An Advent Meditation on the Paradox of God’s Power

 

One of the great cries of Advent is for God to rend the heavens and come down (Is 64:1), for Him to stir up His mighty power and come to save us (Ps 80:2). But what is it that we really seek? Is it armies with thunder and lightning? Is it vindication and peace on our terms? In a way, it is a dangerous cry if we mean it that way, for who among us can say that no wrath should come to us but only to those other people who deserve it? If God should come in thunderous judgement, are we really so sure we could endure and be numbered among the just?

It is clear that we need the Lord to save us, but do we see that salvation seen only in earthly terms such that we are saved from our enemies but remain largely unharmed?

In the final essay of volume 11 of his collected works, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict) ponders a similar Advent theme. I’d like to present his reflections and add a few of my own. In a sermon from December 2003, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger taught,

Stir up your might, O Lord, and come! This was the cry of Israel in exile … this was the cry of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee [in the storm] “Wake up O Lord and help us!” … And throughout all of history, the little bark of the Church travels in stormy waters … Stir up your might and come!

… What really is this might of God that seems to be asleep and must be wakened? St. Paul gives the answer in 1 Corinthians when he says that Christ the Crucified One, who is foolishness and weakness to men, is the wisdom and power of God.

Therefore, when we ask for this real power of God, we are not asking for more money for the Church, for more buildings, for more structures, for more political influence. We are praying for this special, entirely different power of God. We are praying with the awareness that he comes in a powerful way that seems to the world to be weakness and foolishness (Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11: pp. 595-596).

Yes, here is the paradox of God’s power: He defeats Satan’s pride by the humility of His Son; disobedience and the refusal to be under any authority are defeated by the obedience and submission of Jesus.

Once stirred, God’s power will not always—or even often—manifest itself in thunder and lightning or in armies that conquer and destroy. Rather, His “strong and outstretched arm” is often found nailed and bloody on the cross. Yet here, and in this way, He defeats Satan. How? Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that.

Thus, the Lord defeats Satan not by the becoming a bigger, fiercer, more vengeful version of him, but by canceling his evil stance with its opposite. The Lord refuses to meet Satan’s terms, to become anything like him or in any way enter his world. In this way, the Lord conquers pride with humility and hate with love. I am mindful of some of the words from an old hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

The hymn concludes with these words:

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all
.

Cardinal Ratzinger continues his essay in this way:

He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that apparently has nothing more to say, yet then proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God.

This paradox should challenge us mightily because it means that God’s help will often not be on our terms. We would like to have every foe vanquished and every sorrow of our life removed. No cross at all; just stir up your power Lord and take it all away. But that is not usually how God’s power stirs in this “paradise lost,” which we chose by our own ratification of Adam and Eve’s sinful choice. We preferred a tree and its fruit to God, and He does not cancel our choice. Instead, He plants the tree of the cross and saves us by the very suffering and death we chose in the ancient Garden of Eden.

Here is God’s true power at work in this sin-soaked and rebellious world: the power of the cross. If you didn’t know what you were asking for when praying, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us,” you do now. We might prefer that God save us on our terms, by the mere vanquishing of our foes and the removal of our suffering, but (as St. Paul teaches) power is made perfect in weakness; it is when we are weak that we are strong, for then the power of God rests on us (cf 2 Cor 12:9-10).

Cardinal Ratzinger then sets forth the challenge of this prayer for us:

[Hence our true declaration is] “Lord wake us up from our drowsiness in which we are incapable of perceiving you, in which we conceal and impede the coming of your holy power.

… Christianity is not a moral system in which we may merely roll up our sleeves and change the world. We see in the movements that have promised us a better world how badly that turns out!

… But [on the other hand] Christians are not merely spectators … rather [the Lord] involves us; he desires to be efficacious in and through us … And so in this cry we pray to him for ourselves and to allow our own hearts to be touched: Your power is in us, rouse it and help us not to be an obstacle to it, but, rather, its witnesses [to its] vital strength.

That may well mean suffering, martyrdom, and loss. It may not—and usually does not—mean that God will simply vanquish our foes and remove all our suffering. In this world the saving remedy is the cross; not just for others but for us, too. On Good Friday, Christ looked like a “loser.” Satan and the world danced. But on Sunday, the Lord got up. Friday was first, Saturday lingered, and then came Sunday. As for Christ, so also for us: always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that also the life of Jesus may be manifested in us (2 Cor 4:10). The victory will come but it comes through the paradoxical power of the cross.

Does this Advent reflection sound too much like Lent for you? Why do you think we are wearing purple during Advent?

Now pray with me (but be sure to understand what you are asking): Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us!

Here is the common Psalm for Advent: Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.

True Thanksgiving Isn’t Just Something We Do; It’s Something That Happens to Us

One of the dangers in presenting New Testament moral teaching is reducing the gospel to a bunch of rules to follow using the power of one’s own flesh. This is an incorrect notion because for a Christian the moral life is not merely achieved; it is received. The moral life is not an imposition; it is a gift from God.

The Gospel chosen for Thanksgiving Day features the familiar story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus, but only one of whom returns to thank Him. The ingratitude of the other nine prompts an irritable response from Jesus, who more than suggests that they also should have returned to give thanks. Reading this Gospel on the surface, it is easy to conclude that it is a moral directive about being thankful to God and others. Well, that’s all well and good, but simply reminding people of a rule of polite society isn’t really the gospel message.

True thankfulness is receiving from God a deeply grateful heart so that we do not merely say thank you in a perfunctory way, but are deeply moved with gratitude. We are not merely being polite or justly rendering a debt of obligation; we actually are grateful from the heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift from God, which proceeds from a humble and transformed heart. We do not render thanks merely because it is polite or expected, but because it naturally flows from a profound experience of gratitude. This is the gospel message. It is not a moral platitude but rather a truth of a transformed heart.

An anointing that we should seek from God is the powerful transformation of our intellect and heart such that we become deeply aware of the remarkable gift that is everything we have. As this awareness deepens so does our gratitude and joy at the “magnificent munificence” of our God. Everything—literally everything—is a gift from God.

Permit me a few thoughts on the basis for a deepening awareness of gratitude. Ultimately, gratitude is a grace, but having a deeper awareness of the intellectual basis for it can help to open us more fully to this gift.

We are contingent beings who depend upon God for our very existence. He holds together every fiber of our being: every cell, every part of every cell, every molecule, every part of every molecule, every atom, every part of every atom. God facilitates every function of our body: every beat of our heart, every movement of our body. God sustains every detail of the universe: the perfectly designed orbit of Earth so that we do not overheat or freeze, the magnetic shield around Earth protecting us from the harmful aspects of solar radiation, and every process (visible and hidden) of everything on our planet, in our solar system, and in our galaxy. All of this, and us, are contingent; we are sustained by God and provided for by Him. The magnitude of what God does is simply astonishing—and He does it all free of charge! Pondering such goodness and providence helps us to be more grateful.

Every good thing we do is a gift from God. St. Paul said, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had achieved? (1 Cor 4:7) Elsewhere, he wrote, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-10). Hence even our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us. On judgment day we cannot say to God, “Look what I’ve done; you owe me Heaven.” All we can say on that day is “Thank you!”

Gifts sometimes come in strange packages. There are some gifts of God that do not seem like gifts at all. There are sudden losses, tragedies, natural disasters, and the like. In such moments we can feel forsaken by God; gratitude is the last thing on our mind. But Scripture bids us to look again: And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We don’t always know how, but even in difficult moments God is making a way unto something good, something better. He is paving a path to glory—perhaps through the cross—but unto glory. We may have questions, but remember that Jesus said, But I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:22-23). Yes, even in our difficulties we are more than conquerors (Rm 8:37) because the Lord can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way.

All is gift. Absolutely everything is gift. Even our failures are gifts, provided we are in Christ and learn humility from them. For what shall we give thanks? Everything! There is an old saying, “Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.” Like you, I am asked many times a day, “How are you doing?” I’ve trained myself to respond, “More blessed than I deserve.”

The word “thanks” in English is unfortunately abstract. In Latin and the Romance languages, the words for thanks are more closely related to the concepts of grace and gift. In Latin, one says thank you by saying, “Gratias ago tibi,” or simply, “Gratias.” And although gratias is translated as “thanks,” it is really the same root word as that of “grace” and “gift,” which in Latin are rendered as “gratia.” Hence in saying this, one is exclaiming, “Grace!” or “Gifts!” It is the same in Spanish (Gracias) and Italian (Grazie). French has a slightly different approach: Merci comes from the Latin merces, which refers to something that has been paid for or given freely. So all of these languages recognize that the things for which we are grateful are really gifts. The English word “thanks” does not quite make the connection. About the closest we get in English are the words “gratitude” and “grateful.” All of these words (gratias, gracias, grazie, merci, gratitude) teach us that everything is gift!

Gratitude is a gift to be received from God and should be asked for humbly. One can dispose oneself to it by reflecting on some of the things described above, but ultimately gratitude comes from a humble, contrite, and transformed heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift that springs from a heart moved, astonished, and deeply aware of the fact that all is gift.

Is Jesus Really your King? A Homily for Christ the King

 On the feast of Christ the King, we are called to acknowledge that Jesus is in fact our King. It is one thing to say that He is our King because the song in Church says so, or the preacher says so, or the Bible says so (yes, faith does come by hearing), but it is quite another for us to personally say that Jesus is our King. There comes a time when we must personally affirm what the Church has always announced: “Jesus is Lord, and He is King. He is my King. He has authority in my life.” This must become more than just lip service; it must become a daily, increasing reality in our life.

Kings take care of us, but they also have the authority to command us. Do we allow Christ to command us or are we more like the typical modern person who doesn’t like to be told what to do? Perhaps we suffer from the milder form of this attitude in which we reduce Jesus to a “harmless hippie” who just says pleasant things but would never rebuke us or insist upon our repentance.

Again, consider this question: “Is Jesus Christ your King?”

That brings us to today’s Gospel. The Gospels aren’t theater; we’re not in the audience watching an ancient story unfold. No, we are in the story. We are not supposed to just sit back and observe what Peter, or Pontius Pilate, or James, or Mary Magdalene does. They are we and we are they.

This means that when Jesus asks one of them a question, we cannot merely wait to see how he or she will answer. No, we have to answer the question.

In today’s Gospel the spotlight is on Pontius Pilate. The Lord asks the critical question of him. We cannot simply wait to see how he answers; we have to answer. Let’s consider this Gospel in three stages.

I. INDECISION – In a remarkable display of literary artistry, John and the Holy Spirit vividly depict the vacillation of Pontius Pilate. In this Gospel passage of the trial of Jesus, Pilate goes in and out of the praetorium (the governor’s palace) more than a bellhop through the revolving door of a hotel! Indeed, he goes in and out seven times. Here is the text, with the portions describing his motions highlighted in bold:

So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” …. Pilate [re]entered the praetorium and called Jesus …. After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him….” Then Pilate took Jesus [back into the praetorium] and scourged him …. Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him ….” When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he re-entered the praetorium and [spoke] to Jesus …. Upon this Pilate [went back out] and sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend ….” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat (John 18-19, selected verses).

Did you count them? Seven times Pilate goes into or out of the praetorium! Such a picture of indecision and vacillation! He’s trying to please the crowds. He’s trying to please his wife (who had warned him to have nothing to do with that innocent man (Mat 27:19)). He’s trying to help Jesus. He can’t decide, so in and out he goes!

Pilate is just like us. We say that we love God, but we also love the world. We want to please others and we want to please God, but we cannot do both. We have to decide, but instead we vacillate; we are Pilate. We are often locked in indecision, trying to please the world and God.

Are we really so different from Pilate? Faced with a crucial decision, Pilate weighs the consequences that choosing Jesus will have on his career, his family, his loyalty to country and Caesar, and his access to power. While we may rightly criticize Pilate for his choice, don’t we make compromises with the world for the sake of similar things? How often does Jesus our King take a back seat to career, politics, convenience, and so forth? So easily do we stay rooted in vacillation, compromise, and indecision.

II. INQUIRY – In the midst of all this indecision, comes the question.

Pilate begins with his own question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Although it is Jesus who is on trial, He turns the tables on Pilate. Jesus effectively puts Pilate on trial by asking him a crucial question: Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” (John 18:34).

It’s a remarkable question! Guess what … You have to answer it. Each of us has to answer it. Don’t wait for Pilate; he already gave his answer and faced judgment long ago. How do we answer it?

Notice what the Lord is getting at with his question. He is asking us if we call him a King merely because we’ve heard others say it or because we personally know him to be a King. Is he really our King, or this just a slogan we’ve heard in church before? Do we believe that He is King or do we merely parrot what we’ve heard others say?

There is an old gospel song that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” Is that really the case with us? Too many of us are satisfied with a kind of inferential faith. Inferential faith is based merely on what others have said: we think or suppose that Jesus is Lord because our parents said so, or our pastor said so. This is a good beginning, for after all, faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), but there comes a moment when we have to say so. It is not enough that our parents say so or our pastor says so. Thus, Jesus is asking us right now, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or merely because others have said so?

Answer Him! It’s a crucial question, isn’t it? The faith of the Church is essential, normative, and determinative, but at some point we have to step up and say that we personally affirm that the faith of the Church is true and is ours, and then declare, “Jesus is Lord and King.”

What does it mean that Jesus is King? A king has authority, doesn’t he? Does Jesus have authority in our life? Do we have the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5) and base our life upon His will?

A king also takes care of his people and protects them. Do we allow the Lord to feed us with the Holy Eucharist? Do we allow Him to protect us from the poison of sin by the Sacrament of Confession and the medicine of His Holy Word? Are we willing to live within the protection of the walled city of His Church?

Is the Lord really our King? How do we answer? Is it just a slogan or is His Kingship real? Let the Lord ask one more time, Are you saying [I am King] on your own or have others been telling you about me?

III. INDICATION – Jesus says,  I came into this world to testify to the truth and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me. So do you qualify? There are many who pay lip service to Jesus. They praise him for some of his teachings but not all. Many too, make up a false Jesus and say that he would never say what he is clearly recorded as saying in the Gospels and Epistles. But he fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one. We all sin and fall short, but at least call it what it is, Sin. The defiance that is too common today is very dangerous and does not lead the defiant to the Kingdom.

IV. IMPLICATION – We must answer. To refuse to answer is to answer.

A fascinating and wondrous literary device is used by John and the Holy Spirit in this Gospel passage. We have already seen how Jesus, who was Himself on trial, has turned the tables and effectively put Pilate on trial. Pilate, who has the duty to question Jesus, is now being questioned by Him. It is Pilate who must now make a decision, not so much about Jesus, but about himself. He has been asked a question that he cannot ultimately avoid, and now it is time to answer. Here is where the ingenious literary device comes into play. Look carefully at this passage from John’s Gospel and see if you notice anything strange about it.

Upon this [the shouting of “Crucify him!”] Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a King sets himself against Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and he sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha (John 19:12-13).

What is strange here? Well, notice that when Pilate has Jesus brought out, it says that “he” sat down on the judgment seat. Who exactly is sitting on the judgment seat? One might think, Pilate, of course! Historically, that might be true, but the text is ambiguous as to exactly who “he” is. Most Scripture scholars argue that the line is supposed to be ambiguous.

From the standpoint of historical facts, it was likely Pilate who took that seat, but from the standpoint of divine justice, it is Jesus who takes it.

Jesus has turned the tables on Pilate. Pilate is now on trial and the verdict is about to be revealed. Pilate seals his own fate when he hands Jesus over to be crucified; his vacillation is over. Pilate has made his choice; he has answered the question.

In this context it is Jesus who sits silently upon the judgment seat. The verdict is in. In deciding to hand Jesus over, in deciding to favor himself and the crowds over Jesus, Pilate has brought judgment on himself.

Too many of us have cartoonish notions about our final judgment: a benign Jesus giving us a great big hug, or an angry one gleefully passing judgment on His “enemies.” Perhaps there is also some notion of a review of our deeds, both good and bad, and then the pronouncing of some sort of verdict while we cringe and wait. Jesus is not a King who imposes His Kingdom. He invites us to enter into His Kingdom. Ultimately, judgment is about our choice, not His.

Judgment is finally this: The Lord, who suffered for us, quietly and respectfully sits on the judgment seat and accepts our final choice, a choice that is the accumulation all the choices we made in life, a choice that is now and forever fixed. Isn’t that what really happens?

The Lord has asked the question of Pilate, as he does of us. The choice is for Pilate to make and the judgement is one he brings on himself. His choice is either to accept the Lord’s Kingship or to reject it and watch Jesus led away while he (Pilate himself) stands alone, the judgment having been rendered by virtue of his own choice.

Yes, there are implications to whether we accept the Lord as our King or not. Today, the Lord asks us all if we will let Him be our King. To those of us who say yes, the Lord has this further question: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Is He really our King? Think hard about it. There are implications.

The question that we must answer has now been answered by Pilate. What is your answer?

 

The Meanest Thing Jesus Ever Said


The Gospel from this Wednesday’s Mass (Wed. of the 33rd Week – Luke 19:11-27) is known as the “Parable of the Ten Gold Coins.” It has an ending so shocking that, when I read it at Mass some years ago, a young child said audibly to her mother, “Wow, that’s mean!”

I’d like to look at it and ponder its shocking ending.

Today’s parable is like Matthew’s “Parable of the Talents,” but with some significant differences. In today’s parable, ten people each receive one gold coin. We only hear the reports of three of them (as in the Matthean account): two who show a profit and one who shows none.

Another difference is the interweaving of another parable (let’s call it the “Parable of the Rejected King”) within the story. Here is a shortened version, including the shocking ending:

A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. His fellow citizens, however, despised him and sent a delegation after him to announce, “We do not want this man to be our king.” But when he returned after obtaining the kingship … [he said] “Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me” (Luke 19:12,14, 27-28).

In analyzing a text like this I must say that I was disappointed at the silence of most commentaries with respect to this ending. The shocking phrase “slay them before me” goes largely unremarked.

The Church Fathers seem to say little about it. I was, however, able to find two references in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea. St. Augustine said of this verse, Whereby He describes the ungodliness of the Jews who refused to be converted to Him. Theophilus wrote, Whom he will deliver to death, casting them into the outer fire. But even in this world they were most miserably slain by the Roman army.

Hence both Fathers take the verse at face value, even declaring it historically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Josephus indicated in his work that 1.2 million Jews were killed in that dreadful war.

Historically fulfilled or not, Jesus’s triumphal and vengeful tone still puzzles me. If this verse does refer to the destruction of 70 A.D., then how do we account for Jesus’s tone here when just a few verses later He wept over Jerusalem?

As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).

Certainly a variety of emotions can sweep over even the God-man Jesus, but let me also suggest some other contextual and cultural considerations that frame Jesus’s startling and “mean” words (Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me).

1. Jesus was speaking in the prophetic tradition – Prophets often spoke this way, using startling and often biting imagery and characterizations. Though many today try to “tame” Jesus, the real Jesus spoke vividly, in the prophetic tradition. He often used shocking and paradoxical images. He spoke bluntly, as prophets do, calling his hostile interlocutors hypocrites, vipers, children of the devil, whitewashed tombs, evil, foolish, blind guides, and sons of those who murdered the prophets. He warned them that they would be sentenced to Hell unless they repented; He laid them out for their inconsistency and hardness of heart. This is the way prophets speak.

In speaking in this “mean” way, Jesus was firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke similarly. Thus, in understanding these harsh words of Jesus’s, we cannot overlook the prophetic context. His words, which seem to us to be angry and even vengeful, were expected in the prophetic tradition from which He spoke; they were intentionally shocking. Their purpose was to provoke a response.

Prophets used hyperbole and shock to convey and frame their call to repentance. And while we ought not to simply dismiss Jesus’s words as exaggeration, we should not fail to see them in the traditional context of prophetic speech.

Hence Jesus’s words were not evidence of vengeance in His heart, but rather a prophecy directed at those who refused to repent: they will die in their sins. Indeed, their refusal to reconcile with God and their neighbors (in this case the Romans) led to a terrible war during which they were slain.

2. The Jewish culture and language often used hyperbole – Even beyond the prophetic tradition, the ancient Jews often used all-or-nothing language in their speech. Although I am no Hebrew scholar, I have been taught that the Hebrew language contains far fewer comparative words (e.g., more, less, greatest, fewest) than does English (and many other languages). If an ancient Jew were asked if he liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream more, he might reply, “I like chocolate and I hate vanilla.” By this he really meant “I like chocolate more than I like vanilla.” When Jesus said elsewhere that we must love Him and hate our parents, spouse, and children (e.g., Lk 14:26), He did not mean that we should hate them vengefully. Rather, this was a Jewish way of saying that we must love Him more.

This background explains the ancient Jewish tendency to use hyperbole. It is not that they did not comprehend nuances; they just did not speak in that manner, instead allowing the context to supply that “hate” did not mean literal hate.

This linguistic background helps to explain how the more extremist elements of prophetic language take shape.

We ought to be careful, however, not to simply dismiss things as hyperbole. We who speak English may love that our language allows for greater nuance, but sometimes we are so nuanced in our speech that we say very little. At some point we must say either yes or no; we must be with God or against Him. In the end (even if Purgatory intervenes) there is only Heaven or Hell.

The ancient Jewish way of speaking in a rather all-or-nothing manner was not primitive per se. It has a refreshing and honest way of insisting that we decide for or against God, that we decide what is right and just.

Thus, though Jesus’s words were harsh they did make an important point. For either we choose God and live, or we choose sin and die spiritually. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

3. Jesus was speaking to hardened sinners – The audience here is important as well. As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, He was entering hostile territory. The sinners and unbelievers He encountered were very rigid and had hardened their hearts against Him. Hence, Jesus’s words must be understood as strong medicine.

One can imagine a doctor saying to a stubborn patient, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll die soon and I’ll see you at your funeral.” While some may consider this to be poor “bedside manner,” there are some patients for whom such language is both necessary and appropriate.

Because Jesus was dealing with hardened sinners, He spoke bluntly. They were headed for death and Hell and He told them so.

Perhaps we, who live in these “dainty” times, who are so easily offended and so afraid of giving offense, could learn from such an approach. There are some who need to hear from priests, parents, and others, “If you do not change your ways, I do not see how you can avoid being sentenced to Hell.”

4. A final thought—a theory really—that some have advanced – According to this theory, Jesus was referring to an actual historical incident and using it to disabuse His listeners of their fond thoughts of a new king. After the death of Herod the Great, his son Archelaus went to Rome to request the title of king. A group of Jews also appeared before Caesar Augustus, opposing Archelaus’s request. Although not given the title of king, Archelaus was made ruler over Judea and Samaria; he later had those Jews who opposed him killed.

Kings are often despots – Because many Jews thought that the Messiah (when he came) would be a king, some were hoping that Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem in order to take up the role of an earthly king. According to this theory, because the people were pining for a king, Jesus used this fearsome parable as a reminder that earthly kings are usually despotic. Jesus was thus trying to disabuse them of the idea that He or anyone else should be their earthly king.

While this theory has a lot to recommend it, especially historical precedent, it seems unlikely that the Gospel text would use such an historically localized event to make the point. Jesus was not just speaking to the people of that time and place; He is also speaking to us. Even if this explanation has partial historical context, the meaning needs to be extended beyond one ancient incident.

Well, there you have it. I am interested in your thoughts. Because the commentaries I consulted seemed rather silent on this, I am hoping that some of you have read commentaries worth sharing. Likewise, perhaps you know of some other quotes of the Fathers that I was unable to find.

Is Jesus being mean here? No. Is He being blunt and painfully clear? Yes. And frankly, some of us need it. In these thin-skinned times we may bristle at such talk, but that’s our problem. Honesty and a clear diagnosis are far more important than our precious feelings.

A Sobering Scriptural Warning to Rulers and Leaders

During the current political period, when many leaders will be elected, we do well to recall the strong admonitions of God to those who attain to leadership, whether as politicians, community leaders, teachers, or others of significant influence.

The Book of Wisdom (6:1-25) contains a stern warning for those of authority and influence. I present it here along with a few comments (in red) of my own.

In my commentary, I deliberately do not mention specific leaders or parties. This problem is older than the current year; it is a human problem that has beset every age. But I would also argue that it is a particularly serious issue today. To be fair, though, it has been emerging in stages and growing in severity for several decades now, since the cultural revolution.

With those disclaimers in mind, consider with me this admonition from the Lord in the Book of Wisdom.

Hear, therefore, kings, and understand;
learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse!
Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude
and lord it over throngs of peoples!
Because authority was given you by the Lord
and sovereignty by the Most High,
who shall probe your works
and scrutinize your counsels!

We live in times when government officials often rule more than they serve. Laws are passed that are increasingly burdensome. And many of these laws are coming, not from elected officials who must answer to their voters, but from unelected judges and government bureaucrats. Some of these new policies violate religious liberty and impose obligations that violate the consciences of many. But these considerations are set aside and those in power lord it over the people they serve, forcing them to comply with unjust and immoral laws or else face fines and/or jeopardize their careers. To the degree that those leaders transgress the proper bounds for a ruler, they will answer to God for what they do.

Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom,
you judged not rightly, and did not keep the law,
nor walk according to the will of God,

Consider how many laws are proudly passed today that are direct violations of God’s moral law (e.g., legalization of abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and euthanasia/assisted suicide, transgenderism). Those who craft such laws, support them, and/or fund them, will answer to God.

Terribly and swiftly shall he come against you,
because judgment is stern for the exalted—
For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy
but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test.
For the Lord of all shows no partiality,
nor does he fear greatness,
Because he himself made the great as well as the small,
and he provides for all alike;
but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends
.

Yes, many seek power in this world without recalling the important truth proclaimed here. Judgment is indeed weightier for those who are powerful, wealthy or influential. We seek these things even though the Scriptures warn that it is hard for the rich to inherit the kingdom (Matthew 19:23), that not many of us should be teachers (James 3:1), and that to whom much is given much is expected (Luke 12:48). Those who attain to such levels must be very humble before God, seek his help and remember that they will answer to him.

To you, therefore, O princes,  are my words addressed
that you may learn wisdom and that you may not sin.
For those who keep the holy precepts hallowed shall be found holy,
and those learned in them will have ready a response.
Desire therefore my words;
long for them and you shall be instructed
.

Fear God, not man. Seek his wisdom, not what is merely politically advantageous. Yet sadly most of our leaders, powerful though they are, do fear man more than God. To attain to high positions, many have made serious moral compromises and been willing to dismiss divine mandates in favor of often immoral demands of sinful human beings. Rare indeed is the ruler that recalls divine judgments and refuses to compromise God’s law, or teaches his people to do the same.

If, then, you find pleasure in throne and scepter, you princes of the peoples,
honor Wisdom, that you may reign as kings forever….
A great number of wise men is the safety of the world,
and a prudent king, the stability of his people;
so take instruction from my words, to your profit
.

How are we doing, America? Not so well, if you ask me. Our current leaders (political, judicial, and academic) have diverged severely from the Law and Wisdom of God. Any examination of recent legislation, legal decisions, or academic offerings will reveal this. A tyranny of relativism has been created and leaders lord it over others through law and political correctness. Punitive laws and executive fiats oppress. College campuses are beginning to resemble indoctrination camps rather than places where debate and discussion of ideas can take place.

Even more sadly, our leaders indicate the moral condition of our country. True leaders should lead and answer to God, but our modern leaders often cater to the whims and unseemly demands of their people. Americans are demanding many excessive and immoral things; we get the leaders we deserve because they emerge from who and what we are.

This is tragic on two counts. It is tragic for the leaders, who will answer to God for what they do; it is also tragic for us, who can only be further dragged down by poor and immoral leaders.

Consider, well, this admonition from Sacred Scripture. Consider its message to us, both as individuals and as a country.

Pray and heed!

Our Strengths Are Often Our Struggles

emoticons

One of the things that I have learned about myself and humans in general is that our strengths are very closely related to our struggles. Some people are passionate. This makes them dedicated and driven to make a difference, but it also makes them vulnerable to anger or depression. Their passion in one area (e.g., truth, justice) can cause difficulties with passions in other areas such as sexuality, food, or drink. Passionate people can inspire others and are often great leaders, but they also run the risk of crashing and burning, whether emotionally or morally.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider those who are very relaxed and emotionally steady. They are contemplative, thinking and acting deliberately. They are calm under pressure, not easily excited. They make good diplomats, able to bring conflicting parties together; but they may also struggle to maintain integrity. Sometimes they make too many compromises and forget that there are things that are worth being angry about, worth fighting for. If a person never gets worked up, it could be because he doesn’t care enough about important issues. There’s a saying that the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.

This is part of what makes human beings complex and fascinating. There is a certain tipping point at which a virtue becomes a vice either by excess or defect. St. Thomas Aquinas said, In medio stat virtus (Virtue stands in the middle).

In the case of the passion of anger, the virtue to be sought is meekness. Aristotle defined meekness as the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough.

The unusual commercial below shows an example of “underwhelming” joy. It is humorously portrayed in a perfectly deadpan way. Like anger, joy indicates a zeal; joy is a passion for what is good, true, and beautiful (even if the subject is just shoes). It is certainly a virtue to be emotionally balanced, avoiding silliness and frivolity, but the strength of a stable and balanced personality can too easily become indifference about things that are important and should bring joy.

Think of someone you love. I’ll bet the thing you like most about him or her is often the very thing that frustrates you the most. Now think about yourself. What are your strengths? Are they not in fact closely related to the areas in which you struggle the most?

Enjoy this humorous commercial. In his subdued joy, is the fellow in the ad exhibiting admirable control, or is his heart dull? Is this virtue (balance) or is it defect?

Seven Teachings on Hell From St. Thomas Aquinas

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. I recently gave some talks at a Renewal Ministries conference in Ann Arbor Michigan and promised the participants I would repost this for their reference. When the videos of the conference come available, I will link to them. 

The most difficult questions on Hell that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!

The Real Jesus of Scripture Might Surprise You

If we could travel back in time to 30 A.D. and meet the Lord Jesus as He carried forth His public ministry, we might be quite surprised by what we saw. I say this because many of us are heirs to a rather filtered description of Him that is both Western and modern.

Most picture Jesus as fair-skinned and slender, with long, straight hair and a gentle beard. This physical reimagining of Him began rather early, gathered steam during the Renaissance, and has come to our day. I will not dwell here on His physical traits in this post, as I have written in detail on them elsewhere: What Did Jesus Look Like?.

As for His mannerisms, most imagine Jesus as gentle, kind, soft-spoken (except to mean people like the Pharisees), and “loving” in the modern sense. Images of him welcoming children, being the Good Shepherd, speaking of the lilies of the field, and forgiving the woman caught in adultery (but not the part when He tells her to stop sinning), predominate. Many modern people default to or strongly emphasize these images (rather than consulting the fuller text of Scripture) in interpreting Jesus. For many, the preferred images overrule the Sacred text, no matter how voluminous those balancing texts might be.

And thus if the Church, or a priest, or any Christian says anything that seems “hard” to modern ears, many will retort that Jesus is love and would never talk like this. Some years ago, after preaching a sermon on Hell and the need to be prepared for judgment, a woman in the parish I was visiting said this to me: “I didn’t hear the Jesus I know in your words today.” I replied that I was quoting Jesus Himself (the gospel of that Sunday was about the narrow road to salvation and the wide road to Hell). She was not fazed, and simply replied, “I know He never said that.” Her personal image of Jesus overruled even the sacred text. This is common today.

This is why I think the real Jesus, as described in Scripture, would surprise many modern people.

Surprise #1: His physical vigor and stamina

A mere consultation of the map reveals an enormous and diverse terrain where Jesus, His family, and His apostles routinely walked. Each year, Jesus journeyed on foot approximately 70 miles south to Jerusalem and then back again. His daily journeys took Him throughout the whole of Galilee and as far as 35 miles to the north (Tyre, Sidon, Caesarea Philippi). The terrain in the area was difficult, hilly (even mountainous) areas alternating between fertile lands and deserts within mere miles.

Jesus climbed the hills around the Sea of Galilee and mountains as high as Tabor. He, His family, and His followers often trod long journeys of many days. Travels could be dangerous because brigands and thieves lay in wait for opportune moments. The availability of lodging was unpredictable and many nights had to be spent out in the elements.

In His final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus took the desert route that went through Jericho. It is a howling desert that descends more than 800 feet below sea level. His climb to Jerusalem (more than 2500 feet above sea level) was more than 3000 feet up. Despite this difficult journey, He was the guest that very evening at the house of Martha and Mary, where He was anointed by Mary with costly nard.

Most moderns know little of such vigor and stamina. Many of us become winded by a mere hill; the thought of walking 70 miles would seem almost impossible to us. Those who go to the Holy Land today and follow the paths of Jesus usually do so in air-conditioned buses and complain of the steep hills that must be climbed on foot in Nazareth, Ein Karem, and Jerusalem.

These were hardy people, not the slight figures that modern artists often depict. It does not mean that they were extremely muscular, but they were used to hard physical work, long walks, and the sorts of hardships that would discourage many of us.

Surprise #2: His loud and challenging preaching

In those days there were no microphones or amplification of any kind. Preachers of that time did not (could not) use a gentle, suggestive tone. They had to shout out their message. Town criers were called such for a reason. Even indoors an elevated tone was required because crowded rooms muffle sound.

Jesus often preached outdoors, sometimes to crowds of thousands. Consider again His stamina and that such sermons were more of a shout than a mere discourse or exhortation. This would likely be challenging to us who are used to the more discussion-like quality of the preaching in the last hundred years.

A number of years ago I gave a talk on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to a large church gathering. For some reason the public address system was not working. Now I have a loud voice, but projecting it in such a large venue required a near shout. I tried to mitigate that by interspersing humor and other disarming methods, but about half of the audience indicated (on the evaluation forms they filled out) that I seemed angry or harsh. I was certainly not angry, and although the message of traditional marriage is challenging to modern notions, the emphasis was that grace assists fidelity and the forgiveness that is necessary for lifelong love.

A further surprising note on Jesus’ preaching is that he preached while seated. The sacred text affirms this tradition in many places. All the ancient rabbis preached while seated, it was a sign of authority.

Surprise #3: His uncompromising stance

Jesus was in the mode of the prophets, and the prophets were never ones to soft-pedal, compromise, or be vague. Any analysis of Jesus’ true message (not the selective and filtered modern version) shows that He made expansive, uncompromising demands on any who would be His disciples. We must repent and believe His Gospel. We must clearly accept that He is the only light, the only truth, and the only Son to the Father. We are to love no one and nothing more than we love Him. This includes our very family as well as the things most essential to our physical survival, such as career and livelihood. If we do not do this, then we are not worthy of Him. We must take up our cross daily. We must be willing to suffer even unto death for Him and what He teaches. It is not enough to love our neighbor; we must love our enemy. It is not enough to avoid adultery; we must have a comprehensive sexual purity that excludes all forms of sexual activity outside of biblical marriage, even impure thoughts. We must forgive others who have hurt us or else the Father will not forgive us.

Time and time again, the real Jesus warned of Hell and the necessity to be sober and serious about judgment. Jesus was not some angry preacher. Jesus, who loves us, warned that many would be unable and unwilling to enter Heaven on its terms; few would take the narrow road of the cross. Not all who say, “Lord! Lord!” will enter heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father. Many will hear from Him, “I know you not. I know not from whence you come. Depart from me.”

There is no compromise, no third way. We cannot serve two masters, God and mammon. A friend of the world is an enemy to God. He would say that no one who sets his hand to the plow and keeps looking back is fit for the reign of God. To our excuses and pleas for time in “getting our act together,” He might say, “Let the dead bury their dead, but you go and proclaim the Kingdom!”

There is little we can call gentle or soft in the mainstream of Jesus’ preaching. Though He invited His disciples to discover Him as the true shepherd, the true lover of our souls, who can give us the true Bread for which we hunger and lasting water to quench our thirst, He wants us carrying our cross, not reclining on our couch. Jesus healed many, but He insisted on faith being operative prior to performing miracles.

Jesus’ plan for us involves deep paradox; He challenges our every expectation. He does not apologize for offending our notions. He declared that if anyone was ashamed of Him and His teachings, then He would be ashamed of that person on the Day of Judgment. There is to be no compromise with the wisdom of the world.

All of this, though recorded clearly and consistently in the biblical record, is conveniently forgotten by. Most modern people prefer nuance and/or euphemisms; they prefer a suggestive and inviting tone. But Jesus, like the prophets of the day, combined a searing judgment on worldly ways with an uncompromising insistence that we choose sides.

Surprise #4: His urgency

Jesus had a determination that a lot of us would interpret as a kind of inflexibility. We like to discuss things; we celebrate collaboration and team work.

Jesus doesn’t fit in this box at all. He knew exactly what He wanted to do. He sent missionaries ahead of Him into every town and village. He accepted no correction from those objected to His course or to the fact that He ate with sinners. When the crowds objected to Jesus’ teachings (such as His teaching on the Eucharist at Capernaum), He did not reconsider His words or go out and hire a public relations firm to improve His image. He did not conduct focus groups to test out His words and ideas. No, Jesus doubled down on disputed teachings and then asked His disciples if they were going to desert Him. He had an urgent mission to convey the truth, not debate it at length with detractors.

Jesus was on the move and urgently pursued His task. He told His disciples that He must work while it was still day because the darkness was coming when work would cease. In his final journey to Jerusalem, it was said that Jesus “set His face like flint,” an expression that conveys firm resolve. He set out on the journey, fully knowing (and announcing) that He would suffer at the hands of men, die, and rise.

Jesus’ own apostles balked and resisted, wondering why He would go there knowing that the leaders sought to kill Him. When Peter tried to dissuade Him, Jesus turned to him angrily, challenged his worldly thinking, and called him Satan.

No, Jesus would not turn back. At one point, He rebuked the weak faith of the Apostles, saying, “How much longer must I tolerate you?!” He also warned, “He who does not gather with me scatters.”

So Jesus was urgent and unstoppable. Meanwhile, His apostles vacillated between resistance to the looming danger, denial, and avoidance. More than once, the sacred text indicates that they were afraid to ask Him any more questions.

Nothing would stop Jesus. Even at the Last Supper, as He arose to go forth to His Passion, Jesus said, “The world must know that I love the Father and that He sent me. Arise. Let us go hence.”

Only briefly (in the garden) did Jesus express even the slightest doubt. Quickly it was resolved: whatever the Father wanted would receive His assent. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person.

Why this urgency? It was to save us! “What should I say? ‘Father save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this hour that I came into the world” (John 12:27).

I am convinced that all of this urgency would surprise us. We are more comfortable with a Jesus who wandered about blessing people, telling stories, and who only at the very end fell into trouble. Nothing could be further from the recorded history of the sacred text. Knowing everything that would take place, Jesus set out manfully to His goal and would allow nothing to stop or sidetrack Him. This was His Father’s will and He was urgent.

Yes, I suspect that most of us would be surprised if we encountered Jesus back around the year 30 A.D. For those who have not internalized the biblical texts and have substituted a modern image far removed from the recorded truth, Jesus might seem overbearing and even impatient. They would see Jesus speaking broadly—even bluntly—in the mode of the prophets. Would there be nothing of the gentle Jesus that so many prefer? Of course there would, but not in the exclusive amount that many moderns prefer.

Perhaps I do well to finish with the words of Ross Douthat, who in his book Bad Religion, summarizes this well:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a [careful and] wise ethicist the next. … He promises to set [spouses against one another and] parents against children, and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. … He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping.

The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. … [Where heresy says which one] Both, says orthodoxy …. The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus [1].