What Does Jesus Mean When He Says That We Will Be Salted with Fire?

Spilled salt with salt shaker on wooden background

I was recently asked (through my Our Sunday Visitor column) about one of Jesus’ lesser known sayings. I would go into a little more detail in today’s post. Here is the passage:

Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another (Mark 9:49-50).

Some argue that these were separate sayings that were just stitched together, but I think otherwise. The logic of the saying seems cogent and unified to me. I will begin with a few observations about salt in those times.

  1. Salt was valuable. Some people were even paid with salt (which is where we get the word “salary”).
  2. Salt was connected with healing and purity. Saltwater was applied to infections and wounds (it helps heal afflictions of the skin). Newborn babies were washed with saltwater.
  3. Salt was connected with preservation. In the years before refrigeration, salt was one of the most common ways of preserving meat and fish.
  4. Salt was connected with flavor. Salt adds spice to life; it brings out the flavor in food.
  5. Salt was an image for wisdom. Gregory the Great said, “Now by salt is denoted the word of wisdom. Let him therefore who strives to speak wisely, fear greatly” (Pastoral Rule 4.12).
  6. Salt was connected with worship and covenant. Scripture says, Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Lev 2:13). So the use of salt was ordered first for the meal offerings, and afterwards for “all” offerings, including the “burnt offering.”
  7. Scripture speaks elsewhere of a “covenant of salt.” For example, Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chron 13:5) The covenant of salt refers to the imperishable and irrevocable quality of the engagement made between the two parties to the covenant.
  8. The use of salt to signify and ratify what was sacred was widespread. There is a Latin saying attributed to Pliny the Elder (and Virgil, too), Nulla sacra conficiuntur sine mola salsa (Sacred things are not made without salted meal).

All of these things are caught up in Jesus’ use of salt as an image. Sadly, salt (a necessary ingredient for life) is today treated almost as a poison. But such thinking was not operative in ancient minds.

To apply the image of salt to the Christian life, we should see that the Christian is to purify, sanctify, and preserve this wounded and decaying world by being salt to it. The Christian is called to bring flavor to life in a world that is so often filled with despair and meaninglessness.

And now we turn to Jesus’ words from Mark:

1. Everyone will be salted with fire. Two images of salt and fire come together here, but the result is the same: purification. We have already seen how salt purifies. Fire does the same thing through the refining process. Precious metals come from the ground admixed with iron and many other metals. Subjecting them to fire purifies the gold or silver, separating it from the iron and other metals.

Both salt and fire purify by burning, each in its own way. Hence the Lord marvelously brings those two images together, telling us that we will all be “salted with fire.”

Indeed, it must be so. We must all be purified. Scripture says of Heaven, nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27). St. Paul speaks of purgatorial fire as effecting whatever purification has not taken place here on earth:

If anyone builds on this foundation [of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—yet as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:15-15).

The Book of Malachi also reminds us of our need to be purified, to be “salted with fire.”

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver (Mal 3:2-3).

Yes, we must all be salted with fire. We must be purified, both here, and if necessary (as it likely will be), in Purgatory.

2. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? In other words, we have to let the salt of God’s grace have its effect or else we, who are to be salt for others, become flat, tasteless, and good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (cf Matt 5:13).

What does it mean for salt to become tasteless? Today, we are not used to salt going flat, but salt in the ancient world was frequently less pure. It came from the sea and was admixed with other things. As it broke down, the salt could go flat or become bitter. In that case it was useless except as pavement.

The image is a powerful portrait of a Christian who has become debased, flat. The fall is steep: from a worthy, esteemed, necessary, and helpful place (like good salt) to ignoble pavement, trampled and unappreciated beneath the feet of people who should have been blessed with its flavor. Jesus says elsewhere, if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matt 5:13).

Alas, consider the sad condition of this world, made so because so many Catholics stepped back from being salt and light. Increasingly, the world is therefore hell bound and sin-soaked as never before.

The current contempt of the world for Christians—Catholics in particular—has indeed reduced us to less than pavement dust. We can lament the lack of appreciation for our faith, but a lot of it is due to our lack of saltiness. Salt gone flat is good for nothing, nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, this world thinks of us as flat and bitter to the taste.

We have a lot of work to do to recapture our role of adding spice and flavor to life. The good, the true, and the beautiful must be reintegrated into the lives of Catholics, who have too easily cast them aside.

Bishop Robert Barron speaks of 70s Catholicism as the era of “beige Catholicism,” when all the zest, color, edginess, and zeal of the Catholic faith was painted over and Catholics sought to blend in—even disappear. Today we are seeing the results of salt-gone-flat Catholicism. Little by little, we must recover our salt, our zest, our pep, and even our stinging quality. Flat Catholics are good for nothing.

If the salt will not be salt, there is no substitute for it. Jesus asks rhetorically, if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? There is no substitute for Christians. If we will not be light, then the world will be in darkness. If we will not be salt, then the world will not be purified, preserved, or have anything good or tasty about it at all. The decay of Western culture has happened on our watch, when we collectively decided to stop being salt and light.

3. Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another. In other words, allow the salt, the purification, to have its effect. Only if we do this will we have peace with one another.

Our divisions and lack of peace are caused by our sins. Thus, to accept the purification of being salted with fire is our only true hope for peace. When the Lord burns away my envy, I no longer resent your gifts; I rejoice in them and come to appreciate that I need you to complete me. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my jealously and greed and helps me to be grateful for what I have, I no longer desire to take what is rightly yours nor do I resent you for having it. In this way there is peace. When the Lord burns away my bitter memories of past hurts and gives me the grace to forgive, an enormous amount of poison goes out of my soul and I am equipped to love and to be kind, generous, and patient. In this way there is peace.

Yes, allowing ourselves to be salted with fire is a source of peace for us. And while we may resist the pain of fire and salt, just as with any stinging medicine we must learn that although it is painful it is good for us. Yes, it brings peace; it ushers in shalom.

Everyone will be (must be) salted with fire!

What Does It Mean When Scripture Says That God Hardens Certain Human Hearts?

Blog-06-27One of the more difficult biblical concepts to understand is that of God hardening the hearts and minds of certain people. The most memorable case is that of Pharaoh: before sending Moses to him, God said that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex 4:21). And there are other instances in which biblical texts speak of God hardening the hearts of sinners, even from among his own people.

What are we to make of texts like these, which explicitly or implicitly speak of God hardening the hearts of people? How can God, who does no evil, be the source of a sinful mind or a hard heart? Why would God do such a thing when He has also said the following?

  1. As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)
  2. God our Savior … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).

To be sure, these questions involve very deep mysteries, mysteries about God’s sovereignty and how it interacts with our freedom, the mysteries of time, and the mysteries of causality. As a mystery within mysteries, the question of God hardening hearts cannot be resolved simply. Greater minds than mine have pondered these things and it would be foolish to think that an easy resolution can be found in a blog post.

But some distinctions can and should be made and some context supplied. We do not want to understand the “hardening texts” in simplistic ways or in ways that use one truth to cancel out other important truths that balance it. So please permit a modest summary of the ancient discussion.

I propose that we examine these sorts of texts along four lines:

  1. The Context of Connivance
  2. The Mystery of Time
  3. The Mystery of Causality
  4. The Necessity of Humility

To begin, it is important simply to list a few of the “hardening texts.” The following are not the only ones, but they provide a wide enough sample:

  1. The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21).
  2. Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country (Ex 11:10).
  3. Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance (Is 63:17).
  4. He [God] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them (Jesus quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, in John 12:40).
  5. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie (2 Thess 2:11).
  6. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another … Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done (Rom 1:24, 28).

I. The Context of ConnivanceIn properly assessing texts like these, we ought first to consider the contexts in which they were written. Generally speaking, most of these declarations that God “hardens the heart” come after a significant period of disobedience on the part of those whose hearts were hardened. In a way, God “cements the deal” and gives them what they really want. For seeing that they have hardened their own hearts to God, He determines that their disposition is to be a permanent one, and in a sovereign exercise of His will (for nothing can happen without God’s allowance), declares and permits their hearts to be hardened in a definitive kind of way. In this sense, there is a judgment of God upon the individual that recognizes the person’s definitive decision against Him. Hence this hardening can be understood as voluntary on the part of the one hardened one, for God hardens in such a way that He uses the person’s own will for the executing of His judgment. God accepts that the individual’s will against Him is definitive.

In the case of Pharaoh (e.g., #1 and #2 above), although God indicated to Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart, the actual working out of this is a bit more complicated. We see in the first five plagues that it is Pharaoh who hardens his own heart (Ex 7:13; 7:22; 8:11; 8:28; & 9:7). It is only after this repeated hardening by Pharaoh of his own heart that the Exodus text speaks of God as the one who hardens (Ex 9:12; 9:34; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27). Hence the hardening here is not without Pharaoh’s repeated demonstration of his own hardness. God “cements the deal” as a kind of sovereign judgment on Pharaoh.

The Isaiah texts (many in number) that speak of a hardening being visited upon Israel by God (e.g., #3 and #4 above),  are  also the culmination of a long testimony by Isaiah of Israel’s hardness. At the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, God describes (through Isaiah) Israel’s hardness as being of their own doing: For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (Is 1:2-4). There follows a long list of their crimes, their hardness, and their refusal to repent.

St. John Chrysostom – Of the numerous texts later in Isaiah (and also referenced by Jesus (e.g., Jn 12:40)) that speak of Israel being hardened by God (and having their eyes shut by Him), St John Chrysostom said, That the saying of Isaiah might be fulfilled: that here is expressive not of the cause, but of the event. They did not disbelieve because Isaiah said they would; but because they would disbelieve, Isaiah said they would … For He does not leave us, except we wish Him … Whereby it is plain that we begin to forsake first, and are the cause of our own perdition. For as it is not the fault of the sun that it hurts weak eyes, so neither is God to blame for punishing those who do not attend to His words (in a gloss of Is. 6:9-10 at Jn 12:40, quoted in the Catena Aurea).

St. Augustine – This is not said to be the devil’s doing, but God’s. Yet if any ask why they could not believe, I answer, because they would not … But the Prophet, you say, mentions another cause, not their will; but that God had blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart. But I answer that they well deserved this. For God hardens and blinds a man by forsaking and not supporting him; and this He makes by a secret sentence, for by an unjust one He cannot (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Jn 12:40).

In the text of 2 Thessalonians (# 5 above), God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie. While this verse speaks of God as having sent the delusion, the verses before and after make clear the sinful role of the punished: They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved … so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thess 2:10,12).

St. AugustineFrom a hidden judgment of God comes perversity of heart, so that the refusal to hear the truth leads to the commission of sin, and this sin is itself a punishment for the preceding sin [of refusing to hear the truth] (Against Julian 5.3.12).

St. John Damascus[God does this] so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (The Orthodox Faith 4.26).

The texts from Romans 1 (e.g., # 6 above) speak of God handing them over only after they have suppressed the truth (1:18), persevered in their wickedness (1:18), and preferred lust and idolatry (1:23-24). Hence, as a just judgment, God hands them over to sexual confusion (homosexuality) and countless other destructive drives. So here, too, though it is said that God hands them over, it is really not that simple. Again, God has “cemented the deal.” They do not want to serve Him and so God, knowing their definitive decision, gives them what they want.

Thus our first point in understanding the “hardening texts” is that the context of connivance is important in assessing them. Scripture does not assert that God takes a reasonably righteous man and, out of the blue, hardens his heart, confuses his mind, or causes him (against his will) to become obstinate. The texts are usually presented as a kind of prevenient judgment by God, such that the state of the person’s hardness becomes permanent. God “cements the deal” and “causes” the person to walk in his own sinful ways since he has insisted on doing so.

II. The Mystery of Time – In understanding these “hardening texts” (which we have seen are akin to judgment texts) we must strive to recall that God does not live in time in the same way that we do. Scripture speaks often of God’s knowledge and vision of time as being comprehensive rather than speculative or serial (e.g., Ex 3:14; Ps 90:2-4; Ps 93:2; Is 43:13; Ps 139; 2 Peter 3:8; James 1:17).

To say that God is eternal and lives in eternity is to say that He lives in the fullness of time. For God past, present, and future are all the same. God is not wondering what I will do tomorrow; neither is He waiting for it to happen. For Him, my tomorrow has always been present. All of my days were written in His book before one of them ever came to be (Ps 139:16). Whether and how long I live have always been known to Him. Before He ever formed me in my mother’s womb He knew me (Jer 1:5). My final destiny is already known and present to Him.

Hence when we strive to understand God’s judgments in the form of hardening hearts, we must be careful not to think that He lives in time the way we do. It is not as though God is watching my life unfold like a movie. He already knows the choices I will make. Thus, when God hardens the hearts of some, it is not that He is trying to influence the outcome by “tripping them up.” He already knows the outcome and has always known it; He knows the destiny they have chosen.

Now be very careful with this insight, for it is a mystery to us. We cannot really know what it is like to live in eternity, in the fullness of time, where the future is just as present as is the past. And even if you think you know, you really don’t. What is essential for us to realize is that God does not live in time the way we do. If we try too hard to solve the mystery (rather than just accepting and respecting it) we risk falling into the denial of human freedom, or double predestination, or other misguided notions that sacrifice one truth for another rather than holding them in balance. That God knows what I will do tomorrow does not destroy my freedom to choose what I do. How this all works out is mysterious, but we are free (Scripture teaches this) and God holds us accountable for our choices. Further, even though God knows our destiny already, this does not mean that He is revealing anything about that to us, such that we should look for signs and seek to call ourselves saved or lost. We ought to work out our salvation in reverential fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

The key point here is mystery. Striving to understand how, why, and when God hardens the heart of anyone is caught up in the mysterious fact that He lives outside of time and knows all things before they happen. Thus He acts with comprehensive knowledge of all outcomes.

III. The Mystery of Causality – One of the major differences between the ancient and the modern worlds is that the ancient world was much more comfortable dealing with something known as primary causality.

Up until the Renaissance, people thought that God was at the center of all things and they instinctively saw the hand of God in everything—even terrible things. Job said, The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised … if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil? (Job 1:21; 2:10) Thus the ancients would commonly attribute everything as coming from the hand of God, for He was the “first cause” of everything that happened. This is what is meant by primary causality. The ancients were thus much more comfortable attributing things to God than we are. In speaking like this, they were not being superstitious or primitive in their thinking; rather, they were emphasizing that God was sovereign, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and that nothing happened apart from His sovereign will. They believed that God was the primary cause of all that existed.

Of this ancient and scriptural way of thinking the Catechism says, And so we see the Holy Spirit, the principal author of Sacred Scripture, often attributing actions to God without mentioning any secondary causes [e.g., human or natural]. This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

We need to understand that the ancient biblical texts, while often speaking of God as hardening the hearts of sinners, do not mean to say that man had no role, no responsibility. Neither do they mean to say that God acts in a merely arbitrary way. Rather, the emphasis is on God’s sovereign power as the first cause of all that is. Hence He is often called the cause of all things and His hand is seen in everything.

After the Renaissance, man moved himself to the center and God was gradually “escorted” to the periphery. Man’s manner of thinking and speaking began to shift to focusing on secondary causes (those related to man and nature). If something happens we look to natural causes, or in human situations, to the humans who caused it. But these are actually secondary causes, because I cannot cause something to happen unless God first causes me.

Today, we have largely thrown primary causality overboard as a category. Even believers do this (unconsciously for the most part) and thus exhibit three related issues:

  1. We fail to maintain the proper balance between two mysteries: God’s sovereignty and our freedom.
  2. We exhibit shock at things like the “hardening texts” of the Bible because we understand them poorly.
  3. We try to resolve the shock by favoring one truth over the other. Maybe we just brush aside the ancient biblical texts as “primitive” and say, inappropriately, that God didn’t have anything to do with this or that occurrence. Or we go to the other extreme and become fatalistic, denying human freedom, denying secondary causality (our part) and accusing God of everything (as if He were the only cause and should shoulder the sole blame for everything). We either read the hardening texts with a clumsy literalism or we dismiss them as misguided notions from an immature, primitive, and pre-scientific age.

The point here is that we have to balance the mysteries of primary and secondary causality. We cannot fully understand how they interrelate, but they do. Both mysteries need to be held. The ancients were more sophisticated than we are in holding these mysteries in the proper balance. Today, we handle causality very clumsily; we do not appreciate the distinctions between primary causality (God’s part) and secondary causality (our own and nature’s part). We try to resolve the mystery rather than holding the two in balance and speaking to both realities. Thus we are poor interpreters of the “hardening texts.”

IV. The Necessity of Humility – We are dealing with the mysterious interrelationship between God and Man, between God’s sovereignty and our freedom, between primary and secondary causality. In the face of such mysteries we have to be very humble. We ought not to think more about the details than is proper for us, because, frankly, they are largely hidden from us. Too many moderns either dismiss the hardening texts outright, or accept them and then sit in harsh judgment over God (as if we could do such a thing). Neither approach bespeaks humility. Consider a shocking but very humbling text in which St. Paul warns us about this very matter:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:14-20)

None of us can demand an absolute account from God for what He does. Even if He were to tell us, could our small, worldly minds ever really comprehend it? My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, says the Lord (Is 55:8).

Summary – In this (rather too long) post, we have considered the “hardening texts,” in which God hardens the hearts of certain people. But texts like these must be approached carefully, humbly, and with proper distinctions as to the scriptural and historical context. At work here are profound mysteries: God’s sovereignty, our freedom, His mercy, and His justice.

We should be careful to admit the limits of our knowledge when it comes to interpreting such texts. As the Catechism so beautifully states, texts like these are to be appreciated as a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (CCC # 304).

This song says, “Be not angry any longer, Lord, and no more remember our iniquities. Behold and regard us; we are all your people!”

The Whole Gospel, Please – A Reflection on a Popular Gospel Verse

john316The Gospel proclaimed on Wednesday of this week included the familiar John 3:16. So familiar is this verse, that many hold up signs or have bumper stickers that simply say, “John 3:16.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life
(John 3:16).

It is indeed a beautiful verse, but I would argue that many use it inauthentically by pulling it out from its place within a longer passage. The fuller segment is John 3:16-21, which is as much a passage of warning as it is of consolation and assurance.

Here it is again, along with the remainder of that longer passage:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God
(John 3:16-21).

This fuller context has somewhat of a different tone. It sets forth a great drama in which our lives are cast. It amounts to sober assessment of the obtuseness of many human hearts and of the urgent need for us to decide well in life.

Those who merely quote the first verse run the risk of presenting this text as a kind of a freewheeling assurance that all is well and that salvation is largely in the bag, that judgment and condemnation are not a significant factor since “God so loved the world.” And while the concept of faith is included in this first verse, without the larger context the tendency is to soft-pedal the need for repentance and for the obedience of faith. In so doing, the true drama and sober teaching of the fuller text are lost.

The longer passage fleshes the message out and has a balance that the shortened text does not. Here is what Jesus is in effect saying, expressed in more modern language:

As I live, I and my Father do not desire that any should die in their sins or be lost. I have not currently come as your judge but as your savior. I will come one day as the judge of all, but now is a time of grace and mercy extended to you.

But you need to know that you have a decision to make, a decision that will determine where you will spend eternity.

So please listen to me! Open the door to me and let me draw you to the obedience of faith and the beauty of holiness. If you do this, light will dawn for you, for I am the Light and your life will grow ever brighter.

But if you will not repent and come to a lifesaving obedience of faith, your heart will begin to despise me and the light of my glory. You will become accustomed to the darkness and begin to consider the Light (which I am) to be obnoxious, harsh, judgmental, and even cruel. Yes, you will begin to hate me, for I am the Light. You will prefer the darkness because you love your sins more.

Come to your senses and don’t let this happen. You have a decision to make: for the light or for the darkness, for me or for the prince of this world, Satan. Be sober and understand the dramatic choice before you. Your salvation depends on your choice to come to obedient faith in me or to reject me.

And know this: on the day of your judgment, the verdict will not be rendered by me so much as by you. For by then, you will either love the Light or hate it. And I will not force you to live in a light you detest. You will be free to go your own way. It will not be I who reject you. It will be you who reject me.

Be sober. Don’t let this happen. Don’t marginalize or ignore me. Don’t prefer the world and its twisted values and passing pleasures. Your sins will make you hate the light and prefer the darkness. You have a decision to make.

This message is much more complex than that contained in the popular, abbreviated text known as John 3:16. God’s mercy is offered, but the final verdict will center on whether or not we accept it. This message may be less consoling but it is true nonetheless, and only the truth can set us free.

There is a tendency by many to pull out certain verses and isolate them from their context and from the fuller message of the Gospel. The full and authentic Gospel echoes the opening call of the Lord Jesus: “Repent and believe the Good News.”

So yes, John 3:16! But please continue reading. The whole Gospel, please!


What Is Meant by the “Sacrifice of Praise” in Scripture?

Corpus Christi

Please consider the following reflection more of a pastoral meditation than a formal exegesis. I do not seek here to compare every use of the phrase in the Scriptures but rather to ponder how we seem to have lost the connection of personal sacrifice to liturgy and worship. Scripture clearly connects them. Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture and then examine how we have strayed from the concept.

So Jesus … suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Heb 13:12-16).

The fundamental principle is that praise (or worship) is connected to sacrifice. Scripture notes this in many places, using expressions such as “a sacrifice of praise” and “a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

On one level, Tradition insists that there be a connection to true worship of God and to living a holy life in charity to the poor.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:26-27).

Now consider this, you who forget God, Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver you. He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me. And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God (Psalm 50).

Thus, the first meaning of a “sacrifice of praise” is that our worship, our praise and thanksgiving, must flow from a heart that is obedient to God, generous to the poor, and unsullied by worldly affections. There is an intrinsic connection between worship and holiness. The greatest risks of worship and praise are that we think we can use it to “buy God off,” or that mere lip service in worship is sufficient. True worship should lead to integrity, such that we become more and more like the One we praise.

There is also some value in pondering the sacrificial nature of the act of worship/praise itself. This is surely the case for Christ, who as our High priest is also the victim. In the Old Covenant the priest and victim were distinct, but in the New Covenant they are one and the same. Jesus did not offer up some poor animal; He offered Himself. And so, too, for us, who are baptized into the priesthood of Jesus Christ as members of the royal priesthood of the baptized or who are ordained to the ministerial priesthood.

Simply put, our worship and praise does cost something—and it should. It takes some effort; there is a cost to worshiping God in the way He is worthy of. Though it is not easy, it is our obligation; it is something that can and ought to challenge us.

This obligation is underappreciated today, when too often the notion is that “going to Church” should entertain me, feed me, minister to me, and be relevant to me. The focus is on man and what pleases him or is sensible to him, rather than on God. Liturgy today seems far more about man than about God. Modern worship too easily resembles a closed circle in which we congratulate, entertain, and excessively reference one another. Either God is something of an afterthought, or it is presumed that He will be pleased simply by the fact that we are there regardless of what we actually do when there.

The first goal seems to be to please and “reach” the faithful. The faithful are seldom asked to make sacrifices of any sort. For indeed, worship that elevates may also challenge. The challenge might be in listening to the content of the sermon, or ancient language, or complex concepts, or something lasting more than a sound bite. Many Church leaders simply reject what challenges or requires sacrifice on the part of the faithful. Heaven forfend one might be required to attend patiently to the worship of God, or to consider things that are of a higher order than the merely banal, or to devote a little time and study!

If Mass must last no longer than 45 minutes, if sermons ought not challenge, if attending Mass on holy days is “too hard,” then where is the sacrifice? And what about tithing or sacrificial giving? Is the way we worship God merely what pleases me or us? Is the purpose of liturgical music to please and edify me or is it to praise God in a dignified way? Is the liturgy today really about God or is it more about us?

Such a non-sacrificial, misdirected notion of worship is certainly much on display in certain “mega-churches,” whose services resemble rock concerts and motivational talks more than a sacrifice of praise. But these notions have infected the Catholic setting, too, in the ways described above.

Worship should involve work. It is not merely an experience akin to going to a movie or concert and sitting in one’s seat being passively entertained or pleased. Some demands should be made of us beyond the collection plate. Higher things are less easily understood than the merely mundane, and to comprehend them we must be drawn out of our comfort zone and challenged.

I was not born loving either Bach fugues or the intricacies of renaissance polyphony. But, like fine wine, they have attained pride of place in my life—through the power of the liturgy (patiently prayed and experienced) to elevate my mind and personality to higher things. Further, in my earlier years, the joy of gospel music was not relevant to me; today it is. The sacrifice of praise is not, therefore, merely arduous and painful to no end. Like most sacrifices, it brings forth new life.

Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu) recognized the strange development in the West of worship without sacrifice and called it one of the seven deadly sins of culture. In the West, “going to church” has increasingly come to resemble entertainment. And the attitude seems to be that if things don’t please me and cater to my tastes, I have a perfect right either to go somewhere else or to not go at all.

Where is the sacrifice of praise of which Scripture speaks?

Granted, parishes should strive for excellent liturgy and preaching. Every liturgical aspect should be done well, first and foremost because it is directed to God, who is worthy of our very best. But at the end of the day, no liturgy will be 100% pleasing to everyone. It is not the job of the liturgy to please the faithful. The purpose of the liturgy is to worship God fittingly. It is my task (and dignity) to offer a sacrifice of praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ. Priest and victim are one and the same.

I will end by posing a few questions:

  1. Do we go to the Mass with the attitude “Peel me a grape” (i.e., please me), or ready to offer God a sacrifice of praise?
  2. Is our liturgy focused on God or merely on us?
  3. Do the liturgy and the clergy place proper demands on God’s faithful? Are the faithful willing to accept those demands?
  4. If you are a priest, whom do you hope to please on Sunday? Is it God or just your parishioners?
  5. Is God central in our liturgy today? How is He or is He not?
  6. Are we willing to accept that the primary purpose of the liturgy is not to please us or even to speak in ways relevant to us?
  7. What do you think it means for you to offer God a sacrifice of praise?

Psalm 116 offers a good description of the attitude we should bring to worship and the Liturgy:

LORD, surely I am Your servant, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid, You have loosed my bonds. To You I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And call upon the name of the LORD. I shall pay my vows to the LORD, in the presence of all His people … (Psalm 116:16-18).


Parables Aren’t Just Stories, Many Are Riddles – Here Are Two

blog11-5To most of us, parables are stories told by Jesus to illustrate and clarify what He teaches. We have read the parables in the context of two thousand years of a tradition that interprets them in a certain way. But in their original context, parables are really more like riddles. The apostles noted that while Jesus would speak to the crowds in parables, when He retreated into the house with the apostles He would explain the meaning (cf Mat 13:36). Plain teaching is given “in the house,” in the Church, but among the crowds it’s parables.

To experience the riddle-like quality of a parable consider this made-up parable (without millennia of preaching tradition to explain it):

A man went out to wash his car. He took with him a bucket filled with soapy water and some sponges. As he washed the car, some of the dirt came off at once. Some of it came off only after much scrubbing. Some of the dirt didn’t come off at all. Let him who has ears to hear, take heed.

Hmm… It’s a bit of a riddle. You sort of get it, but much is also unclear. Perhaps there are several interpretations. But what does the author really want us to learn here? In a sense we are left with more questions than answers, but at least it makes us think.

This was likely the first reaction to many of the parables. Frankly, some of them still puzzle and admit of various interpretations.

Take for example the parable of the man with a hundred sheep, or the woman with ten coins (which we read at daily Mass on Thursday). In one sense the parables clearly emphasize God’s care for even one lost sinner.

But the stories in themselves don’t make a lot of sense. They challenge our conventional thinking; they are quirky and describe people doing things that we most likely would not do. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep or the woman with the lost coin did? No one, really. One one level, they’re just plain crazy.

Perhaps that is one of the most fundamental points Jesus is making here. Our heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain crazy. By using the word “crazy,” I do not mean that it is irrational, but it does stretch the limits of our human thinking. So permit a preacher’s hyperbole so that we can enter into the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. It cannot be understood or really explained in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is amazing in that it goes completely beyond our ability to comprehend; it transcends human concepts. Thank God! If God were like us we’d all be in trouble. Frankly, we’d all be in Hell!

Let’s look at both parables. The full texts can be found here: Luke 15.

I. The Parable of the Lost Sheep – The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to search for one that is lost. Would a shepherd really do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. Perhaps if the shepherd thought that the lost sheep was likely nearby he might venture over the next hill, but the average human shepherd would probably cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Many of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave ninety-nine in order to search for one.

Some people try to make sense of this parable by appealing to possible shepherding practices of the first century. Many of the Fathers of the Church postulated that the “ninety-nine” were the angels in Heaven and we, fallen humanity, the straying sheep that God goes off to find. The angels in turn rejoice when the “lost sheep” is found. Perhaps.

But what if trying to “solve” the parable or have it make sense misses the point: that God’s love for us is extravagant, personal, puzzling, and just plain “crazy.” Maybe it is teaching that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even more when we stray. He intensifies His focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous and possibly enabling. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze it too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

II. The Woman and the Lost Coin – A woman loses a drachma, a small coin. It’s not worth that much, really, perhaps one day’s wages. In modern terms, it would equate to less than a hundred dollars. It’s not insignificant, but not really a huge amount either. She sweeps diligently for it. So far, this seems reasonable. I’d probably look around a while for a missing “Benjamin.”

But then it gets crazy. She finds it and rejoices to such an extent that she spends most, if not all of it, on a party celebrating the found coin!

But that is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. He doesn’t weigh His love for us in terms of whether it is “worth it.” Some try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value as part of her dowry or a ceremonial head-dress of ten coins. But here, too, overanalyzing and trying to explain or make sense of it may well miss the point.

This woman is crazy because God is crazy. He is crazy to love us this much. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze it too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

Some will object to this reading of the parables, preferring the authority of the Church Fathers or of other traditional readings. But these interpretations are not dogmatic and parables of this nature may admit of various interpretations.

Remember, too, that Jesus addressed this parable to: the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:1). These were men who thought they had it figured out: God loves us because we keep the precepts of the Law. Isn’t it possible that to them, Jesus gives this retort: “What if God loves you for no human reason at all? What if God loves because God is love and that is what love does: it loves? What if you cannot simply account for God’s love in human terms?”

You can take this theory or leave it, but at least allow it to illustrate that many of the parables had and still have a riddle-like quality, and that simply settling in on one explanation may sacrifice that. Jesus gave us parables in order to challenge us and to provoke conversation both among and within ourselves. Don’t end the conversation too quickly. Even after hearing the usual explanation, consider asking, “What else could this parable mean?”

On the Wonder of the Word of God

the Word

blog10-1The first reading at Mass today (Thursday of the 26th week of the year) from Nehemiah 8 is a wonderful meditation on the glory and wonder of the Word of God; it deserves our attention.

The background of the text is that Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians (in 587 B.C.) and the survivors of that war were led into exile in Babylon. After 80 years the Persians conquered the Babylonians and Cyrus, the king of Persia, permitted the Jews to return to the Promised Land. Sadly, only a small number chose to return and rebuild the ruined land and city. Among them was Nehemiah, a royal official and Jew, who led the small band back and oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

He, along with Ezra the priest, also led a spiritual renewal that was spurred on not only by the purification of exile, but also by the rediscovery of certain “lost” or forgotten sacred books. On one occasion the people gathered to hear the proclamation of one of the lost books. That is where we pick up the text today.

I. HUNGER for the Word of God – The text says, And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.

Note that the people are hungry for the Word of God. They have gathered and now make the unified request (“as one man”) that the Book of the Law be brought and proclaimed to them.

The “book” that is likely referred to here is the Book of Deuteronomy. It would seem that the book had either been “lost” or at least severely neglected in the time prior to the Babylonian exile of Israel. In Deuteronomy was contained not only a development of the Law, but also a list of blessings for following it and grave warnings for not doing so. After the painful experience of exile, the people gathered are aware that they could have avoided the terrible events of the Babylonian conquest and captivity of Israel, had they only heard and heeded Deuteronomy.

Chastised and sober, they are now hungry for this Word from God. As the Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word (Psalm 119:67).

Are you hungry for the Word of God? More so than for money? More than for bodily food? Scripture says,

  1. The ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb (Psalm 19:9).
  2. Man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut 8:3).
  3. I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12).
  4. I rejoice at thy word like one who finds great spoil (Ps 119:162).

Are we hungry for the Word like this? It seems we won’t miss a meal for our bodies but we’ll go days without the Word. Our bodies gain weight; obesity is rampant in our culture. But too easily we allow our souls to languish, enduring famine from the Word of God and the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Are you hungry for His Word? An old song says, More about Jesus in his word, holding communion with my Lord, hearing his voice in every line, making each faithful saying mine. More, more about Jesus, more of his saving fullness see more of his love who died for me.

II. HEARING of the Word of God – The text says, And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose.

Notice two things here:

ASSEMBLY There is a communal dimension to the celebration of God’s Word here. It’s not just a private celebration or reading. And while there is in today’s more literate culture the possibility of reading the Scriptures alone, we cannot neglect to gather with the Church and be taught the Word of God by others, especially the clergy, who are trained and anointed unto this task. Scripture says, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:24). Too many think that all they need is the Bible. But notice that the proclamation of the Word is communal here. We’ll develop this theme more fully later on.

AMOUNT of time – The text says that the proclamation and explanation of this Word took place from “morning until midday”! This is obviously no “say it in seven minutes sermon.” This is an extended time spent studying, praying, and hearing the word of God. Many today consider a Mass that runs longer than 45 minutes to be counterproductive. Funny how we get thrilled when a three-hour football game goes into overtime, but we complain when a sermon runs a little longer than usual. We find so much time for other things and so little time for the Word of God. We have no problem sitting riveted to the television, but get impatient at Mass, hoping that the reflection will be over sooner rather than later. Yes, we can find time for everything else. You can blame the preacher (and we may deserve it), but there’s usually more to the picture. Notice what comes next:

III. HONOR for the Word of God – The text says, And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

A remarkable honor is given to the Word here through active listening. While it is true that many today, especially in the more traditional Catholic fashion, see silent and passive listening as the proper, pious, and respectful demeanor during the readings and sermon, this is not the cultural setting described in this text. Neither is this quiet demeanor the norm in the Church today. It is not a question of which is right or wrong, but rather of whether the Word of God is being honored.

Note that the listeners on this morning (some 2,500 years ago) stand and say “Amen, Amen.” They lift up their hands and even prostrate themselves while the Word is read. They are engaged in active listening, giving the Word their undivided attention and interacting with its sounds as it resonates within them. This is a listening that is attentive, reflective, and responsive; a hearing with thoughtful attention.

There are different cultural expression of attentiveness, but you can tell a lot by looking at peoples’ faces. Even in cultures that exhibit prayerful silence, the people still get excited at football games and even jump to their feet. So excitement and exuberant joy are not unknown even in cultures in which religious reserve is the norm. Thus one would hope to rule out, even among the more reserved, that such reservation is merely a sign of boredom. We want to be sure that we are not simply dealing with sour-faced saints, bored believers, distracted disciples, or cold Christians. Thus, while reverence is expressed by many with prayerful and attentive silence, we want to be sure it is not simply the face of the “frozen chosen.”

And for those who are more demonstrative, we also want to be sure that it is not merely formulaic recitations of “Amen,” or a sort of egocentric, theatrical acting. Neither should one simply seek to exalt the preacher or the people in the pew just in to get everyone “pumped up.” Where it exists, the “Amen corner” should be sincere.

The key point is to honor the Word of God, whether by reverent silence or exuberant response. But in no way should the Word of God leave one bored and unmoved.

IV. HELP unto the Word of God – The text says, The Levites also, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

So, the Word is not alone; it is explained and interpreted. We need the Church in order to properly understand the Word of God, to have it authentically interpreted. And while devotional reading is to be encouraged, the Word of God is not meant to be read apart from the Church. As the Protestant experiment has shown, an attempt to have the Scriptures without the Church and the Magisterium from whence the Holy Spirit uttered them, is to usher in disastrous and never-ending division. This truth is expressed well in the story about the Ethiopian official: So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30).

And thus the authoritative preachers of God’s Word, the bishops, priests, and deacons, have the task to read, analyze, organize, illustrate, and apply the Word of God in the liturgical setting.

Beyond authoritative teaching, there is also the pastoral assistance provided by others in the task of proclaiming the Word of God. In my own community there are some excellent lectors who read the Word with such power and inflection that I hear it as I have never heard it before. Further, I have a wonderful choir that often sings songs and passages rooted in Scripture so that I come to know it as never before. It’s really pressed to my heart. The congregation, too, by its vivid response to the proclaimed Word and the preached Word, also brings forth insight and makes the Word of God an experienced reality.

V. HEARTFELT reaction to the Word of God – The text says, And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”

Notice that they are so moved by what is proclaimed that they weep. Their weeping is due to the fact that they realize what their past stubbornness has gotten them: disaster, decline, and exile. Had they but heard and heeded God’s Law, this terrible period of Israel’s history could have been avoided.

The desired outcome of preaching it is to bring forth a response. The Word of God is not only meant to inform; its purpose is to transform. It might make you mad, sad, or glad, but if you are listening to the authentic Word of God, you cannot remained unmoved. Scripture says,

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb 4:12).

VI. HEEDING of the Word of God – The text that extends beyond what the lectionary appoints to today goes on to say, On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the law. And they found it written in the law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.

Thus, among the things they discovered, was that Israel had not been celebrating an important feast day: the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). This feast, while a harvest festival, was also a celebration that acknowledged the gift of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It’s pretty symbolic that they had stopped celebrating it. And thus the leaders, having studied the Word of God, reestablished the feast and commanded the people to observe it carefully. In this is illustrated a heeding of the Word of God.

Notice all the respect we’ve seen for the word of God: they hungered for it, heard it, honored it, helped in its proclamation, and had a heartfelt reaction to it. But here’s where the real honor is given: now, they HEED it. There’s a lot of “lip service” paid to the Word of God, a lot of praise. Some even shout “Amen” when in Church. But the real acid test is whether or not we heed the Word. An old spiritual says, Some go to Church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out. Another says, Some seek God don’t seek him right, they fool all day and pray at night.

We are warned of the danger of failing to heed:

  1. And every one that hears these sayings of mine, and does them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it (Mat 7:26).
  2. And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47).
  3. An hour is coming, has indeed come, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live (John 5:25).

There is wonder in the Word of God, but only if we heed it.

To Teach as Jesus Taught – A Reflection on the Qualities of Jesus as Preacher and Teacher

blog.8.31As a priest I am called to preach and teach, and as such I must look to Jesus Christ as my model. In this I refer to the real Jesus of Scripture. Too many people today have refashioned Jesus into a sort of “harmless hippie,” an affable affirmer, a pleasant sort of fellow who healed the sick, blessed the poor, and talked about love but in a very fuzzy and “anything goes” manner. But absent from this image is the prophetic Jesus, who accepted no compromise and called out the hypocrisy in many of His day.

Thus I must look to the real Jesus of Scripture. The real Jesus clearly loved God’s people, but on account of that love could not suffer some limited notion of salvation and healing for them. Rather, He zealously insisted that they receive the whole counsel of God. He insisted that dignity for them that was nothing less than the perfection of God Himself (cf Mat 5:41).

As a teacher, Jesus often operated in the mode of the prophets. Prophets have a way of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Truth be told, we are all in both categories. We must be able to accept the Jesus who one moment says, “Blessed are you,” and the next adds, “Woe to you.” Jesus the teacher and prophet will affirm whatever truth there is in us, but, like any good teacher, He will put a large red “X” beside our wrongful answers and thoughts.

Yet despite Jesus’ often fiery and provocative stance, the scriptures speak of his renown as a preacher and the eagerness with which many heard Him.

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes (Mat 7:28).

Sent to arrest him the temple guard returned empty handed saying: No one ever spoke like that man (Jn 7:46).

And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth (Luke 4:22).

And the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37).

But even Jesus could have a bad day in the pulpit. In Nazareth, they tried to throw him off a cliff for suggesting that Gentiles might have a place in the Kingdom (Lk 4:29). In Capernaum, many left him and would not follow him any longer because of His teaching on the Eucharist (Jn 6:66). In Jerusalem, the crowd said that He had a demon because He called Himself “I AM” (Jn 8:48). And thus Jesus warns all who would teach and preach: Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

And thus Jesus was a complex preacher and teacher. He was no mere affirmer; He often unsettled and troubled people, even as He consoled and comforted at other times.

Let’s consider some of the qualities of Jesus as a teacher and ponder the sort of balance that He manifests. It is a balance between His love for us, His students, and His zeal to tolerate no lasting imperfection or error in the pupils whom He loves too much to deceive. These qualities of Jesus as a teacher are presented in no particular order. Some are “positive” in the sense of being aspects of His kindness and patience. Others are “negative” in the sense that they illustrate His refusal to accept anything less than final perfection in us.

I. His authority – The Scriptures often speak of the “authority” with which Jesus taught. For example, Scripture says of Jesus, he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Mat 7:29). For indeed the teachers of Jesus’ time played it safe, quoting only reputable authorities in a wooden sort of way. But Jesus taught with authority.

The Greek word translated as “authority” is exousia, meaning to teach out of (one’s own) substance, to speak to the substance of what is taught. Jesus would often say, “You have heard that is was said … But I say to you” (cf Mat 5 inter al). And so Jesus spoke from His experience of knowing His Father and of knowing and cherishing the Law and its truth in His own life. He brought a personal weight to what He said. He “knew” of what He spoke; He did not merely know “about” it.

This personal authority was compelling and, even today, those with this gift stand apart from those who merely preach and teach the “safe” maxims of others but do not add their own experience to the truth that they proclaim. Jesus personally bore witness in His own life to the truth He proclaimed; and people noticed the difference.

How about you? You and I are called to speak out of the experience of the Lord in our own life and to be able to say with authority, “Everything that the Lord and His Body, the Church, have declared is true because, in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested it and come to experience it as true and transformative!”

II. His witness – A witness recounts what he has seen and heard with his own eyes and ears, what he himself knows and has experienced. Jesus could say to the Jews of his time, If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word (Jn 8:55). He thus attests to what he personally knows. He is not just reciting facts that others have said.

In a courtroom, a witness must attest to what he has seen and heard for himself. If he merely recounts what others have said it is “hearsay.” A witness can raise his right hand and say, “It is true, and I will swear to it. I have seen it for myself.”

And thus Jesus could witness to what He had heard and seen, of His Father and of us.

It is true that we cannot witness immediately to all that Jesus could, for He had lived with the Father from all eternity. But, as we make our walk, we can speak to what the Lord has done in our life and how we have come to know Him in conformity with His revealed. Word.

III. His respect for others – The Latin root of the word “respect” gives it the meaning “look again” (re (again) + spectare (to look)). Frequently in Scripture, especially in Mark’s Gospel, there appears the phrase, “Jesus looked at them and said …”

In other words, Jesus was not merely issuing dictates to an unknown, faceless crowd. He looked at them; and He looks at you and me as well. It is a personal look, a look that seeks to engage you and me in a very personal way. He is speaking to you, to me. His teaching in not merely for an ancient crowd; it is for you and for me. He looks to you, and He looks again. Are you looking? Are you listening?

Do you look with respect to those whom you are called to teach, or to the children you are called to raise? Do you engage them by your look of respect and love?

IV. His love and patience for sinners – Jesus could be very tough, even exhibiting impatience. But in the end, He is willing to stay with us in a long conversation. One text says, When Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them at great length (Mk 6:34). Yes, He teaches us at great length; He stays in long conversations with us. He knows that we are dull of mind and hard of heart, so He persistently and consistently teaches.

Do we do that? Or do we quickly write people off? Jesus had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who, frankly, was quite rude to Him at first (John 4). He had a long conversation with Nicodemus, who was also at times resistant and argumentative (Jn 3). He had a long conversation with His Apostles, who were slow and inept.

How about us? Are we willing to experience the opposition of sinners, the resistance of the fleshly and worldly? Do we have love and patience for those whom we teach? I have met some great Catholics who were once enemies of the Faith. Someone stayed in a conversation with them. What about us?

V. His capacity to afflict and console – Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” but just as often said “Woe to you.” Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. All of us fall into both categories. We need comfort but are often too comfortable in our sins. A true prophet fears no man and speaks to the truth of God.

Thus for a true prophet (as Jesus was) there are no permanent allies to please and no permanent enemies to oppose. The determination of every moment is based on conformity or lack of conformity to the truth of God. Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah” (Mat 16:17). And He gave him the keys to the Kingdom and the power to bind and loose. But in the very next passage, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mat 16:23)

No true prophet or teacher can say, “Correct,” or “Blessed are you” every moment, because we all fall short of the glory of God! Jesus had absolute integrity when it came to assessing everything by the stand of God’s truth and Word. Do we?

VI. His parables – Stories are an important way to teach. A story that registers with us will rarely be forgotten. It is said that Jesus used more than 45 parables; some are full stories while others are just brief images. He used parables to link His sometimes complex teaching to everyday life and to plant a seed of truth for our further reflection.

What stories and examples do you use? Teachings that consistently fail to make use of these risk being seen as merely abstract and can easily be forgotten.

That said, parables are somewhat like “riddles.” They admit of various understandings and interpretations. A good parable leaves its listener wanting more, seeking a definitive interpretation.

For example, a movie will sometimes have an ambiguous ending, stirring hopes for a sequel that will provide more information. Some stories and parables are compact and definitive. Others are open-ended and ambiguous, craving for an ending.

Consider that the parable of the Prodigal Son is not really finished. It ends with the Father pleading for the second son to enter the feast. Does the son enter, or refuse to do so? This detail is not supplied. That’s because you are the son and you have to supply the answer. Will you enter? Or will you stay outside sulking that if the kingdom of Heaven includes people you don’t like you’d just as soon stay outside.

Parables are powerful, but for various reasons. Learn stories and learn to share them!

VII. His questions – Jesus asked well over a hundred questions in the gospel. Here are just a few: “What did you go out to the dessert to see? “Why do you trouble the woman?” “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you say this of me on your own, or have others told you of me?”

Good teachers ask questions and do not rush to answer every question. A question is pregnant with meaning; it invites a search. The “Socratic method” uses questions to get to the truth, especially on a personal level: “Why do you ask that? “What do you mean by this?” “Do you think there are any distinctions needed in your claim?”

This method makes a person look inward to his attitudes, prejudices, and presumptions. Good teachers ask their students a lot of questions; questions make us think.

Here is a list of one hundred Questions that Jesus asked: 100 Questions Jesus Asked. Read them; they will make you think—a lot!

VIII. His use of “focal instances” – Jesus does not propose to cover every moral situation a person might encounter or teach every doctrinal truth in an afternoon.

For example, many today say that Jesus never mentioned homosexual acts and concludefrom His silence that He must therefore approve of them. Really? He also never mentioned rape. Do you suppose that He approves of rape? Further, He did speak of homosexual acts, through His appointed spokesmen (the Apostles), and thereby condemned them.

But no teacher can cover every possibility, every sin, or every scenario. So Jesus uses “focal instances,” in which He illustrates a principle.

This is most commonly done in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where, to illustrate the principle that we are to fulfill the law and not merely keep its minimal requirements, He uses six examples or “focal instances.” He speaks to anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love of enemies, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And in Mathew 25:31ff, the Lord uses the corporal works of mercy to illustrate the whole of the Law.

These are not an exhaustive treatments. of the moral life. Rather, through the use of illustrations, the Lord asks us to learn the principle of fulfillment and then apply it to other instances.

Good teachers teach principles, since they cannot possibly envision every scenario or situation. Having instructed their students in first principles, they can trust that their students will make solid decisions in many diverse situations.

Good teachers teach students to think for themselves, not in isolation, but in ongoing communion with the principles learned, and through dialogue with authorities when necessary for assistance and accountability.

IX. His use of hyperbole – Jesus uses a lot of hyperbole. It is easier, He tells us, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven (Mk 10:25). If your eye scandalizes you, gouge it out (Mat 5:29). There was a man who owed ten thousand talents (a trillion dollars) (Mat 18:24). It would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a great millstone about your neck than to scandalize one of my little ones (Mat 18:6).

Hyperbole has memorable effect. It’s hard to forget effective hyperbole. Who of us can forget Jesus’ parable about a man with a 2×4 coming out of his eye who rebukes his neighbor for the splinter in his? I often tell my congregation, “Go to church or go to Hell,” which is my way of saying that missing Mass is a mortal sin.

One of my seminary professors once signaled me that I was giving an incorrect and heretical answer to a complex theological issue. He did this by saying, “Charles, you are on the edge of an abyss.” I stopped immediately and gave the correct and orthodox answer!

Good teachers use hyperbole at the right moments.

X. His use of servile fear – Jesus made frequent use of “fear-based arguments.” He warned of Hell, of unquenchable fire, and of the worm that does not die. His parables feature of a lot of summary judgements wherein people are found unprepared, are excluded from Heaven, or are cast into darkness. One parable ends with a king burning the town of those who failed to accept his invitation to his son’s wedding banquet (Mat 22:7). Another has a king summoning those who rejected him to be slain before his eyes (Lk 19:27). Jesus warns of the wailing and grinding of teeth. He also warns of a permanent abyss between Heaven and Hell that no one will be able to cross.

Many today are dismissive of fear-based arguments. But Jesus used them; He used them a lot. So Jesus never got the memo that this is a poor way to teach. It is true that, for the spiritually mature, love can and does replace the need for fear-based arguments. But, frankly, many are not that mature, and a healthy dose of fear and the threat of unending regret is often necessary.

We ought not to exclude, as many do, the voluminous verses in which Jesus warns in vivid language of the consequences of repeated, un-repented sin. He is not playing games; He is speaking the truth.

To teach as Jesus did is to include warning of judgment and of Hell.

XI. His anger and zeal – Jesus does not hesitate to express His anger and grief at the hardness and stubbornness of many. One day He said, You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matt 17:17) And in Mark’s Gospel we read, And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was furious and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them” (Mk 10: 13-14). Another day, in the synagogue, Jesus was angry at their unbelief: After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).

Yes, Jesus memorably cleansed the temple and drove out iniquity there. He engaged in heated debates with the Jewish leaders and with unbelievers. He did not hesitate to call them hypocrites, vipers, liars, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets.

Here, too, is a teaching moment that renders what is taught memorable and meaningful.A parent who never reacts with anger risks misleading his child into making light of or not being serious enough about wrongdoing, disrespect, or stubborn unrepentance.

We must be careful of our anger. We do not have the kind of sovereignty over it that Jesus did; neither are we as able to see into people’s hearts as He was.

But there is a place for anger, and Jesus uses it—a lot, actually. Anger signals an important teaching and rebukes a lighthearted response.

XII. His refusal to compromise – There was in Jesus very little compromise about the serious teachings of doctrine or those issues related to our salvation. He said that either we would believe in Him or we would die in our sins (Jn 8). Jesus also said that He was the only way to the Father and that no one would come to the Father except through Him. He declared that no one who set his hand to the plow and looked back was fit for the reign of God. Jesus said that no one who would not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him was worthy of Him. We are told to count the cost and decide now, and we are warned that delay may be a deadly thing.

Much of this is countercultural today, a time of uncertainty, in which there is an inappropriate sort of pluralism that thinks that there are many ways to God. Many insist on a softer Christianity, in which we can love the world and also love God. Sorry, no can do. A friend of the world is an enemy to God.

Jesus teaches His fundamental truths in an uncompromising way. This is because they are truths for our salvation. Following these truths vaguely or inconsistently will not win the day. Some disciplines need to be followed precisely.

To teach as Jesus did involves insisting that the fundamental doctrines of our faith be accepted fully and wholeheartedly.

XIII. His forgiveness – Forgiveness may not at first seem to be an obvious way of teaching. But consider that teachers often have to accept that students don’t get everything right the first time. Teaching requires a patient persistence as students first acquire skills and then master them.

A good teacher does not compromise the right method or the correct answer; He assists students who fall short rather than immediately excluding them. In an atmosphere where there is no room for error, very little learning can take place due to fear.

Again, forgiveness does not deny that which is correct; it continues to teach what is correct. Forgiveness facilitates an environment in which learning can thrive and perfection can at last be attained.

Jesus, while setting high standards, offers forgiveness, not as a way of denying perfection but as a way to facilitate our advancement by grace and trust.

XIV. His equipping and authorizing of others – Good teachers train new teachers. Jesus trained the Twelve and, by extension, other disciples as well. He led and inspired them. And He also prepared them for a day when He would hand on the role of teacher to them. We who would teach need to train our successors and inspire new and greater insights.

Teach me, Lord, by your example, to teach as you taught and to preach as you would have me preach.

A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

4x5 originalOne of God’s stranger affections in the Old Testament is the special love He had for Jacob. We are currently reading this story in daily Mass.

The name Jacob, according to some, means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even in the womb, he strove and wrestled with his twin brother Esau. And although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel. Thus he was named Jacob (“grabber”).

And although he was a “mama’s boy,” he was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, favored him and schemed with him to steal the birthright from his brother Esau, by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretense.

Esau sought to kill him for this, and so Jacob fled north to live with Laban, an uncle who was even a greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years he labored for Laban, hoping to win his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! Only seven years later would Jacob finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it all. He was a schemer who was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.

Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. At the end of the day, God loves sinners like you and me as well. And in the story of Jacob, a hard case to say the least, God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5) and His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation.

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. And for reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He realized that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).

Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. But whatever the reason, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I. DISTRESSED man – The text says, So the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. (Gen 32:21-24)

Jacob is distressed. He has, somewhat willingly, and yet also for reasons of his own, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him. And thus Jacob is distressed and sleepless.

And so it is for many of us, that our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.

Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about how God works:

1. God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do! Oh how we love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who is God. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone; It’s time to think, it’s time to pray and look to deeper issues.

2. God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man?” The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him– the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. And here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, try new things, and discover strengths we did not know we had.

3. God brings Jacob to a place of desperation – The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our will. And thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night, and with the lesson that Jacob must learn to lean and to trust.

Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean, and he will never forget this lesson, since he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God beneath the stars and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with God, to wrestle with the issues in his life, with God. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. Jacob has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean, to trust, and to realize that he is dependent on God.

II. DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

If the “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would have to ask someone to “let him go,” and for Jacob, a mere man, to say to God, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, pulling from Jacob the required request. So the man says, “Let me go!” But God wants Jacob, and us, to come to the point when we say, “I will not let you go!”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, “Don’t go, I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I am sunk!”

God needs to get all of us to this place!

This critical moment has brought Jacob the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends on God. And this leads us to the next stage.

III. DIFFERENT Man – The text records, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).

Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. Previously, when his blind father, Isaac, had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”

But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth, replying, “My name is Jacob.” And in saying this there is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster!”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all his name “literally” implies of him has been true.

Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”

In being renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way, with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, and cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again; he would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).

Postscript – There is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become in the Book of Hebrews. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Yes, Jacob learned to lean. He limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Yes, that is a battle you cannot afford to win! Learn to lean and to delight in depending on God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?