The Word of the Lord Remains Forever! A Homily for the 33rd Sunday of the Year

As winter approaches and the end of the liturgical year draws near, we ponder the passing quality of this world and the fading of its glories. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading must surely have shocked, even horrified, His apostles. Let’s look at His stunning words and seek to apply them in our own life.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at the top of the Mount of Olives with His apostles. From this vantage point, they look across the Kidron Valley to the magnificent Temple and all of Jerusalem spread out before them. The apostles marvel at the glorious beauty of the Temple. Its large, perfectly-carved, white, gilded, ashlar stones gleam like the sun. Indeed, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world, so beautiful and majestic.

Jesus challenges their admiration. He shocks them with the admonition that all the glory they see is soon to be destroyed, that not one stone will be left on another, that it will all be thrown down (Mk 13:2). Shocked, the apostles ask Him when this will happen and what signs will precede this awful event.

Jesus teaches them that all the glory they see is about to be taken away. The Temple, with all its rituals, its liturgical cycles, and its endless slaughter of animals in sacrifice for sin, is about to be replaced. These ancient rituals merely pointed to Jesus and all that He would do. Jesus is now the Temple; He is also the Lamb Sacrifice. All that the Temple pointed to is fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the Temple is at an end. Jesus is ushering in a New Covenant. Sure enough, 40 years later (in A.D. 70), the Roman Army, after having surrounded Jerusalem for a period of 3 ½ months, breached the walls, poured into the city, and destroyed the Temple and all of Jerusalem. In this epic battle, according to Josephus, 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives. As Jesus prophesied, not one stone was left on another. According to Josephus, so complete was the destruction of Jerusalem, that when the Romans had finished their work it was not clear that the city had ever existed.

In 2000 years, despite several attempts, the Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt. Everything Jesus predicted came to pass. This is the historical place and context of today’s Gospel.

What does this mean for us, some 2000 years later? Let’s consider three basic themes.

1. The Perspective of Passing – Toward the end of the Gospel passage, the Lord says, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Note the definitiveness of this statement: this world will pass away. All of the things that impress us: the might of the powerful, the influence of the popular, the glory of all the glitterati—all of this will pass away.

Indeed, even now it is passing away, its destruction is at hand. Scripture says,

        • The world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:31).
        • We have here, no lasting city (Heb 13:14).
        • Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no hope. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing (Psalm 146:3-4).

Yes, all of the glory, even what seems beautiful and fair, is passing away. Don’t be so impressed by this world’s offerings. All of it—no matter how powerful, influential, or sturdy it may seem—is slated for destruction. It is already passing away.

Painful though this perspective may be, it is important and healing. It brings with it a strong kind of serenity. Like every truth, the truth that all things are passing sets us free.  We are reminded not to set down too many roots here so that we are not resentful when this world passes away.

2. The Permanence Proclaimed – The Lord tells us that His words will not pass away. Although the world will pass away, the truth and the Word of God will remain forever.

Too many people root their lives in passing things. The challenge for us is to root our lives in the Word of God, which remains forever. Worldly glories, power, access, and wealth—all these things fade and disappear, but God’s wisdom and His plan remain forever.

Consider, for a moment, the Church. The Lord has said that the forces of Hell would strive to prevail, overpower, and destroy the Church, but He promised that such attempts would never be successful (Matt 16:18). The Church is indefectible, by God’s Word, by His promise. No weapons, no war waged against the Church, will prevail.

In all of this the Lord has been proven correct. The Church has seen the Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Socialist Republic, and many others rise to power only to fade and disappear. Heresies and all sorts of foolishness have come and gone, and here we still are proclaiming the eternal Gospel, the Word of the Lord. Though the world will pass away, the Word of the Lord will remain forever!

3. The Priority Prescribed – If this world as we know it is passing away, and the Lord, His Kingdom, His Church, and His Word will remain forever, what should be our priority? The Lord says, in effect, that we know very well what our priority should be, but we willfully ignore it.

Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates (Matt 24:32-33).

Yes, we know very well that the Day of Judgment is coming. Too easily, though, we dream on and do not follow the prescribed priority. Wealth, fame, and glory are all uncertain and  passing, but death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell are certain and remain forever. We too easy fiddle on with things that are uncertain and passing while neglecting what is certain and eternal. Ridiculous!

It would be foolish to book passage on a sinking ship. Similarly, it is imprudent to make this world and its demands our fundamental priority. It is wise to set our sights on, and lay hold of, the Kingdom that lasts forever. It is sad that so many spend people their time “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” of this world. 

What are our priorities? Frankly, most of our priorities are not things that matter to God. Even if we attain the passing things for which we strive, they will all ultimately slip through our fingers. We obsess over passing things like our physical health while neglecting enduring things like our spiritual health. We should care for our bodies, but even more should we care for our souls. If we would expend as much effort looking for a time and place to pray as we do searching for a restaurant for dinner, we would be spiritual heavyweights rather than physically overweight.

In today’s Gospel the Lord stands before the Temple: an impressive building, a symbol of power and of worldly glories. Impressed by it though the Apostles are, the Lord is not impressed with passing things. He counsels us to get our priorities straight and to focus on things that last: His Word, which never passes away, and our ultimate destiny, where we will spend eternity.

We find time for everything else, why not for prayer, Scripture, fellowship in the Church, and the sacraments?

What are your priorities? Be honest, now, be honest.

 

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?

The Paradox of Poverty – A Homily for the 32nd Sunday of the Year

The first reading in today’s Mass (1 Kings 17:10-16) speaks to us of the paradox of poverty: it is our poverty, our neediness, that provides a doorway for God to bless us with true riches. Our emptiness provides room for God to go to work.

In our worldly riches, we feel we have “too much to lose”; the Gospel just seems too demanding. In our poverty, emptiness, and detachment from this world, however, there is a strange and unexpected freedom that makes it easier to step out in faith—and stepping out in faith is the only thing that can save us.

Yes, poverty brings freedom. You can’t steal from someone who has nothing, and you can’t kill someone who has already died to this world.

Are you poor enough to be free? There’s a strange blessing in poverty. Let’s look at the first reading to see how poverty can usher in strange blessings.

The Desire Portrayed In the first reading, the prophet Elijah encounters a widow at the entrance of the city of Zarephath, a name that means “refining fire.” In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the entrance of the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her.

Both Elijah and the widow are hungry and thirsty, for there is famine in the land. As God’s prophet, Elijah speaks not only for himself but for God when he asks the poor woman to share her meager food with him. God has a desire, a hunger, for us. The woman also has desires, but hers need to be purified in this place of “refining fire.”

The widow’s hunger for earthly food is a symbol for a deeper hunger: a hunger for communion with God. At some point our hunger must meet God’s hunger—that point we call Holy Communion. It is a place where our hunger for God and His for us meet, and we find serenity. Every other hunger merely points to this hunger, and every other “food” is but a cruel, temporary morsel until this deepest hunger is satisfied.

Thus, two people meet at a place called “refining fire.” It is desire that has drawn them, a desire that is ultimately satisfied only in God.

The Dimensions of Poverty – The woman articulates her poverty in responding to Elijah’s request: Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.” She left to get it, and he called out after her, “Please bring along a bit of bread.” She answered, “As the LORD, your God, lives, I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.

We may wonder why God allows poverty and suffering. The quick answer is that it is because there is such grave risk in riches and comfort. The Lord is well aware of how hard it is for the wealthy and comfortable to enter the Kingdom of God. In riches we trust in ourselves, but in poverty we can only trust in God; it is only through trusting faith that we can ever be saved.

There is a kind of freedom in poverty. The poor have less to lose.

They can operate in wider dimensions and have a kind of freedom that the wealthy often lack.

Not only is it hard to steal from a poor man, but it also takes little to enrich him. A man who has lived in a great palace may be discouraged with a humble domicile, while a poor one may be satisfied with a single small room to call his own. A hungry man may appreciate mere scraps of food, while one who is already satiated may need caviar to feel grateful. The rich miss many of life’s little blessings and may suffer from boredom, whereas the poor delight in even small pleasures. The rich man’s world gets ever smaller and less satisfying; the poor are more likely to truly appreciate even the humblest things.

Here again is the paradox of poverty, wherein less is more, gratitude is easier to find, and losses are less painful. As we shall see, it is the widow’s poverty that opens her to lasting blessings. Having little to lose, she is free enough to accept the next stage of our story.

The Demand that is Prescribed – God’s prophet, Elijah, summons her to trusting faith: “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the LORD, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’”

Elijah tells her not to be afraid to share. In effect, he teaches her that the Lord will not be outdone in generosity. On a human level, Elijah’s request seems almost cruel, but from a spiritual perspective he is summoning her to the faith that alone can truly save her.

Note that although she is afraid, her fear is easily overcome. Why? Because she has little to lose. So many of our fears are rooted in the fear of loss. The more we have, the more we have to be anxious about. In recent decades we have grown increasingly wealthy yet seem to have more problems. What are our chief problems? Fear and anxiety about the loss, maintenance, and protection of all our “stuff.” Scripture says, The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (Eccl 5:12). This is so true! The wealthier we have become the more we’ve been spending on psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs. We are anxious about so many things; insomnia and stress are common today.

We have too much stuff, too much to lose. Most of us, hearing Elijah’s request, would call him crazy or cruel or both. This woman is free enough to take him up on his offer. How about us?

We, too, must come to realize that looking merely to our own self-interest will only feed us for a day. Only in openness to God and others can we procure a superabundant food, that which will draw us to life eternal.

The Deliverance Produced – Having little to lose, the woman trusts in God’s word through Elijah and shares her food. She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.

If we learn to trust God, we come to discover that He never fails. Of course, this takes faith, and faith involves risk. This is where poverty can have its advantages. The widow takes the risk and shares what little she has. For her, the risk is immediate, but ultimately it is a lesser risk because she has so little to lose.

So, the woman is free enough to risk it all. Her only gamble is trusting God, and God does not fail. Scripture says,

  • Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days (Eccles 11:1).
  • Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:38).
  • And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward (Matt 10:42).
  • Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously (2 Cor 9:6).
  • Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to (Deut 15:10).
  • He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done (Prov 19:17).
  • A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor (Prov 22:9).
  • He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses (Prov 28:27).

Do you believe all this? Or are these just slogans for others? Well, you never know until you try. If you don’t think you can try, maybe you have too much to lose.

Consider this woman who was poor enough to be free and free enough to try the Lord—and God did not fail. He never fails. I am a witness, how about you?

Mind Your Mind!

There is a tendency today to trivialize and reduce the human person. One of the ways we do this is by claiming that it doesn’t really matter what people think or believe, only that they behave well. For example, we think that if a man is a good citizen, pays his taxes, doesn’t beat his wife, and is kind to children and animals then it doesn’t matter what he believes. This trivializes the man, because each of us was made to know the one, true God. We were made to know the truth and, knowing this truth, to be set free (Jn 8:32). God’s plan for us is more than just that we behave “well” from a human perspective. He offers each of us a complete transformation: a new mind and heart, attained through personal knowledge and experience of Him. This will certainly affect our behavior, but God is offering us much more than just to be considered “nice” by other people.

One of the ways Scripture expresses what God is offering us at a deeper level is the appeal to the mind that so frequently occurs in the New Testament. The very first words of Jesus as He began His public ministry announced the invitation to receive a new mind. Sadly, most English translations do not adequately capture what the Greek text actually reports Jesus as saying. Most English renderings of Jesus’ opening words are “Repent and believe the Good News” (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt 3:2). The most common meaning of “to repent” is to reform one’s behavior, to do good and avoid evil, to stop sinning. The Greek word used in the text is far richer than this. Μετανοείτε (metanoeite) most literally means “to come to a new mind.” It comes from meta (hard to translate perfectly into English but often indicating accompaniment, change, or movement of some sort) and nous or noieo (meaning mind or thought). Hence, metanoeite means thinking differently, reconsidering, coming to a new mind. So, what the Lord is more fully saying is this: “Come to new mind and believe in the Good News.”

Thus, Jesus is not merely saying that we should clean up our act. He is inviting us to come to a new mind, which He alone can give us. If we think differently, we will surely act differently. Metanoeite can and does include the notion of reformed behavior, but it is the result of a new mind. If we think differently (by the new mind Christ will give us), we will start to see things more as God does. We will share His priorities, His vision. We will love what He loves. We will think more as He does. This will effect a change in our behavior.

There is a famous quote (attributed to various sources) that goes like this: “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” Notice how it all begins with the mind. Our mind shapes our decisions, habits, character, and ultimately our destiny.

The mind is the deepest part of the human person. It is not always possible in Scripture to perfectly distinguish between the word “mind” and the word “heart.” Sometimes they are used interchangeably and at other times to mean different things. For the purpose of this discussion, the mind can be understood as quite similar to the heart in that it is at the deepest part of the human person, where thought, memory, imagination, and deliberation take place. The mind is not to be equated merely with the brain or the intellect; it is deeper and richer than these. Using the mind is not simply a function of the physical body but rather involves the soul as well. The mind is where we live, think, reflect, ponder, remember, and deliberate.

Hence, in appealing to the mind, God is offering a transformation of the whole human person, for it is from within the mind and heart that all proceeds. Good behavior is a nice goal, but God does not trivialize us by trying to reform only our behavior. He offers us much more: to transform us.

Thus, what a person thinks and believes does matter. In these hyper-tolerant times, in which tolerance is one of the few agreed-upon virtues remaining, we like to brush aside the details. We are almost proud of ourselves for affirming that people can think and believe whatever they want as long as they behave well. Perhaps a person is free to think whatever he pleases, but we are foolish to think that this does not ultimately influence his behavior. Our dignity is that we were made to know the truth and thus to know Jesus Christ, who is the truth and the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6). Hence, our dignity is not just an outer transformation but an inner one as well. In fact, it is an inner transformation that leads to an outer transformation.

Below are a few more Scripture passages that refer to the mind as the locus of transformation and the main battleground where grace must win. Without a transformed, clear, sober mind we will give way to sin and bad behavior. Transformation begins with the mind. My comments on each text appear in red.

  • Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2). Transformation comes by the renewal of the mind.
  • The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. … [For] although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools …. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. … He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Rom 1:18 ff selectae). Suppression of the truth leads to a depraved mind, which leads to depraved behavior. It begins in the mind, which is the real battleground.
  • Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (Rom 8:5). Sinful nature proceeds from a worldly mind. Those who have received the gift of the Spirit and embraced it fully have their minds set on what God desires. The remainder of Romans 8 goes on to describe the complete transformation of the human person resulting from having the mind set on what God desires.
  • The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor 4:4). Worldly thinking leads to spiritual blindness.
  • So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way … put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-24). The bad behavior of the Gentiles comes from minds that are frivolous and darkened. The new mind we receive from Christ gives us a new, transformed self.
  • Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things (Phil 3:19). Destruction comes from a mind that is set on earthly things.
  • This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people(Heb 8:10). God does not merely want to improve our behavior. He wants to transform us interiorly, to a new mind and heart that have his law written deeply in them.
  • The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). When the mind is divided or impure, behavior is corrupted.
  • Therefore, gird the loins of your mind; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:13). A sober and clear mind that actively seeks God’s will leads to a self-controlled and hopeful life.
  • The end of all things is near. Therefore, be of clear mind and self-controlled so that you can pray (1 Peter 4:7). In turbulent times it is necessary to have a clear, sober mind so as to be able to control one’s behavior and to be serene enough to pray.

The lyrics of this song (“Caribbean Medley” or “I’ve Got My Mind Made Up,” by Donnie McClurkin) say, “I’ve got my mind made up and I won’t turn back because I want to see my Jesus someday.”

 

The Whole Law, Standing on One Foot – A Homily for the 31st Sunday of the Year

Pharisees Question Jesus, by J. Tissot (1886-94)

Hillel the Elder, sometimes referred to as Rabbi Hillel, was a Jewish religious leader who lived shortly before Jesus’ time. There is a famous story told of him in which he was challenged by a potential convert to teach him the entire Torah while “standing on one foot.” In other words, can you distill the essence and present it succinctly?

That same theme may be behind the question that is raised today by the scholar of law, who asks, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”

In answering while “standing on foot,” Jesus recites the traditional Jewish Shema:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד.
Šĕmaʿ Yisĕrāʾel Ădōnāy Ĕlōhênû Ădōnāy eḥād.

Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is Lord alone!

The fuller text Jesus cites is from Deuteronomy:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today (Deut 6:4-6).

Jesus then adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition, The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

Do not miss the point that the discussion of the greatest “law” centers on the word “love.” Most of us miss this connection between the law and love.

Particularly in Western culture, we tend to put love and law just about as far apart from each other as any two things can be. For us, the law is about police officers and courtrooms, about forcing people to do things under threat of some penalty. Love, on the other hand, is about doing things willingly, because we want to rather than because we have to.

Note too, this is no mere sentimental love. It involves the heart but also the mind and will. In the verses that follow the Shema we read:

And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as reminders on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:7-9)

In other words, these teachings and precepts of the Lord are to be taken seriously and insisted upon. Parents are to drill them into their children. There is to be no forgetful moment when it comes to the Lord’s teachings. We are to observe them sleeping, walking, standing still; all the time! Love is like this. It thinks constantly of the beloved and what will please!

St Augustine is sometimes misquoted as saying “Love God and then do what you will.” This is inaccurate. A better translation says, “Love God and, what you will, do.” In other words, when we love our will is conformed to the beloved. We love what they love and who they love.

Consider that a man who really loves his wife does not need a law to tell him that he may not physically or verbally abuse her but rather must support, protect, and encourage her. Nevertheless, though he may not need the existence of the law in writing, he is in fact following the law of love when he observes these and other norms. There is a language of love, a law of love, an outworking of love’s works and fruits. In the end, love does what love is, and love is supportive, enthusiastic, even extravagant in keeping its own norms and laws. Love does what love is.

Thus, when asked about the law the Lord just says that we should love. Yes, love God passionately, with your whole heart, soul, and strength. As you do this, you will love what and whom He loves, for this is the natural fruit of love. The more one loves God, the more one begins to love His laws, His vision, what He values. Yes, all the commandments flow from loving God. Real love has its roots; it has its laws, methods, and modes.

Here, then, is the whole law, standing on one foot: love God. Let His love permeate you completely and every other commandment will implicitly flow from this love.

When we love God, we stop asking unloving questions like these:

Do I have to pray? For how long?
Do I have to go to confession? How often?
Do I have to go to Mass? How often? Where can I find the shortest and most convenient one?
Do I have to read God’s Word?
Do I have to make God’s teachings the priority of my life, overruling all else?
Do I need to honor and care for my parents?
Do I need to respect lawful authority and contribute to the common good?
Do I need to respect life from conception to natural death?
Do I need to work to cherish and safeguard the lives of others?
Do I need to live chastely, reverencing the gift of sexuality that is at the heart of human life and family?

Love does not ask whether we must respect each other enough to speak the truth in love, to be men and women of our word. It does not wonder whether it is acceptable to steal from others or to fail to give them what is justly due. It does not wonder whether we should be generous to the poor rather than greedy, or whether to be appreciative and satisfied rather than covetous.

No, love does not ask questions like these, for it already knows the answer; it lives the answer.

Love is the law, standing on one foot, and all the rest is commentary.

God is merciful and does supply the commentary: in His Scriptures and in the vast Tradition of the Church. Praise God for it all.

The saints say, “If God wants it then I want it. If God doesn’t want it then I don’t want it.” Is that the way most of us talk? Is that the way most of us talk? Many of us are heard to say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad; everyone else has it.” That doesn’t really sound like lovers talking does it? Somehow the saints knew the law of God and could say it standing on one foot. How about us?

All the commentary is nice, and surely needed, but don’t miss the point: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

Love is the law, and the law is to love.

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].