Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Gospel Reflection John 8:31-42

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” To commit sin is to become a slave to sin. The inheritance we receive from our first parents is this type of spiritual bondage, with far-reaching impact, where we are unable to extricate ourselves from that which alienates us from God. 

Freedom from slavery, in the ancient near eastern context, usually required a redemption fee to be paid to the slave owner. One needed to therefore be ransomed from slavery to freedom. The rescue had to come from a family member or perhaps a close friend. The price was often steep, as a labor value of a slave was relatively high. When it comes to sin, the wages of it are death (Romans 6:23). No mere creature can redeem us from the slavery to sin because no creature can buy us back from death.

In Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28, Jesus says that He came to give His life as a ransom for many. He came to free us from slavery and the ultimate destruction of sin. God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son as our ransom from sin and death. Only God can give life, for He is the very source of it. 

Believing in the Son, as one becomes a true disciple, is to remain in His word. It is to fully trust the whole of our lives to Him. If we call Him Lord, then He is Lord of everything or Lord of nothing. The works of Abraham, we are told, were the works of faith (Hebrews 11:17-19). Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him (Abraham)  as righteousness (Romans 4, et. al.). Jesus tells the crowd that those who are true children of Abraham will follow this example. God was in the midst of these people in a much more obvious way than He was to Abraham. They had more to go on, as it were. And they still turned away. This is the exact opposite of Abraham’s exemplary faith in trusting God despite having much less to go on. May we follow the path of Abraham and embrace the grace and mercy of God that is right in front of us. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Theological Reflection - Justification and Works

What follows are some brief thoughts on the subject of justification. Specifically, with regard to justification and works in the context of dialogue between Catholics and Protestants. One of Jesus’ teachings in the Farewell Discourse speaks against the idea of faith alone being the basis for justification. 

In John 14:15 Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments...” The words of Jesus present us with a conditional, where the standard rules of logic, such as modest ponens/modest tollens, would apply. This will come back into the picture shortly. 

Loving the Lord Jesus is an essential component of Christianity. It would be very difficult to see how one could be right with God, that is, justified in any way, without loving Jesus. To think so would militate against what Jesus says a few verses after the one quoted above. “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21) And “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (John 14:23-24) How can God make an abode with the impenitent or with one who is unjustified?  It seems very unlikely to be so. Without justification, sin will preclude divine indwelling. 

Add to this very similar verses from 1 John. “And by this, we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:3-6). Dispelling any doubt, the ‘knowing’ here implies a sense of personal connection, as would be the case when one knows the Lord Jesus in a salvifically relational way. 

From the preceding verses, it seems reasonable to conclude that one cannot be justified, that is, in any position of being right with God, without loving Jesus. Loving the Lord Jesus is synonymous with being right with God. Thus, we can rephrase the first conditional (above):

If you are right with God, you will keep the commandments of Jesus. 

Jesus commanded us to love God and our neighbor as the Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:37). To love is to will the good of the other, as other. To love God is to love the things God loves, to will union with Him. To love our neighbor is to will their good. The will is what moves the self toward action. Love is not a feeling, it is action. All Christians will agree with this, as it gets to the heart of the agape given to us in Jesus. We cannot love and do nothing. So, we can rephrase the conditional from John 14:15 again: 

If you are right with God, you will do loving things for God and others. 

Now, by modest tollens, we can render the verse:

If you do not do loving things for God and others, you are not right with God. 

It seems clear that our being right with God is dependent upon our actions. This does not negate grace, for that would mean God was speaking in a contradictory way to us in Sacred Scripture. No Christians holding a high view of Scripture would agree this is the case. Faith and works are mutually reinforcing, as St. James tells us (James 2). I think we can say that, normatively, works are necessarily conjoined with saving faith. 

Saving faith and justification are synonymous. Saving faith is an ongoing disposition or habit. Obeying the commandments of Jesus would likewise be part of this continual habit. Obeying the commandments of Jesus includes doing things for other people. This would involve helping them when they are in need, almsgiving, and so forth. What Catholics refer to as spiritual and corporal works of mercy. 

Being right with God is therefore conditional upon what we do for others. One cannot claim to be right with God, to be in a loving relationship with Him, and do nothing for one’s neighbor. Works in this sense are part and parcel of our standing with God because they evince our true disposition. Saving faith can therefore never be alone in a normative sense. Our standing with God cannot be severed from our habits and actions toward others. 

Further, it makes little sense to say that works merely follow faith, where faith can be alone at any time. This is an artificial construct or abstraction, possible only by rearranging words and cutting away what can never be severed in reality. I can conceive a headless man because I know the concepts of head, man, and so forth. But there can never in reality be a headless man. There could only be what were a human head and a human body. Situating faith as only following and not normatively concurrent with works is like a headless man, not possible in reality. 

The move of claiming faith alone would render vacuous what Jesus said in John 14. If I am right with God, then in the present tense I am in a penitential state of grace, wherein no hatred or malice infects my heart. If I am loving the Lord, it includes a present tense disposition and action toward others. This does not nullify the primary originating move of grace, nor do I mean to say that anything we do merits divine grace. Rather, grace moves toward us. We respond. Grace continues to move in us, and we continue to respond. Our continued response to divine grace represents our faith, which in turn, implies our being right with God. This state is necessarily conjoined to a love for God and creation. 

In this context, the principle of grace building upon and elevating nature, versus grace doing violence to nature is evident. Much has been said on this subject, and it is perhaps an underappreciated discussion point between Catholics and Protestants on matters of justification and works. 

Leaving this larger discussion aside for the time being, it seems to me that John 14, buttressed by 1 John, helps us see that justification cannot be by faith alone. Holding such a position would contravene what Jesus says to us in the form of the conditional of loving Him and keeping His commandments. 

Gospel Reflection John 8:21-30

Today’s Gospel reading continues an extended dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees. I believe one of the reasons the Gospel writers, especially St. John, highlight these exchanges is they draw to our attention competing conceptions of God. The Pharisees were in many ways similar to their ancestors, who, although fed by God as they journeyed through the desert to the promised land, nonetheless sought other gods and the first opportunity to usurp Moses. 

The Pharisees of Jesus’ time - most of them, anyway - gestured toward Mosaic fidelity. Yet their zeal for fencing off the Torah led them to fence off their hearts and blockade their minds. They became blind to God acting in their midst, to the Lord Most High coming among them. The inward turn caused in them a conception of God that could be fully contained in their minds and held fast by their words and deductive casuistry. It caused them to grumble against God when the very God they spoke about dwelt in their midst, as He did in the desert of the Exodus. 

Jesus calls their attention to the plague of serpents in Numbers 21:4-9. To be saved, the Israelites had to look up to the bronze serpent. They had to gaze upon the source of their condemnation - their own rebellion -  and thereby recognize that divine grace was their only hope. The act of looking upon the serpent was an act of contrition and acknowledgment that only the mercy of God could save them. 

Jesus says “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM…” The continued self-identification with the I AM revealed to Moses is unmistakable. When Moses' ancestors lift up Jesus on the Cross, they will realize, as did their fathers, that God has come among them. They will look upon the source of their condemnation, the wretched injustice of sin, and know that divine grace is their only hope. 

Despite the grumbling of man as he stumbles around kicking rocks like a defiant child, God offers grace to His own people, and to the whole world. The Son of Man was indeed lifted up, and whoever looks upon Him, whoever believes in Him, will have eternal life. The effects of the serpent bite and the infection of sin is healed. 


Monday, March 27, 2023

Gospel Reflection John 8:1-11

In today’s Gospel, we read about how Jesus addresses the woman caught in adultery. Some scholars argue this story is apocryphal, coming in later New Testament manuscript traditions, and was therefore not part of the inspired writing of St. John. Others think it belongs in a different Gospel, perhaps in St. Luke. There are good reasons to leave it at this juncture in St. John. One of them being the story seems to fit, given the escalating tensions between Jesus and the Pharisees and the thematic connections to the fifth chapter. 

I believe part of what is happening in this situation is a gross miscarriage of justice, which foreshadows the unjust trial of Christ. St. John does not tell us much of the backstory of the incident. But knowing what we do about Jesus’ opponents, we can ask certain questions. For example, how was it that these men caught the woman in the act of sin? Seems like a trap. Where was her male counterpart? Why did they circumvent the normal process of a trial, presenting witnesses, and so forth? The death penalty under the Mosaic Law was not to be arbitrarily meted out. There was a system of justice and it was being completely ignored for the sake of trying to ensnare and bring disrepute upon Jesus. 

Of course, the Lord knew these things. Perhaps He was writing down precepts of the Law on the ground. Or, maybe He was writing down the sins of the woman’s accusers. His words then cut to the heart “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The accusers slowly melt away. There is a powerful lesson here. Before we start seeking out sin and fault in others, before we start finding that speck in our brother’s eye, we must remove the large beam in our own eye. Our sense of justice is perverted by sin. We are quick to accuse and point the finger at others, and very slow to admit our own faults. We run at full speed to the well of divine mercy and then seek to trip our brother when he runs to it. 

In this passage, we witness the tender compassion of the Lord Jesus. This hearkens back to the reading before today’s Gospel. Ezekiel 33:11 says “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, says the Lord, but rather in his conversion, that he may live.” The first move of the Pharisees in the John 8 reading was to condemn. Mercy was not on the radar screen. They believe they are vigilant in upholding the Law (or at least are presenting outwardly under that guise).  But Jesus shows them they are missing the heart of it, the very meaning where God desires us to be merciful as He is merciful. Where He desires us to love and repent. A quick thumb through the book of Exodus confirms this in spades, the Lord continually pardons the Israelites despite wanton rebellion. 

We also see a foreshadowing of our final judgment one day, where it will be us and the Lord. We will come face to face with our maker, the perfectly just One who knows everything we ever did. There will not be anywhere else we can look to place blame for our transgressions. Only Him. This may seem like a dreadful thought. Let us not shrink back from thinking about it, though. We have a very plain reading today about the heart of Jesus that is tender and merciful. He does not stand eager to condemn. Far from it. He takes pleasure in our conversion. This mercy is constantly on free offer to us. He pours it upon us like rainfall. We cannot run or hide from it. Each day His mercies are new. We need only say yes to Him. Divine love wants to swallow us up. We can feel and experience the exactly same thing as the woman in the passage today. Completely forgiven. 

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Gospel Reflection John 11:1-45

Today’s Gospel reading tells of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. In one exchange, Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha responds in the affirmative. As the Evangelist tells us earlier in his Gospel, in Jesus is life. He possesses life in itself. Being the source of it, He can freely give. We confess our belief in union with Martha and all Christians up and down the ages when we celebrate the Mass today. We demonstrate this belief throughout our life, completely giving ourselves over to God. 

The raising of Lazarus is like a movie trailer. It is an exciting preview of what is to come. A hint of Easter as we round the final corner toward the end of our penitential season. 

Jesus came to bring an end to death. First, the spiritual death that is caused by sin. Secondly, the physical death and decay that spiritual death entails. We live in eager anticipation of the Lord bringing the full consummation of the Kingdom, where death, disease, pain, and suffering are no more. We proclaim Jesus’ death and resurrection until He comes again. We hope in Christ. One day all the tombs of the earth will open like the tomb of Lazarus. Today’s passage helps us think more about our hope. 

To the skeptic, this sounds more than absurd. Foolish to say the least. Yet, the apologetic discourse is upstream from the virtue of Christian hope. The hope we have in Christ is predicated on antecedent conditions, most of which are frequently ignored when someone just takes certain passages in isolation.  Hope is not something that arises out of a vacuum or a spontaneous brute act of will. We do not simply think or will ourselves hopeful, in the context of theological virtue. It is a special grace of God that builds upon and works in conjunction with other graces. 

The virtue of hope is a stable disposition in this regard, looking forward in assurance to what God has promised us, because of Him who promised it. We do not ‘hope’ in a vain sense. Although we cannot physically see or touch what God has said will come to pass, nonetheless, we base our lives upon it. 

Hope builds upon faith, whereby we fully trust and believe in God. We completely orient our lives around the Lord, laying down our rebellious arms,, as C.S. Lewis says, and taking up our crosses. We eagerly receive the grace given to us, trusting that God will do for us what He said, even though we do not know how we will even get through the day. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. Sufficient for the day, then, is its own grace. 

Tomorrow is not promised to us, yet heaven is promised to those who love and serve the Lord. The former we cannot count upon, the latter we absolutely can. 

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Gospel Reflection Luke 1:26-38 - The Annunciation

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. The Gospel reading from St. Luke chapter one gives us the wonderful dialogue between the Blessed Mother and the angel Gabriel. We are told nothing less than that the Word has taken on flesh and has come to dwell among us. The Incarnation happens at the conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The passage today contains many important details that are easy to overlook. Many books by great people of faith have been dedicated to these subjects. Not to mention the lives of the saints and their testimonies and biographies. I hope to share just a few brief thoughts on this profound passage. 

For many years as a Protestant, I struggled with the Marian dogmas taught by the Church. Of course, the Virgin birth was unproblematic. But Mary as the Mother of God (Theotokos), her immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, bodily assumption, and coronation as Queen of Heaven were, to my mind, unbiblical. Yet, reading the first chapter of Luke without a high view of Mary is ultimately a very difficult task. The more we read and are attentive to the text, the more we see something profound unfold before our eyes. The Annunciation and the Magnificat present solid biblical grounds for what the Catholic Church teaches about Mary. 

The angel Gabriel greets Mary as being full of grace. The only plausible meaning of these words is that Mary already possesses God's special grace. It is not a random thing that happens or is subsequent to the angel’s appearance. The grace did not fill her at only that moment. It was something Mary had. She likewise maintains her state of grace in perfect obedience to God throughout her entire life. We see her at the first miracle in Cana, at the foot of the Cross, and in the upper room after the Ascension. As she was cared for by St. John the Evangelist, we can surmise a reasonably strong influence on the writing of John's Gospel in addition to many details provided to St. Luke. Mary's influence on the Church can be overlooked if we are not attentive. 

We read that Mary is to be the bearer of God, thus becoming the Ark of the New Covenant. How does she react to this news? With faith and reverence. Her ready ‘yes’ is evident to even the most casual reader. We also read a tremendous sense of awe and wonder in the Blessed Mother, the same way we should view this amazing news each time we are reminded.  It is utterly beyond comprehension, but we must give our ‘yes’, our assent, to God unflinchingly. Mary shows us by example the essence of true obedience to our heavenly Father. She shows us what faith means.

The translation of her response to being the bearer of a child is best rendered as ‘having no relations with a man’, meaning she lives a consecrated life to God. Of course, she knew how children came into the world. Her response acknowledges the deep regard she has for the mission God has given to her. Gabriel tells her that the child is not from a natural conception, but a supernatural one. The child will thus have a divine nature and a human nature. The child is from both God by origination. His human nature will be fully and truly human, coming (as it were) from the Blessed Mother. The Son of God joins to Himself a human nature. There exists in the womb of Mary one Person with a human nature and a divine nature. Since Mary gives birth to a Person, and this Person is God (by communication of idioms), Mary is the Mother of God. Even the most ardent Protestants should not object to this title. 

From these passages, we can see the powerful (high) Christological implications of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, in which no doubt is left about the human nature of Jesus being void of Original Sin. Again, Mary is said by the angel to be “full of grace”. What are we left without because of the sin of Adam? Grace. And how can one be full of grace without some special gift of God? The fact that Mary is full of grace makes evident how distinct she is. Where Eve failed, Mary succeeds. Each was born in a state of grace, only the latter - the New Eve - continually ratifies the grace by perfect obedience. 

Mary’s closing words to Gabriel echo through the ages. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” She accepts the will of God with gladness, despite the sure knowledge she has about what it will mean for her life to be the Mother of God. 

May we look to the Blessed Mother as the supreme example of loving God above all things. 

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

Gospel Reflection John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30

In today’s Gospel reading, we learn that some inhabitants of Jerusalem sought to have Jesus arrested. They failed this time. Jesus’ opponents claim that the Messiah (Christ, “Anointed One”) will come from an unknown or previously undisclosed location. Such a callous response to Jesus seems to ignore passages from the prophets, such as Isaiah, which tell of a great light coming from Galilee. Perhaps these people were not aware of or learned in the Hebrew Scriptures, but I suspect that not to be the case given their concern about the Messiah. 

The response from the crowd ignores what Jesus had already done and said. The Lord cries out “You know me…” Scripture does not indicate the tone in which these words were said. We do however read, by implication, that those people knew the Lord. There is a sense of familiarity, even intimate familiarity. Perhaps some of them were present when Jesus performed a sign. Perhaps they had heard Him speaking and preaching in other settings. Bottom line: it was made clear and plain to them who Jesus was. The cycle of rejection continues. Hard-heartedness makes it progressively easier to rationalize away the presence and work of God in the world. 

We see the same thing happen today as in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. God answers a prayer, lifts a person up from the depths of sin and depravity to newness of eternal life, and many other things and yet the response is not to give glory to God but glory to man. To be hard-hearted is to close oneself off from the activity of God in the world. It is to turn in on the self by setting up an arbitrary set of rules by which everything, and God, must conform to be valid. It is like a fruit being progressively petrified by the sun. St. John’s Gospel shows us in vivid detail how being hard of heart ultimately results in the utter rejection of divine love. It results in cutting ourselves off from the very source of life.