You Have to Decide About Jesus, one way or the other- A Meditation on the Trial Before Pilate


In the Matthean Passion account, we come to the trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate is a study in evasion and vacillation. Despite being a man of great political and worldly power, Pilate is indecisive, inwardly troubled, and quite incapable of doing what he knows is right. Despite the outward power he had, inwardly he was weak and morally compromised. And in his weakness, he does something very awful: he violates his own conscience and sentences an innocent man to death.

Let’s look at his story in five stages.

I. Attempted Avoidance – On a professional level, Pilate considered the whole matter brought before him to be a theological dispute among the Jews, and for this reason wanted nothing to do with it. Yet he could see a storm was brewing as the crowds grew larger and noisier. If there were a riot at Passover, his career as Governor of Palestine (not to mention future, even better posts) would be in jeopardy. Was there not some way out of this perilous matter of Jesus!?

On a personal level, Pilate is also troubled. His own wife, unnerved, tells him, Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matt 27:19). Yes, Pilate is anxious, unnerved, and seemingly quite avoidant of the whole matter. The last thing he wants to do is to have to make a decision one way or the other about Jesus.

But at the end of the day, every man, woman, and child on this planet is going to have to decide for or against Jesus. Pilate wants to avoid a decision, but ultimately, he cannot.

According to Luke’s Gospel, he seeks refuge in a jurisdictional solution:

On hearing [of Jesus’ actions in the north] Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 26:6-7)

“Ah!” thinks Pilate. “Here is a way out. Herod can save me from having to take a stand on Jesus! Whatever the decision, I can evade responsibility.” But in the end, Herod merely sent him back to Pilate without rendering a guilty verdict. Surely this would satisfy the crowd! But it does not.

Pilate (this also means you) is going to have to decide about Jesus, one way or the other. No one else can make this decision for him. His attempt to avoid taking a stand on Jesus has failed.

II. Calls for Compromise – So it is now clear that a crucial moment is coming for Pilate. The text says,

Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, “You have said so,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. (Matt 27: 11-14)

It is evident that Pilate wants Jesus to give him a way out. If only Jesus will speak in a manner that will reassure all present. If only Jesus will not so unsettle others with his divine claims. If only he would not stand out in such stark, black and white contrast; if only he would appreciate the need for a little more gray in this whole matter! Yes, if he will just compromise a little with his claims, all will be well!

But it will not be so for Pilate. Jesus remains silent to all the demands that he reassure others by diluting the truth or by compromising his message.

Many today are like Pilate, and seek to rework the true Jesus, to “tame” him, to paint a picture of him in soft focus and pastel colors. A “kinder, gentler” Jesus is trotted out by some, even by religious “leaders” in hopes of quieting the controversy and making it easier and more palatable for people to make a decision for Jesus.

But of course to decide for a fake Jesus is not the same as deciding for the real Jesus. A compromised, fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one can. Watering Jesus down, diminishing his moral demands or his summons to absolute faith in him, setting aside his insistence on being the central priority of our life even to the point of martyrdom, modernizing him, or seeking to turn him into a harmless hippie – none of this will work. One day you are going to have to decide on the real Jesus. Compromise will not work.

III. Substitution Stunt – Avoiding and compromising hasn’t worked, so Pilate tries substitution. It’s the old bait and switch. Let’s find something or someone to replace the decision. So Pilate trots out Barabbas.

Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him…But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matt 27:16-20)

Pilate thought that surely the crowd would not prefer the swindler and robber, Barabbas, to Jesus, who had been so popular earlier that very week. Pilate reasoned that it was only the leaders among the Jews who feared and hated Jesus, out of concern only for their own power. Yes, surely the crowds would favor Jesus from Galilee over Barabbas. Surely! This bait and switch, this substitution, would get Pilate off the hook so he wouldn’t have to decide about Jesus. Or so he thought.

But it will not work. The religious leaders have seeded the crowd. Barabbas is chosen. Pilate is still stuck with the Jesus question!

Here too, many of us try similar bait and switch tactics. Radically following Jesus is a bit too much for some. But how about buying off or deflecting the decision? Perhaps it amounts to writing a nice big check to charity, or engaging in some good work. Perhaps some religious ritual can buy some time or placate the Lord, who stands silently by waiting for an answer from me as to his Kingship in my life.

It is significant that the “substitute Jesus” that Pilate trots out for his bait and switch has the name “Jesus Barabbas” (a name that means “Jesus, Son of the Father”). Yes, the substitute that Pilate uses bears a name and title similar to the real Jesus. But he is NOT the real Jesus. And neither are our attempts at check writing or perfunctory religious observance (though having aspects of Christ) the real Jesus. Our substitution stunt, our bait and switch, cannot buy off the question, or avoid the decision we must make for or against the real Jesus. We too must ultimately face the “Jesus Question.”

IV. Refusing Responsibility – Exasperated, Pilate engages the crowd:

What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:23-25)

Pontius Pilate, the governor, the most powerful man in the region, the only one with the judicial faculty to hand a man over to death, stands before a crowd and claims that he is not responsible for what he does. He claims that, in violating his own conscience and handing over an innocent man to torture, he is innocent.

These are lies. Pilate cannot refuse to take responsibility for the decision he is making. He must be a man and own his choice. He has weighed the consequences. It will be either his career, or Jesus; it will be either his power and position, or Jesus; it will be either his eventual promotion, or Jesus. Having been weighed against career, power, and promotion, Jesus is dismissed by Pilate and handed over for torture and crucifixion.

But Pilate cannot avoid responsibility despite the theatrics of washing his hands. Jesus’ blood is on your hands too, Governor Pilate. Down through the centuries your responsibility resounds: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried.”

Yes, Pilate had to decide about Jesus one way or the other. And so do you and I. No attempted avoidance, no calls for compromise, no substitution stunts, no refusal of responsibility will work. You must decide, I must decide, one way or another, for or against Jesus. There is no third way. And if you think you can sit on the fence, know this for sure: one day Satan will say, “Come with me,” for Satan owns the fence.

You are free to decide, but you are not free not to decide. Jesus stands before you and “compels” a choice. What is your answer?

Here is a movie account of the trial from The Passion of the Christ. Note that both Pilate and Jesus speak in Latin. I think this is the director’s way of saying that Jesus, as God, is speaking personally to Pilate, thus he uses Pilate’s mother tongue.

“For Worldly Sorrow Brings Death.” A Meditation on the Sad End of Judas and What Might Have Been.


As we continue to ponder some of the texts of the Matthean Passion Narrative, we turn to the difficult case of Judas. To many modern readers, Judas is something of a sympathetic character. Some of this is due to our (rather flawed) moral reasoning, reasoning that places exaggerated emphasis on subjective issues (such as intentions, feelings, etc.) and almost no emphasis on the objective morality of the act itself. Granted, both elements are important, but our modern emphasis creates a rather skewed tendency to evade personal responsibility and to overlook the objective harm of sin.

But, to be fair, the biblical text itself also evokes some sympathy for Judas, who deeply regretted what he had done and even went so far as to return the money. The text says,

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)

It is clear that Judas is sorrowful for his sin and this is surely one component of what we call contrition. He even returns the money, a further sign of his sorrow, and wishes to be free of any profit from his sin.

And yet we are also faced with the fact that he went and hanged himself, which, while further indicating his sorrow, remains objectively an act of despair. Instead of turning to Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end the pain of his guilt rather than facing the Lord, admitting his sin, and humbly seeking mercy from the Lord and His Body, the Church.

In this, Judas acts quite differently from Peter, who at first ran off in sorrow after denying the Lord, but did not turn in on himself. Rather, in spite of his humiliation, Peter remained rooted in the early community of the Church, and found healing with the Lord in an honest conversation at the lakeside (cf John 21). None of this could have been easy for Peter. Surely, a part of him wanted to run off and hide his guilt and shame from the Lord and from others. But unlike Judas, he stayed in communion with the early Church and let the Lord find him.

St. Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow for sin, and what he writes is instructive for us here when we ponder Judas and his fate:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)

And thus Godly sorrow draws us to repentance and back to the Lord. The Greek word here translated as “repentance” is μετάνοιαν (metanoian) meaning, more richly, “to come to a change of mind,” or “to change one’s thinking.” And this change “leads” us to salvation.

But what is salvation? It is not just to have a certain legal status; it is to be in a saving and transformative relationship with the Lord. And Godly sorrow leaves no regret because of this healing, merciful, and joyful relationship to which it restores us.

In this way, we can see how Judas’ sorrow was lacking in two important fruits. First, it did not lead him back to salvation, that is, back to Jesus. Second, it did not remove regret. Judas remained devastated and was not willing to seek to return to a relationship with Jesus. Why was this? It is hard to say. Perhaps he would have been too humiliated to face Jesus or the community. Whatever regret he had, he was not willing to share it humbly. And thus, instead of turning to the Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end his pain on his own terms rather than those of the Lord or his Body, the Church.

St. Paul says simply and bluntly of worldly sorrow: it produces death. It is known by its fruits: separation, isolation, inwardness, and finally death – both spiritual and physical.

So yes, Judas had sorrow for what he had done. But it was the wrong kind of sorrow, the worst kind of sorrow.

What became of Judas in terms of salvation? To many of us, despite a reflection like this, we retain the hope that perhaps he could ultimately have been saved. Was he? Here too we cannot certainly say. But Jesus himself gives us a rather sad clue when he says of Judas,

The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Mk 14:21)

It is difficult for us to imagine Jesus saying this about a man who is ultimately saved and makes it heaven. So while we’re not sure, it certainly doesn’t look too good for Judas!

Our sympathy for Judas has understandable roots. But in the end, his fatal flaw (and the difference between him and Peter) was that Judas repented unto himself, not unto the Lord. When you walk, sometimes you fall; but if you fall, make sure you fall on Jesus!

A final postscript to the sad story of Judas is to ponder what might have been. Can you imagine the glory of the moment, had Judas come to Jesus in sorrow and received mercy and forgiveness? Imagine beautiful churches all over the world named “St. Judas Parish,” “St Judas – Patron of Sinners,” “St Judas Refuge of Criminals,” “The Parish of St Judas the Reconciled.” Imagine the novenas and prayers of similar titles: “Novena to St. Judas, Patron of Lost Souls,”  “A Prayer to St Judas for a Worthy Confession.” Parishes might even have dedicated their “Lost and Found” department to St. Judas!

But none of this was to be, “for worldly sorrow brings death.” Save us O Lord from final despair!

The Rise and Fall of a Prophet. And a warning for us.

He is one of the more curious figures of the Bible, The details of his life and story are caught up in textual complexities in the book of Numbers. Though a prophet, he was not even an Israelite, he wrote no book and is not numbered among Israel’s prophets. And yet a prophet he was, for he spoke the oracles of God and brought blessings to Israel at a critical time in the History of Israel.

Perhaps no prophet spoke so eloquently of the glory that would come from Israel, like a star rising in the East, and a king who shall rise higher and whose abode shall endure. Yes a star would rise from Jacob! (Numbers 24).

Yes, no prophet spoke more highly, and more purely, for though paid to curse, he would only bless, not counting the cost for he would only say what God commanded and revealed.

And yet no prophet fell more mightily or arguably caused more harm in Israel. So egregious his crime that his act merits special condemnation from Jesus himself. Great was his glory, and mighty his fall.

He is Balaam Son of Beor. His name means, strangely, “devourer,” And though sent to curse, this devourer could only bless and thus build up. And yet, eventually he lived up to his name.

Among the many nations that stretched from Mesopotamia to the modern-day Holy Land, Balaam’s fame was widespread. His home was far off to the east in northern Mesopotamia near the Euphrates river.  As shall see, his journey from being a false prophet of false gods, to become for a time a true prophet of the true God, was an odd journey, often market by comical interlude.

The story begins in the 22nd chapter of the Book of Numbers. King Balak of Moab was confronted with the arrival of the Israelites who had begun their entrance into the Promised Land. Unsettled by their vast numbers, and unnerved by their power and the blessing of God they seemed to possess, Balak sent for the famed Balaam, asking him to curse the Israelites, so that the Moabites could defeat them. The King said with great trust, For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:7).

To his credit, and despite being offered a large sum of money, Balaam refused to go with the men who were sent to fetch him. For, having prayed,  the Lord, warned him not to go. Now Balaam had never even heard of the Israelites, but God said, Do not go with these men and do not curse the people they fear, for they are blessed (Num 22:13). Despite more entreaties from the officials, and an even higher sum of money that was offered, Balaam responded Even if Balak gave me his house full of gold and silver, I could not do anything, small or great, contrary to the command the Lord my God (Num 22:19).

It is remarkable testimony at this point to Balaam that he so quickly learns of the True God and is willing to obey him!

Yet, Balaam’s faith, though growing quickly, still needed to be purified. Later, the next day, God came to Balaam and said to him, If these men have come to you, you may go with them; but only on the condition that you do exactly as I tell you. (Num 22:21)

Thus, Balaam went forth with the men who had summoned him. But God, who knows the secrets of the heart, seems to have known that as Balaam went forth, he did so with the intention of cursing this nation as was requested. Perhaps his intention was rooted in fear of these emissaries who drew him into the power of the King. Perhaps the rich profit enticed him. We do not know, but God had only given him permission to go with these men and await further instruction.  Balaam did not have permission to curse Israel. Thus, the anger of the Lord flared against him as he seemingly recanted on his vow of obeying the Lord.

In a comical turn of events, God sent an angel to block the way. But this “seer” (a word which means “one who sees”) could not see the angel;  yet, the donkey upon which he rode could see the angel!  And seeing the angel, the Donkey stubbornly refused to proceed.

When the frustrated Balaam began to beat the animal, the comical paradoxes grow. For Balaam,  a prophet who was supposed to speak for God, is now spoken to by God through his donkey! The donkey rebuked Balaam with these words What have I done to you that you should beat me these three times? Am I not your own beast, and have you not always ridden upon me until now? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way before? No, said Balaam (Num 22:29-30). The donkey is not only more reasonable than Balaam, not only rebukes him rightly, but even seems to psychoanalyze him! It is rich in comedy, and dripping in paradox.

Finally, the angel of the Lord reveals himself to Balaam. He falls to his knees and admits he has sinned and promises to go home immediately. But through the angel, God, who purifies our hearts, bids him to go forward anyway, but with this warning, you may say only what I tell you. (Num 22:35)

And in this way, God warns every prophet, including you and me who are prophets through our baptism. As prophets, we are to say only what God tells us, what God teaches us through his Scriptures and through the holy teachings of the Church.

Pay attention fellow prophet, if you won’t speak rightly, God can speak through a donkey! But he shouldn’t have to. If you don’t praise him the very rocks will cry out. But they shouldn’t have to. Never let it be said that donkeys and rocks are smarter and more useful to God than you are! Yes, God can raise up children for the kingdom from the very rocks, (cf Luke 3:8), but he shouldn’t have to.

Upon seeing Balaam, Balak runs to him,  relieved and wants him to go right to work cursing the Israelites. But Balaam, who has now been properly chastised and made the journey from being a false prophet of false gods, to a true prophet of true God says this profound, yet simple thing to the powerful king who stands before him: But what power have I to say anything? I can speak only what God puts in my mouth….I will tell you whatever he lets me see (Num 22:38; 23:3).

Still confident that Balaam would curse the Israelites Balak orders many rituals and sacrifices and then, perhaps presuming Balaam would give way to greed, and take the bride, or to fear and curse the Israelites, Balak  orders Balaam the utter the cursing oracle.

Yet out of Balaam’s mouth came not a curse but resounding blessings on Israel! Enraged, King Balaak ordered a new and “correct” oracle that would send curses on Israel. Yet again,  from Balaam’s mouth proceeded only another even more powerful blessing that foretold of Israel’s eventual triumph over its enemies including Moab!

Then a third, and a fourth oracle, but always the same result: a profound blessing rather than a curse. Only the words of the true God could come forth from Balaam’s mouth!

Yes, Balaam’s transformation was at it height, he was now a true prophet of the true God and he gave perhaps the most profound instruction any prophet has ever given. To a king who promised him riches and favor, or could also destroy him, he would only declare: I can speak only what God puts into my mouth.

Pay attention fellow prophet by baptism, is it true that nothing can come forth from your mouth except with God has put there? Really?

So here was Balaam at his height, at the time he was most conformed to God! And as such he uttered blessings that were critical to Israel, as she prepared to enter the Promised Land. It is astonishing that God would use a pagan “prophet” to utter his blessings. I suppose if God can use a donkey, he can use Balaam, and he can even use me.

And yet, mighty and steep was Balaam’s fall out of grace and away from his office to speak only that which God told him to speak. His crime is not explicitly recorded in Numbers, but it is described elsewhere. It is Jesus himself who best summarizes what Balaam did. He mentions it in his rebuke of the Church at Pergamum:

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. (Rev 2:14).

And so it would seem that although Balaam would not curse Israel, he encouraged Balak to insinuate Moabite women into Israel to seduce the men there to false worship and fornication. Since he could not weaken them from without, perhaps Balak could weaken them from within, or so Balaam taught and advised.

The result was a grave falling away from the faith such that 24,000 men were killed to purge the evil within Israel.(cf Num 25)

Why did Balaam do it? It is not clear. One text from the New Testament suggests it was greed.

With eyes full of adultery, [these wicked men]  never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. (2 Peter 2:14-15)

Another text ascribes it to envy:

Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, Jude 1:11

Whatever the cause, the wound was deep in Israel and never forgotten. When Israel finally conquered the Moabites they sought out Balaam and executed him. Thus the one who blessed them so profoundly and who could only obey God, now lay dead, a traitor to his office, and an enemy to God’s people. Corruptio optime pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst).

And yet, good reader, and fellow prophet, lest we think Balaam’s fate unique to him, we ought take heed lest we fall. Consider a brief incident in the Gospel from Monday of this week (3rd Week of Advent).

It is a classic and memorable exchange between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his day:

When Jesus had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them in reply, “I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” They discussed this among themselves and said, “If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.” So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.” He himself said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.” (Matt 21:23-27)

Such a sad and pathetic lot of men. Note therefore that Jesus catches them in the classic trap of every false prophet. And that is the trap of preferring their own safety and benefit to the truth that they are to proclaim.

See how different they are from Balaam at his best when he stood before a powerful king who could bring him great blessing or great curse. And yet, he feared God more than man, he loved the truth more than his life. He spoke the truth, whatever the cost. For at least that brief moment, he risked everything for the truth God had revealed.

And lest we scorn these religious leaders who were compromised so easily before Jesus we ought to know well that this is a very common human struggle. The fact is, most of us face a very grave temptation to navigate life in such a way that we avoid trouble, and seek to maximize blessings and access to money and power. Most human beings are more than willing to compromise the truth, even wholly set it aside, in order to take this path.

It is the great human struggle, frequently the truth just “costs too much.” And so we cash out.

Pray for bishops, priests and deacons, who have the first obligation to speak God’s truth. For too easily, we seek to avoid difficulties and troubles, and maximize personal blessings at the cost of compromising the gospel message, avoiding controversy, or challenging texts, of not confronting sin, of fearing man more than God, for whom we should speak.

Pray too for parents, for leaders of families who often do the same things, sometimes by silence, sometimes by tolerating sinful and bad behavior, sometimes with outright teaching that which is popular but wrong and contrary to God’s will.

Yes, too often we all seek to navigate life in such a way that we merely avoid trouble and maximize blessings or access.  But we do so by scorning the prophetic office to which we have been called by baptism.

And thanks be to God for those who have spoken the truth to us whatever the cost. For indeed some, yes many, suffered to hand on the Faith to us. Some have suffered and paid the greatest price to summon us to the repentance we did not want to hear.

Yes you and I are to be willing to suffer and preach the truth whatever the cost.

The tragic story Balaam reminds us we must keep constant vigil over our weak and fearful nature. For even if at one moment we stand strong in the face of evil, and proclaim the truth, too quickly we fall back into fear and compromise.

It is not clear what led Balaam back into the darkness, but let that also be a warning to us. For in any number of ways we too can be compromised. Our only refuge can be to beg God for his grace and mercy: Lord make me strong, and keep me strong; give me courage, and keep me courageous; let my zeal be for your whole law, and not part of it only. Let there be no openings that divide or compromise my heart; or my zeal you and your kingdom.

A Meditation on Sin’s Effects and God’s Mercy in the Story of Jonah

100713In daily Mass these next few days we are reading from the Book of the Prophet Jonah. Of all the prophets Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant, and his struggle with sin is not hidden. In the passage from Monday’s reading we see something of a portrait on sin and also the love of God for sinners. Lets look at the passage and allow its teachings to reach us.

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

To defy, means to openly and boldly resist what one is told to do. It also indicates a lack of faith since it comes from the Latin “dis “against” + fidere “believe”. Hence, Jonah is not just insubordinate, he is unbelieving, he lacks trust.

His scoffing and defiant attitude likely results from hatred, or excessive nationalism. Nineveh was the capital of the Syria, the mortal enemies of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness, they will grow stronger. Rather than trust God, he brazenly disobeys and foolishly thinks he can outrun God.

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

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

Note that he also puts down good money to try and accomplish the fleeing. Indeed, many people spend lots of money, and go miles out of their way to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive, and many seem quite willing to pay.

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

How much of our trouble comes from our sin? Probably about 80%, if not more. So much suffering, so much cost, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. Bottom line; pardon the financial pun, sinful choices are usually costly.

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

Jonah’s defiance puts him and others headlong into a storm that, as we will see, grows ever deeper and involves others. Here too, the teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances and troubles. And as our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces more powerful.

It will be noted how Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important teaching that in our sin, in our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life, but into the lives of others we know and love. What we do, or fail to do affects others.

The Mariners fearing for their life, also lose wealth, and suffer great losses throwing the cargo overboard, on account of Jonah sinfulness.

And so too in our own culture, how much pain is caused, how much loss is experienced from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness, and sexual misbehavior, so many of our families are in the shredder, there is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that comes from broken families or malformed families. It is of course the children who, above all, feel the pain and injustice of so much bad adult behavior.

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

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

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

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

And yet, while all these storms (caused by him) are raging about him, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a kind of moral sleep, blissfully talking about their rights and that what they do is “nobody else’s business” etc. And yet all the while, the storm winds buffet, and others suffer from what they do, and so easily they remain morally asleep, unaware, inconsiderate, and locked in self-deception and rationalizations.

Many people today talk about “victimless sins” where supposedly nobone gets hurt. Those who are morally alert do not say these sorts of things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral sleep, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble, and all the while they mutter on in a immoral sleep about their right to do what they please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In effect, he says to them “Kill me, I do not deserve to live.” But this is not repentance, it is despair.

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord, sensing somehow His just verdict, yet fearing their own judgment in this regard, and asking mercy.

It used to be that, in the average American courtroom when someone did finally have to be sentenced to prison or worse, the judge would often say, “May God have mercy on your soul.” And thus, even in the said situations where we can do little but remove people from their ability to harm others, usually through incarceration, we ought to do so with a sober appreciation of their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.

And God does deliver Jonah. After his whale of a ride, in which Jonah must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, God finally delivers him right back to the shore of Joppa, where it all began.

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

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

Here’s the Peccavimus from the Oratorio “Jonas” by Carissimi

King David – A Great King, but with a critical flaw that is all too common today.

070913Today in the Divine Office we read of the tragic loss of Absalom, the Son of King David. And yet it remains true that too many of our own children today are lost, if not in death, surely in many other social ills and a lack of faith. What went wrong with Absalom and How was David to blame? What can we learn from this tragic tale?

First some back ground.

Of all the great Patriarchs of the Old Testament, David is among the greatest. Warrior and King, composer and conqueror, unifier and organizer, a man after God’s own heart. He united not only the 12 often fractured Tribes of Israel, but, as a kind if priest-king, stitched together the religious faith of Israel with its governance. King among them, he also collected and disseminated the great prayer-book of Israel, the Book of Psalms, composing many of them himself. So great was David, that among the most well known titles of Jesus would be, “Son of David.”

And yet, like almost all the great figures of the Bible, David was a man who struggled and was flawed. His demons would lead him even to murder as he amassed power and wives. And though he brought unity and governance to 12 contentious tribes, his own family was in a ruinous condition: afflicted by a murderous internecine conflict which had David for its much of its sinful source, and which he seemed powerless to stop.

In the end his family intrigues would cause the delicate union of the Israel he had woven, to come unraveled. And in David’s flaws are important lessons for our times as well.

Let’s recall a few details of King David’s life and domestic difficulties and see where things unravel.

David was the youngest son of Jesse, of whom God said, I have provided a king for myself among [Jesse’s] sons (1 Sam 16:1). Of David it is clear that he was chosen especially by God, for the Lord instructed Samuel to look for him saying, Do not consider his appearance or his height, ….The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart ( 1 Sam 16:7).

Yes, there was something about David’s heart that God loved. Whatever his later flaws, David had a heart for God, and God a heart for David. Upon Samuel’s anointing of David, the Scripture says: And from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. ( 1 Sam 16:13)

Unifier – Upon the death of Saul, Ten Tribes from Israel in the north divided against Judah in the South, and war ensued. But through military action, and other more diplomatic efforts, David was successful in reuniting the Kingdom in 1000 BC. He drove out the Hittites to establish Jerusalem as the Capital. He also wove the kingship together with Israel’s faith in order to establish deeper ties among the Israelites. Thus Jerusalem also became the place of the Temple of God, and the Ark. It was during this time that David both collected, and probably wrote, a good number of the Psalms.

Yes here was the great man of whom God said I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). But God only seldom (such as with Mary) uses sinless humanity. We carry the treasure of God’s love in earthen vessels (cf 2 Cor 4:7). David’s strength was admixed with weakness and flaws, flaws which cascaded down through the lives of others, and gravely affected the Kingdom he was privileged to set forth.

Trouble begins with the fact that David had eight wives whose names we know: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah; later Michal and Bathsheba. The Biblical text suggests he had other wives as well, upon settling in Jerusalem. From these David had 19 sons. Let the internecine intrigue and blood-letting begin.

Disclaimer – It is true that, as many will hasten to point out, that polygamy was common among the ancient patriarchs. Yes, it was. But that it was common does not shield from the fact that, as the Scriptures consistently show, Polygamy always brings terrible results: infighting, rivalries, and often murderous intrigue. I have written more in this problem here: Don’t Do Polygamy.

God in setting forth marriage in Genesis 1 & 2 prescribed one man for one woman in a stable and fruitful relationship. God created for Adam, only Eve, and not also Jane and Sue and Mary and Ellen and Samantha. And God said that a man (singular) shall leaven his father and mother (singular) and cling to his wife (singular) the TWO (not three or more) of the them shall become one (Gen 2:24).

Diversions from this God-given model bring only sadness and even death. David’s many marriages and sons by different mothers, is no exception, and the flawed family structure will bring real devastation not only to David’s family, but to all Israel.

First Degree Murder – David, already with many wives and competing sons, deepens the trouble when he has Uriah the Hittite killed, and takes his wife Bathsheba. The remarkably wicked act of murder rooted in lust and fear, shows a deep flaw in King David for which he is repentant, writing Psalm 51, the Miserere. But Bathsheba’s inclusion into the royal family only adds to the intrigue in the family, and the royal court. For she later advances the cause of her son, Solomon, against David’s older sons.

Rape – Even prior to that pot boiling over, tragedy had struck elsewhere in David’s family, among his sons. His eldest Son and likely heir, Amnon grew desirous of, and eventually raped his half sister Tamar daughter of David by his wife Maacah. “Blended families” have a higher degree of sexual abuse for the rather obvious reason that step-relations include less sexual reserve than full-blooded ones.

Weak Father – After the rape, according to Scripture, And when king David heard of these things he was exceedingly grieved: but he would not afflict the spirit of his son Amnon, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn (2 Sam 13:21). This was a mistaken understanding of love. For the love of a Father for his son must include discipline, and insistence on what is right. Amnon had seriously sinned and owed restitution. David remained quiet when he should have spoke and acted.

Resentful Son – Hence, due to David’s inaction, one of David’s other sons (and full brother of Tamar), Absalom, grew furious at what was done to his sister. He thus plotted, and eventually killed Amnon, and then fled to the Land of Geshur. David now had lost two sons and had a daughter who had been raped.

For indeed, though eventually pardoned by his father, King David, Absalom had grown bitter against David and raised an effective rebellion against him. In the war that ensued, Absalom and his rebellion were put down, and Absalom killed.

David seemed well aware of his role in Abasolom’s rebellion and demise. He had said earlier, when one of Absolom’s followers came cursing him: If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’” David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.” (2 Sam 16:10-12) Upon Absalom’s death David cried: O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33).

Court and family intrigue continues right up to David’s death. The now oldest, and likely successor and son of David, Adonijah, was ousted from succession by David’s wife Bathsheba who, working with Nathan, promoted her son Solomon, while David lay feeble and largely forgetful. Claiming she had earlier secured a private vow from David regarding Solomon’s succession, she set loose a power struggle between Adonijah and Solomon. In the end Solomon prevailed over Adonijah, and, after David’s death Solomon had his half-brother (Adonijah) killed.

Like Father Like Son – Solomon, though a great king in his own right, inherited some of his father’s foibles. He ended with having 1000 wives and as Scripture says of him: King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women…As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:4-6).

The End of the Kingdom – So unraveled did Solomon become, and so disconcerting were his family and foreign intrigues, that shortly after his death, during the reign of his polygamous and expansionist son, Rehoboam. Israel again broke apart into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. They would never reunite.

How remarkable that King David, so highly regarded, not only by humanity, but by God himself, would have such deep flaws. And how remarkable too that, being as gifted as he was, David also brought such pain and sorrow to his family and, by extension to Israel.

What are the lessons for us? Let’s begin with the negative.

The first lesson is that allowing the family to decay and drift from God’s intended structure and form brings great harm. David’s polygamy, his unlawful and sinful acquisition of Bathsheba, his playing of favorites, and his refusal to correct and punish Amnon for the rape of Tamar, all contributed to serious and deadly consequences. And these deadly consequences expanded far beyond David’s own family, and rippled through all Israel leading ultimately to its break down and demise.

Some may argue that norms for marriage and family were less clear at this early stage of Israelite history, and that we ought not project later norms back on these times. I beg to differ. For Genesis 1 and 2 clearly set for the norms of Marriage as God intends: one man for one woman in a stable fruit-bearing relationship till death do them part. One man clinging to one woman, being fruitful and multiplying through their children. This is God’s plan as set forth in Genesis 2.

The first lesson for us is that our family struggles and modern departure from biblical norms regarding the family also have grave effects that extend beyond merely our own families. As divorce and remarriage, single parenthood, homosexual unions, and (coming soon) polygamy, proliferate in our culture, increasingly grave effects befall us as our children. There is often lack of proper discipline and supervision, and a lack of proper role models, and often gravely dysfunctional settings. As a result, our whole society grows weaker and more dysfunctional.

As the soil of the family grows ever thinner, we cannot expect to find the taller growths. And when the family is not strong, neither is the community, Church or nation. Birthrates fall and test scores fall, abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, single motherhood and divorce all rise.

Our children are in the balance, and we like David, seem to have little will or ability to change our ways. And though we see destruction, even death all around us, there seems little collective will to repent, live chastely and exemplify biblical marriage. In so doing we act not only sinfully, but also unjustly to our children, our community, our Church and nation.

And, as with ancient Israel, our future is tied to our decisions regarding our families. As our families go, so will the nation go. The Church will ultimately remain, but she is sorely weakened by our collective lack of resolve to restore our families.

This is lesson one.

Lesson twoDespite David’s committing of some pretty serious sins, to include premeditated murder; despite also his flaws and weakness, Scripture clearly attests God’s love for David. God’s himself says of that he is a man after My own heart (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). Yes, God had a heart for David, a special place in His heart.

And to be fair, David also had a great heart for God. It is true David was a sinner, and in several ways a very serious sinner. But he knew that, and was repentant (cf: 2 Sam 16:10-12; Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:11ff, inter al). He was a great King, to be sure, but also a humble man. In his final words near the end of his life, he advised: He that ruleth over men, must be just, ruling in the fear of God (2 Samuel 23:3). And though David sinned, he had a reverential fear for God rooted in love. He was a man after God’s own heart.

And herein lies the crux of this second lesson: God loves sinners, God uses sinners and flawed men and women. God can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way. Perhaps God should not have to, but he seems more than willing to use us, even in our brokenness.

Are there consequences to sin? Yes. But does God withdraw his love? Never. Even for those who finally refuse his Kingdom and it values, somehow his love reaches even into Hell. For how else could the souls there live without his sustaining love.

We should never doubt God’s love for us, no matter how deep our flaws or serious our sins. God will never forsake us. He may allow us to experience the consequences of our sins, as he did with David, and seems to be doing with us now, but God never withdraws his love or fails to shepherd us rightly. Whatever our sins, we have but to seek his mercy, like David, and accept his love. We are men and women after God’s own heart.

We ought to learn the terrible lessons of the family of David and repent of any of the ways we in the modern setting too often repeat these sins. But in the end we must never forget God’s love for us, and acting out of the power of that Love, we must strive to bring healing to our often broken and dysfunctional families.

Painting above: David Repents from Wiki Commons

A Battle You Cannot Afford to Win – The Remarkable Story of Jacob’s Conversion

4x5 originalOne of the stranger affections of God in the Old Testament is the special love that God had for Jacob. His name, according to some means “grabber” or “usurper”. Even in the womb he strove and wrestled with his twin brother Esau. And though Esau made it out first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel. Thus they named him Jacob (“grabber”).

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

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

Frankly, Jacob deserved it all. He was a schemer who was out-schemed. He was a trickster, a shyster, and an out-right liar who succumbed to all his own devices by someone more devious than even he.

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

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

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

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

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is a hard case so God disables him. Having knocked out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him with the necessity to literally limp and lean on a cane the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean, and he will never forget this lesson, since he must physically lean from now on.

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

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

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

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

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

God needs to get all of us to this place!

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

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

Here is the critical moment. Jacob finally owns his name. Before he had lied to his Father Isaac who, when blind, asked him: “What is your name?” And Jacob lied saying: “I am Esau.”

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

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

But receiving this confession, God wipes this slate clean and gives him a new name: Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles, or strives with God.”

And in being renamed he becomes a new man. He is different now, he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way, with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with him, not against him.

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

Postscript – There is a kind of picture of the “New Man” Jacob had become in the Book of Hebrews: By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshiped, leaning upon the top of his staff. (Heb 11:21) Yes, he had learned to lean. He limped the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

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

God is preparing me for something I can’t handle now. What the Story of Moses’ preparation has to teach us.

051213In The Second Chapter of Exodus, we have presented the Story of Moses and how he was prepared by God for the great mission he would one day take up, by God grace, that of delivering and leading the Jewish people to freedom and toward the Promised Land. But as we shall see, Moses’ preparation is anything but uneventful. God must prepare him in a crucible of sorts and also lead him to a greater humility prior to his great mission. It is not an easy preparation. Let’s look to the purposeful preparation of the Man named Moses.

I. Family situation – At the Chapter opens, we read: Now a man from the house of Levi went and took to wife a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could hide him no longer she took for him a basket made of bulrushes, and daubed it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds at the river’s brink. And his sister stood at a distance, to know what would be done to him. (Ex 2:1-4)

Thus we have the dramatic opening of the birth of Moses with a death sentence over his head. Pharaoh has ordered the death of every Hebrew boy saying to the midwives, When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live (Exodus 1:16). Moses is thus slated to die on account of murderous greed, royal injustice, and the fearful assent of others.

But look again! And see the focus on women and their initiative in this chapter. Moses’ mother, his sister and Pharaoh’s daughter are all mentioned as standing in the gap against the injustice of their day. It is interesting that men are not mentioned!

This provides a key insight into the ways of God. In situations of oppression it is often the weakest who show themselves most powerful, and that, in weakness, power often reaches perfection. Perhaps this is because the weak and powerless have the least to lose and are the least invested in the “way things are.” And thus Scripture teaches of how our weakness opens the door to God’s strength:

  1. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:27 )
  2. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:8 )

As we shall see, this insight will be important for Moses in years to come when he is forty years of age. For in his strength he will be too “strong” to be used by God. God will first need to humble and age him, weaken his human power, to make him useful.

But for now simply note the strong stock from which Moses comes. His mother and aunt make a daring and risky move, and prove themselves resourceful in the midst of a depraved and wicked situation. They will resist evil, but not by adopting evil’s tactics, rather by making what will amount to a daring raid, a stealthy incursion, in to the very source of evil, Pharaoh’s own household.

It would seem that Moses’ mother must have informed him of his Hebrew origins at some point for Scripture says elsewhere:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. (Heb 11:24-27)

And while it involves some conjecture, we can almost imagine his mother, serving as his caretaker in pharaoh’s palace teaching him: Son, this is who you really are and don’t you forget it. Don’t be fooled by all this power and money, by all these trappings. Remember your people and consider that God has saved you for a reason and has a plan for your life.

Yes, we ought to know that Moses came from strong stock, and even if we have to read between the lines, it is clear that Moses had a strong and daring mother and family.

Lets read on.

II. Fantastic Sovereignty – Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, and her maidens walked beside the river; she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it. When she opened it she saw the child; and lo, the babe was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away, and
nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. 10 And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son; and she named him Moses, for she said, “Because I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:5-10)

In some ways the action of these women shows both desperation and decisiveness. Floating Moses downstream is quite chancy but notice the mother and daughter monitor the situation to see what will come, and be able to respond to whatever occurs. Hence they remain actors in the drama not merely hapless victims of the situation.

Note too, the similarities to the story of Noah and the Ark and also the Cross cannot be overlooked:

  1. A wooden ark covered with pitch
  2. Moses floats to salvation on the very waters that meant death for others.
  3. God is sovereign in that he works his purposes out despite human sinfulness and stubbornness. In fact, he even uses human sin to accomplish his purposes.
  4. Human sin becomes the launching pad for divine action.

Note the list of ironies and divine sovereignty we can observe in this short

  1. Pharaoh’s chosen instrument of destruction (the Nile) is the means for saving Moses.
  2. The women who are “allowed to live” sonce Pharaoh’s death sentence did not include them,  (presumably because they as less a threat) now proceed to oppose Pharaoh and deal a serious blow to his plans of suppression
  3. The mother of Moses saves him by following Pharaoh’s order (with a twist). Moses is cast into the water as ordered, but on the wood of a kind of ark or cross.
  4. A member of Pharaoh’s own family undermines his policies and saves the very person who will ultimately defeat Pharaoh.
  5. Egyptian royalty (through Pharaoh’s daughter) heeds a Hebrew girl’s advice and receives the seed of it’s own destruction
  6. Moses’ mother gets paid from Pharaoh’s own budget to do what she most wants to do (nurture her son).
  7. Moses is educated to be an Israelite leader within the very court of Pharaoh.
  8. Pharaoh’s daughter gives Moses a name that is prophetic: true she drew from the water, but Moses would draw Israel out of the water too!

Yes, God has initiated through these women, a daring raid on the lair of evil, Pharaoh’s palace, and placed and agent, a savior there who will be prepared by Pharaoh’s own court for its eventual downfall.  Indeed, though we know little of these years from the Exodus account, Scripture later tells us, through St. Stephen’s speech in Acts of the glory of Moses’ upbringing in the Court of Pharaoh:

At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family.When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son.Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. (Acts 7:20-22)

Yes, Pharaoh was teaching and preparing his own nemesis. He was preparing his own downfall. You might call this  the “fantastic sovereignty” of God.

III. False Start – So things are well underway for deliverance for the Hebrews. But then comes a twist, a kind of development in the plot that warns us not to get out ahead of God.  The text says,  One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together; and he said to the man that did the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh, and stayed in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well. (Ex. 2:11-15)

The problem here is that Moses appoints himself. The Hebrew man may be rude and in the wrong but he speaks rightly, asking,  Who made you a prince and a judge over us? And of course the answer is, “no one has.” God has not yet spoken to Moses as he will later do. Moses is out ahead of God. Moses tries to save his people without God. This is pride and presumption.

This is at the heart of the matter. God needs to work with Moses for forty
more years before he is ready.

We cannot avoid the clear indictment that Moses is a murderer. Despite feeling righteousness indignation well up within him, he has no right to kill.

It remains a truth that our most of our Biblical heroes have “pasts” and struggled with sin and weakness in their lives. We are dealing with human beings here, not epic heroes. We see in Genesis with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rachel, Leah, et al., all of them had “issues.” Looking ahead, we shall see other examples, David. Elijah, Jonah, Peter, Paul, just to name a few. Regarding Moses, Imagine God making a past murderer the great leader of his people!

And thus, God will use whom he will use, even those with a past and those who have had great struggles.

But as for now, Moses has gotten out ahead of God, and in his pride commits the sin of murder. Scripture says elsewhere of Moses’ error:  [Moses] supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him, but they did not understand (Acts 7:25). And indeed, why should they? God has revealed no such thing to them yet, and has not yet sent Moses to them.

Let us be clear, Moses, at age 40, in his prime, is too strong and too proud for God to use. God seeks the weak and humble, those who will depend on him. Thus Moses needs purification and preparation in the desert, where he must now flee. For forty years, God will work with him, and when Moses is finally weak and humble enough, not trusting in his own power, then God will finally call him. For now, he must stand down.

Pay attention dear reader. Too many of us also get out ahead of God. Too many of us also undertake tasks that God has not given or has said, “not yet” to. Troubles and burdens, even grave sins can come when we get out of or ahead of God’s will.

IV. Formative Sojourning – And Thus Moses flees to the desert where God will purify and prepare him for something he cannot handle right now. The text says,  Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew
water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. When they came to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “And where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She bore a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:16-22)

Moses will now live humbly. He will have a desert experience. He will learn to
shepherd. He will raise a family. He will learn patience and, with age, his own limits.

The paradox of all this is that God seeks us in our humility more than our strength. Without humility we are dangerous and God cannot use us. Finally in forty years, when Moses is 80, leaning on a cane, and of stammering speech, God will finally say, “Now I can use you, for now you will rely on my power, not yours.”

V. Foreseeing Strategy – The text of Exodus 2 concludes: In the course of those many days the king of Egypt died. And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition. (Ex 2:22-25)

In a strange way God has almost been in the background up to this point. Now
finally he is disclosed and described as one who hears, remembers, sees and knows the condition of his people.

We know from what follows and also from what we have already discussed, God
is not a passive observer here. He has been laying the groundwork for the deliverance of his people and is working his purposes out. All this time God has been silently at work.

Moses the deliverer was snatched from the waters, educated and prepared in Pharaoh’s own courts, by Pharaoh’s finest. Moses has had his pride humbled, and his human strength replaced by divine dependance through a forty year purification in the desert. And now the deliverer of Israel is finally ready.

Chapter three will show some need to grow in trust, But Moses is now ready and the deliverance shall commence.

And as for Moses, there was operative for him those forty years in the desert the words of an old Gospel Song:

God is preparing me.
He’s preparing me for something
I cannot handle right now;
He’s making me ready just because He cares.
He’s providing me with what I need
to carry out the next matter in my life.

He’s maturing me
He’s arranging me
He’s preparing
He is training me
He is tuning me
He is purging me
He is pruning me
For everything
That comes in my life

That’s Moses’ Story. How about yours?

The Story of Eli: A Moral Tale on the Peril of Poor Parenting and Unfaithful Priestly Ministry


In the First Book of Samuel, we see are rather stunning portrait of poor parenting and poor priestly leadership in the person of of High Priest of the Sanctuary at Shiloh, Eli. Consider this line from the Scriptures:

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”“I did not call you,” Eli said. “Go back to sleep.” …..At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. (1 Sam 3:3-5).

Now let me ask you, how could it be that Samuel, a young boy living in the temple of the Lord and under the foster parentage of the High Priest was “not familiar” with the Lord? Some may argue he is but a young boy. Still, he is old enough to speak with Eli, to hear and heed Eli’s instructions. Has Eli told him nothing of the Lord? It would seem so. Ah, but you say, the text has indicated that Samuel knew nothing because the Lord had not yet revealed anything to him. The text seems to root the cause of his unfamiliarity in the Lord rather than Eli. But Eli is still without excuse for it remains true that God reveals himself to us not usually as a voice in the night, or some unusual Theophany. Rather, God reveals himself to us through parents, priests, religious and other elders. For a young and already talking Samuel to be unfamiliar with the Lord while living under the care of the High Priest supposedly ministering in the very House of The Lord is unconscionable. It is a dereliction of duty. Eli has failed thus far as a parent and a priest. Children should be taught of God from their first interactive moments. Among the first things they learn should be Bible stories and prayers. They should be made aware of and become familiar with the “still small voice” of God as he whispers his presence to them.

I have only a few memories of being a very young child of about 5 years of age. But one of the memories I most cherish is how plainly I heard the voice of God and felt his presence. There was a very beautiful statue of the Sacred Heart near my dresser and God surely spoke to me from there and I was familiar with his calming and loving presence. But I could understand what I was experiencing because my parents had made me familiar with the Lord. I knew who it was that was speaking to me in those quiet and calm whispers. It was the Lord. Sadly, as I grew older and the flesh became more alive I lost my ability to hear the “still, small voice” of the Lord. I have sought it ever since my conversion back to the Lord and am only in recent years beginning to experience it again in moments of contemplative prayer.

I knew who spoke to me and had been made familiar with him, but Samuel did not and this is a very serious dereliction of duty on the part of Eli. When asked he finally did tell Samuel of the Lord but Samuel should not have had to ask.

Perhaps you think I am being too hard on Eli or reading into the text a bit. Maybe Eli was a busy man being High Priest and all. Or perhaps I am just plain wrong and Eli was actually a good father figure for Samuel.

A Pattern – But I do not think I am wrong nor am I being too harsh for poor parenting and poor priestly leadership are a pattern for Eli. Consider another story about the two priestly sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas:

Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD. Now it was the practice of the priests with the people that whenever anyone offered a sacrifice and while the meat was being boiled, the servant of the priest would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand. He would plunge it into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot, and the priest would take for himself whatever the fork brought up. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. But even before the fat was burned, the servant of the priest would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” If the man said to him, “Let the fat be burned up first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would then answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.” This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt……Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’s people. If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the LORD’s will to put them to death…..Now a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “This is what the LORD says: Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’ “Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: …those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line …” ‘And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day. I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his house, and he will minister before my anointed one always. (1 Sam 2:selected verses)

The basic facts are these:

  1. The priestly sons of Eli, Hophniand Phinehas, are wicked men. They violate the sacred liturgy and and take more than their portion, a portion that belongs to God. They scandalize the faithful, act unjustly toward them and have illicit sexual relations with the young women assigned to care for the Shrine at Shiloh.
  2. But Eli does nothing. When it is called to his attention he gives a verbal rebuke. But he must do more than this. They have acted so scandalously that they must be removed. They are a threat to others by their exploitative and opportunistic behavior. They should have been removed. It is a true fact that we struggled with this very same thing in the clergy sexual abuse scandal of recent years.
  3. God rebukes Eli for his weak rebuke and tells him that his weak response indicates that Eli favors his sons more than God and also scorns the sacred liturgy.
  4. God cannot allow Eli and his sons to minister at Shiloh any longer. He will bring Eli’s family down and replace him with a priest who is faithful and will do what is in God’s heart and mind. In a word, Eli has been replaced. Samuel will soon enough take up the holy priesthood. Hophni and Phinehas will die soon for their sins, and Eli’s line is at an end.

How has all this happened? Poor parenting and an unfaithful priestly ministry. In failing to raise his children in the fear of the Lord and in failing to punish wrongdoing Eli has brought grave harm upon himself, his family and his sons. In addition, when Samuel was placed in his care he continued with his pattern of failing to preach the Lord and make Samuel familiar with him.

This is a moral tale for our times as well. How many young people today have not been raised in the reverential fear of the Lord, have not been raised to be familiar with the Lord, have not been properly disciplined by parents and trained in righteousness? How many of them have not been instructed in God’s ways and have been allowed to fall deep into sinful habits and patterns.

In the Church too some have not at times been willing to discipline where necessary. Sin is often not rebuked from our pulpits, children are poorly instructed in the faith. We celebrate compassion but sometimes to a fault where sin is tolerated and grows very serious in people’s lives. Silence by many clergy and Church leaders in the face of serious sin can and is taken to be tacit approval of sin and has led to a widespread moral malaise. Disobedience in the clergy has sometimes been tolerated. Liturgical norms and the sacred liturgy have often been abused. And yes, as we sadly know there has been abusive and illicit sexual activity too.

Thank God there are signs of revival and renewal in many of these areas in the Church and in some of our families. But the story of Eli is an important moral tale for our times that God wants us to take serious our obligation to raise our children to know the Lord and walk in his ways. Through proper discipline and instruction we are summoned to have our children be familiar with the Lord at the very dawning of consciousness and reason. To fail in this regard is something God takes very seriously. Thank God for good parents, clergy and religious who have done their very best in this regard. Hopefully the story of Eli for most of us is simply an encouragement to do what we are already doing. But for those who fail to take seriously their obligations in this regard it should be seen for what it also is: a warning.

Since this was a rather heavy post, perhaps you’ll allow me to post a humorous video. As I have pointed out, Parents and priests should teach Children to pray. But this video by Tim Hawkins tells us what to avoid when teaching children to pray. In a phrase: “Don’t be spooky!”

Tim Hawkins Scary Bedtime Prayer from crownentertainment on GodTube.