On Restoring a Truer Vision of the Biblical Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.

It is Easier to Wear Slippers than to Carpet the Whole of the Earth. A Meditation on the Gospel for the 18th Sunday of the Year

We have today the very familiar miracle of the loaves and fishes. One is tempted to say, “Oh that one…and tune out.” But, if we allow it, the gospel today contains a very personal appeal from the Lord’s lips to your (my) ears: “There is no need to dismiss the crowds, give them some food yourself.”

Immediately all the objections swim through our minds, but be still, and let us allow the Lord to instruct us and apply this Gospel in five stages.

I. THE IMAGE THAT IS EXTOLLED – The text says, When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.  When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.

The text begins with a very sad note of the death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. We should not simply dismiss the kind of human grief he must have experienced, and the text says he wants to go apart for a while, presumably to pray and grieve. It would seem, at the pinnacle of his public ministry, he could only get apart by going out on a boat, and so he does. The text is unclear how long he was out on the water, but it implies a short time.

Approaching the opposite shore Jesus sees a large crowd, and is moved with pity. He teaches them at great length and heals the sick. And here is the image that is extolled. If Jesus has allowed himself this moment of grief, he also shows that the way out of it is love and concern for others. For it is too easy for us, in our own grief, anger, sorrow, or anxiety to retreat, to hide away. As an immediate reaction this is understandable. But it is not a disposition we ought to maintain for long. For others have need, and even in our grief and our limits, we are still called to reach out. And that very reaching out, often contains our own healing too.

That we have needs, does not mean others stop having them. Jesus shows the courage and the love to still recognize the needs of others, even in his own grief. So he goes ashore and shares love with others.

II. THE ISSUE THAT IS EVADED – The text says, When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

There is a human tendency, that when people are needy, we want them to go away, to disappear. Hence, the apostles, noticing the needy crowd, a crowd about to have a hunger problem, they want the crowd to go away before they become a problem.

We too, both individually and collectively, often desire the needy and poor to just disappear. If we see a beggar, we may cross the street, or refuse to look at him. If our caller ID indicates a troubled family member who may ask for money or want to talk a long time, we let the call go to voice mail. In society we tend to segregate the poor and needy. The “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome seeks to segregate the poor, the mentally handicapped and others to certain marginal sections of the city largely out of sight, and out of mind. The sick and the dying too are often relegated to nursing homes. Perhaps this is necessary for proper care, but the thought of an elderly relative living and dying in our homes is too much for many, even when it is possible. So, generally people go away to die.

Notice the threefold basis of the disciples evasion:

  1. They are DESPAIRING – for they say, this is a deserted place and it is already late.
  2. They are DISMISSIVE –  for they want Jesus to dismiss the crowd, to send them away.
  3. They are DETACHED – for instead of wanting to help, they want the crowd to go away and get food for themselves.

Yes, it is a sad human tendency to want to be rid of people who have problems. And so the disciples beg Jesus to send the increasingly troublesome crowd away. The Issue is evaded, rather than accepted as a shared problem to be solved together.

III. THE INSTRUCTION THAT ENSUESJesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”

Uh oh! This is starting to get personal. Jesus is not willing to keep this merely as a problem “they” have, he wants me to do something!

Yes, he rejects their premise by saying there is no need for them to go away. And he redirects plan by saying, give them something to eat yourselves.

Refusing to accept the presence of the poor and needy, is simply not a viable option for Jesus, or for us who would be his disciples. He wants and expects us to get started with a solution, a solution that includes both “them” and us. It looks like we are our brother’s keeper.

This is the instruction that ensues when the apostles, or when we, try to evade the issue.

IV. THE INSUFFICIENCY THAT IS EXPRESSED the text says, But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”

But we can’t possibly pull this thing off, the needs are far too great! The Lord is not interested in our excuses, he just says, “Let’s get started.”

Observe two things about the five loaves and two fishes.

  1. First, as John’s Gospel notes, (6:9), the loaves and fishes came from among the poor themselves. Hence this is not mere do-goodism. The teaching here is not to be a “limousine liberal” who rolls down the window and throws money to the poor, then goes back to his mansion. Neither is it a “we’re from the government and we’re here to help you” solution. For we should not do for others what they can reasonably do for themselves. Rather we ought to work with the poor, engaging them in what they do have, in the talents and leadership they do possess, and solve problems with them, rather than merely for them. There are loaves and fishes among even the poor, there are talents and resources to be included in the solution.
  2. Secondly, wherever the loaves and fishes come from, they are not nothing, and the Lord expects all of us to be part of the solution. Simply telling God or, (these days), the government, to go and do something, is not a full or authentic Christian response.

Hence our complaints about meager resources do not impress the Lord who says, simply, bring them to me. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. And thus we go to the principle point.

V.  THE IMMENSITY THAT IS EXPERIENCED – the text says, Then he said, “Bring them here to me, ” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.  Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.  They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over— twelve wicker baskets full.  Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

Now this story is so familiar that you and I are not shocked by the outcome. But no matter how many times we hear it, we still do not really accept it’s astonishing truth:

  1. I can do all things in God who strengthens me (Phil 4:13)
  2. All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23)
  3. For man it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God (Mk 10:27)
  4. Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor 9:10)

Now take special note of that last quote, for this gospel is about more than caring for the poor, (and it is about that). But this Gospel is also about taking this world back for Christ.

We all know that this world is in an increasingly bad state: rampant secularism, moral relativism, and a Church with many self-inflicted wounds.  This has all led to the fact that we have a real mess on our hands. And the problems are overwhelming: sexual confusion, the culture of death, the breakdown of marriage, compulsive sin, compulsive overspending, greed, insensitivity to the poor, deep and widespread addiction to pornography, drugs, and alcohol, abortion, widespread promiscuity, adultery, corruption, cynicism, low mass attendance and on an on.

The problems seem overwhelming and our resources seem so limited to turn back the tide. What will we ever do with only five loaves and two fishes?

Jesus says, bring them to me.

Yet again, the journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. The conversion of the whole world, begins with me. As I look the huge problems before me, I (this means you) assess my loaves and fishes:

  1. I work on my own conversion. For a holier world has to start with me. If I get holier, the world get’s holier.
  2. I look to the poor I can serve, maybe with money maybe with talents, like tutoring, counseling etc. Maybe just with the time of listening.
  3. I pick up the phone and call a family member I know is hurting.
  4. I love my spouse and children.
  5. I spend time properly raising my own children to know the Lord and seek his kingdom.
  6. I exhort the weak in my own family, and with love, rebuke sin and encourage righteousness.
  7. If I am a priest or religious, I faithfully live my vocation, and heroically call others to Christ by teaching and proclaiming the gospel without compromise.
  8. If I am a young person I seek to devoutly prepare myself for a vocation to marriage, priesthood or religious life.
  9. If I am older I seek to manifest wisdom and good example to those who are young.
  10. If I am elderly, I seek to devoutly prepare myself for death, and to give good example in this, and to witness the desire for heaven.
  11. I will pray for this world and attend mass faithfully, begging God’s mercy on this sin soaked world.

It is too easy to lament this world’s condition and, like the apostles, feel overwhelmed. Jesus just says, bring me what you have, and let’s get started. The conversion of the whole world will begin with me, with my meager loaves and fishes.

And Jesus will surely multiply them, he will not fail. Already there is renewal evident in the Church, through a faithful remnant willing to bring their loaves fishes, some of the things mentioned above and more besides. They are bringing them to Jesus and he is multiplying them. Renewal is happening, and signs of spring are evident in the Church.

There is an old saying that it is easier to wear slippers that to carpet the whole of the earth. Indeed it is. If it is a converted world you want start with yourself. Bring your loaves and fishes to Jesus, bring your slippers, and let’s get started.  It begins with me.

This song says,

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, how they’re traveling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty, as a good man ought,
If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain
.

The Probability of You Existing at All is Almost NON-Existent. A Brief Reflection on the Contingency of our Being and the Glory of God, Based on a Recent Math Article.

I was alerted to a fascinating article by Ali Binazir who sets forth mathematically the odds of you or I existing, just as we are genetically. It turns out that, when taking into consideration the astonishing number of possibilities of parents meeting, grandparents before them and on and on going back the generations, and adding also the vast numbers of sperm and ova in possible combination over a the lifetime of the marital acts, of all those generations, it would seem that the odds of me existing just as I do, are 1 in 102,685,000. That’s a number so huge it hurts to think about it.

To say that we are contingent beings, is a vast understatement. To say that some one or something is contingent is to say that the existence of same is not inevitable, but can only come about based on any number of previous things being true in a chain of being or causality. Hence I would not exist if my parents had not existed and met. Further, they would not exist if the parents had not existed and met, the chain going back many generations. Thus, my existence depends on a vast number of “meetings” going just right, or I am not here.

Consider some of the contingencies and requirements for your existence as set forth by Mr Binazir. Some of the numbers are based on hunches, but generally those numbers are on the conservative side. I am only publishing a small amount of his musings here. You can read his full article here: What are the Chances of You Being Born? and see how he comes up with these numbers.

So here are listed some of the probabilities of required events for you to be born:

  1. Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.
  2. Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10.
  3. And the chances of that turning into another meeting is about one in 10 also.
  4. And the chances of that turning into a long-term relationship is also one in 10.
  5. And the chances of that lasting long enough to result in offspring is one in 2.
  6. So the probability of your parents’ chance meeting resulting in marriage and kids is about 1 in 2000
  7. So the combined probability is already around 1 in 40 million
  8. Now things start getting interesting.  Why?  Because we’re about to deal with eggs and sperm, which come in large numbers. Each sperm and each egg is genetically unique because of the process of meiosis; you are the result of the fusion of one particular egg with one particular sperm.  A fertile woman has 100,000 viable eggs on average.  A man will produce about 12 trillion sperm over the course of his reproductive lifetime.
  9. Let’s say a third of those (4 trillion) are relevant to our calculation, since the sperm created after your mom hits menopause don’t count.  So the probability of that one sperm with half your name on it hitting that one egg with the other half of your name on it is 1/(100,000)(4 trillion)= 1/(105)(4×1012)= 1 in 4 x 1017, or one in 400 quadrillion.
  10. But because the existence of you here now on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events.  Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age we must also go further presuming 150,000 generations going back to man’s origin.
  11. Well then, that would be one in 2150,000 , which is about 1 in 1045,000– a number so staggeringly large that my head hurts just writing it down.
  12. But let’s think about this some more.  Remember the sperm-meeting-egg argument for the creation of you, since each gamete is unique?
  13. Well, the right sperm also had to meet the right egg to create your grandparents.  Otherwise they’d be different people, and so would their children, who would then have had children who were similar to you but not quite you.
  14. This is also true of your grandparents’ parents, and their grandparents, and so on till the beginning of human time.  If even once the wrong sperm met the wrong egg, you would not be sitting here noodling online reading fascinating articles like this one.  It would be your cousin Jethro, and you never really liked him anyway.
  15. That means in every step of your lineage, the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg such that the exact right ancestor would be created that would end up creating you is one in 1200 trillion, which we’ll round down to 1000 trillion, or one quadrillion.
  16. So now we must account for that for 150,000 generations by raising 400 quadrillion to the 150,000th power: That’s a ten followed by 2,640,000 zeroes, which would fill 11 volumes of a 250 page book with zeroes.
  17. For the sake of completeness: (102,640,000)(1045,000)(2000)(20,000) = 4x 102,685,007 ≈ 102,685,000
  18. Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000

Now, there are some assumptions you may quibble with. I would certainly add in (sadly) some probabilities related to being aborted, or miscarried. But even a simpler analysis yields astonishing numbers. One of my brothers made his own calculation regarding one of Binazir’s numbers:

My numbers are more simplistic.  But assuming 100,000 eggs/woman & 12T sperm/man, that creates 1.2 x 10^18 combinations for every man/woman pairing (i.e., signficantly more combos than 400T or 4 x 10^14 mentioned in the article).  If you assume 3B women on earth & 3B man, that means 3 x 10^14 eggs and 3.6 x 10^22 sperm currently on the planet, for a total combination of 1.1 x 10^37 pairings.  If you assume current population is 1% of the history of humanity, total combos go to 1.1 x 10^39.

Not only are you and I contingent, we are very improbable! Yet here we are! Mirabile visu! (wondrous to behold).

Theologically of course we are no accident or happenstance. God has always known us, intended us, loved us and planned for us. Scripture says,

  1. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jer 1:5).
  2. Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, in the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world (Matt 25:34)
  3. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:13-16)

Yes, you’re here alright, and math can barely account for your existence, so tiny are the odds. But God has overseen every detail and knew you long before you were born. In fact he has been preparing a place for us in the kingdom, from before the creation of the world. Not only has he always known us, but he has known everything we would do, for every one of our days have been written in his book before one of them ever came to be.

The great mystery of our existence stretches back in time into the very heart and mind of God who has always known and loved us, has prepared for us and made a way for us. You are wonderfully and fearfully made and God has done a marvelous thing. You’re not just one in a million, you’re one in a 102,685,000

Photo Credit: Portland Glass

This video makes a moving point, but attributes our existence to luck. But you are not here by luck, you are here by the grace and will of God.

An Insight on Hope from St. Augustine

The word “hope” in modern English has lost much of the vigor assigned to what we call the theological virtue of Hope. In English hope often means merely a vague wish, as in, “I hope it doesn’t rain.” But the theological virtue of Hope (which I capitalize to distinguish it from worldly hope) is more vigorously defined as the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal salvation. Notice therefore it is no mere wish, it is a confident expectation based on God’s promises and love for us.

A reading from St. Augustine in the Breviary this week is rather well known and summons us to humility about our sins. But I want to briefly consider a subtlety in the text regarding hope. St. Augustine writes:

Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others. This was not the way that David showed us how to pray and make amends to God, when he said: I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. He did not concentrate on others’ sins; he turned his thoughts on himself. He did not merely stroke the surface, but he plunged inside and went deep down within himself. He did not spare himself, and therefore was not impudent (rude) in asking to be spared. (Serm. 19,2-3: CCL 41, 252-254)

Notice how he says, “But men are hopeless creatures…” Clearly, he speaks in a general sort of way, for not all people are hopeless. But consider his insight here in terms of how we defined Hope above. Too many people do not have a confident expectation of God’s help in attaining unto salvation and the holiness that precedes it. And hence, we tend to settle into a mediocrity at best and despair at worst. Thus, having little sense we can be free from our sins, especially our more serious ones, we seek to avoid thinking of them. This of course leads to the other behaviors St. Augustine describes above such as being more interested in the sins of others than our own, becoming the critic and so forth. We belittle others as a strange way of feeling better about ourselves.  We think, “At least I’m not as bad as so-and-so!” But we forget that being better than so-and-so is not the standard, being like Jesus is the standard. And this is why we need a lot of humility and Hope.

Consider then the role of Hope. If I have a vigorous and confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation then I can humbly admit that I am a sinner and turn to him for help; I can confidently engage the battle against sin. And this Hope prevails even if one perceives that the battle to overcome some very habitual sins may be a lengthy battle marked with setbacks, for Hope summons us to engage the battle with confidence of God’s help and love. In this way Hope interacts with fortitude. Fortitude is more than courage, it is the virtue whereby one is persevering despite obstacles, opposition and setbacks.

Therefore, note the subtlety in St. Augustine’s description of the gossipy and hypercritical world of hopeless people.  He teaches us of the great need for the vigorous and confident expectation of God’s help that we call Hope.   Hope (and humility) help us to stay in our own lane and work our own stuff and will not disappoint if we persevere in the battle for holiness.

A Brief Essay on the Fear of Death

In times like these, consider well this text from Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15).

In the past I have written on these verses allegorically, pointing out that “the fear of death” can be understood more broadly as anything that diminishes us, that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular that we are. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall or too short, too fat or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have. Advertisers tap into this wider understanding of the fear of death (diminishment) to create anguish over our inadequacy, selflessly offering us their product, which will remedy the problem for just $19.95 plus shipping and handling.

But in the face of this most recent global panic about a relatively strong virus, we need also to ponder the literal meaning of this text. Whether you are of the view that this is an extreme threat that requires dramatic measures or you think the matter is exaggerated and the measures are too severe, it is clear that the fear of death has seized large numbers throughout the world. The text from Hebrews above should make us ponder the satanic origins of this gripping fear.

What makes the worldwide fear suspiciously satanic is that it is almost wholly focused on physical death and worldly setbacks. Would that we had such fears about our spiritual and moral well-being. There are innumerable threats to our very salvation in the temptations and seductions all about us. These can kill our soul through mortal sin. There are many drives of sin that fester in us like a cancer, hardening our hearts or giving us a “spiritual Alzheimer’s” wherein we forget why we were made and who is our Heavenly Father.

You see, I have a dream that we, as a world, recognize the gravity of our collective spiritual condition. In this dream, the heads of governments insist that we all follow strict protocols to avoid temptation as well as seducing others into sin. There would be 24/7 coverage, with updates on our progress, interviews with priests and religious, proclamation of scripture by moral and biblical experts, and stories of recovery and courage from the lives of the saints related by hagiographers. I dream of many rushing to prepare the test kits of examinations of conscience and an army of priests and bishops deployed to hear confessions around the clock. Well, you get the point.

It is certainly not wrong to look for a cure for the latest virus. I only wish we were as concerned for our spiritual and moral well-being. Jesus says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). We do face physical threats in this world, but they are not our worst enemy. Moral plagues and sinful viruses can damage us eternally.

In times like these, when the temptation to fear death is so strong, resist the devil and run to God. Dwell in the shelter of the Most High. Be sheltered by Him from the scourge that lays waste at noon and the plague that prowls in the darkness (cf Ps 91). Make your first goal to stay spiritually alive and flee anything that might lead to mortal sin. If you do this, then even if you were to die, by dying in faith you would receive a maximum promotion (likely through Purgatory) to the heavenly realms. Be strong! Fear not!  The devil is a liar; he wants us to fear lesser things so that we ignore the more serious. Wash your hands, but don’t forget the spiritual version:   Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you (James 4:8).

Our Deepest Fear

At Mass on Sunday for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord,  we read a text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. The Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage. In order to unlock the secret of the text, I want to suggest to you an interpretation that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.

Consider, then, this text from Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).

This passage is clear in saying that the devil is the origin of our bondage to sin, but also that hold on us is through the fear of death. This is what he exploits in order to keep us in bondage.

When I have explored this teaching with people, I have found that many have difficulty understanding it at first. Especially for the young, death is almost a theoretical concept; it is not something they consciously fear. This is particularly true in the modern age, when medical advances have so successfully pushed back the boundary between life and death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death), but in general death does not dominate our thoughts. So, then, what is meant by the fear of death and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? To be sure, this is an adaption of the text (the Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is accurately translated as “fear of death”), but doing so can help us to see what the text is getting at in a wider sense. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? On one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have.

Can you see how this fear of diminishment sets up many sins? It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride, too, because we try to compensate for our fear of inadequacy by finding people to whom we feel superior. We thus indulge our pride or seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Maybe we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really aren’t. Perhaps we spend money we don’t have trying to impress others so that we feel less inadequate.

Think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and to fit in. We give in to peer pressure and sometimes do terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, etc. Adults also have many of these things on their list. All of these things are done in a quest to be popular and to fit in. This desire to fit in is all about not wanting to feel diminished, and diminishment is about the fear of death, because every experience of diminishment is like a small death.

Advertisers know how to exploit the fear of diminishment in marketing their products. I remember studying this topic in business school at George Mason University. The logic goes something like this: You’re not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, or comfortable enough; you don’t look young enough; you have some chronic illness (e.g., depression, asthma, diabetes)—but just buy our product and you will be “enough”; you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete, and, basically, diminished. If you drink this beer, you’ll be happy, have good times, and be surrounded by friends. If you use this toothpaste, soap, or cosmetic product, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car, people will turn their heads and be impressed with you. The message is that you don’t measure up now (you’re diminished) but our product will get you there. Just buy it and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more alive!

Perhaps you can see how such advertising appeals to greed, pride, materialism, and worldliness; it puts forth the lie that these material things will solve our problems. In fact, appeals like this actually increase our fear of diminishment (and death) because they feed the notion that we have to measure up to these false and/or unrealistic standards.

It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it enslaves us in countless ways.

This demon (fear of death, of diminishment) must be named. Once named and brought to light, we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. As we start to recognize the thought patterns emerging from this most primal of fears, we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted thinking with proper, sober, and humble thinking—thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of His grace and mercy.

The text from Hebrews above is clear in saying that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. It also says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and His Word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.

This song pokes fun at our fad-centered culture, which is always trying to make us feel inadequate.

 

Rediscovering the Original Meaning of the Word “Relevant”

A word we hear frequently these days is relevance, or the related relevant. There is great insistence today that whatever is said, taught, or presented should be relevant. Often what this means is that it should be applicable, reasonable, easily understood, and, above all, modern.

This is the most problematic aspect of the modern meaning of the word. Relevance today means being in agreement, or in step, with modern times; with the thinking, leanings, customs, and mores of people here and now.

And not only are our ideas, teachings, and views expected to be relevant, so are our institutions, such as the Church. We often hear the demand that the Church should be relevant; that her teachings, structure, methods, and views should be up-to-date and should speak to the issues modern people deem important.

With proper distinctions, relevance does have its place. It is important for the Church to speak to issues that are of current concern. An extended sermon on a text from Leviticus detailing how to slaughter animals properly during the Temple sacrifice might well be critiqued as irrelevant to the average Christian today. In addition, we moderns face many issues that were unknown to the ancients, such as the morality of in vitro fertilization.

Therefore, the Church must make some adjustments with respect to culture and era, and it is reasonable for people to expect that.

However, as with many concepts that are in themselves good and proper, the demands for relevance are often taken too far. What many today want when they demand that the Church be relevant is that she reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature rather than a thermostat seeking to set it. For many, relevance means that the Church should reflect the views of her members rather than those of her founder and Head, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and whose Word endures forever. Relevance, to many, also means that the Church should cast aside a large number of her basic teachings and practices.

As a result, there is a lot of tension around the words relevant and relevance. It is necessary to distinguish authentic concerns for relevance from inauthentic ones.

Part of the problem in determining the proper degree of relevance is that the word itself has lost much of its original meaning. In a certain sense, many use the word to mean the opposite of its original sense.

The Latin etymology is re (again) + levare (to lift). Hence, the literal meaning is “to lift up something again.” And because re can describe a repetitive action, the word can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”

The original connotation of the word is that something has been dropped or cast aside, and then someone picks it up again. It is as though something that has fallen away or fallen into disuse is then picked up and presented anew or freshly. It could even theoretically be applied to something that was cast aside as old-fashioned or out-of-date and then taken up again or presented anew.

In a way, then, from its Latin roots, relevant means rather the opposite of its current usage. Something relevant was brought back from the dustbin, not something brand new and popular!

This examination of the Latin roots suggests a possible way forward in recapturing the word relevant and using it with proper balance.

The re in the word demands that the Church ever lift up her unchanging truths, especially when they have been carelessly cast aside. However, this does not simply mean rehashing ideas in the same way. The idea or truth is still valid, but the way we express it may need adapting; it may need re-presenting. Obviously, as the Church encounters new languages, translations need to be made. As cultures change or new situations and circumstances arise, some of the analogies and images used to express unchanging truths may need adjustment. The Latin roots capture the notion that although things sometimes do fall away or are dropped, they need to be picked up again and often re-presented, that is, presented in new and fresh ways.

In addition, the levare in the Latin root shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. Certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away; they must be picked up again and again.

Therefore, despite demands that the Church let some of her teachings drop or that we make them go away, the notion of relevance from its Latin roots says just the opposite. To be relevant we must re+ levare; we must insist on picking them up again and again, presenting them freshly. Even if the culture is hostile, we must continue to present, to re-present, to lift up again and again the truths that God has given us, which can never die.

In this sense we can respond to a world that demands we be relevant, “Amen!” We must pick up again and again the perennial truths that God has given us, but at times we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and in a manner that is understandable, even infectious, to our listeners.

Relevance anyone?

This song says, “Everything old is new again. … Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day.”