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.

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Some Thoughts on Sin, Contrition and Repentance from C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis is revered for his solid insight and for his ability to look beyond the ordinary understanding of things. Although he was not a Catholic, I would like to present several of his thoughts on sin, contrition, and repentance as part of our Lenten consideration of these matters. The quotes below are all drawn from a collection of passages from Lewis’ writings entitled The Business of Heaven. The page numbers in my citations refer to that book.

On contrition and the honest assessment of our own wretchedness:

Most of us equate the word contrition with remorse or sorrow, but Lewis reminds us that there is more to the word. He also recaptures the word miserable, which most of us take to mean terrible or despicable. He writes,

Contrite … is a word translated from the Latin, meaning crushed or pulverized. Now, modern people complain about that …. They do not wish their hearts to be pulverized and they do not feel they can sincerely say they are “miserable offenders” [as the English prayer books of that time said] …. I do not think whether we are ‘feeling’ miserable or not matters. I think [the prayer book] is using the word miserable in the old sense—meaning an object of pity. … [p. 55].

Indeed, the word miserable comes from the Latin miserabilis, meaning “pitiable, miserable, or lamentable.” We sinners are surely pitiable in our condition, and God does show us great pity, mercy, and love in this lowly and lamentable state. For a well-formed Christian the recognition of our lowly condition and of God’s pitying love for us can bring forth gratitude and relief.

Sadly, as Lewis notes, many too easily take offense at such notions and thereby reveal their thin-skinned natures. In our pride we do not often see ourselves as pitiable or wretched. For example, some Catholic hymnals removed the phrase “that saved a wretch like me” from the hymn “Amazing Grace” because it offended modern sensibilities. While we do not accept the Protestant notion that we are utterly depraved, wretch can be understood in a very Catholic sense. We are pitiable and do not stand a chance without the Lord’s grace and mercy through Jesus. We should be careful to check our pride when we bristle at such notions, for Jesus warned the proud church of Laodicea,

You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent (Rev. 3:17-19).

C.S. Lewis goes on to observe that even if we do not feel pitiable, we are. He writes,

A person can be an object of pity when he is not feeling miserable …. Imagine yourself looking down from a height on two crowded passenger trains that are travelling towards one another along the same line at sixty miles and hour. You can see that in forty seconds there will be a head-on collision … The passengers are an object of pitythough they do not feel miserable themselves [p. 55].

This is our condition, too, all the more so if we deny it. God sees our pitiable state from on high. Many of those on the imaginary trains may think of themselves as quite secure. Some may be jovial, others content. Still others may be anxious about lesser things. Not one of them is thinking of an approaching train and likely death. No, they do not feel pitiable and are not thinking about the fact that they are contingent beings, dependent on God for every beat of their hearts. They are not thinking that they are about to be summoned to judgment.

Recognizing our condition is a first step to healing. Through contrition we announce not only our sorrow but admit that our sins have crushed and pulverized us. Surrendering our pride, we realize that we are, as the Lord says, wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. In our pitiable state, though, the Lord’s pity and mercy can now reach us.

Forgiving is not excusing:

We often conflate the idea of forgiving and excusing, but they are not the same. C.S. Lewis points out,

There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiving says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology and will not hold it against you … But excusing says, “I see you couldn’t help it, or didn’t mean it. You weren’t really to blame.”

[But] If one was not really to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense, forgiving and excusing are almost opposites.

This is an important insight because it is a very different thing to say to someone, “I did something wrong. I admit it and ask for your forgiveness,” than it is to say, “I didn’t really mean it. I’d had a long day and was upset. Please excuse me.” The second option in effect is saying this: “I have an excuse and want you to accept it. Because I have an excuse I didn’t really do anything wrong, or at least I didn’t mean to.”

How rare it is for someone to think, let alone say, “I did it. I will not excuse what I did or ask you to excuse it. I will not try to explain away what I did. I simply and humbly ask for your forgiveness.”

Our good qualities do not simply do away with what is wrong in us:

We have a tendency to minimize our sins by focusing on our better qualities. Surely, we have good qualities, but this does not eliminate the fact that we have sins and they must be attended to. Lewis makes this simple observation:

When you go to the doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong—say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs, and eyes, and throat are all right [p. 60].

Looking to our sins does not mean that there is nothing good in us, but neither will the good in us simply make the sins of no account. Using our virtues to make light of our sins betrays the virtues by turning them to pride.

The forgiveness of sins is not just about receiving; it is about giving as well:

Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin? If so, you do well. But do you also believe in forgiving the sins of others? C.S. Lewis makes the following interesting observation:

We say in the creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” … The people who compiled the creed apparently thought this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of each time we went to church [pp. 57-58].

But why? It is not widely disputed that God forgives sins. As Lewis next observes, believing in the forgiveness of my sins by God may seem easy, but in saying “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” I am also stating that I believe that I must forgive the sins of others. This is harder, and often we’d like to forget that part. Thus, the creed has us mention it every Sunday. Lewis says,

We [easily] believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us [pp. 57-58].

Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?

On the easy substitution of communal sin for our own sin:

We live in times when it is popular and often demanded that we apologize for the sins of our ancestors or of our nation. Of itself, this is not always wrong, but it has many pitfalls. Lewis notes,

The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the [more] congenial one of … denouncing others … [by this] you can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition [pp. 56-57].

Yes, indeed! How quickly we congratulate ourselves on being more enlightened than our ancestors. How easy it is to claim the we are not part of any collective problem in our nation. There is a lot of “virtue signaling” going on today rather than personal repentance or action. Surely there are times when it is appropriate to point to our collective and communal sins, but strangely enough, the collective is made up of individuals—like you and me. Denouncing communal sin, as Lewis notes, is too easily a substitute for looking in the mirror.

These are just a few thoughts on sin, repentance and contrition.

Losing our Leprosy – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel this Sunday, we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). In Scripture, leprosy describes more than just a physical affliction; it is a metaphor for sin as well. Obviously leprosy itself is not sin, but its effects are similar. Like leprosy, sin disfigures us; it deteriorates us; it distances us (lepers had to live apart from the community) and it brings death if left unchecked.

The following passage can be seen as comparing sin to leprosy:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning … there is no soundness in my flesh … My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand far off (Psalm 38).

Perhaps a brief description of leprosy might be in order so that we can further appreciate both the physical disease and by analogy how sin gradually devastates us. I have compiled this description from several sources, among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark.

Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips, and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of pus. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.

The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.

Yet this was not all. The lepers had to bear not only the physical torment of the disease, but also the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.

In the middle ages, when people were diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them, for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.

This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, how it disfigures, deteriorates, and distances the leper. At that time, not every diagnosis of leprosy was accurate (there are many skin conditions that can resemble leprosy in its early stages). If the skin cleared up or at least did not deteriorate, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.

What about us spiritual lepers? How are we to find healing? Today’s Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from the spiritual leprosy of sin.

1.  Admit the Reality – The text says, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean.” The man knows he is a leper; he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself and pleads for cleansing.

Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask for it? We live in times in which sin is often made light of; confessional lines are short. We often excuse our faults by blaming others or perhaps we point to some other sinner who is apparently “worse” than we are and think, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as he is.”

All of us are loaded with sin. We can be thin-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, stingy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, angry, vengeful, aggressive, unspiritual, and un-prayerful. Even if everything on that list doesn’t apply to you, certainly many of them do, at least at times. And that list isn’t even complete! We are sinners with a capital S and we need serious help.

Like the leper in the Gospel, we must start with step one: admitting the reality of our sin and humbly asking the Lord for help.

2.  Accept the Relationship – Notice two things:

First, the leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect, he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.

Second, note how the Lord responds. The text says that Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The English word “pity,” though often considered condescending, comes from that Latin pietas, which refers to familial love. Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him in that way. Jesus’ touching of the leper was an unthinkable action at that time; no one would venture near a leper let alone touch one. Lepers were required to live outside of town, typically in nearby caves. But Jesus is God and He loves this man; in His humanity, He sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee” (Heb 2:11).

It is in our relationship with the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed, and ultimately saved. If we want to be free of the leprosy of our sin, we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let Him touch us.

3.  Apply the Remedy – Having healed the leper, Jesus instructs him to follow through in the following manner: See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.

Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained to recognize leprosy and distinguish it from ailments with similar symptoms. Priests were trained to observe and then make the final determination. A confirmed leper was banished from the community. Sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was expelled on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decision for the community as to whether the person should be readmitted.

Of course this is a metaphor for sacramental confession. What does the priest do in a sacramental confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition. If he sees God’s healing mercy at work in the person’s repentance, he reconciles him. In the case of a serious sinner who repents, the priest readmits him into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, but He ministers through the priest.

To us spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction: go, show yourself to the priest …” In other words, “Go to confession.” The Lord tells us that we should offer for our cleansing what is prescribed. That is to say, we should offer our penance.

Why should the leper bother to do that? After all, the Lord has already healed him. To this we can only answer, “Do what Jesus says: show yourself to the priest and offer your penance.” It is true that God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from this passage that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin.

4.  Announce the Result – When God heals you, you feel that you have to tell someone. There’s just something about joy that can’t be hidden—and people notice when you’ve been changed.

That said, there are aspects of this Gospel that are perplexing: Jesus warns the healed leper not to tell a soul other than the priest.

This (and other passages in which the Lord issues similar commands for silence) is puzzling. The reason is made clear later in the passage. Jesus did not want His mission turned into a magic show at which people gathered to watch miracles occur and see “signs and wonders.” This man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a town openly and that many will seek Him for secondary reasons.

That said, commands to remain silent cannot hold for us who have this standing order: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:19).

Hence it is clear that we need to shout what the Lord has done for us and give Him all the glory. When God acts in your life, there is joy that cannot be hidden or suppressed. If our healing is real, we cannot remain silent. To quote Jesus at a later point (when the Temple leaders told Him to silence His disciples), I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).

The heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify … but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!”

Yes, tell someone what the Lord has done. If your healing is real, you can’t keep quiet about it.

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

Today I want to return to a reading from last week’s Mass. In that reading (from 2 Samuel 24) we hear the story of how King David ordered a census to be taken. Joab, David’s general, strongly cautioned the King against it, but David insisted. When the census had been completed, the Prophet Gad informed David of God’s anger and of His intention to punish David and all Israel. God offered David his choice of punishments: a three-year famine, three months of military fighting from Israel’s enemies, or three days of pestilence. David chose the pestilence, figuring that it was better to fall by God’s hand than an enemy’s. About 70,000 people died during those three days.

This raises two central questions:

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

What’s wrong with a census? – The first explanation can be found by focusing David’s lack of trust. God had called David to trust in Him—not in man, not in numbers. We have a tendency to rely too much on numbers, thinking that something is good, or right, or successful based on how many people attended or how many supported our cause or view. Of this tendency we must be very careful. Is our power or rightness rooted in numbers, in popularity, in profit, or in God? In counting his people, David seems to be seeking confidence in numbers rather than God; this is a sin.

David may also be guilty of pride. It could well be that he considered with pride the fact that he had amassed such a large number of people in reuniting Israel and Judah, in conquering the Philistines, the Hittites, and others. Taking a census was perhaps a way of flattering himself, of making a name for himself. The numbers are quite impressive—so impressive in fact that we moderns doubt them: 800,000 men fit for military service in Israel and 500,000 in Judah. Including women, children, and those men too old or frail for service, would probably bring the number closer to 5 million people. Such a figure seems unlikely number and is a source of great debate among biblical scholars about biblical enumeration. That debate is too much to handle in this post, but may be a topic for future discussion. For now, let’s simply say that David ruled over a populous nation; his taking of a census likely indicates that he was proud of his accomplishment and wanted it acknowledged by his contemporaries and recorded in the annals of history: David, King of multitudes!

Others point out the sinfulness of counting God’s people. These are not David’s people to enumerate; they are God’s. Because counting hints at accomplishment and control, David sins in trying to know a number that is none of his business. This is a number that is for God alone to know, for He numbers His people and calls them by name (cf Gen 15:15).

A final area of sinfulness surrounds the manner in which a census can be and often is used as an oppressive tool of government. The census provides David with the number of men “fit for military service.” In the ancient world, a census was often a tool for military draft. It was also a basis for exacting taxes. Finally, kings used it to measure their power and to manipulate and coerce based on that power. Even in our own time, the taking of the official U.S. census every ten years is often surrounded by power struggles, gerrymandering, tax policy changes, spending priorities, and the pitting of certain ethnic and racial groups against one another. A lot of troubles can be tied back to the census; numbers are powerful things. Those that have “the numbers” get seats at the table while those who do not have to wait outside. In amassing numbers, David increases his power and his ability to manipulate the people in sinful and/or unjust ways.

The taking of a census is not necessarily morally neutral. While there may be legitimate reasons for a country to collect this information, it can be used in sinful or unjust ways and can lead to power struggles. With this in mind we can see why the military commander Joab may have advised David against taking a census.

Exactly where David’s sin lay—a lack of trust, pride, acting as if they were his people rather than God’s, amassing power, or in some combination of all these things—is not made clear in the text. God is clear though in letting David know that he has sinned and seriously so. This leads to a second and more difficult question.

Why was Israel punished for something David did? As an opening disclaimer we ought to admit that there are some mysterious aspects of this incident and we may not be able to know the answer fully. All we can do is to offer some speculation. Let’s look at a few thoughts as to why all of Israel was punished.

The most common explanation emphasizes that Israel was not sinless in the matter. The census story begins as follows: The Lord’s anger against Israel flared again and incited David … to number Israel and Judah.  Hence God was angry with the whole nation for some undisclosed reason, and therefore permitted David to fall into this sin. Perhaps the census was also a matter of national pride, with the people thinking, “Look how big, prosperous, and powerful we have become.” This is only speculation, but the point is that according to the text, Israel was not blameless.

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

The decisions we make affect the people around us for better or worse. Even what we call “private” sins set evil loose, reduce goodness, and increase the likelihood of future and more public sins. We are our brother’s keeper and what we do or fail to do affects others.

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

This is a difficult passage, but God knows how to shepherd us rightly. There are times when tough measures are needed. We do not know the precise nature of Israel’s sin that angered God, but His anger is His passion to set things right. He’s getting us ready for the “Great Day.”

On the Feast of All Saints, a Pastoral Letter on Racism Reminds Us of the Communion of the Saints

On the Feast of All Saints we celebrate men and women of every place and time who lived with great sanctity. Many of them are known to us and are among our great heroes of the Faith; even more are unknown to us.

The most common hymn for this feast day is “For All the Saints.” It is interesting that the name of the tune to which the lyrics are set is “Sine Nomine” (without name). In other words, this feast celebrates those who, although they attained great sanctity, are largely unknown to us. They lived in ordinary circumstances and were fairly hidden from the world at large, but God knows them and has awarded them the crown of righteousness. They, too, are part of the rich tapestry of this feast and the glory of the Communion of Saints.

It is fitting, then, that on the Feast of All Saints, Donald Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington released a pastoral letter on racism entitled, “The Challenge of Racism Today.” We are all well aware of recent racial tensions in our country and the Cardinal would have us reflect on this problem as Catholics. This reflection should come from the perspective of our faith more so than from politics and worldly culture.

I’d like to review a number of the Cardinal’s teachings under three headings.

I. God’s Vision Cardinal Wuerl begins by noting our daily experience here in the Archdiocese of Washington:

The sight from the sanctuary of many a church in our archdiocese offers a glimpse of the face of the world.

Indeed, our parishes are ethnically and racially diverse. The rich beauty of diversity in the unity of our faith is manifest everywhere.

“Catholic” means universal and it could not be more obvious in Washington, D.C. as it is in many other regions. Catholics come from everywhere!

This diversity is from God Himself, who has not only created the rich tapestry of humankind but also delights in uniting us all in His Church.

Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me; Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “Mother” for all shall be her children.” It is he, the Lord Most High, who gives each his place. In his register of peoples he writes: “These are her children,” and while they dance they will sing: “In you all find their home.” (Psalm 87:1-7)

It was always God’s plan that people from every nation would find their home in His family. St. Paul spoke eloquently of this plan:

The mystery was made known to me by revelation;…. the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the people of other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. And the mystery is this: that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:3-6)

By God’s grace, by His plan and vision, we are called to be members of the One Body, the Church, through the grace of shared faith.

Jesus sets forth the realization of God’s desire in his great commission: Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).

This is order number one from Jesus: Go everywhere; call everyone; make them disciples by teaching them what I have taught and baptizing them into the one Body of Christ, the Church.

This is God’s vision, His plan, and His command.

II. Sinful Revisions We human beings are often slow to hear and even slower to do what God commands. When it comes to reaching across racial and ethnic boundaries to make disciples, we often give in to fear and the hostilities that result. We also give in to pride and notions of racial superiority. This has been an ugly tendency throughout human history.

As people of faith, we cannot ignore God’s command to include all in His Kingdom. The Cardinal tells us that we must confront and overcome racism. This challenge is not optional.

Jesus warns us against wrathful disparagement of others: Anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be subject to the fire of hell (Matt 5:22). He counsels us, So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24).

The Cardinal cites the Catechism and bids us to remember this:

This teaching is applied to our day with clarity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone …” (CCC # 357). … There is no basis to sustain that some are made more in the image of God than others.

Cardinal Wuerl cites the pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” published by the United States bishops in 1979: 

Racism is a sin. … [I]t divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.

We have no right or capacity to overrule God or reject the dignity He Himself has established. The Cardinal describes racism as a denial of the goodness of creation.

While some dispute the particulars of racism in this or that specific situation, we cannot simply brush aside the consistent experience of so many of our brothers and sisters. The Cardinal reminds us:

To address racism, we need to recognize two things: that it exists in a variety of forms, some more subtle and others more obvious; and that there is something we can do about it… even if we realize that what we say and the steps we take will not result in an immediate solution to a problem that spans generations.

As we are reminded by St. Paul, There should be no division in the body, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, every member suffers with him (1 Cor 12:25-26).

As a Church we have not always lived up to the call that God has given us. The Cardinal writes:

Saint John Paul II in the Great Jubilee Year asked for the recognition of sins committed by members of the Church during its history. He called for a reconciliation through recalling the faults of the past in a spirit of prayerful repentance that leads to healing of the wounds of sin. So acknowledging our sins and seeking to remedy what we can, we turn with sorrow to those we have offended, individually and collectively and also express gratitude for the tenacity of their faith…. We also recognize the enduring faith of immigrants who have not always felt welcome in the communities they now call home.

It is a remarkable testimony that so many who have felt spurned by fellow Christians and Catholics did not reject the faith, but tenaciously held on to it. Even in the midst of great pain, so many stayed in the faith; through forgiveness and great patience they have helped to purify fellow Christians and work for ongoing reform within the Church.

III. Overcoming Divisions – The Cardinal also writes:

Because God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, we have received the ministry of reconciliation. Saint Paul tells us, “God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ … entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Thus the Cardinal invokes a key dimension of the apostolic office: reconciling us to one another and to God. As a bishop, Cardinal Wuerl urges us to seek reconciliation where it is needed.

Reconciliation requires first that we acknowledge our sins. As Jesus says, we must go and be reconciled to our brother or sister. If we have in any way fostered division, if we have scorned, mocked, excluded, or derided others, we should admit the sin and seek to be reconciled.

While there are often grievances on all sides when it comes to race, this need not stop us from hearing and pondering the consistent and widespread experience of those who feel excluded or scorned. Sometimes it just starts with listening, before rushing to judge whether the experience of others is valid.

There are wounds that go back decades and even centuries. Reconciliation takes time. Recognizing another’s pain and experience is an act of respect. Listening is a very great gift.

Please consider making a careful, spiritual reading of the Cardinal’s pastoral letter. See it as an honest assessment of our need to recognize racism and repent for any cooperation we have had in it, past or present. Consider, too, his call for us to entrust our hearts to the Lord, so that we can, as the Cardinal says, envision the new city of God, not built by human hands, but by the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

In the weeks ahead, other initiatives and gatherings will be announced in the diocese. Among them is a recognition of the many African-Americans who were enslaved and who were buried in our Catholic cemeteries without any headstones or markers. You might say that they were buried sine nomine, without any recognition of their names.

It is fitting, then, that on this Feast of All Saints, when we acknowledge the many saints whose names we do not know, that we also remember those buried in our cemeteries whose names are known only to God. They were called slaves but were in fact God’s children, possessed of the freedom of Children of God. May they rest now with God in the peace and unity of the Communion of Saints.

Romans 1 – Is It a Prophetic Interpretation of Reality for Our Times?

We continue to read from the Letter to the Romans in daily Mass. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. That is, it tells us what is really going on from the perspective of the Lord of History. An inspired text, it traces out not only the current time, but also the trajectory, the end to which things tend. It is of course important for us to read Scripture with the Church, and exercising care, to submit our understanding to the rule of faith and the context of Sacred Tradition.

With those parameters in mind, I would like to consider Romans 1, wherein St. Paul describes the grave condition of the Greco-Roman culture of his day. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he prophetically interpreted the times of the first century A.D. Although the text speaks specifically to those times, it is clear that our modern times are becoming nearly identical to what was described.

St. Paul saw a once-noble culture in grave crisis; it was in the process of being plowed under by God for its willful suppression of the truth.

Let’s take a look at the details of this prophetic interpretation of those days and apply it to our own. The text opens without any niceties and the words rain down on us almost like lead pellets.

I. The Root of the Ruin The text says, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

As the curtain draws back, we not eased into the scene at all. We are confronted at once with the glaring lights of judgment and the fearsome word “wrath.” Note that the wrath of God is called a revelation. That is to say, it is a word of truth that reveals and prophetically interprets reality for us. The wrath is the revelation!

It’s quite astonishing, really. It directly contradicts to our modern tendency to see God only as the “affirmer in chief,” whose love for us is understood only in sentimental terms, never in terms of a strong love that insists on what is right and true, on what we need rather than what we want.

What is the wrath of God? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure His presence, His holiness. For such a one, there is wailing and grinding of teeth, anger, and even rage when confronted by the existence of God and the demands of His justice and holiness. God’s wrath does not mean that He is in some simplistic sense angry, emotionally worked up. God is not moody or unstable. He is not subject to temper tantrums as we are. Rather, it is that God is holy and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure His holiness; the sinner experiences it as wrath.

To the degree that God’s wrath is in Him, it is His passion to set things right. God is patient and will wait and work to draw us to repentance, but his justice and truth cannot forever tarry. When judgment sets in on a person, culture, civilization, or epoch, His holiness and justice are revealed as wrath to the unrepentant.

What was the central sin of St. Paul’s (and our own) time? They suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18). It is the sin that leads to every other problem.

Note this well: those who seek to remain in their wickedness suppress the truth. On account of wickedness and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The catechism of the Catholic Church warns,

The human mind … is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 37).

St. Paul wrote this to St. Timothy:

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).

Isaiah described this:

They say to the seers, “See no more visions”; to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right; tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions” (Isaiah 30:10).

Yes, on account of a desire to cling to their sin and to justify themselves, people suppress the truth. While this human tendency has always existed, there is a widespread tendency for people of our own time in the decadent West to go on calling good, or “no big deal,” what God calls sinful.

When we do this, we suppress the truth. Now, as then, the wrath of God is being revealed. On account of the sin of repeated, collective, obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is being revealed on the culture of the decadent West.

II. The Revelation that is Refused The text goes on to say, … and since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20).

Note that God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful; it is not merely ignorance. While the pagans of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, they are still “without excuse.” Why? Because they had the revelation of creation. Creation reveals God and speaks not only to His existence, but also to his attributes, to His justice and power, to His will and the good order He instills in us and thus expects of us.

All of this means that even those raised outside the context of faith, whether in the first century or today, are “without excuse.”

The Catechism also couches our responsibility to discover and live the truth in the existence of something called the conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. … Moral conscience … bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. …. [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (CCC #1776-1778).

Because of the witness and revelation of the Created order, and on account of the conscience present and operative in all who have attained the use of reason, those who suppress the truth are without excuse. They are suppressing what they know to be true.

It has been my experience in my many years as a pastor working with sinners (and as a sinner myself) that those I must confront about sin know full well what they are doing. They may have suppressed the still, small voice of God; they may have sought to keep His voice at bay with layers of rationalization; they may have also collect false teachers to confirm them in their sin and permitted many deceivers to tickle their ears. Deep down, though, they know that what they do is wrong. At the end of the day they are without excuse.

Some lack of due discretion may ameliorate the severity of their culpability, but ultimately they are without excuse for suppressing the truth.

So there is also the revelation of creation, the Word of God (which has been heard by most people today), and the conscience. Many people today, as in St. Paul’s time, refuse revelation. They do so willfully in order to justify wickedness; they are without excuse.

III. The Result in the Ranks – The text says, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:21-23).

This should seem very familiar. In St. Paul’s day, and even more so in ours, a prideful culture has set aside God, whether through explicit atheism and militant secularism or through neglect and willful tepidity. Today, God has been pushed to the margins of our proud, anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools and from the public square. His image and any reminders of Him are increasingly being removed by force of law. Many people even mock His Holy Name, mentioning His truth only to scorn it as a vestige of the “dark ages.”

Faith and the magnificent deposit of knowledge and culture that has come with it has been scoffed at as a relic from times less scientific than our own much more “enlightened” age.

Our disdainful culture has become a sort of iconoclastic “anti-culture,” which has systematically put into the shredder every bit of Godly wisdom it can. The traditional family, human sexuality, chastity, self-control, moderation, and nearly all other virtues have been scorned and willfully smashed by the iconoclasts of our time. To them, everything of this sort must go.

As a prophetic interpretation of reality, the Scripture from Romans describes the result of suppressing the truth and refusing to acknowledge and glorify God: … they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:21).

Yes, there is a powerful darkening effect that comes from suppressing the truth and refusing the wisdom and revelation of God. While claiming to be so wise, smart, advanced, we have collectively speaking become foolish and vain; our intellects grow darker by the day. Our concern for vain, foolish, passing things knows little bounds today. Yet the things that really do matter: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell, are almost never attended to. We run after foolish things but cannot seem to exercise the least bit of self-control. Our debts continue to grow but we cannot curb our spending. We cannot make or keep commitments. Addiction is increasingly widespread. All of the most basic indicators indicate that we have grave problems: graduation rates, SAT scores, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion rates, divorce rates, cohabitation rates. The numbers that should be going up are down and the numbers that should be going down are up.

Although we claim to be so wise and smart today, we have become collectively foolish. Even our ability to think of solutions and to have intelligent conversations has decreased, since we cannot seem to agree on even the most basic points. We simply talk past one other, living in our own smaller and increasingly self-defined worlds.

If you think that the line about idolatry doesn’t apply today, you’re kidding yourself. People are fascinated by stones and rocks, and by all sorts of syncretistic combinations of religions, including the occult. This is the age of the “designer God,” when people no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures, but believe instead in a reinvented one—who just so happens to agree with everything they think. Yes, idolatry is alive and well in this age of the personal sort of hand-carved idol that can be invoked over and against the true God of the Scriptures.

And people today congratulate themselves for being tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental! It is hard not see that our senseless minds have become dark, our thoughts vain, and our behavior foolish.

Our culture is in the very grave condition that this Scripture, this prophetic interpretation of reality, describes. There is much for which we should be rightfully concerned.

IV. The Revelation of the Wrath – The text says, Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1:24-27).

In this passage the “wrath” is revealed. The text simply says, God gave them over to their sinful desires. This is the wrath; this is the revelation of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God and the holiness to which we are summoned.

In effect, God is saying, if you want sin and rebellion, you can have it. It’s all yours. You’ll experience the full consequences of your sinful rebellion, the full fury of your own sinful choices. Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires.

It seems that God has also given us over in a similar way to our sinful desires today.

Note that the first and most prominent effect is sexual confusion. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies, shameful lusts, and the shameful acts of homosexual relations. The text also speaks of “due” penalty for such actions, probably disease and other deleterious effects that result from using the body for purposes for which it is not designed.

Welcome to the 21st century decaying West.

Many misunderstand what Romans 1 is saying. They point to this text as a warning that God will punish us for condoning and celebrating homosexual acts. But Romans 1 does not say that God will punish us for this; it says that the widespread condoning and celebrating of homosexual acts is God’s punishment; it is the revelation of wrath. It is the first and chief indication that God has given us over to our stubborn sinfulness and to our lusts.

Let us be careful to make a distinction here. The text does not say that homosexuals are being punished; some may mysteriously have this orientation but live chastely. Rather, it is saying that we are all being punished.

Why? For over 60 years now the decadent West has celebrated promiscuity, pornography, fornication, cohabitation, contraception, and even to some extent adultery. The resulting carnage of abortion, STDs, AIDs, single motherhood, absent fathers, poverty, and emotionally damaged children does not seem to have been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have only become wilder and more debased.

Through the use of contraception, we severed the connection between sex, procreation, and marriage. Sex has been reduced to two adults doing what they please in order to have fun or share love (really, lust). This has opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and to irresponsibility.

Enter the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance. The wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend the obvious: that homosexual acts are contrary to nature. The very design of the body shouts against it. But the wider culture, already deeply immersed in its own confusion about sex and now an increasing diet of ever-baser pornography that celebrates both oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, has had no answer to the challenge.

We have gone out of our minds. Our senseless minds are darkened, confused, foolish, and debased. This is wrath. This is what it means to be given over to our sinful desires. This is what happens when God finally has to say to a culture, if you want sin you can have it—until it comes out of your ears!

How many tens of millions of babies have been aborted, sacrificed to our wild lusts? How deep has been the pain caused by rampant divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and STDs? Yet none of this has caused us to repent.

In all of this, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice again, homosexuals are not being singled out; The wrath is against all the godlessness and wickedness of those who suppress the truth. When even the carnage has not been enough to bring us to our senses, God finally says, enough, and gives us over to our own sinful desires to feel their full effects. We have become so collectively foolish and vain in our thinking and darkened in our intellect that as a culture we now “celebrate” homosexual acts, which Scripture rightly calls disordered. (The word St. Paul uses in this passage to describe homosexual acts is paraphysin, meaning “contrary to nature.”) Elsewhere, Scripture speaks of these as acts of grave depravity that cry to Heaven for vengeance.

But as the text says, Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32). This is darkness; this is wrath.

This is the result of being given over to our sins: a deeply darkened mind. The celebration of homosexual acts is God’s punishment and it demonstrates that He has given us over.

V. The Revolution that Results – The text says, Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:28-31).

The text states clearly and in very familiar terms the truth that when sex, marriage, and family go into the shredder, an enormous number of social ills are set loose.

This is because children are no longer properly formed. The word “bastard” in its common informal usage refers to a despicable person, but its more “technical” definition is an illegitimate child. Both senses are related. This text says, in effect, that when God gives us over to our sinful desires, we start to act like bastards.

Large numbers of children raised outside the best setting of a father and a mother in a stable traditional family is a recipe for the social disaster described in these verses. I will not comment on them any further; they speak for themselves.

VI. The Refusal to Repent Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32).

Here, too, is the mystery of our iniquity, of our stubborn refusal to repent no matter how high the cost, how clear the evidence. Let us pray we will come to our senses. God has a record of allowing civilizations to come and go, nations to rise and fall. If we do not love life, we do not have to have it. If we want lies rather than truth, we can have them and we will feel their full effects.

Somewhere God is saying,

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place (2 Chron 7:14-15).

Oremus!

Reluctant Prophet – The Story of Jonah

Jonah, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Of all the prophets, Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant; his struggle with sin is not hidden. We are currently reading Jonah’s story in daily Mass. In the story we see a portrait of sin and of God’s love for sinners. Psalm 139 says, beautifully,

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Ps 139: 7-10).

Let’s examine the story of Jonah and allow its teachings to reach us.

I. Defiance This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the LORD.

To defy means to resist what one is told to do, openly and boldly. Defiance also indicates a lack of faith because it comes from the Latin “dis” (against) and “fidere” (believe). Hence Jonah is not just insubordinate; he is unbelieving and untrusting.

His scoffing and defiance likely result from hatred or excessive nationalism. Nineveh is the capital of Syria, the mortal enemy of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness they will grow stronger. Rather than trusting God, he brazenly disobeys, foolishly thinking that he can outrun God.

II. Distance He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.

Tarshish is widely held to refer to the coastline of modern-day Spain. In order to avoid going 500 miles into God’s will, Jonah runs some 1500 miles away. It’s always a longer journey when you disobey God.

Note that he also puts down good money in order to flee. Indeed, many people spend lots of money and go miles out of their way in order to be able to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive—but many seem quite willing to pay the price.

The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous and less costly as well. Like Jonah, though, many line up to pay the price and take the long, painful journey deeper into defiance and sin.

How much of our trouble comes from our sin? The great majority of it. So much suffering, so much expense, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. The bottom line (if you’ll pardon the financial pun) is that sinful choices are usually very costly.

III. Disturbance The LORD, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea.

Jonah’s defiance sends him and others headlong into a storm that grows ever deeper. The teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances, and troubles. As our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces ever more powerful.

Note that Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important lesson: in our sin, our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life but also into the lives of others. What we do, or fail to do, affects others.

The mariners, fearing for their lives, also lose wealth and suffer great losses (by throwing their cargo overboard) on account of Jonah’s sinfulness.

Similarly, in our own culture today a good deal of pain and loss results from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness and sexual misbehavior, many families have been torn apart. There is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that come from broken or malformed families. It is of course the children who suffer the most pain and injustice as a result of so much bad adult behavior.

To all this pain can be added many other sufferings caused by our greed, addiction, lack of forgiveness, pride, impatience, and lack of charity. These and many other sins unleash storms that affect not only us but others around us as well.

No one is merely an individual; we are also members of the Body, members of the community, whether we want to admit it or not.

Jonah is a danger and a cause of grief to others around him. So, too, are we when we defiantly indulge sinfulness.

IV. Delirium Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.

While all these storms (which he caused) are raging, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a moral sleep, talking about their rights and insisting that what they do is “nobody else’s business.” Yet all the while the storm winds buffet and others suffer for what they do. So easily they remain locked in self-deception and rationalizations, ignoring the damage they are inflicting upon others.

Many people today talk about “victimless sins,” actions that supposedly don’t hurt anyone. Those who are morally alert do not say such things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral slumber, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble. All the while, they continue to ramble on about their right to do as they please.

V. Dressing Down The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah. “Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” Jonah answered them, “I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing?” They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.

In a remarkable turn in the story, those who are not believers in the God of Israel dress down Jonah, who is to be God’s prophet, unto repentance! It’s a pretty bad day for a prophet when those whom he is supposed to address, must turn and call him to conversion. They seem to fear God more than he does!

First there comes the pointed question, “What are you doing asleep?” Yes, what are you doing? Do you have any idea how your behavior, your sins, are affecting the rest of us? Wake up from your delusions. Stop with your self-justifying slogans and look at what’s really going on!

Next they say to him, “Pray!” In other words, get back in touch with God, from whom you’re running. If you won’t do it for your own sake, then do it for ours—but call on the Lord!

This is what every sinner, whether outside the Church or inside, needs to hear: wake up and look at what you’re doing; see how you’re affecting yourself and all of us. Turn back to God lest we all perish.

VI. Despair They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent. Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.”

Jonah is now beginning to come to his senses, but not with godly sorrow, more with worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Worldly sorrow brings death (2 Cor 7:10). Somewhat like Judas, Jonah and many other sinners do not repent to the Lord but rather are merely ashamed of themselves.

In effect, Jonah says to them, “Kill me. I do not deserve to live.” This is not repentance; it is despair.

VII. Dignity still the men rowed hard to regain the land, but they could not, for the sea grew ever more turbulent.

Surprisingly, the men are not willing to kill him, at least not as the first recourse. Despite his sin, Jonah does not lose his dignity. Even the fallen deserve our love and respect as fellow human beings. It is too easy for us to wish to destroy those who have harmed us, returning crime for crime, sin for sin.

But God would have us reach out to the sinner, to correct with love.

It is true, however, that not everyone is willing or able to be corrected. Some things must ultimately be left to God. Our first instinct should always be to respect the dignity of every person—even great sinners—and strive to bring them to the Lord with loving correction.

VIII. Deliverance Then they cried to the LORD, “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit.” Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.

In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord. Somehow, they sense His just verdict yet they fear their own judgment and ask for His mercy.

In many American courtrooms, upon the pronouncement of a death sentence, the judge says, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Even in the sad situation in which we can do little but prevent people from ever harming others, we ought to appreciate their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.

God does deliver Jonah. After his “whale” of a ride, a ride in which he must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, Jonah is finally delivered by God right back to the shore of Joppa where it all began.

IX. Determination Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-3).

Yes, God works with the sinner, drawing him back. He is the God of the second chance. Thank you, Lord, for your grace and mercy. He remembers our sins no more. In effect, God says to Jonah, “Now, where were we?”

God does not save us merely for our own sake, but also for the sake of others with whom our life is intertwined. Jonah will go finally to Nineveh and there proclaim a message that will be heeded by those who are so lost in sin that they do not know their right hand from their left (see Jonah 4:11). Hmm, now why does this description seem so familiar?

Here is a video of a performance of the Peccavimus (we have sinned) from the oratorio “Jonas,” by Giacomo Carissimi. It is a luscious, heartfelt piece depicting the repentance of the Ninevites. I wonder if (and hope that) the young people who sang it understood its significance for them, too.

Bite Your Tongue! A Reflection on Common Sins of Speech

The Office of Readings this week features passages from the pastoral guide of St. Gregory the Great. In the opening line, Gregory reminds us: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service.”

This is not easy. Indeed, self-mastery in speech is among the rarer gifts and usually comes later in life!

Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!

The Book of James says this:

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and thus we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:2-18).

Yes, though by God’s grace one may conquer many sins, those associated with speech are usually among the last to be overcome. It almost seems as if there is a separate, baser part of our brain that controls our speech. We can be halfway through saying something before we even realize how stupid and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks very artistically of the sinful tongue. Here is a list of ten sins of the tongue from James Melton [1]. Although the list is his, the commentary is mine. Beware of these!

  1. The Lying Tongue – speaking false things with the intention to mislead

The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22).

  1. The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them, a form of lying

May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Psalm 12:4).

  1. The Proud Tongue – There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. The proud tongue is boastful and overly certain of what it says. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.

Those who say, By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who can lord it over us? (Psalm 12:5) are condemned.

  1. The Overused Tongue – saying far too much, especially concerning things about which we know little

… a fool’s voice [comes] along with a multitude of words (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

  1. The Swift Tongue – speaking before we should, before we even have all of the information

Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1).

Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19).

  1. The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, the secretive injuring of a person’s good name. Calumny is outright lying about another person. Detraction is calling unnecessary attention to the faults of others so as to harm their reputations.

As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger (Proverbs 25:23).

  1. The Tale-bearing Tongue – spreading unnecessary (often hurtful) information about others. Tale-bearers spread personal information about others that should not be shared.

He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with one who opens his lips (Proverbs 20:19).

Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Leviticus 19:16).

  1. The Cursing Tongue – wishing that harm come to others, usually that they be damned

He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Psalm 109:17).

  1. The Piercing Tongue – speaking with unnecessary harshness and severity

Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:1-2).

  1. The Silent Tongue – not speaking up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the Truth of Jesus Christ. In our age, the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s Word.

Israel’s watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Isaiah 56:10).

So our speech is riddled with what it should not have and devoid of what it should. How wretched indeed is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect!

There are many cautions to be guided by when it comes to speech. Here is another list of Scripture passages concerning speech, most of them taken from the Wisdom Tradition. Read and heed!

  • Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth. Honor and dishonor through talking! A man’s tongue can be his downfall. Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sirach 5:13-16).
  • He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled. … Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst. But when a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child. … Like an arrow lodged in a man’s thigh is gossip in the breast of a fool … every story you must not believe … who has not sinned with his tongue? (Sirach 19:5-14 varia)
  • Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. … Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. … Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God (Eccles 5:1-6).
  • In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery (Proverbs 28:23 NLT).
  • Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6).
  • He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Prov 21:23).
  • He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin (Prov 13:3).
  • A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Prov 20:19).
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish (Prov 19:9).
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free (Prov 19:5).
  • A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (Prov 17:27-28).
  • When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (Prov 10:19).
  • Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating (Prov 18:6).
  • Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10).
  • The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly (Prov 12:22-23).
  • The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly (Prov 15:2).
  • The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (Prov 15:4).
  • A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions (Prov 18:2).
  • Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing (Prov 12:18).
  • A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Prov 11:12-13).
  • The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse (Prov 10:32).
  • The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28).
  • The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness (Prov 12:23).
  • Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3).
  • Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies (Psalm 34:13).

Help me, Lord. Keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth! Put your Word in my heart so that when I do speak, it’s really you speaking.