8; 22:13

The Almighty – Revelation 1:8

Amen – Revelation 3:14

Ancient of Days – Daniel 7:22

Apostle and High Priest of our Confession – Hebrews 3:1

Arm of the Lord –Isaiah 53:1

Author and Finisher of our Faith – Hebrews 12:2

Beloved – Matthew 12:18

Beloved Son – Colossians 1:13

Bread of God – John 6:33; 50

Bread of Life – John 6:35

Living Bread – John 6:51

Bridegroom – John 3:29

Bright Morning Star – Revelation 22:16

Brother – Matthew 12:50

Captain of Our Salvation – Hebrews 2:10

Carpenter – Mark 6:3

Carpenter’s Son – Matthew 13:55

Chief Shepherd – 1 Peter 5:4

Chosen One – Luke 23:35

Christ – Matthew 16:20

Christ Jesus – 1 Timothy 1:15; Colossians 1:1

Christ of God – Luke 9:20

Christ the Lord – Luke 2:11

Christ Who Is Above All – Romans 9:5

Consolation of Israel – Luke 2:25

Chief Cornerstone – Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6

Dayspring – Luke 1:78

Deliverer – Romans 11:26

Deliverer from the Wrath to Come – 1 Thessalonians 1:10

The Desire of All Nations – Haggai 2:7

Eldest of Many Brothers – Romans 8:29

Emmanuel – Matthew 1:23

Faithful and True Witness – Revelation 1:5; 3:14

Father Forever – Isaiah 9:6

First and Last – Revelation 1:17; 2:8

Firstborn Among Many Brothers – Romans 8:29

Firstborn from the Dead – Revelation 1:5

Firstborn of All Creation – Colossians 1:15

First Fruits – 1 Corinthians 15:20

Friend of Tax Collectors and Sinners – Matthew 11:19

Gate of the Sheepfold – John 10:7

Glory – Luke 2:32

Good Shepherd – John 10:11; 14

Grain of Wheat – John 12:24

Great Shepherd of the Sheep – Hebrews 13:20

Head – Ephesians 4:15

Head of the Church – Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22

Hidden Manna – Revelation 2:17

High Priest – Hebrews 3:1; 4:14; 7:26

He Who Holds of the Keys of David – Revelation 3:7

He Who Is Coming Amid the Clouds – Revelation 1:7

Heir of all things – Hebrews 1:2

Holy One – Acts 2:27

Holy One of God – Mark 1:24

Holy Servant – Acts 4:27

Hope – 1 Timothy 1:1

Horn of Salvation – Luke 1:69

I Am – John 8:58

Image of the Invisible God – 2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15

Indescribable Gift – 2 Corinthians 9:15

Intercessor – Hebrews 7:25

Jesus – Matthew 1:21

Jesus the Nazarene – John 18:5

Judge of the World – 2 Timothy 4:1; Acts 10:42

Just One – Acts 7:52

Just Judge – 2 Timothy 4:8

King – Matthew 21:5

King of Israel – John 1:49

King of Kings – Revelation 17:14; 19:16; 1 Timothy 6:15

King of Nations – Revelation 15:3

King of the Jews – Matthew 2:2

Lamb of God – John 1:29

Last Adam – 1 Corinthians 15:45

Leader – Matthew 2:6; Hebrews 2:10

Leader and Perfecter of Faith – Hebrews 12:2

Leader and Savior – Acts 5:31

Life – John 14:6; Colossians 3:4

Light – John 1:9; John 12:35

Light of All – Luke 2:32; John 1:4

Light of the World – John 8:12

Light to the Gentiles – Is 49:6, Lk 2:32

Lion of the Tribe of Judah – Revelation 5:5

Living Bread Come Down From Heaven – John 6:41

Logos – John 1:1

Lord – Luke 1:25

One Lord – Ephesians 4:5

My Lord My God – John 20:28

Lord Both of the Dead and the Living – Romans 14:9

Lord God Almighty – Revelation 15:3

Lord Jesus – Acts 7:59

Jesus Is Lord – 1 Corinthians 12:3

Lord Jesus Christ – Acts 15:11

Lord of All – Acts 10:36

Lord of Glory – 1 Corinthians 2:8

Lord of Lords – 1 Timothy 6:15

Lord of Peace – 2 Thessalonians 3:16

The Man – John 19:5

Man of Sorrows –Isaiah 53:3

Master – Luke 5:5

Mediator – 1 Timothy 2:5

Messenger of the Covenant – Malachi 3:1

Messiah – John 1:41; 4:25

Mighty God – Isaiah 9:6

Morning Star – 2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 2:28; Revelation 22:16

Nazarene – Matthew 2:23

Passover – 1 Corinthians 5:7

Power and Wisdom of God – 1 Corinthians 1:24

Power for Salvation – Luke 1:69

Priest Forever – Hebrews 5:6

Prince of Life – Acts 3:15

Prince of Peace – Isaiah 9:6

Prophet – John 4:19; John 9:17

Rabboni – John 20:16

Ransom – 1 Timothy 2:6

Redeemer – Isaiah 59:20

Rescuer from This Present Evil Age – Galatians 1:4

Radiance of God’s Glory – Hebrews 1:3

Resurrection and Life – John 11:25

Righteous One – Is 53:11

Rising Sun – Luke 1:78

Root of David – Revelation 5:5

Root of David’s Line – Revelation 22:16

Root of Jesse – Isaiah 11:10

Ruler – Matthew 2:6

Ruler of the Kings of the Earth – Revelation 1:5

Ruler and Savior – Acts 5:31

Savior – 2 Peter 2:20; 3:18

Savior of the World – 1 John 4:14; John 4:42

Second Adam – Romans 5:14

Servant of the Jews – Romans 15:8

The Servant of the Lord – Isaiah 52:13

Shepherd and Guardian of Our Souls – 1 Peter 2:25

Slave – Philippians 2:7

Son – Galatians 4:4

Beloved Son – Colossians 1:13

Firstborn Son – Luke 2:7

Son of Abraham – Matthew 1:1

Son of David – Matthew 1:1

Son of God – Luke 1:35

Son of Joseph – John 1:45

Son of Man – John 5:27

Son of Mary – Mark 6:3

Son of the Blessed One – Mark 14:61

Son of the Father – 2 John 1:3

Son of the Living God – Matthew 16:16

Son of the Most High – Luke 1:32

Son of the Most High God – Mark 5:7

Only Son of the Father – John 1:14

Source of God’s Creation – Revelation 3:14

Spiritual Rock – 1 Corinthians 10:4

Living Stone – 1 Peter 2:4

Stone Rejected by the Builders – Matthew 21:42; 1 Peter 2:8

Stumbling Stone – 1 Peter 2:8

Suffering Servant, Servant of Yahweh – Is 42:1, 49:3

Sun of Righteousness – Malachi 4:2

Teacher – Matthew 8:19; Matthew 23:10

Testator of the New Covenant – Hebrews 9:16

The Glory of the Lord – Isaiah 40:5

The Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys – Song of Songs 2:1

The Lord our Righteousness – Jeremiah 23:6

True God – 1 John 5:20

True Vine – John 15:1

The Way, the Truth, and the Life – John 14:6

The One Who Is, Was, and Who Is to Come – Revelation 3:7

Wisdom of God – 1 Corinthians 1:24

Wonderful Counselor – Isaiah 9:6

Word – John 1:1; 14

Word of God – Revelation 19:13

Word of Life – 1 John 1:1

I would also ask for your help. There may be other titles of Christ that are not on the list. I would be grateful if you would use the comments section to add any titles you notice are missing. If you know the scriptural reference, it would be helpful if you could include it, but if not I will try to locate it.

When considering an addition please consider whether it is truly a title or just a description. For example, “kind” is an adjective, and certainly describes Jesus, but it is not a title per se. Nouns show usually show better promise as titles of Christ, but even nouns do not always amount to a title. For example, “walker” is a noun, and surely Christ did a lot of walking, but again it is not a title per se.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Many Titles of Christ from Scripture

“Strange but Rich Verses” File: What Does Acts 1:4 Mean by Saying that Jesus was Eating Salt with Them?

There is an unusual verse that occurs in the first chapter of the Acts the Apostles, describing a gathering of Jesus and the Apostles after the Resurrection but before the Ascension.

There is an unusual verse that occurs in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, describing a gathering of Jesus and the apostles after the resurrection but before the ascension. For the most part, modern translations do not reveal the full oddity of the verse. The verse in question, as rendered by the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, is this:

And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4).

However, a number of scripture scholars, including none other than Joseph Ratzinger, point out that the verse is more literally translated as follows:

And while eating salt with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father.

The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, better known as Strong’s Concordance, makes no mention of the connection of the word συναλιζόμενος (synalizomenos) to salt. It parses the word as syn (with) + halizo (to throng or accumulate) to arrive at the definition “to assemble together.”

However, another source, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Pontifical Biblical Institute), includes a different analysis of the word: syn (with) + halas (salt), to arrive at the definition “to take salt together” or by extension, “to share a meal.”

So, there seem to be two rather different notions of the etymology. It is also interesting that none of the writings of the Greek Fathers that I was able to consult make any mention of the possible connection to salt, though St. John Chrysostom does connect the word to a meal rather than a mere gathering.

I know just enough Greek to be dangerous; I certainly cannot sort out why different sources parse the word differently, but for our purposes let’s just chalk it up to a difference among experts, much as is the case with another passage on which I have written here: Agapas vs. Philo.

I would like to explore the translation that the Lord was “eating salt with them.” How odd to our modern ears, especially when the “food police” today treat salt almost as a poison! Despite that, salt is still precious today, even if less necessary than it was in the ancient world.

Let’s consider what Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote (as Joseph Ratzinger):

For a correct understanding … the word used by Luke—synalizómenos—is of great significance. Literally translated, it means “eating salt with them.” Luke must have chosen the word quite deliberately. Yet what is it supposed to mean? In the Old Testament the enjoyment of bread and salt, or of salt alone, served to establish lasting covenants (cf Num 18:19, 2 Chron 13:5). Salt is regarded as a guarantee of durability. It is a remedy against putrefaction, against the corruption that pertains to the nature of death. To eat is always to hold death at bay—it is a way of preserving life. The “eating of salt” by Jesus after the Resurrection, which we therefore encounter as a sign of new and everlasting life, points to the Lord’s new banquet with his followers … it has an inner association with the Last Supper, when the Lord established the New Covenant. So the mysterious cipher of eating salt expresses an inner bond between the [Last Supper] and the risen Lord’s new table fellowship; he gives himself to his followers as food and thus makes them sharers in his life, in life itself … the Lord is drawing the disciples into a New Covenant-fellowship with him … he is giving them a share in the real life, making them truly alive and slating their lives through participation in his Passion, the purifying power of his suffering (Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 2, pp. 271-272).

So indeed, salt and covenants are tied. Here are a few verses that make the connection:

  • Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring (Numbers 18:19).
  • Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chronicles 13:5)
  • Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Leviticus 2:13).

It makes sense that Luke would refer to Jesus as eating salt with the disciples. To untrained ears it may seem odd, but to ears tuned to the biblical world the reference has great significance. Jesus is affirming the New Covenant and this expression points to that.

Of course, it is no mere table fellowship; it is the meal of the New Covenant we have come to call the Mass. Hence, without doing disservice to Luke’s description, we can say (in our more developed theological language) that during the forty days before He ascended, the Lord celebrated Mass with them. Thus, the Emmaus description (Luke 24:30) of Jesus at the table giving thanks, blessing the bread, breaking it, and giving it to them so that they recognize Him therein, is not the only allusion to a post-resurrection Mass.

Is it “Eating salt with them” or “Staying with them”? You decide, but I vote for salt. 😉

Seeing More as God Does

Today I’d like to reflect further on the Gospel reading from today’s Mass (Thursday of the 13th week of the year). It tells the story of the paralyzed man whom Jesus tells to have courage because his sins are forgiven.

In one sense this is a rather peculiar response to a paralyzed man: Jesus looks at him and says, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” Now we might be tempted to tap Jesus on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, Lord, but this man is paralyzed. His problem is paralysis; that’s what he needs healing for!” (The Pharisees and scribes get all worked up for a different reason: they don’t think that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.)

Of course, Jesus is neither blind nor lacking in intelligence. Unlike us, however, when Jesus looks at the man he does not consider paralysis to be the most serious problem. To Jesus, the man’s biggest issue is his sin.

Living as we do in this world, most of us have the world’s priorities. The Lord sees something more serious than paralysis, while we wonder what could possibly be more serious than paralysis! But not as man sees does God see. For God, the most serious problem we have is our sin. We don’t think like this even if we are told we should think like this.

Influenced by the flesh as we are, most of us are far more devastated by the thought of losing our health, or our money, or our job, than we are by the fact that we have sin. Threaten our health, well-being, or finances, and we’re on our knees begging God for help. Yet most people are far less concerned for their spiritual well-being. Most of us are not nearly so devastated by our sin (which can deprive us of eternal life) as we are by the loss of our health or some worldly possession.

Even many of us who have some sense of the spiritual life still struggle with this obtuseness and with misplaced priorities. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers are often dominated by requests that God fix our health, improve our finances, or help us to find a job. It is not wrong to pray for these things, but how often do we pray to be freed of our sins? Do we earnestly pray to grow in holiness and to be prepared to see God face-to-face? Sometimes it almost sounds as if we are asking God to make this world more comfortable so that we can just stay here forever. This attitude is an affront to the truer gifts that God offers us.

So it is that Jesus, looking at the paralyzed man, says to him, Your sins are forgiven. In so doing, Jesus addresses the man’s most serious problem first. Only secondarily does He speak to the man’s paralysis, which He almost seems to have overlooked in comparison to the issue of his sin.

We have much to learn about how God sees and about what are the most crucial issues in our life.

Joseph and Mary were told to call the child “Jesus” because He would save the people from their sins. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes,

Joseph is entrusted with a further task: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). … On the one hand, a lofty theological task is assigned to the child, for only God can forgive sins. So this child is immediately associated with God, directly linked with God’s holy and saving power. On the other hand, though, this definition of the Messiah’s mission could appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the kingdom of David, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.

Benedict then cites the story of the paralytic and comments,

Jesus responded [to the presence of the paralyzed man] in a way that was quite contrary to the expectation of the bearers and the sick man himself, saying: “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). This was the last thing anyone was expecting; this was the last thing they were concerned about.

The Pope Emeritus concludes,

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady.

Yes, God sees things rather differently than we do. There is much to ponder about the fact that Jesus said to the paralyzed man, Your sins are forgiven.

>

Why Do Some of the Psalms Seem Boastful?

To anyone who regularly reads the Liturgy of the Hours, some of the psalms seem downright boastful. They sound too much like the Pharisee who went to pray and said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). In the very next verse, Jesus recommends a briefer prayer for us: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How, then, are we to understand some of the psalms that seem to take up a rather boastful and presumptuous tone? Consider these three passages:

  • The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight (Psalm 18:21-24).
  • My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-4).
  • I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me … therefore I hate every wrong path (Psalm 119:100-102).

For us who would pray these, the spiritual approach is twofold.

These psalms are prayed in hope. While we are not worthy to say such words without a lot of qualifications, by God’s grace they will one day be true for us. God is drawing us to perfection. While total perfection will not come until we attain Heaven, if we are faithful we should be progressing toward this lofty reality even now.

Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation. One day in Heaven we will be able to say, “I do not sin; I am blameless before God. I am not proud and never depart from your decrees, O Lord.” Hope is the vigorous expectation that these words will one day apply to us fully; for now, we recite them in that fervent hope.

In effect, we are memorizing our lines for a future moment, when by God’s grace we will actually be able to recite them truthfully. Praying psalms like these is like a dress rehearsal for Heaven. These psalms amount to prolepses of a sort, whereby we proclaim a future reality as if it were already present. Our confidence to speak proleptically is in Christ alone.

These psalms are on the lips of Christ. When the Church prays, Head and members pray together; it is the whole Body of Christ that proclaims these psalms.

Christ never wavered, never drew back from God’s Law. He never sinned; His hands were clean from defilement and He was rewarded for His righteousness. Christ alone prays these psalms without any qualification.

In the Old Testament, these psalms pointed forward to the Christ, to the anointed Messiah. Today, they still point to Christ and He alone utters them authentically. None of us can really pray them apart from Christ, as members of His Body.

Even the perfected in Heaven cannot pray them without reference to Christ, for it is He who accomplished in them the perfection that makes such psalms a reality for them.

It is Christ who prays these psalms, and we—through Him, with Him and in Him—head and members—are praying them to the Father.

Without Christ, such psalms amount to haughty boasts and presumptuous declarations, but with Christ our Head, they are true; we can rightly pray them in the hope of our own perfection, one day, by His grace. We can also pray them in the joy that some of our brothers and sisters in Heaven have already attained to the perfection described therein. This is because the grace of Christ has had in them its full effect.

Why and How Does Satan Roam the Earth?

One of the more puzzling aspects of demonology is the freedom that Satan and demons appear to have in roaming the earth, causing trouble. If the condemned are consigned to Hell for all eternity, why is Satan allowed to wander about outside of Hell? Isn’t he supposed to be suffering in Hell along with his minions and the other condemned? Further, it doesn’t seem that he is suffering one bit, but rather having a grand time wreaking havoc on the earth. How do we answer such questions?

Some texts in Scripture do speak of Satan and the fallen angels as being cast into Hell:

  • God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment (2 Peter 2:4).
  • And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day (Jude 1:6).
  • Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [likely a reference to the age of the Church and the going forth of the Gospel to all the nations] and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. (Rev 20:1-3).

Yet other texts speak of the fallen angels (demons) as being cast down to the earth:

  • But the dragon was not strong enough, and no longer was any place found in heaven for him and his angels. And the great dragon was hurled down—the ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Rev 12:8-9).
  • The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it” (Job 1:7).

Thus, though consigned to Hell, it would seem that some or all of the demons have the ability to roam the earth as well. Demons, however, do not have bodies and thus do not “roam the earth” the way we do. Their “roaming” is more an indication of their capacity to influence than their ability to move from one place to another. Further, Satan and demons are described as being “chained,” “in prison,” or “in darkness.” This is likely a way of indicating that their power to influence or “roam” is limited in some way. This does not say that they do not wield considerable power, just that it is not unbounded. If you think it is bad now, just imagine what it will be like when their power is unchained!

Near the end of the world, Scripture says that Satan will be wholly loosed and will come forth to deceive the nations for a while; after this brief period, he and the other fallen angels will be definitively cast into the lake of fire and their influence forever ended.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, … their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev 20:7-10).

So for now, demons do have influence, but it is limited. At the end, their full fury will be unleashed, but this is only to bring about their final, complete defeat, after which they will be forever sequestered in the lake of fire.

Why God permits some demons the freedom to wander about the earth is mysterious. We know that God permits evil as a “necessary” condition of freedom for the rational creatures He has created. Angels and humans have free, rational souls; if our freedom is to mean anything, God must allow that some abuse it, even becoming sources of evil and temptation to others.

For us, this life amounts to a kind of test: God permits some degree of evil to flourish yet at the same time offers us the grace to overcome it. Further, there is the tradition implied in Scripture that for every angel that fell there were two who did not (Rev 12:4). Thus, we live not merely under the influence of demons, but also under the influence and care of angels.

On account of temptations and trials, our “yes” to God has greater dignity and merit than it would if we lived in a sin-free paradise.

As to Satan having “a good time” wreaking havoc, it would be too strong say that demons and Satan do not suffer at all. Demons, like human beings, suffer both victories and defeats; there are outcomes that delight them and those that disappoint and anger them.

Anyone who has ever attended an exorcism can attest that demons do suffer great deal, especially when the faithful pray and make pious use of sacraments and sacramentals (e.g., holy water, relics, blessed medals, rosaries). Faith and love are deeply disturbing to demons.

We all do well in the current dispensation to remember St. John Vianney’s teaching that Satan is like a chained dog: He may bark loudly and froth menacingly, but he can only bite us if we get too close. Keep your distance!

While these videos are light-hearted, their message is serious:

My Word Shall Not Return to Me Empty – A Homily for the 15th Sunday of the Year

the Word

the Word of GodWhat do you expect to happen as a result of reading and hearing God’s Word? Do you expect to encounter something that will change you? The response of most people is pretty tepid and uninspired. Most don’t really expect much nor have they ever. For them, reading or hearing God’s Word is more of a tedious ritual than a transformative reality.

The readings for this Sunday clearly set forth that God’s Word can transform, renew, encourage, and empower us. We ought to begin to begin to expect great things from the faithful and attentive reception of the Word of God. However, Jesus also spells out some obstacles that keep the harvest small or even nonexistent for some.

Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in three steps.

I. Promise – The first reading shows that the Word of God can utterly transform us and bring forth a great harvest in our life:

Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s Word has power! If we listen to God’s Word authentically and attentively, it will refresh us and bring forth the fruit of transformation. No one can authentically attend to God’s Word and go away unchanged. If listened to with alertness, God’s Word can open our mind to new realities, give us hope, and teach us the fundamental meaning of our life. It can thrill us or frighten us. It can make us wonder, repent, or rejoice; it can also transform us. It can make us mad, sad, or glad. If we attend to it, however, it’s pretty hard to go away neutral. Of His Word, Scripture itself says,

• The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).

• “Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)

• Jeremiah himself said, But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (Jer 20:9).

• My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry! (Jer 4:19)

• Amos echoes, The lion has roared–—who will not fear? The sovereign LORD has spoken–—who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

• The Apostles join the great company of preachers and declare, For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).

• [T]he Lord gave the Word, and great was the company of the preachers! (Ps 68:11)

• Through His preachers, the Lord wants to set us on fire: I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes (Jer 5:14).

• Yes, if we will let him, he will set us ablaze with his word. Thus he will also set the world on fire, through us.

Yes, if we will let Him, He will set us ablaze with His word. Thus He will also set the world on fire, through us. God’s word, effectively preached and thoughtfully attended to, is fire that transforms. Pray for fiery preachers. Pray for ears attentive to God’s Word. Pray for a soul alive and alert to sound of God’s trumpet. Pray for a mind capable of appreciating God’s Word’s in all its subtlety and all its plain meaning.  It can change your life.

II. Problems – The Lord also alerts us to some problems that can arise in the human person. For while God’s Word does not lack power, neither does it violate His respect for our freedom and call to love. Consider that God speaks to inanimate objects and they must obey:

• And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light (Gen 1:3).

• And [God] said: This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt (Job 38:11). And the sea obeyed.

• And He says to the mountains, “Move!” and they shake and melt like wax before his glance (see Ps 97:5).

But the human person is not inanimate. We are possessed of a soul and gifted with freedom so that we may love. God speaks to us and, remarkably, we are free to say, “No.” The Lord Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel that our freedom is ultimately respected. The power of God’s Word remains, but God Himself has made it depend on our “Yes.”

Ponder, then, some issues that can cut off from or reduce the power of God’s Word:

No Reception – In today’s Gospel Jesus this about some people: [T]hey look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand … Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.

The Greek word translated here as “gross” is παχύνω (pachuno), meaning fat, thick, or dull. By extension, it means having an insensitive or hardened heart. Hence there are some who have hardened their hearts to God and His Word.

God (through Isaiah) once observed this about us: I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass (Is 48:4). This is another way of saying, I know that you are stubborn. Like iron, you are hardheaded. Like brass, your skull is thick; nothing can get through. For many of us, this tendency to be stiff-necked is gradually softened by the power of grace, the medicine of the sacraments, instruction by God’s Word, and the humility that can come from these.

For some, though, the stubbornness never abates. In fact, it grows even stronger as a descent into pride, and increasing hard-heartedness sets up. The deeper this descent, the more obnoxious the truth seems, and the less likely it is that they will be converted. As things progress, they shift from resistance to the truth to downright hostility. They harden their hearts and stiffen their necks. At some point, it would seem they reach the point of no return.

There are some texts in the Scriptures that speak of God Himself hardening the hearts of sinners. This is a very deep mystery and tied up in the deeper mystery that God is the primary cause of everything.

The text before us today, however, emphasizes the hardening of the heart from the human perspective: Those of hardened hearts have closed their eyes lest they see; They do not listen lest they be confronted with something they would rather not hear and sense the need for repentance and conversion. The Word of God can have no place in them because they reject it entirely; its offered power is cast aside.

No Reflection – The text speaks of the seed of God’s Word: The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart.

The Greek word translated here as “understand” is συνίημι (syniemi) which means literally, “to put (or set) together.” Figuratively, it means “to connect the dots, synthesize, understand.”  In other words, the seed sown on the path refers to the person who gives little thought to the Word of God. He does not try to connect it to his life or to understand its practical application. He does not “set it together” (synthesize it) with his experience or seek to apply it in his life. The Word will not last due to his inattentiveness to its meaning and its deeper role in his life. Thus the Word stays only on the surface, in his short-term memory.

Encountering little resistance, Satan is able to take it away quickly from the man, who has not really connected God’s Word to his life anyway. Here, too, there can be little or no transformation, because the power of God’s Word is neither appreciated nor admitted into the deeper places of the man’s soul.

No Roots – The text says, The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.  But he has no root and lasts only for a time.  When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The image here is of a plant that thrives when the weather is good and the wind calm, but blows away when the wind picks up, because of a lack of roots.

There are some who can rejoice in the Word of God, but only as long as it paints fair pictures and tickles their ears. But when the Word convicts them or causes them any negative experience within, or persecution without, they run away. When the wind blows, they are gone.

An old spiritual says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out.” As long as the preacher is talking about fair weather and there are no consequences to the Word, they’re shouting “Amen” and singing the refrains of the songs. But let that preacher step on their toes or someone in the world raise an eyebrow and they’re gone—gone with the wind. Here, too, the power of God’s Word to transform is cast aside.

No Recollection – The text says, The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety … chokes it off.

This describes people who are simply too distracted by the things of the world to spend time with the Word of God. They allow the water of their life to be disturbed; there is never enough calm for them to be reflective. They obsess over every small ripple that rocks the boat and do not trust God enough to relax and ponder His will and His Word. They are constantly busy with the details of their life and responding its “alarms.”

They allow the world to distract them from or draw them away from reflection on God’s world. This, too, limits the transformative power of God’s Word.

No Requirement – The text also speaks of the lure of riches [which] choke the word and it bears no fruit. Riches divide the heart.

People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10).

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21).

Some of the rich feel less need for God in their life. They are better able to maintain the illusion of self-support. But as these scriptures teach, it is an illusion, because all they really do is to buy themselves deeper into trouble.

If our treasure is in riches, our heart will not be with God’s Word. Job said, I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12). Only with a heart set on God’s Word as a treasure will we hunger for it and reflect on it enough to be truly transformed by it.

III. Produce – The text says, But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear … the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

Here, then, is the promise reiterated that the Word of God is powerful and will produce a radical transformation in us of thirty, sixty or even one hundredfold! Note that this promise is for those who receive the Word with understanding. That is, it is for those with συνίημι (syniemi), with a will to connect the dots, to synthesize, to seek to understand the Word and apply it to their life.

I am a witness to the power of God’s Word to transform and yield abundant fruit. I have learned to expect a lot from God’s Word: a new mind, a new heart, and a new life. God has not failed me. I have seen my life change dramatically for the better in so many ways. God has been good to me and has been true to His Word, which says, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). I cannot take credit for this new life I have received. It is the gift of God and He has given it to me through the power of His Word and the grace of His Sacraments.

Yes, I am a witness; how about you?

The lyrics of this song are taken from today’s first reading (from Isaiah 55):