Are Some of the Psalms Boastful?

To anyone who regularly reads the Liturgy of the Hours, some of the psalms seem downright boastful. They sound too much like the Pharisee who went to pray and said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). In the very next verse, Jesus recommends a briefer prayer for us: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How, then, are we to understand some of the psalms that seem to take up a rather boastful and presumptuous tone? Consider these three passages:

    • The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight (Psalm 18:21-24).
    • My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-4).
    • I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me … therefore I hate every wrong path (Psalm 119:100-102).

For us who would pray these, the spiritual approach is twofold.

These psalms are prayed in hope. While we are not worthy to say such words without a lot of qualifications, by God’s grace they will one day be true for us. God is drawing us to perfection. While total perfection will not come until we attain Heaven, if we are faithful we should be progressing toward this lofty reality even now.

Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation. One day in Heaven we will be able to say, “I do not sin; I am blameless before God. I am not proud and never depart from your decrees, O Lord.” Hope is the vigorous expectation that these words will one day apply to us fully; for now, we recite them in that fervent hope.

In effect, we are memorizing our lines for a future moment, when by God’s grace we will actually be able to recite them truthfully. Praying psalms like these is like a dress rehearsal for Heaven. These psalms amount to prolepses of a sort, whereby we proclaim a future reality as if it were already present. Our confidence to speak proleptically is in Christ alone.

These psalms are on the lips of Christ. When the Church prays, Head and members pray together; it is the whole Body of Christ that proclaims these psalms.

Christ never wavered, never drew back from God’s Law. He never sinned; His hands were clean from defilement and He was rewarded for His righteousness. Christ alone prays these psalms without any qualification.

In the Old Testament, these psalms pointed forward to the Christ, to the anointed Messiah. Today, they still point to Christ and He alone utters them authentically. None of us can really pray them apart from Christ, as members of His Body.

Even the perfected in Heaven cannot pray them without reference to Christ, for it is He who accomplished in them the perfection that makes such psalms a reality for them.

It is Christ who prays these psalms, and we—through Him, with Him and in Him—head and members—are praying them to the Father.

Without Christ, such psalms amount to haughty boasts and presumptuous declarations, but with Christ our Head, they are true; we can rightly pray them in the hope of our own perfection, one day, by His grace. We can also pray them in the joy that some of our brothers and sisters in Heaven have already attained to the perfection described therein. This is because the grace of Christ has had in them its full effect.

The Conquering Power of Praise – A Meditation on a Text From Second Chronicles

072113There is a story of King Jehoshaphat and the victory of Israel against the Moabites, Ammonites and Meunites (2 Chronicles 20). It is a story that speaks of the power of praise to defeat a numberless army. Simply singing a hymn of praise can cast out demons, avert war, and send evil threats limping away.

Yes, praise! It is not always weapons of iron and steal and fiery bombs that wins the day. Often it is simple praise, hands lifted in prayer, voices raised in praise.

Never underestimate the power of the liturgy to change world history, to turn back threats and see the devil’s power crushed. Indeed, scripture says, Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger (Psalm 8:2).

I would like to take a more detailed look at this passage from Second Chronicles to see what praise and communal prayer can do. As a Church musician myself, and now a priest, I have often used this text to speak to Church Choirs of the power of praise. For, in this text we see that it is the choir, not the army that wins the day! Lets look at the text.

I. THE ANXIETY PORTRAYED – We begin with a description of a looming Crisis. The text says, After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle.  Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazontamar” (that is, Engedi). Then Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. (2 Chron 20:1-3)

Now all this may seem a bit remote to us moderns. Indeed it my sound more like recitation for an ancient atlas or recitations from a “Jewish telephone book.” Don’t let all the names and places distract you. You and I also face a triple threat from the world, the flesh and the devil; from sins, sorrows and sufferings or just that situation you’re going through!

Indeed, as a pastor I am keenly aware that many come into our parishes on Sunday fighting demons and enemies. Many are overwhelmed, discouraged  and afraid. They seek wisdom from God through his word and Sacraments.

And we who would pastor and lead parishes must seek above all to make our parishes, and the celebration of our liturgies, healing moments for God’s people, moments that give them hope and victory over afflictions and demons and difficulties. It is much like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who, encountering the Lord, had  their hearts set on fire and their path redirected toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

People come with burdens, and we must be a place of blessing, or instruction in the Lord and a place that reminds of victory to those who persevere. And thus it makes sense that we head to the next step where in the faithful are assembled to seek healing, blessing and victory.

II. THE ASSEMBLING OF THE PEOPLE –  The text says,  And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD. And Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the LORD, before the new court, and said, “O LORD, God of our fathers, art thou not God in heaven? Dost thou not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In thy hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee. Didst thou not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and give it for ever to the descendants of Abraham thy friend? And they have dwelt in it, and have built thee in it a sanctuary for thy name, saying, ‘If evil comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before thee, for thy name is in this house, and cry to thee in our affliction, and thou wilt hear and save.’ And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom thou would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy– behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit. O our God, wilt thou not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon thee.”  Meanwhile all the men of Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children. (2 Chron 20:4-11)

Notice that the people all assemble: Men and women, young and old, children too. Here is sacred assembly and the power of communal prayer. Private prayer is both necessary and good. But there comes a time each week when all the faithful must assemble and join their collective prayers and praises. Here is a time of collective praise and, as we shall see of the sharing of wisdom and mutual support.

Isn’t this what we do each Sunday? We face demons and enemies and struggle with fear, just as did these people of old. But we, like them assemble and find strength. We tell the biblical and personal stories of how we’ve overcome and we draw strength from our story. Yes, there we are, clergy and people together with our God who instructs us in the battle reminds us of the victory, feeds us to strengthen us, and gives us a pledge of future glory in the Eucharist.

The Book of Hebrews says, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25)

Note that in this ancient gathering Jehoshaphat and the people do four things. There is:

1. The PRAISE of POWER (OF GOD)-  For they say: O LORD, God of our fathers, art thou not God in heaven? Dost thou not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In thy hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee. (vv. 4-6). And this is very much what we do in the Gloria, our collects, and in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. In praising the power of God we acknowledge his capacity to save us and are stirred to hope that He, who can make a way out of no way, will save us.

2. The PROCLAMATION of PAST DEEDS – For they recall that God settled them in this land as blessed them day by day. And they recall God’s promise to answer their prayer. And we too, as we read God’s word every Sunday of affliction, but then of deliverance. We learn that weaping ay endure for a night, but Joy does come with the morning light! This proclamation and reminder of God’s steadfast help in the past, steels our confidence that, as Scripture says, But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The LORD’s mercy is not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! The LORD is my portion, I tell myself therefore I will hope in him. The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance. -(Lamentations 3:21-26). Yes, we tell the story of how we’ve overcome and we’ll understand it better, by an by! In remembering the Lord’s mercy and deeds of the past we are encouraged that he did not bring us this far to leave us.

3. The PRESENTATION of the PROBLEM – For they say,  And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir…are coming to drive us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit. (vv. 10 – 11) Yes, Lord we are afflicted on every side, be it these ancient enemies or the even more ancient enemies of the World the flesh and the devil. Yes, Lord we are in need, we are afflicted.

4. The PETITION of the POWERLESS – And thus they say standing before the Lord with hands raised: O our God, wilt thou not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  (v. 11-12) And we too cry out: Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us O Lord by thy grace. We afflicted and powerless! Save us O Lord, spare us! And in acknowledging our powerlessness, comes our true power for then we start to rely on God.

III. THE ANSWER PROCLAIMED – And the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the midst of the assembly. And he said, “Hearken, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Fear not, and be not dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.  Tomorrow go down against them; behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz; you will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Fear not, and be not dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”  Then Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the LORD, worshiping the LORD.  And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise the LORD, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice. 2 Chron 20:14-14)

And thus in this sacred assembly comes an answer from God. And thus we note:

1. RESPONSE – For God speaks an answer through the Prophet Jahaziel, just as the prophetic voice of His Church continues to speak for him today. And notice too its in the context of the assembled community that the answer comes.

2. REASSURANCE – And Jahaziel says, Fear not, and be not dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s….‘ Fear not, and be not dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”  Yes, we do well to remember that the battle is ultimately the Lord’s. It is he who will win, it does not all depend on us alone. And we do well to remember this today when we are beset by many difficulties and discouraging cultural trends. The Lord has already won.  Nations may rise and fall, empires come and go, wicked philosophies have their time, and this has all happened in the age of the Church, but the Church and the Lord and the Gospel are still here and we have buried every one and everything that announced our death. Where is Caesar? Where is Napoleon, where is the USSR? God has already won, only the news has not yet dawned on some who choose the losing side.

3. REQUIREMENT – Tomorrow go down against them; behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz; you will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. But the Lord who made us without us, with not save us without us. He DOES have something for each of us to do. Our task is to discover our role and take our position on the field!  Perhaps it is being a priest, catechist, teacher or parent. Perhaps it is the witness to and renewal of the temporal order. Perhaps it is raising children in Godly fear or summoning others to holiness. But find your place on the battlefield and be still and stable there, doing what the Lord says, knowing that he is with us and that the battle is His and that he does the real fighting.

In effect we have here a quick synopsis of what a good homily should be. A homily should give, using God’s Word and the teachings of the Church, a response and reassurance regarding the issues and afflictions faced by God’s people. And, it should remind us of our role in finding our place on the battlefield, remaining stably there and doing what the Lord asks, but to do so in supreme confidence.

IV. THE AWESOME POWER OF PRAISE –  And finally comes the remarkable victory, a victory not won by military power, but by mighty praise. It is the praise of God that defeats his enemies round about. The text says: And they rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa; and as they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the LORD your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.” And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the LORD and praise him in holy array, as they went before the army, and say, “Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures for ever.” And when they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. For the men of Ammon and Moab rose against the inhabitants of Mount Seir, destroying them utterly, and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped to destroy one another. When Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the multitude; and behold, they were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped. When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take the spoil from them, they found cattle in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. On the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Beracah, for there they blessed the LORD; therefore the name of that place has been called the Valley of Beracah to this day. (2 Chronicles 20:20-26)

Note carefully that the Choir, dressed in holy array went in front of the Army! It is praise that will prevail this day! And as they go in front they sing: Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures for ever! And this praise throws the enemy into confusion! The threefold opposing armies turn on each other. No one escaped, they were all killed by one another.

Pay attention, there is power in praise. Nothing discourages the evil one more than the praise. Nothing confutes and confuses the world, the flesh and devil more than the joyful shout of a Christian. There is a glory and a power to joy and confident praise that cannot be denied.

I myself am a witness to the transformative power of God’s praise and its capacity to put the world, the flesh and devil to flight. I have spent most of my priesthood in African American Parishes where jubilant praise is a constant practice. Songs of hope, and joy and blessings abound and even our many songs that summon us to repentance are quite often humorous and hopeful, warning of judgment, but promising mercy to the steadfast. And this praise has changed my life. It has put demons to flight, subdued fleshly anxiety, sins, and thinking, and put the world on trial. I am more confident, more courageous, and more equipped to speak the truth in love.

Praise works, my life has had to many victories to say anything else. When the praises go up, the blessings come down and the victory is won. Yes, I am a witness. How about you?

Lord,  save us from sour-faced saints! God grant us joyful, confident and praise-filled Catholics all throughout this world. For in our praise, and joyful confidence in the truth of God’s Word and teaching comes a witness that is hard to refute. Yes Lord, even from the mouth of babes you have found praise to foil your enemies! (Ps 8:2). Yes Lord, teach us to praise you! Teach us the power of our song and of our joyful testimony.

Happy the people that know the joyful shout; that walk, O LORD, in the light of Thy face. (Psalm 89:16)

Do the Math! Learning the Mathematics of the Kingdom is important for Salvation

091213As a kind of follow-up from yesterday’s Gospel about the workers in the vineyard, we do we do well to examine. a kind of “mathematics of the Kingdom of God.” As noted yesterday, be very, very careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair, were all in big trouble. What we need most from God now is that he be merciful. And, having experienced God’s mercy he calls us to be merciful. Mercy is a very important aspect of the mathematics of the Kingdom of God.

In effect the Lord says to us, “Pay attention! You are going to be judged by the same standard by which you treat and judge others. So do the math, and realize that you were storing up for yourselves a kind of standard by which I will judge you.”

The key principle and text in this “math” comes in Luke’s Gospel wherein the Lord says the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:38). But this statement comes at the end of a long string of statements were in the Lord summons us to be generous, forgiving, merciful, patient, and reluctant to condemn others.

In effect, the Lord says “Do the math, and realize it if you are merciful you’ll be judged with mercy. But if you are harsh and critical you will be judged with a harsh and critical standard. If you have refused to forgive, you will not be forgiven.

Like it or not, this is the mathematics of the Kingdom of God that, while it does not mean we earn salvation, but it does mean that we have a lot of influence over the standard by which we will be judged.

So, if you are going to need mercy and grace on the day of judgment, (and we all are) it is good to do the math of the Kingdom, and store up mercy and grace for that day.

We will all, one day, answer to God. And that day, as Scripture repeatedly teaches, it is a day about which we should be sober. Sadly, there are many who give little thought to this truth, and some who outright scoff at it.

So, again, we can influence the manner in which God will judge us, the standard he will use! Now here, we speak of the manner of God’s judgment, that is Namely, whether he will judge us strictly, and or severely, or with lenience, and great mercy. On the day of our judgment, God will judge our deeds with pure justice. But part of that Justice is how we have treated others.

Let’s consider a few scripture passages wherein we are taught that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us. Lets look at four related areas that will have influence:

I. Whether we show mercy –

Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). James says something similar, and develops a bit when he says Always speak and act as those were going to be judged under the law of freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. So mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12 – 13). And thus we are taught that by observing mercy, and patience, in our relations with one another, we will influence the manner in which we are judged.

It is a fact that, sometimes in life, it will be required of us, especially if we are parents, or in leadership roles, that we will need to punish, and/or assign consequences for those who transgress moral laws, or legal limits. Hence, texts like these do not mean we should never correct with punitive measures. Such a way of living is unwise, and often confirms people in bad behaviors. But even when corrective or punitive measures are needed, it makes sense that we should seek to be lenient where possible, and use lesser measures before firmer ones are employed.

It is also clear from these biblical texts, that it is highly foolish to go through life with severity toward others, with a lack of compassion, or a harsh unyielding attitude. We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy at our judgment. Therefore, how misguided, how foolish it is for us to be harsh and unmerciful toward others. For indeed, these text tell us the merciful are blessed, and warn that the unmerciful will be shown no mercy. Can you or I really expect, that we will make it on the day of judgment, without boatloads of Mercy?

Now therefore is the time for us to seek to invoke the promise of the Lord, Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

II. Whether we have been strict or lenient

In a related text, and as noted above, the Lord Jesus says, The measure that you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Mark 4:24). Here again, if we hope for, and need a merciful judgment, if we want a merciful measure or standard to be used, the Lord makes it clear that he will use the measure or standard that we have used for others. Have we been strict? He will be strict. Have we been merciful? He will be merciful, and so forth. Be very careful before demanding that sinners and others who transgress receive the strongest penalties. There may be a time for penalties, but it is not always true that the most severe punishments be used.

In John 8 the Pharisees wanted to invoke the most severe penalty for a woman caught in adultery (stoning to death). Jesus reasons with them that before they demand he throw the book at her, they might want to recall there are a few things about them that are also written in the book. One by one they drift away, seemingly considering the foolishness of their demands for the most severe penalty. Somehow they realize that the measure they want to measure to her, will be measured back to them.

III. Whether we are generous to the poor

Luke, relates this text more specifically to our generosity: Give and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Luke 6:38). And this leads us to a second area which the Scriptures teach us that we can influence the day of our judgment.

Jesus, after rebuking the Scribes Pharisees for their severity, and their extreme legalism, says to them, who obsessed about cleaning the outside of the dish, You fools, did not the one who made the outside of the cup make the inside also? But if you give what is inside the cup as alms to the poor, everything will be made clean for you (Luke 11:40 – 41). It is a daring text, in the light of the theology of Grace, and almost implies that we could somehow “purchase” forgiveness. But of course, it is the Lord himself who says it, and he does not say we can somehow purchase forgiveness. But surely, he does teach that generosity to the poor will in fact influence the day of our judgment.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus develops the thought saying, I tell you, use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into trouble dwellings (Lk 16:9). It is a complicated text, but Jesus seems to be saying that our generosity to the poor, will surely gain for us advantages at the day of our judgment. Indeed, blessing the poor gives us powerful intercessors, for the Lord hears the cries of the poor. And on the day of our death, and our judgment, the picture that is painted here is of those very poor welcoming us into eternal dwellings.

Scripture elsewhere warns, If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be heard (Proverbs 21:13). So once again, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner, measure or standard that will be used by God at our judgment. To the merciful, mercy will be shown. The generous too will experience that their cries are heard, for they heard the cries of the poor. And the Lord more than implies that those who have been generous to the poor will have powerful advocates praying and interceding for them on the day of judgment. Indeed, a number of the Fathers of the Church remind us that, in this life, the poor need us, but in the life to come, we will need them.

IV. Whether we have been forgiving –

A final area to explore in terms of how we might have influence over the manner of our judgment is the matter of forgiveness. Just after giving us the “Our Father,” the Lord Jesus says the following, For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14 – 15).

Later in Matthew, Jesus tells a terrifying parable of a man who had huge debt, a debt that was forgiven him. But when he refused to forgive his brother a much smaller debt, the king grew angry and threw him into debtors prison. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35).

So yes, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us, over the standard he will use. And while it is true, God will judge will judge us by our deeds (cf Romans 2:6), yet the manner in which God judges us, whether with strictness or leniency, does seem to be a matter over which we have influence.

So, do the math and consider well the mathematics of the Kingdom of God!  It is a plain fact that we are all going to need lots of grace and mercy, for we will all have much to answer for. All the more reason for us to follow the teachings of the Lord, in his Scripture, and be sure that on the day of our judgment, mercy, and the grace of leniency will prevail. Do we want mercy? Then show mercy. Do we want a gentle standard? Then we must measure out gentleness. Do we want forgiveness? Then we must offer forgiveness. Recruit some good intercessors for the day of judgment, by giving to the poor. They will be the most powerful intercessors for us as we leave this life and go to judgment.

So,  God has shown us how we can store up a treasure of mercy, waiting for us in heaven, at the judgment seat of Christ. Some good lessons here to heed.

Here’s a funny video that illustrates that the measure we measure to others will be measured back to us:

 

The Use of Irony in John’s Gospel

Last Sunday’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus points to a supreme irony in the Gospel of John: Jesus’ very act of raising Lazarus from the dead confirms the Jewish temple leaders in their conviction to kill Him. The contrast could not be clearer. Jesus, who brings life, is opposed by the death-dealing conviction of His opponents. This is but one example of Johannine irony serving to highlight the differences between Jesus and His opponents.

As we approach Holy Week we encounter a lot of contrasts and ironies in John’s Gospel account of the Passion. We do well to look at some of them.

Irony is a literary technique that highlights a striking difference between two or more situations; this difference is known by the audience or readers while the characters in the narrative are unaware.

Another form of irony uses words to express something quite different from their typical meaning. A blind man may “see” better than those with vision. One considered a teacher may be ignorant of truths apparent to the most unlearned and simple of people.

The irony in the story of Lazarus comes several verses after the portion we read this past Sunday. The pertinent passage reads,

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas did not say this on his own. Instead, as high priest that year, he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to gather them together into one. So from that day on they plotted to kill Him. As a result, Jesus no longer went about publicly among the Jews, but He withdrew to a town called Ephraim in an area near the wilderness. And He stayed there with the disciples (John 11:45-54).

Yes, this passage is dripping with irony. The occasion of Jesus raising a man from the dead causes the Pharisees to plot His death. He who gives life must be put to death.

A second irony is that Caiaphas “accidentally” speaks the truth. He conspires in murder, but his office of prophet remains! He cannot help but speak the truth because he is High Priest. His prophecy is true, but only in a way very different from what he intends. He is like Balaam’s donkey, which spoke the truth, but as a beast, knew not of what it spoke. Thus Caiaphas is a prophet, but only in an accidental, unknowing way.

Yes, John’s Gospel is rich with irony—in a gleeful, sharp, sarcastic way. We human beings are prone to becoming fodder for irony because we are so fickly and inconsistent; we often play into divine plans even as we resist them!

Consider some other examples of Johannine irony:

I. Straining gnats and swallowing camels – Jesus has been brought before Pilate on trumped up charges. Yes, they have an innocent man on trial and conspire to have him murdered. Yet despite this wickedness, John reports, the Jewish leaders did not enter the Praetorium [the Governor’s palace] to avoid being defiled and unable to eat the Passover (Jn 18:28).

They are more concerned with the ritual impurity of entering the house of a Gentile than the fact that they are conspiring to murder an innocent man (who happens to be the Son of God)!

Yes, this is dripping with irony, a kind of sarcastic and tragic irony. In their foolishness and blindness, they will consider themselves worthy to eat the Passover because they did not enter the house of a Gentile. Never mind that they have conspired to murder an innocent man.

II. Who is really blind here? – In the story of the man born blind (John 9) there are numerous ironies. The blind man himself says to the Pharisees who interrogate him, That is remarkable indeed! You do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes (Jn 9:30). In other words, who is really the blind one here? Why should the student have to teach the teacher?

The blind man (who ironically can now see better than the supposed teachers and enlightened ones) instructs them of what they should know: Never before has anyone heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, He could not do anything like this (Jn 9:32-33).

Jesus later doubles down on the irony by declaring, within earshot of the religious leaders, For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind (Jn 9:39). They then continue, foolishly and blindly, to take the bait: Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, “Are we blind too?” “If you were blind,” Jesus replied, “you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (Jn 9:40-41).

The caustic irony cannot be missed. The rhetorical question remains, “Who is really blind here?”

III. The “enlightened” ones stumble about in the dark – One of the themes in John’s Gospel is the battle between light and darkness. This theme is announced in the prologue: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5). Jesus is the Light of the World, but men have shown that they prefer the darkness due to their wickedness (See John 3:19).

Jesus also says, Are there not twelve hours of daylight? If anyone walks in the daytime, he will not stumble, because he sees by the light of this world. But if anyone walks at night, he will stumble, because he has no light (Jn 11:9).

When Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John merely says, “It was night.” He is not just telling us the time of day. Darkness now has its hour. Although Judas and his conspirators consider Jesus misguided and dangerous, they think that they are the enlightened ones, knowing better than Jesus, who is the true Light.

Here comes the irony: Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane. He and His apostles made it there by the light of Passover moon and because Jesus is the light of the World. In a scene dripping with irony, John notes that as Judas approached the moonlit garden he brought a band of soldiers and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees. They arrived at the garden carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons (John 18:3). Yes, they stumble about on a moonlit night needing torches and lanterns to find their way.

IV. The arresters are arrested – Jesus, knowing their intentions and noting that they have trouble seeing, stepped forward and asked them, “Who are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered. Jesus said, “I AM.” And Judas His betrayer was standing there with them. When Jesus said, “I AM” they drew back and fell to the ground (Jn 18:4-6).

This is a kind of comedic irony. Sent to arrest Jesus, they are arrested by Him! The implication is that He almost needs to help them up from their fall. They are so overwhelmed by the authority of Jesus and His Divine Name that they fall backwards to the ground.

Some argue that their falling to the ground is a voluntary sign of reverence for the Divine Name. Maybe, but if so, then this is merely another supreme irony: that they would show reverence for the Divine Name while at the same time assisting in an act of betrayal and in the arresting of an innocent man.

V. The decider is indecisive – The description of the trial before Pilate in John’s Gospel is an ironic portrait of Pilate. Though possessed of great local power and the ability to decide Jesus’ fate in a way that will be unquestioned, Pilate is weak and vacillating. He is this way because of his ambition. He fears the crowd and their capacity to riot. Such an occurrence would be a huge blot on his record and likely prevent his future advancement.

Deep within his conscience, Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges. He correctly suspects that the Jewish leadership has brought Him up for unjust reasons and are serving their own interests more so than justice or religious conviction.

In chapters 18 and 19, John paints a physical picture of Pilate’s vacillation by describing his going in and out of the Praetorium (Governor’s palace) numerous times. In 18:28, Pilate goes out to address the Jews. In 18:33 He goes back into the Praetorium to speak with Jesus. In 18:38, Pilate goes back out to the Jews to say that he finds no guilt and tries to negotiate Jesus’ release. In 19:1, Pilate is back in the Praetorium and yet another compromise indicates that Jesus should be scourged but not killed. In 19:4, Pilate goes back out to the Jews hoping that the scourging of Jesus will have satisfied them. Though he said he had found no guilt in Jesus, he presents Him again after His scourging! Why have Jesus scourged (a terrible punishment) if he found no guilt in Him? Of course the Jewish leaders were still not satisfied and demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s fears grow and in 19:9 he goes back into the Praetorium to speak yet again with Jesus. Although Pilate asserts that he has the power to kill or release Him, Jesus looks at this deflated and fearful man and reminds him that he would have no power at all if God had not bestowed it on him. Finally, Pilate emerges one last time in 19:13 and in anger violates his own conscience and hands Jesus over to be crucified.

The dramatic irony is hard to miss. Here is a seemingly powerful man with the office to decide life or death, yet indecisive. He is a vacillator, swaying in the breeze of public opinion. On seven different occasions he goes into or out of the Praetorium. John’s portrait of this leader is dripping with irony. Pilate is more a follower than a leader.

VI. The judge is put on trial – John describes another irony within this irony. Although Jesus is on trial, at a key point He turns the tables on Pilate and it is Pilate who is on trial.

Usually in a trial the defendant is required to answer questions. Pilate begins by asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn 18:33) Jesus turns the tables on Pilate and asks him, “Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?” (Jn 18:34) Later, when Pilate asserts his authority to pass sentence on Jesus, Jesus reminds him that he would have no authority if God had not granted it to him.

Finally, when the critical moment to pass judgment comes, John writes, When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (Jon 19:13). The Greek text is ambiguous as to who is sitting on the judge’s seat. Does the “he” who sat down on the judge’s seat refer to Pilate or to Jesus? Historically, it was Pilate who sat in the judge’s seat, but grammatically it is ambiguous.

John underscores the irony: Who is really being judged here? Clearly it is actually Pilate who has come under judgment for violating his conscience and succumbing to fear. Yes, it is another dramatic irony wrapped in a grammatical ambiguity.

There are other ironies in John’s Gospel (such as Nicodemus, the enlightened teacher who comes to Jesus by night but needs to be taught Jn 3:10), but allow these examples to suffice.

The use and uncovering of irony is a memorable way to teach. John and the Holy Spirit who inspired him do not hesitate to make use of it. Ultimately, irony exists because we human beings are fickle and often pretentious. Such qualities are the fuel of irony.

Straining Out Gnats and Swallowing Camels As Seen in a Commercial

In the Gospel of Matthew (Mat 12:1-8), Jesus is rebuked for violating the Sabbath. This reminded me of the video below, which illustrates how we sometimes follow smaller rules while overlooking more important ones in the process.

The Lord Jesus was often scorned by the people of His day, who claimed that He overlooked certain details of the law (often Sabbath observances). But those who rebuked Him for this were guilty of far greater violations. For example,

  1. [Jesus] went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus (Mk 3:1-6).
  2. Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone (Luke 11:42).
  3. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Lk 13:14-16)
  4. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matt 23:24-25).

Yes, they are straining out gnats but swallowing camels, maximizing the minimum but minimizing the maximum. Note that in the first passage above they are actually planning to kill Jesus for healing on the Sabbath!

Perhaps my all-time favorite illustration of this awful human tendency is in the Gospel of John:

Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out … (John 18:28-29).

They are plotting to kill a just and innocent man; indeed, they are plotting to kill God. They are acting out of wickedness, envy, jealousy, hatred, and murderous anger, but their primary concern is avoiding ritual uncleanliness! Yes, they are straining out gnats but swallowing camels.

We who are pious and observant need to be wary of this tendency. Sometimes in congratulating ourselves over adherence in lesser matters, we can either offend or neglect in weightier ones. Perhaps I attend Mass each Sunday (a grave obligation); perhaps I pray the rosary (a highly commendable practice); perhaps I tithe (a commendable precept). These are all things that ought to be done (one is commanded, one is commended, and one is a precept). But what if at the same time I am hateful toward someone at the office, unforgiving to a family member, and/or insensitive to the poor?

The danger could be that I let my observance of certain things allow me to think that I can “check off the God box” and figure that because I went to Mass, prayed the rosary, and gave an offering, I’ve “got this righteousness thing down.” Too often, very significant and serious things like love, mercy, forgiveness, and charity are set aside or neglected as I am busy congratulating myself over my adherence to other, sometimes lesser, things.

This oversight can happen in the other direction as well. Someone may congratulate himself for spending the day working in a soup kitchen, and think that he therefore has no need to look at the fact that he is living unchastely (shacked up, for example) or not attending Mass.

We cannot “buy God off,” doing certain things (usually things that we like) while ignoring others we’d rather not. In the end, the whole counsel of God is important.

We must avoid the sinful tendency to try to substitute or swap, to observe a few things while overlooking others.

We see a lot of examples of this in our culture as well. We obsess over people smoking because it might be bad for their health while ignoring the health consequences of promiscuous behavior, which spreads AIDS and countless venereal diseases and leads to abortion. We campaign to save the baby seals while over a thousand baby humans are killed each day in the United States. We deplore (rightfully) the death of thousands each year in gun homicides while calling the murder of hundreds of thousands of babies each year a constitutional right. The school nurse is required to obtain parental permission to dispense aspirin to students but not to provide the dangerous abortifacient “morning after pill.” We talk about the dignity of women and yet pornography flourishes. We fret endlessly about our weight and the physical appearance of our bodies, which will die, and care little for our souls, which will live. We obsess over carbon footprints while flying on jets to global warming conferences at luxurious convention center complexes.

Yes, we are straining gnats but swallowing camels. As the Lord says, we ought not to neglect smaller things wholly, but simply observing lesser things doesn’t give us the right to ignore greater ones.

Salus animarum suprema lex. (The salvation of souls is the highest law.) While little things mean a lot, we must always remember not to allow them to eclipse greater things.

The ideal for which to aim is an integrated state in which the lesser serves the greater and is subsumed into it. St. Augustine rightly observed,

Quod Minimum, minimum est, Sed in minimo fidelem esse, magnum est (St. Augustine – De Doctrina Christiana, IV,35).

(What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing, but to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing.)

Notice that the lesser things are in service of the greater thing—in this case fidelity. And thus we should rightly ask whether some of the lesser things we do are really in service of the greater things like justice, love, mercy, fidelity, kindness, and generosity. Otherwise we run the risk of straining out gnats but swallowing camels.

Enjoy this commercial, which illustrates how one rule (no loud voices in the library) is observed while violating nearly every other.

Jesus Does Not Forbid Correcting the Sinner

Many of the psalms and proverbs of ancient Israel are in the form of poetry. In ancient Jewish poetry, however, the rhyme is not in the sound; it is in the thought. Consider a couple of examples from the psalms and note how each couplet consists of a thought in the first line followed by the same idea stated in a slightly different way in the line that follows:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together,

against the LORD
and against His Anointed One:

“Let us break their chains
and cast away their cords.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord taunts them
(Psalm 2:1-3).

 

Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!

Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD,
or declare all his praise?

Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times
! (Psalm 106:1-3)

Recognizing that the second part of each couplet fleshes out  the concept presented in the first part, we learn several things from Psalm 106: the goodness of the Lord is manifested in His steadfast and enduring love, reciting the mighty deeds of the Lord is a way of praising Him even if insufficiently, and observing justice means always doing what is right.

If we apply this same insight in studying the Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the Second Week of Lent), we can better understand Jesus’ meaning:

Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned 
(Luke 6:37).

Considering these verses as a pair helps us avoid a common misunderstanding. Many people today try to shame Christians who criticize or “judge” the behavior of public sinners. For example, if we state that fornication or homosexual acts are morally wrong, we often hear something like this: “You’re judging me! You’re not being a very good Christian because Jesus says not to judge.” This is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ message. Jesus does not forbid all judgments (that would be absurd); rather, he forbids the judgment of condemnation. We can see this in the couplet from Luke above: the second part fleshes out the first part. Jesus is warning us against the judgment of condemnation.

What does it mean to condemn? Most literally and etymologically, it means to consign someone to Hell (something that is not within our power to do). It comes from the Latin con (with) and damnare (to damn; harm; pronounce as unfit, reprehensible, or deserving of severest censure.) The Greek word καταδικάζω (katadikazo) used in this passage has a similar meaning. The prefix “kata” intensifies dikazo (judge) making that judgment severe.

Thus, the Lord is warning us against pronouncing unnecessarily severe punishment or condemnation. People need time to repent. Correction or rebuke, which are sometimes necessary, should be designed to assist a person in reflecting and repenting, not to crush or humiliate him.

Later in this same passage Jesus further warns, For the measure you measure to others will be measured back to you(Luke 6:38). If you are needlessly severe with others, God will use this standard to evaluate and punish you. Because we’re all going to need grace and mercy from God, we do well to show mercy to others. As James says,  Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13).  (I have written more on this matter in a previous post: Can We Influence How God Will Judge Us?.)

Thus, the Lord does not forbid us to judge between good and bad behavior. We are expected to make such judgments and to distinguish between right and wrong. Further, He does not forbid us to correct one another. In fact, Scripture consistently counsels that we correct the sinner. (I have written in more detail on that in this post: Correcting the Sinner Is an Essential Work of Charity.)

Attempting to shame Christians into remaining silent rather than correcting others is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ message in these and similar passages. Taking a text out of context is a pretext of sorts. In this case the reason behind it is to attempt to silence criticism of immoral behavior. Also, notice that when someone rebukes you for correcting or “judging,” he is doing precisely the same thing to you! In calling you out, the person is violating his own rule. Recognize this hypocrisy and do not be fooled by this misinterpretation of Jesus’ words.

Did You Help the Saints of Old to Become Holy?

There is a remarkable statement at the end of the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. It speaks to the unity of the mystical Body of Christ and to the treasury of merit, which extends both backward and forward in time. Hebrews 11 is devoted to reciting the glory of many Old Testament saints. That litany concludes with the following verses:

These were all commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. Since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb 11:39-40).

It is astonishing to think that we who live now might have had anything to do with the sanctity and heroism of the saints who came before us, but the text says that without us they would not have been perfected.

How can this be? Simply put, it is because we are all members of the Body of Christ, and Christ transcends time. What we do today touches both the past and the future, for to Christ all things are present in the “eternal now.”

Therefore, consider well that whenever you offer your sufferings or prayers or good works, you are contributing to the treasury of merit from which people of all time may draw. Whatever we do to contribute to this treasury of merit has always been known to the Lord and is always present to Him.

Of this treasury, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

The ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.

This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God.

In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body [CCC 1476-1477].

Is it possible that I, even if in a tiny way, contributed to the holiness of my patron, St. Charles Borromeo, or of my heroine, St. Catherine of Sienna? Yes, albeit in a small way. My contribution to the treasury of merit is but a drop in the ocean compared to what Christ has provided and the saints have deposited. Yet without us and our contributions they would not be perfect. We all contribute, by the grace of Jesus, to one another’s sanctification.

Ponder, then, the sweeping effect of your contributions to the treasury of merit! Whenever you offer your sufferings to the Lord, whenever you pray, whenever you perform good works, you make available to Christians of every age an additional store of grace on which they have drawn or may draw. All of this is solely by the grace of God, and because of that grace it is a reality.

St. Paul also speaks to this:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you (Col 1:24-25).

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically lacking in the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice of Christ. It is only imperfect (or incomplete) from our perspective in time, in which each of us, as a member of the Body of Christ, “waits” to bear our sliver of the passion and cross. The Lord, however, isn’t waiting for anything. What we have done, are doing now, or will do in the future has always been present to Him. While our contributions extend forward in our chronological time, they also go backward and are part of the perfect and full treasure of merit on which the members of the Body of Christ have always drawn.

It is awe-inspiring to ponder how we all affect one another over time!

All this said, we ought also to be aware that if we can contribute to one another’s growth in holiness, we can also detract from it and harm others through our sins. It matters whether or not we pray, whether or not we offer our sufferings to the Lord, whether or not we strive for holiness.

We are one Body in Christ. Consider well your role in helping others to be holy. Did your contributions to the treasury of merit help the saints of old to become saints? Even if in a small way and only by the grace of God, the answer is yes, for apart from us they should not be made perfect.

In the video below, one woman’s laughter is infectious, affecting everyone around her. Let’s pray the same for holiness.

A Study of Sloth in the Life of Lot

070115blogIn Bible Study in my Parish we  have been reading through Genesis. This past evening we read of Lot and the horrifying results of his decision to pitch his tent toward Sodom. We also see in his life a significant spiritual problem: sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. Sloth is a sorrow, sadness, or aversion to the good things God offers. Rather than being joyful and zealous to obtain these gifts, the slothful person sees them as too much trouble to obtain and is averse to the changes such gifts might introduce into his life. This is clearly the case with Lot, who resists the attempts of God to rescue him and his family from the sinful city of Sodom, which is about to be destroyed. Let’s examine his struggle in several steps.

I. Roots – Lot’s personal troubles were many, but for our purposes his problems began when he “pitched his tent toward Sodom” (Gen 13:12). Abraham and Lot had grown very rich (almost never a good thing in the spiritual life) and realized that their flocks were so large that one part of the land could not sustain them both. Thus they agreed to live in different sectors. Abraham left the choice of areas to Lot, who (selfishly?) chose the better part for himself. The area where Sodom was is now a deep desert, but at that time the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt (Gen 13:10). And thus it was that Lot took his family and pitched his tent toward Sodom.

II. Risks – But Sodom was a wicked city, filled with false worship, greed, insensitivity to the poor, and the approval and practice of homosexuality. I will not be writing on that in detail in this post, as I have already done so in previous ones.

But here is the risk that Lot takes: he turns his face toward Sodom and willingly exposes his family to the grave moral threats there. And it does indeed affect them. Ultimately, his wife cannot bear to leave, looks back, and is lost. His daughters escape, but later engage in the grave sin of incest. Lot, too, will find it hard to flee Sodom, finding God’s offer to save him to be too much trouble. He’d rather stay, whatever the risk.

If you’re going to swim in muddy water, you’re going to get muddy. And that mud gets in your ears and in your soul. This is what Lot risks and what results when he pitches his tent toward Sodom.

Many of us, too, think little about the risks that television, the internet, music, and culture pose to us and our children. Too easily we risk our eternal salvation and that of our children by pitching our tent toward Sodom through easy commerce with a world that is poisonous to our faith. Even if some things are troublesome, many of us make little effort draw back and limit, even in little ways, the influences that are contrary to our faith.

III. Resource – Lot has only one resource in his favor: Abraham is praying for his ne’er-do-well nephew. He asks God’s destroying angel to spare Lot and his family (Gen 19). God agrees to this and acts to save Lot in spite of himself. Really, it’s the only thing that saves Lot.

It is true that Lot was just, in the sense that he did not approve of the sin around him. But neither did he act to really protect himself or his family from it. Something about Sodom appealed to him. Perhaps he thought he could make money there (or perhaps the trains ran on time). Whatever the benefits, Lot weighed them more heavily than the risks.

And so, too, for many today, who leave the TV on no matter the risk because it entertains or has some other perceived benefit that outweighs the obvious risks. Or those for whom it’s just too much trouble to monitor the websites their children visit or the music they listen to.

It really is only Abraham’s prayers that save Lot, who would live with sinners, from dying along with them. Thus, don’t forget the power of prayer for some of the “ne’er-do-wells” you may know. God may act to save them before the Day of Judgment simply because you prayed for them.

IV. Root Sin – But here comes the heart of the story: sloth. The angel warns, “Flee!” But Lot hesitates. Fleeing is hard work; it means leaving things behind that you like. Perhaps Lot thinks, “Maybe the warnings of destruction are overblown; maybe it won’t really be so bad.” Here is what the story says:

As dawn was breaking, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “On your way! Take with you your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of Sodom.” When he hesitated, the men, by the LORD’s mercy, seized his hand and the hands of his wife and his two daughters and led them to safety outside the city. As soon as they had been brought outside, he was told: “Flee for your life! Don’t look back or stop anywhere on the Plain. Get off to the hills at once, or you will be swept away!” “Oh, no, my lord!” Lot replied, “You have already thought enough of your servant to do me the great kindness of intervening to save my life. But I cannot flee to the hills to keep the disaster from overtaking me, and so I shall die.  Look, this town ahead is near enough to escape to. It’s only a small place. Let me flee there–it’s a small place, is it not?– that my life may be saved.” “Well, then,” he replied, “I will also grant you the favor you now ask. I will not overthrow the town you speak of.  Hurry, escape there! I cannot do anything until you arrive there.” That is why the town is called Zoar (Gen 19:15-21).

Wow, this is sloth with a capital “S”! So lazy and settled in with sin has Lot become, that he’d rather accept death than expend the effort to flee. Not only that, he can’t even manage to rouse himself in order to save his family. It’s all just too much trouble. Sloth is sorrow, sadness, or aversion.

Thanks to Abraham’s prayers, the angels literally drag Lot and his family out of the city and repeat the warning: “Flee!” God who made you without you, will not save you without you. So Lot must cooperate. But still, Lot sees it as all just too much trouble. In effect, he says, “Man, those hills look far away. And they’re not nearly as nice as this valley. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get there. Do I really have to go that far?”

And here is another aspect of sloth: compromising with evil despite knowing the danger. Even if it occurs to many that some things in their lives need to change, they try to minimize those changes. The Lord tells us that we cannot serve two masters, that we cannot serve both the world and Him. In other words, we must decisively choose God over the demands of this world whenever there is a conflict. But many, realizing that this may introduce uncomfortable situations or have financial impacts, begin to negotiate with their conscience, saying, “I’m basically serving God … well, at least mostly. Maybe it’s enough if I do a few holy things and serve God for the most part. And then I can still serve the world and enjoy its fruits, too. Maybe I’ll serve God 80% and the world 20%. Hmm … well, maybe that’s a little too ambitious. After all I have a career and I don’t want to risk that promotion. How about if I serve God 60% and the world 40%? Is that enough?”

Thank God for His mercy! (And thank Abraham for his prayers.) We are a real mess. As the text shows, God will take the little he can get from Lot, at least for now, in order to save him. But God shouldn’t have to take this from us. Only grace and mercy can spare us from ourselves.

V. Results – But note this: grace and mercy need to have their effect. We cannot go on in sloth forever. We have to allow God to heal this deep drive of sin in us or we will be destroyed. Lot is saved for now, but great tragedy is still in store for him. His wife will turn back in longing for Sodom and be lost. His daughters cannot get Sodom out of them and will later turn to incest (Gen 19:30ff). And from this incest will be born the ancestors of the enemies who will later afflict Israel: the Moabites and the Ammonites.

And what of us today? What role have we played in pitching our tents toward Sodom? What happens to us and to our children and grandchildren when all we do is express shock at the condition of the world but expend little real effort to protect ourselves from it or actively change it? What happens to us when we learn to live off the fruits of our Sodom, and make easy compromises with the world in terms of greed, insensitivity to the poor, and sexual confusion? What happens when God’s plan to rescue us through the gifts of chaste living, generosity, and more simple living, is rejected as too much trouble or as requiring us to give up too many things that we like? Many think to themselves, “I know my favorite television show has bad scenes, but I like the story line and I want to find out what happens at the end of the season. I know I should be clearer and firmer with my children, but that leads to conflict and I hate conflict, and besides they’ll complain if they can’t have a smart phone. And it’s so much trouble trying to monitor their Internet activity.  And … and … and …”

What happens when we do this, when we slothfully reject God’s offer of a better, less-compromised way? Well, we don’t have look far; we know what happens. We and the people we love get lost, wounded, corrupted, confused, and even die, both physically and spiritually.

The virtues opposed to sloth are zeal and joy. Zeal for God’s truth and the beauty of holiness, and a joyful pursuit of the life God offers us are gifts to be sought. Sloth is very pernicious and has cumulative effects. We haven’t done well, collectively speaking. It’s time to turn more zealously to God, to appreciate the truth of what He has always taught.  It’s time to gratefully, joyfully study His ways, and live them and share them with others.

Here, then, is a study of sloth in the life of Lot, a lesson more necessary and urgent today than ever before.

Interesting too for our times, the one day we should rest, we don’t. Here’s an old song from the Moody Blues that recalls Sunday rest: