Thursday, March 31, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 5:31-47

Today’s Gospel reading continues with the discourse between Jesus and the religious leaders who took umbrage at His words and deeds.

Jesus references John the Baptist and the fact that they (the religious leaders) did not seem to have the same problem with him as they did with Jesus. Even though John had harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees (“brood of vipers” – Matthew 3:7), there was still an overall permissiveness of John’s ministry. I think this is because John was far less of a threat to them than Jesus. John spoke with fire and brimstone, but the one for whom John came to prepare the way came with a winnowing fork. Jesus was a direct threat to the prevailing religious order of the time, which was keenly focused on paying what amounted to lip service to Moses and the prophets. Jesus spoke with the very authority of God, claimed to be God, and did the things of God (healing, gathering, etc.).

Dostoyevsky gets very close to the heart of these exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees in The Brothers Karamazov. In the spirit of their dialectic throughout the book, Ivan offers Alyosha a tale of “The Grand Inquisitor,” which is about Jesus returning during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs signs and miracles as He did in the Gospels. The adoration of the people raises the ire of the religious leaders. Jesus is arrested and sentenced to burn at the stake. Before meeting His fate, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in jail. The inquisitor informs Jesus that His actions stand athwart the benevolent mission of the churchmen. The religious leaders of the day do not need Jesus. Further, the Inquisitor informs Jesus that He was wrong on many levels, including rejecting the temptations of Satan. Jesus is silent throughout and lovingly kisses the Inquisitor before being banished at his request.  

This is of course just like what happened when the Lord Jesus walked the earth in first-century Israel. The religious establishment did not need Jesus; they already had all the answers. The people would come to them, not God. Jesus presents a threat to the egos that make us into mini gods with dominion over our fellow man. In our day, god-like status is assumed and given to those who will give bread and circuses to the masses, just as in the ideal of the Inquisitor. We often do not want the real Lord; we want pseudo-lords. When the light shines into the darkness, it hurts our eyes. We can turn around and cower, clenching our eyes shut, covering our faces, and cursing the darkness. Or we can allow our eyes to adjust to the light, see clearly, and walk toward the goodness of God. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Gospel / Theological Reflection John 5:17-30

Today’s Gospel reading comes on the heels of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. This is one of the many discourses, particularly in St. John’s Gospel, where the deity of the Lord Jesus jumps off the page. As he does in other passages, St. John obviates any confusion. Jesus “…made himself equal to God.” We then get some key details.

The Son does what He sees the Father doing. The Father shows the Son everything that the Father does. The Son gives life as the Father does. All must honor the Son just as they honor the Father. To believe the word of the Son is to believe in the Father. Those who hear the voice of the Son will live. The Father and the Son have life in themselves.

If Jesus is not truly God, if He is a creature of any kind, then everything John presents to us in this passage must be false. For it is impossible for any created thing to univocally share the attributes or activities proper only to God, and this is what we are being told in the passage. No creature can be honored as God without committing idolatry. No creature can give life, because it is not possible for a creature to have this capability. No creature has immediate access to the inner life of the Divine Essence. No creature can have life in themselves.

The pages of Scripture tell us in unequivocal terms that Jesus is true God and true man.

The great mysteries of the Holy Trinity and Incarnation are unavoidable. The self-revealing of God presents them to us. We struggle to comprehend because we are finite. Our intellect defaults toward what St. Thomas calls quidditative knowledge, where our minds fully unite with the form (intelligible pattern) of the known object. But this is not possible with God. God is not an object within the universe. He is not a delimited being. We arrive at this conclusion from the relevant biblical passages, and we can corroborate via reasoning from effect to cause in our observations of the cosmos.

It is precisely the limitless being of God, God as being itself (Ipsum esse), which just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God does not exist as we or other creatures do. The limitations we face, for example being one person with one nature, are not applicable to God. Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man because the being of God and the being of man are non-competitive with each other. As a creature, I have an act of being, but do not possess being intrinsically. I therefore can only be in a certain way. For instance, my temporal limitations limit me from being in two places at once, for I must exist at a time and place. But God, again, is not ‘a’ being. He is not placed within time, because time is the measure of changing beings - things that are delimited. And God is not changing nor are we able to place Him within an ontological taxonomy. Once creaturely limitations are removed, we can better speak of how God is omnipresent, among other things.  

The joining of humanity and divinity in Christ is not fully comprehensible to us. Nonetheless, the affirmation of this truth is possible once we draw correct conclusions about the nature of God. The biblical revelation comes over the top, as it were, pointing further upward, drawing our minds deeper into the mystery of the divine life. This mystery is something today’s Gospel reading invites us to explore. Bearing in mind that ours is a faith seeking greater understanding, we can come to know more about God as we think about these wonderful passages. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 5:1-16

John 5:1-16

Today’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus healing a man who was ill for thirty-eight years. The context of the passage tells us he was crippled. He is healed when the Lord Jesus tells him to “Rise, take up your mat and walk.” The power of God is so vividly displayed to us. He speaks at it is so. St. Paul says He calls into being things that do not exist (Romans 4:17).  By the power of His Word, the crippled man is healed, the royal official’s son is healed, the centurion’s servant is made well. We are healed by grace through the power of the same word. Eternal truth is spoken into our temporal reality. Light shining into the darkness. As Augustin says, the infinite being of God so permeates the existence of the finite and contingent that His word is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

When Jesus speaks to the healed man later in the story, the Lord tells him to not sin anymore, so that nothing worse would happen to him. Considering John 9 and other passages, I don’t think we can interpret this to mean the man’s sin necessarily brought about his illness. Certainly, there are cases where sin can cause physical and mental infirmity. There is something deeper in this passage. Sin and its consequences are worse than the crippling illness suffered by this man. As wonderful as it is to be healed from disease and deformity, there is a surpassing wonder in the forgiveness of sins and being rejoined to God in fellowship. 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 4:43-54

In today’s reading, we learn that Jesus healed the son of a royal official by merely declaring it. This is not the only time in the Gospels where Jesus performs a sign or wonder for a person without that person being physically present (cf. Matthew 8:5-13). What we should note from this is the evident power of God at work. However, before this Jesus comments “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”

On the one hand, it seems like this is a lament. I can certainly picture it that way, especially given the interaction later in His ministry where Jesus tells the Pharisees they will be given the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 12:38-42). That Jesus had given many other good reasons to believe the proclamation of the gospel, reasons that should have been evident to attentive listeners might be what is in view at this point in John’s gospel. The situation seemed to be that people had reduced Jesus’ ministry to only be about signs and wonders. Many did not seek Him for His own sake, but only for what could be done for them. They did not turn to Jesus with their hearts and minds. They only thought of Him when they needed something. Of course, we should always go to the Lord with our needs. Yet, it is not only at those times we should seek Him.

On the other hand, Jesus’ statement might also be understood as a truism about the situation He encountered. Hardened as they were by sin and false expectations, the people would simply not believe that God had come among them without signs and wonders. It might be that Jesus does not so much lament this as acknowledges it and continues with His mission of grace upon grace.

Another thing to note in this passage is the persistence of the official. He first asks for his son to be healed. Jesus makes the “Unless you see signs…” remark. The official asks Jesus again. There is something to persistence in prayer. It is not as if we are bugging God or annoying Him with our repeated requests. But I think God does desire us to persist in prayer, to continue praying steadfastly even when He does not give us an answer. The process of sanctification and growing in relationship with the Lord during our prayer may be what is desired for us. We may get an affirmative answer after a long time, or we may get a negative answer to our requests. But we still get a good spiritual outcome no matter what.


Sunday, March 27, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 15:1-32

Today’s Gospel reading gives us the parable of the prodigal son. This parable alone could be the subject of an entire semester course or series of courses. It encapsulates the Gospel perfectly. I would like to focus on just three aspects today.

First, we have the setting. There is a man with two sons. The man has some means, and the sons appear to enjoy a nice life. But this is not good enough for the younger son. He wants to do things his own way, to follow his own heart and passions. So, he commits a grave evil in approaching his father and asking for his share of the inheritance. I believe this to be so hurtful that, as a father myself, is difficult to fathom. Inheritances are bequeathed upon the death of the benefactor. The son, therefore, wishes his father was dead. All he wants is what the father can do for him. He does not want the father for his own sake. This must have been utterly heartbreaking. Nonetheless, the father gives the son his share of the money knowing full well what is in store. There is a further hurt. It tears our souls when our loved ones, especially our children, make choices that we know are not good for them. I’m thankful for God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness of my own parents, for the times I have hurt them like this.  

Then the son sets off and blows through all the money. He wanted to build his own kingdom. The scriptures tell us he wasted it on riotous living (or a life of dissipation). That is probably putting in in PG language. We know what is involved in this type of behavior. Inevitably, famine strikes. Famines in life strike all of us in one way or another. The son realizes he is in trouble. Hunger pains sharpen his perception. Something deep inside of him knows he went badly wrong. That even his father's hired help lived better than he was in the pig stalls. Sin takes us to the pig slop. When all we want is ourselves, when all we want is to indulge our desires, we eventually find our way to the pigpen. Coming to his senses, the son hatches a plan. He is going to turn back and go to his father. He will ask to be treated as hired help. This arrangement will allow the son to preserve some dignity. He will be giving to get, no longer just getting. There is a profound humility evident in this plan, but I think there is still something slightly askew.

The son returns home. The father sees him from far off and runs to him. I’m sure the son did not expect this type of reaction. How would we react in this scenario? If we are honest, we would probably want an apology right away. We would want the son to acknowledge how badly he screwed up. We might be tempted to lord that over him for a while, making sure the lesson sunk in and would not be repeated. These are natural, human reactions. But God’s ways are higher and better than our ways. The father in the story does not hesitate for a second in throwing his arms around the son, putting a ring on the son’s finger (a sign of fellowship), and throwing a huge party in celebration. The father will not hear of the deal the son had worked out. Love does not bargain like that. Likewise, the love of our Heavenly Father does not work on a quid pro quo basis. This was the wrong assumption made by the prodigal son that I mentioned earlier. The son thought his father’s love was conditional upon something the son did. Not so. The love of the father is unconditional, never failing, perpetually seeking, forever initiating, constantly drawing. Our Heavenly Father loves us because that is who He is. Despite our faults and best efforts to thwart Him, the love of God reaches to us even in the most profound depths of sin and self-absorption.

Much more could be said, particularly when it comes to the reaction of the older brother and his dialogue with the father. I will leave that for another time. I am so thankful that God never stops seeking after us and never stops loving us. He eagerly calls back the lost sinner. He lovingly welcomes all who were lost back to fellowship.



Saturday, March 26, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 18:9-14

In today’s Gospel, we read about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Humility is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others; lack of pride.” I think this gets it right for the most part. We must certainly guard against having a high opinion of ourselves and our importance relative to others. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable made many false assumptions about his spiritual state (being justified before God). He pretends to sit in the position of God in judging himself not like the rest of humanity. What a statement! Yet, I have caught myself on occasion, perhaps more than I would like to admit out loud, looking down on another person, feeling bad that they just do not ‘get it’ or being glad I am not like them due to some perceived personality flaw in them. I conveniently ignore my many faults and idiosyncrasies. How good we can become at finding the speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the beam in our own. Jesus’ teaching here provides another safeguard against habits that lead us away from God and away from the love of our fellow man.

When we think too highly of ourselves, we can become enslaved to self-delusion. And likewise, the same thing can happen when we think too little of ourselves. There is a happy virtue in the mean between these extremes. I think this is what it means to be humble. It means to have the disposition of rightly calibrating ourselves to God. We are indeed highly valued by Him, created in His own image, and redeemed by the blood of His only begotten Son. But we are also creatures. We live alongside other creatures who are also created by God for a purpose. I suspect one root of religious pride is placing finitude upon God. If God loves me so much, there must be less to go around for others. And since God chooses to love me and show me things about Himself, I must be more special than other people. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is infinite and God is love. God is, therefore, infinite love and there is no way to exhaust it or get to the end of it. God can love all His creation without there being any competition for divine love. There is no limit to God’s action or His attention. Pride threatens when we think that because God is working in your life in a profound way He is not at work in the lives of others in an equally profound, but perhaps undetectable (to us) manner.

Returning to the question of humility, I think we find in it a willingness to let God shape our thoughts and minds, patterned after the Lord Jesus. It means doing the things Jesus said to do as part and parcel of being a disciple. It means not planting our flag and thinking we have everything figured out. It is resting in the confidence that God does have things figured out. We are fellow sojourners with many other people who are struggling with something in one way, shape, or form. When we think our momentary respites from trouble are strictly our own doing and the troubles of others are all their own fault, we take up the position of the Pharisee. We then justify ourselves by our deeds, and not by the grace of God. May the Lord help us instead follow the penitential attitude of the tax collector in the parable, who goes home justified for understanding and seeking after the Lord and not himself. 

Friday, March 25, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 1:26-38

Today we read about the Annunciation of the Lord. I love this reading for so many reasons. It draws our attention to several vital aspects of our faith life.

First, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Jesus, being truly man, experienced a normal gestation period. Since we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, today marks nine months until that time. Although we are in the Lenten/Easter season, we must always keep in mind the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus, truly God and truly man, incarnate for our salvation.

Secondly, spring is a time of renewal, hope, and anticipation. The leaves are budding on trees, the grass is shooting up, birds and other animals are on the move. The natural world is rhythmically moving from slumber to activity. We are likewise called to awaken from our dozing state and be attentive to what God has done and is doing. May we continually experience a sense of renewal and revival. We often experience winter or a dry season in life. God graciously calls us forth from this, watering us and giving us sunlight and warmth.

Finally, we have a sobering moment to reflect on the amazing love, faith, and obedience of Mary. “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Breathtaking in beauty, this affirmation shows how much she loved the Lord and His ways (including love for all mankind), the strength of her trust, and her resolute desire for God’s will to be done in her life and in the world.


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 11:14-23

It must have been amazing to see Jesus perform an exorcism. Such a thing would be mind-blowing to witness at any time, but there seems to be something special in the Son of God, with whom all authority and power rest, casting out evil spirits. When we think about the exorcisms Jesus did during His earthly ministry, we must guard against two factors that dull our senses to spiritual reality. The first is our modern bent toward materialist reductionism. What I mean by this is the prevailing thought, shot through our entire Western culture, that all of reality consists, at bottom, of only matter in motion. Thinking of the cosmos as a machine that works according to brutely inexplicable scientific laws, fully calculable in all detail, leaves no room for anything else. Along with this are fictional portrayals and dramatizations of the spiritual realm, such as we find in Hollywood movies. I’m not only referring to The Exorcist but also movies like Ghost or what is found in the horror genre or documentary programs about the occult. Entertaining as these stories might be, they are almost always completely detached from what the Scriptures and church teach about the spiritual order.

Visualizations of spirits as ghastly or ghoulish substances, devils with horns and pitchforks, and the like take us away from the reality of the situation. Materialism and dramatization feed into our habitual downplaying of the role of exorcism in Jesus’ ministry. You probably don’t hear many sermons or homilies on these passages. Yet, these acts of love and compassion were clearly very important, otherwise, we would not read about them, nor would we see these events referred to as frequently (around 60 or so).

In today’s passage, Jesus drives out a spirit that was making a man mute. The crowds did not respond with incredulity at the occurrence of an exorcism. But they did not know what to make of it. They did not like the way Jesus cast out the demon. So, they accused Him of being in league with evil spirits. Jesus calls out the absurdity of this accusation and teaches us something very important about Himself.

Jesus refers to a person being bound by a strong man. Here He speaks in a powerful sense to the spiritual binding that shackles our souls. This happens overtly, as in the case of outright demon possession, or covertly, as in the case of habitual sin and impenitence. In some cases, there is no difference. In fact, the latter might be worse. The incredible strength of the spiritual forces opposed to God can bind us to the point where we are unable to free ourselves. The ‘strong man’ binds us. But there is always One stronger. When Jesus frees us, He attacks the spirit(s) that have taken hold, utterly crushing them. He embarrasses them to the point where their armor is taken away and distributed as a spoil of victory (cf Ephesians 4:8).

To this, Jesus adds that whoever is not with Him scatters. There is a two-fold meaning here. The first hearkens to the idea of malevolent spirits as those who scatter or divide. The Latin meaning devil is diabolos, which means ‘divider’. What the enemy wants is to divide God’s people; from Him, from themselves, and from each other. The enemy wants to scatter the flock so that individual sheep are easier prey. The other sense of scattering is that those not with Jesus will be scattered by Him. They will be divided against themselves and driven into confusion and retreat. When Jesus frees captives, the captors are scattered.


Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Gospel Reflection Matthew 5:17-19

In today’s gospel reading, we learn that Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. This is to say that Jesus came to make the Law and Prophets complete. He accomplished the purpose for which they were given to the Israelites. What began with the creation of man, the call of Abraham, the giving of the Law of Moses, the prophetic utterances of Zechariah, Isaiah, Micah, Daniel, and all the rest is made perfect and complete by the Lord Jesus. Because of Jesus’ interactions with the Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees, as well as questions about conduct that arose in the early church as Gentiles were grafted in, there exists a strong tendency in many cases to somehow look down on the Law of Moses. But there was nothing at all wrong with it. The Law was wonderful insofar in all its intents and purposes.  The Law was the pedagogue until the Messiah would come in the fullness of time (Galatians ch. 3-4).

From many passages across the Bible, we can conclude that the Law and its commandments had a larger purpose. It is true that the Law was given as part of a divine covenant with the Israelite people. There is a profound sacredness in this regard alone. Yet, the Law was not only for this purpose. There was something greater to come from it and from the Israelite people, for the good of all God’s creation. Jesus does not diminish or downplay the importance of obedience to divine commands or precepts. Rather, He comes to be the embodied faultless observance of them and to make the final and perfect sacrificial offering on our behalf. What we could not do, in His grace and mercy God does for us in Christ. I even would venture to say that the Law does not necessarily fail to exist now, but it exists in a completed manner in Christ Himself. It is fully realized. “All the boxes are checked” from the standpoint of the Law and Prophets in Jesus Christ. There is nothing left undone or incomplete. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Gospel Reflection Matthew 18:21-35

The passage today is one of the most “in your face” teachings on forgiveness in all of the Bible. It is quite arresting to think about how much God has forgiven us and how little we want to forgive others. We tend to track every injustice in our little books. If we are honest, each of us has likely been in the situation of the unforgiving servant in our own lives. There have been people who have forgiven us wrongs, overlooked shortcomings, given us opportunities while at the same time we have withheld this from others. I can think right now of the adults in my young life and formative years, teachers, neighbors, parents of friends, who were infinitely tolerant of my foibles. 

In particular, I think of my parents who were (and still are!) incredibly loving and forgiving despite my best efforts to thwart them on this front. The grace of God can often pour into our life through others. May we be reflective of the grace God has given us directly and the grace received through the hands of His providence in other ways. The parable of incredible injustice we read in today’s Gospel should cause us to examine ourselves and see if and where we are withholding forgiveness and love. Maybe it is buried so deeply we don’t want to disturb it. If so, pray that God can help you through this process. It might involve others in the journey, but the Lord promises us a tremendous benefit for imitating Him. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 4:24-30

Luke 4:24-30

In today’s Gospel, we read about Jesus being rejected in His hometown. The reaction of the people in Nazareth is what we often see today. Those who have their lives transformed by the power of Christ are spurned or rejected by people who knew them before. Take an example of the juvenile delinquent saved by God’s grace, who has now become a minister of some kind, returning to his or her high school reunion. The teacher, principal, and former peers will in most cases be skeptical. “Can that really be Pete who used to skip class and get into so much trouble?! Surely there is something amiss. I know them and their character.” People can be cynical. They often don’t think real change is possible. They don’t think that a person from their midst can become any more than they thought could be. Their imaginations are blown away, and they revert to tearing down. 

Rejecting the possibility of life-transforming change is to reject the possibility of God acting in the world. Even thumbing our noses at the subtle change in the character of a person is to presume on the grace of God. Jesus’ hometown crowd did not want to believe their eyes and ears. A bold, Kingdom proclaiming, wonder-working Jesus was not who they thought He would be. They wanted to keep Him as they had rendered Him in their own minds. God had other plans. And He does for us as well. Let us not be discouraged when others are skeptical of our testimony or the transformational power of the Good News.

What is a Human Person? Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy

Some Christians think a human person is a trichotomy, consisting (in a temporal state) of three parts or substances: body, soul, and spirit. This is to say that human = body + soul + spirit. On this view, the body is the physical aspect of the person. The soul is where thinking, feeling, and willing occur. The spirit is what relates or connects us to God. Because the New Testament uses different words for soul and spirit, the argument goes, there must be a metaphysical distinction.

Contrasted with the trichotomous view is that a human person is a dichotomy: body + soul. The dichotomous position holds that ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ refer to the immaterial aspect of the human person. On this view, the New Testament terms are metaphysically synonymous with regard to spirit and soul. 

Of course, it would not be a philosophical/theological debate without another wrinkle. There is also a monist view, which holds that soul and spirit just refer to the whole of the human person and there is no immaterial aspect of humanity irreducible to physical constituents and that survives the death of the body. Body, soul, and spirit all just refer to the same thing. Body/soul monism is probably a minority view in Christianity but nonetheless has some defenders.

In this post, I will offer some brief arguments to the effect that the trichotomous view of the human person should be abandoned. The monist view is also problematic, though for other reasons. I may take this up another time. My focus here is to show the incoherence of a trichotomous biblical/philosophical anthropology. We have good reasons to think of the human person as a composition of body and soul (or body and spirit); there is only one immaterial constituent. This post will not be an exhaustive exposition of the topic, but I hope sufficient for some practical purposes.


Two proof texts are often given in support of the trichotomous position. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says “And the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”; and Hebrews 4: 12, “For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” More passages are usually offered in defense of this view, but these are the clearest and most frequently cited.

Those holding the trichotomy view have sometimes argued for an analogy to the Triune God creating man in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). Since God is One in Three Persons, God made man with three parts to mirror Himself. I submit this analogy should not be made. First, God is not composed of ‘parts’. Each Divine Person is not a ‘part’ of God as the body, soul, and spirit are said to be parts of the human person. Dividing God up in this way undermines the unity of Divinity. Each Person is truly God in the fullest sense. Secondly, there is nothing physical in God. But there is something physical with man. On the trichotomy view, the physical aspect of man does not really ‘do’ anything because the soul (and the spirit?) are the only things that think and act. But when it comes to the Holy Trinity, every Person is the very fullness of life, vibrancy, beauty, and action. Temporal analogies to the Holy Trinity are always fraught with difficulties. They should be avoided, and the trichotomy view of man should never be connected to the Trinity in this way.

We should also note that proof-texting is usually a misguided endeavor. If the trichotomist will only offer proof-texts, the dichotomist could just as easily do the same thing. As could the monist. Nothing would decide any argument if it proceeded by way of volleying proof-texts. Further, against the move of simply proof-texting, we can witness many heresies put down by the church over millennia. Each aberrant view took some passage or set of passages as their starting point. The Bible can be cut, copied, and pasted to support almost any position. Passage context is essential as is the full picture of special revelation. The weight of texts in their context is important. Cogency and internal coherence are critical in explicating a given position. I will also add that the tools of philosophical analysis are necessary for full-bodied biblical theology. Without these tools and methods, we would not be able to make systematic sense of the Bible. In many cases, biblical data underdetermines answers to key questions. For example, questions about the nature of God. The Bible describes God as having both physical and non-physical attributes. What is the most accurate understanding of the nature of God? Philosophical theology helps show that the biblical descriptions of God in physical terms must be understood metaphorically or figuratively. This is because if it were the other way around, the entirety of biblical revelation would collapse into a hopeless contradiction. If God is a physical being, limited to time and place (as physical beings are), then He could not be the Creator of the cosmos, nor could He sustain the world order, nor could He bring about events described in the Bible such as miracles and other aspects of His providence. So, we need to bring the full complement of the rational faculties God has given us to the task of answering questions raised by the Bible or by life in general aided by biblical revelation. We should not believe things that are false. We believe the Bible is true and teaches us true things about God and ourselves and does not commit any errors in what it teaches us. Therefore, whatever the Bible teaches must be at least not be contradictory or incoherent.

From the standpoint of charity, an equally important aspect of this conversation is to understand exactly what is meant by the trichotomous view. It is often not very clear. The dearth of scholarship defending the trichotomous position makes this task even harder. If one’s only goal is to use the trichotomy to make a sermon point or call attention to some other topic, then that approach should be disclosed and qualified, so as to not mislead the reader or listener. If one is making a metaphysical assertion, asserting a truth about philosophical anthropology, then that should also be stated. Equivocating or articulating what amounts to pseudo-doctrine must be avoided, for the sake of the faithful if nothing else.

Spirit as a Faculty or Property of the Soul

Perhaps one could think that the spirit is a faculty or special capacity of the soul. It would be like saying the soul of the person has the properties of thinking, willing, feeling, and so forth, but that there is an activity or property of the soul which relates to God. This might be called the ‘light trichotomy’ view. If the spirit is a property of the soul, and the human person consists of body and soul, then I do not necessarily see the same problem of coherence. This might even make more sense of the biblical data. But if the trichotomous view ultimately collapses into the dichotomist view, it becomes trivial from the standpoint of philosophical anthropology.

Spirit and Soul as Distinct Substances

What happens if one takes the view that man is composed of three parts, body, soul, and spirit, and the two immaterial parts are distinct substances or distinct immaterial entities of some kind? I call this the ‘hard trichotomy’ view.

The main problem of coherence on the hard view is that it strains the identity of the human person if that identity in any way persists through time. If there are two parts of our immaterial nature, then there is no identifiable part of ‘us’ after death. Let's say Socrates dies. What of Socrates survives? Who is he after he dies?  Is Socrates his soul or his spirit? The trichotomy view raises this question and does not provide any good answers. We cannot think that two substances, both identified with Socrates, survive his death (on pain of violating the law of identity). If both persist, the spirit must be something lesser that is dependent upon the soul in some way. Yet, if this is the case, then what survives is the soul of Socrates and the spirit of Socrates that depends upon the soul. We identify Socrates with his soul after he dies and his spirit is not central to his identity. But if we do this, then it really dos not make sense to say that Socrates is composed of three parts, since one part is not central at all to what it means to be Socrates or what it means to be a human person either before or after death. The spirit is simply not an essential part of Socrates. It makes more sense to identify Socrates as the composition as a body/soul during his earthly life and to identify the soul of Socrates as what subsists after his death. Christian doctrine holds that the soul of Socrates will one day be rejoined in some way with physical constituents to form a resurrected body, making a complete person

Further, if the soul is where man thinks and communicates and feels, then then the spirit cannot have these capacities simultaneously on pain of contradiction. For to affirm that Socrates’ soul is thinking and his spirit is not thinking, or that his spirit is worshipping and his soul is not worshipping is unintelligible. The result of trichotomy is that we can predicate two different things of the same person at the same time in the same relationship. Conversely, to say that both the spirit and soul are each thinking or worshipping in sync is equally problematic, for this would mean that there were essentially two centers of consciousness within one person and that undermines core principles of identity, thought, and action. And it seems to me that if the soul and spirit necessarily move in harmony and relate to each other, then they would need the same properties. Yet, if they have the same properties and move or act in sync at all times, then it is hard to say what the real difference is. Saying the spirit is a necessary part of man becomes ad hoc at best. No matter how it is explained, the trichotomy view has the effect of rendering absurdities and makes speaking about the inner life of a person or the immaterial aspect of human nature unintelligible. 

Moreover, on the trichotomy view, it must be said that we relate to or worship God and are not aware of it. Clearly, Christians think this is false. To avoid contradiction or indolence, there cannot be anything of the soul in the spirit, and vice versa. The hard trichotomy view, given what is says about the soul and spirit, leaves us with a human person that has a rational and volitional soul and a spirit, where the latter can only be a passive recipient of divine experiences. However, these divine experiences would not really be experienced, because there are no receiving capacities of the spirit. There is no thought, will, or emotions in the spirit. The spirit could not communicate or spill over into the soul, the part of man with thinking and feeling because there is no means of access between these two parts of man. If the soul is experiencing God through the spirit, then it must be the spirit is subsumed within the soul and we again have an otiose trichotomous proposition. 

The trichotomous view is also guilty of multiplying explanations or entities beyond which is needed to explain the phenomena in question. Positing either a soul or a spirit to explain the immaterial part of man in its functions is all that is needed. In response, a proponent of the trichotomy view might simply say that the Bible demands this. If this is the case, so much the worse for Ockham’s Razor. However, that is not the case. There are plentiful scriptures that refer to the soul and spirit interchangeably (Luke 1:46-47, Mark 12:30 and John 13:21, Revelation 6:9 and Hebrews 12:23, et. al.). If we press the trichotomy view and take its basis seriously, we should think that man also has a ‘heart’ in addition to his soul and spirit. There should really be four parts of man, then; body + soul + heart + spirit. For the Lord Jesus tells us to worship God with all of heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:36-49). Surely, then, Jesus is contradicting the trichotomous position of the soul as the component of thought because He is separating the terms soul and mind in this passage. But that is not really what is being taught. We recognize Jesus is telling us to love God completely, with all our being.

It is far simpler and more faithful to the teaching of Scripture to think of references to spirit and soul as each communicating something about the immaterial constituent of our self, which includes the body. Man is a composition of the material and immaterial. The immaterial component subsists after bodily death, and this is best thought of as the soul. To posit man a composition of the material two immaterial components adds unnecessary complexity and ultimately lands in incoherence.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 13:1-9

Luke 13:1-9

The task of ‘domesticating’ Jesus has been attempted many times. We witness this being done when one calls Him merely a good moral teacher or wonderworker. Or perhaps a cynic philosopher, or non-violent anti-imperial. Domesticating Jesus makes Him less threatening. It makes Him more accommodating of our thoughts and desires. We can just fit Him in anywhere that makes sense for the time and change later if that is what we need to do.

I would argue that a major reason behind this effort is the conception of love, at its pinnacle, as fully accommodative. The thought goes that if I love someone, I want them to be everything they want to be. I want them to fully actualize themselves no matter what. I want to support them in all their efforts. So, if God is love, and Jesus is God, then Jesus must be fully accommodative to us. From this, it follows that any teachings of Jesus that are threatening to this view must be suppressed or radically reinterpreted.

Jesus of course did teach the things of God and did many miracles. To think He was a cynic is an extreme stretch and claims to anti-imperialism are equally strained. Reading Jesus through any modern paradigm or ‘lens’ will most likely fail to do justice to what we read about Him in the Gospels.

Today’s passage is striking and will offend the moral sensibilities of those who want Jesus to be accommodative in the sense of just letting us be us. It undermines the idea of a domesticated Jesus. He tells the crowd gathered around Him to repent or perish. These are harsh words. How dare anyone say that! It would certainly take some heretofore unheard-of audacity to speak authoritatively about repentance or perishing. To place such a choice in front of people and presume the objective truth of this dichotomy turned many people away from Jesus’ message and mission. The same holds true from that time until now.

One cannot think Jesus is merely a good moral teacher or sage and still believe He spoke things like what we read in Luke 13:1-5. It would require rejecting the text or contorting it beyond recognition. If Jesus did not speak with divine authority, from the very person of God, in uttering these things then He could not be a good moral teacher. He would be teaching something very immoral when placing this stark contrast as fundamental to His ministry.  

To repent is to turn, it is to change one’s way of thinking, to fundamentally reorient one’s life to the truth of God revealed. Jesus happened to preach this message often, so there must be something to it. Are we attentive? The idea at work here is that we must accommodate ourselves to Jesus, not the other way around. The love of God does, in a certain way, accommodate itself to us. It is forever reaching for us, reaching into the world, penetrating through sin and darkness. God continually makes the first move, meeting us where we are…but not desiring that we should stay where we are. Not desiring that we should stay on the same track of self-destruction. The love of God calls us upward. We must take Him at His word. We chose to reject Him, to not repent, at our peril. The very essence of true love comes out in Jesus’ message to repent or perish. 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Gospel Reflection Matthew 1:16-24

What a great example of faith we have in St. Joseph. Our passage today says that when he awoke, he did as the angel commanded. Perhaps this did not occur the very next day, though it was presumably very soon after. Following the direction of God when we cannot see where He is leading us gets at the core meaning of faith.

As is the case with Mary, Joseph had the disposition of character to respond positively to God. We can surmise this because, even before he is told that Mary is miraculously pregnant through the Holy Spirit, Joseph had resolved to divorce her quietly so that she would at least not be exposed to as much shame. I think there is a great deal for us to learn here. The more disposed we are toward humility, the more ready we are to listen, the more ready we are to serve, the greater potential exists to draw closer to God and participate in the building of His Kingdom.

The context around today’s passage is illuminating. For an engaged woman to become pregnant before the wedding was enough for scandal. What would amplify this and bring about great public humiliation, perhaps severe punishment, was to become pregnant by another man. As everyone with a basic understanding of biology knows, two people must come together for humans to multiply themselves. This was as well understood in ancient Israel as it is today, however much some people in our society contrive obfuscations of this fact or subvert it with medical processes. So, Joseph thought something went wrong. Mary had chosen someone else. He must have felt devastated. Unfaithfulness is extremely painful. Rejection, humiliation, contempt. All these feelings must have been pulsing through Joseph’s veins. However, we read that his actions were loving. Even when he would have had good reasons, by human standards, to be angry and vengeful, Joseph chose another way. He did not want to make a scene out of the situation and bring about dire consequences for his (soon-to-be-former) fiancé

After waking up from the revelatory dream, Joseph realizes that Mary had not chosen another man. She had chosen God. It was not a competitive situation. There is never a truly competitive situation between God and man. The ways of God are not the ways of man. We walk by faith because, if we are honest with ourselves, we simply cannot see very far. Pretend we might, we do not even know what tomorrow will bring. God does. He sees from beginning to end and only asks us to trust Him as Mary and Joseph did. May we have the faith of Joseph to trust God when doing so does not make immediate, comprehensive sense to us. May we let the Holy Spirit bring calmness and quiet to our souls when our understanding is limited.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Gospel Reflection Matthew 21:33-46

Matthew 21:33-46

It must have been difficult for the Pharisees to hear this parable from Jesus. As I have mentioned in the past, I think the Pharisees are often misunderstood. During the time of Jesus, Israel was occupied by a pagan empire (Rome). They had been exiled and returned to their homeland, but only as a vassal state (with perhaps some temporary respites). The prophets had warned the Israelite people that abandoning the Torah and prophetic admonitions to stay faithful to the covenant would result in disaster. This disaster befell the Israelite people in a horribly tragic way. So, the Pharisees arise as a sect within Second Temple Judaism teaching strict adherence to Torah. If abandoning Torah led to problems, then faithfulness to Torah would be the solution. Hence, many of the strictures we read about them placing upon the people. For example, only walking a certain number of steps, or even so much as picking up a mat on the Sabbath was a sin. Restoring a person to health was certainly ruled out. A certain perversity crept into their zealousness for Torah. This was not the case for all of them, but by and large the Pharisees were big on Torah, tradition, and piety. These are not necessarily bad things in and of themselves. But losing the forest for the trees is endemic to the human condition.

Naturally, when Jesus comes along speaking with divine authority, the Pharisees are going to take note. Who was this man who spoke without referencing a certain rabbi? Where was He even trained in Torah? Who was this man who spoke presumptuously on behalf of God? Who could even think it conceivable to refer to themselves as The Son of Man? Jesus performed many signs and wonders, which must have been equally as baffling. Something was happening. The soberest explanation was that God was doing something. However, the Pharisees were so focused on the ant on the bark of the tree that they missed the beautiful forest flowering around them. They missed the path through the forest that God had laid for them. They missed the very purpose of their journey. Zeal without rectitude to God turns us in on ourselves.

In the parable of the tenants, Jesus brings to vivid life what happens when zeal is unchecked. It could be fervor for anything, money, power, true religion. When something comes along that calls us to question ourselves, we hate it. We do not like constructive criticism even from the best of friends with the noblest intentions. When the tenants are called to account, they believe they are justified in snubbing the owner. The owner has not seen fit to come, so they kill the proxy. And then another one.

How often do we seek to stamp out those corrections God sends to us? It might be little things here or there to tell us we are on the wrong path. How much do we hate to be told we are not perfect, that the universe does not revolve around us? We simply do not like to be told we have lost sight of the forest. We do not like to hear that we are off track from our purpose. Jesus points out this pattern, particularly in the spiritual life of Israel, and the Pharisees react as many of us would. They are utterly indignant. Jesus tells the Pharisees they are following the same pattern of inward-turning that previous generations did. They are only doing it under a different guise. We can be very much like the Pharisees. Like them, there will always be a way for us to rationalize. More importantly, though, the power of God’s grace can easily penetrate through to our innermost being and draw us upward. The question is our response to this drawing.


Thursday, March 17, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 16:19-31

Luke 16:19-31

Today’s passage is very well known. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (sometimes called Lazarus and Dives). There is some debate as to whether this is a parable or not. Jesus typically does not use proper names, such as ‘Lazarus’, in parables. On the other hand, the teaching sounds like many other parables of Jesus, such as the Dishonest Manager, the Talents, or the Wedding Feast.

The Lazarus and Dives text is often used as biblical support for conscious life after death. Both Lazarus, the rich man, and Abraham exist in what is called ‘Hades’ or the ‘netherworld’. It is some realm of disembodied human spirits. There is a place of comfort for Lazarus and torment for the rich man. Jesus intimates that each person is where they are because of their state of penitence (Vv. 30). There is ample room to expand here, but today my focus is on the imperative of Jesus' teaching; compassion shows the state of our heart toward God.

The rich man is not necessarily in a place of torment because of his wealth. He is there because he lacked compassion for the beggar at his gate. I picture the rich man walking past Lazarus daily, seeing him in need and doing nothing. The rich man enjoys plenty and Lazarus lays there with sores and an empty stomach. The callousness grows. Finally, the rich man does not even think to look at Lazarus anymore. Or maybe he decides to walk another way. He has turned away from Lazarus, and therefore away from God (cf Matthew 25:40-45).

When the rich man sees the error of his ways, he starts to understand compassion. He asks that something be done to help his brothers. He realizes that while he is stuck, perhaps something could be done for another. I think this has a hint of silver lining. The problem is that the rich man’s brothers already have plenty to go on, as Abraham tells him. If they won’t listen to the teaching of God through Moses and the prophets, it will do no good to have one visit them from the dead. This seems like as clear a picture as any that we must take God’s word seriously. We have a great deal of help from the pages of Sacred Scripture.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Gospel Reflection Matthew 20:17-28

Matthew 20:17-28

In this passage, Jesus teaches us that we should not desire authority or power for its own sake or for lording it over others.

If we are honest, it can feel good to be in a position of power. I have heard a phrase in the context of military preparedness “the enemy gets a vote.” This is true in other areas. So often in life we only have a small vote in what happens to us. We can control our attitude and actions, but little else. In turn, this can lead us to despair and frustration. Circumstances outside of our control influence us profoundly. Our employer could suddenly lay us off, the economy could tank, there could be a scandal rending the church. So, we think if only we could get ourselves into positions of power and authority, we could control more of our own destiny. Perhaps not everything. But at least we would not be as helpless. If we had authority, we could get more of what we want. Usually, this is an illusion. At best, it is temporary and fleeting. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The quest for control is regressive, we get domain over one thing and realize three other things now have domain over us. Wealth is a common example here. We want money so we can free ourselves from worry, only to realize that once we become a millionaire, we have more responsibility. More swindlers come knocking. There are taxes, lawsuits, inflation, investments, estate planning, and so forth. Then of course the million is not enough. We would solve all these problems with a billion. But the issues magnify. It is the same thing with political power. Treachery, more people gunning for you, more issues of concern. In the end, when we pursue power and authority for their own sake or for the sake of ourselves, the things you realize you cannot control simply multiply and magnify themselves. Of course, in attaining all this power and control, we have scant time for worship, prayer, family, and the smelling of roses. With acquisitiveness comes a turning in on the self and away from God.

All of what I have said here seems like a set of platitudes that can be rationalized away because “it will be different for me.” How many times have you said that to yourself? This has been a crushing question for me. It’s a ‘gut check’.

As He so often does, Jesus gives what seems counterintuitive instruction. “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant…The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve…” Against the grain of our nature, the key to living in the will of God, and therefore true happiness, peace, and harmony, is not to seek power and lordship over others. We must look to serve others. To imitate the Lord Jesus.

Jesus is not telling us to unequivocally avoid a position of leadership or to never have authority over others. The big question is why we want these things. Do we really want to serve? Do we want to live out the vocation God has for us? Is it possible for us to walk humbly with God and love our fellow man in a certain role or with a set of responsibilities? To be sure, this is a tough balance to strike. If we follow the example of Christ, we can say ‘yes’ we want to serve. We can say ‘yes’, to walking humbly with God.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Gospel Reflection Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23:1-12

Today’s passage shows us examples of how to guard against self-exultation and aggrandizing. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were zealous for the Torah. This was of course not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Quite the opposite. Where things started to turn sideways was in their keenness to show this zeal in sundry ways, such as broadening their phylacteries and presumptuously taking up seats of honor. These outward signs of piety eventually became a means of elevating themselves and thereby suppressing divine truth. There was a spirit of self-congratulation at spiritual attainment, a faux nearness to God, feigned infallibility at interpreting the Law, Prophets, and Writings (The Tanach).

Against this way of thinking and living, Jesus tells the crowd gathered of the underlying hypocrisy, earlier told by the prophet Isaiah 29:13 says “…Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men…”(Isaiah 29:13).

Avoiding hypocrisy is accomplished through humility. It is accomplished through charity and service toward our fellow man. It is by recognizing who we are before God. We are sinners in need of grace and mercy. In this way, we are all equal with our fellow man. No one person has an advantage over the other. We can never lord our piety over others or think we have a market cornered in the realm of the spiritual or godly. We should not seek honor from our fellow man, but to serve. 

All of these forms of self-denial are in view when Jesus reminds us of our calling to follow Him daily. Each day, God’s mercies are new. Each day, we are given a chance to walk circumspectly, not thinking highly of ourselves and giving out medals and awards to be displayed in our homes or working it out so that we get the best seat or receive the highest words of approbation.

Imagine the freedom that comes from not having to perform for others. Picture what it would be like if you only worked to please your Heavenly Father instead of seeking the capricious praise of other people. What would happen if you were not shackled by the disingenuous? Jesus’ teachings are liberating. We can be free of these things by following Him.

In Christ, we are truly free to be the authentic self that our culture so often wants to find in other places. In Christ, we are free from the lies and half-truths that eat away at our souls. We can rid ourselves of hypocrisy and inevitably collapsing self-aggrandizement by reveling in the freedom won for us by Christ. In Christ, we can cast aside the concerns that drive us toward that which we are not.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 6:36-38

Luke 6:36-38

Today’s Gospel reading gives us another set of passages from the Sermon on the Plain. What jumps out at me the most is the overflowing generosity of love. “Give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over…” The imagery here is so vivid.

Thinking about this from the standpoint of a parent, there is no limit to the happiness I want for my children. I want them to know Christ, to enjoy beatitude, to fulfill God’s purpose for their lives. In short, I want them to be fully alive in the life of Christ. Of course, I do want them to enjoy things like good food, shelter, healthy relationships, and so forth. How much more does our heavenly Father want this for us? Toward this end, we receive from Jesus the recipe: agape love. The giving of the self for the sake of the other. What God does for us He asks us to do for others. Not so that He can somehow gain something from it, but so that our joy might be complete.

When we take the judgment of others upon ourselves, when we withhold forgiveness, when we condemn, we cut ourselves off from happiness. When we emulate the love of Christ, one that does not hoard but overflows, we tap into the essence of happiness; the very nature of God. 

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Gospel Reflection Luke 9:28-36

 Luke 9:28-36

In one part of the passage today it says “Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him…” After the disciples with Jesus wake up, they realize the amazing Transfiguration and heavenly conversation happening right before them. St. Peter’s response seems to be right in many ways, especially where he desires to stay in the midst of the transfigured Lord Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. We can all resonate with this inclination. Yet the three disciples are told it is better for them to listen to Jesus, to continue the journey toward Calvary and the building of the church. Their time in glory would come later. But it must have been an amazing preview! I wonder how these experiences and nearness to Christ helped them as they faced intense persecution and death.  

There is a connection in the gospel reading today to the ratifying of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 15:5-12, where we read about a deep and terrifying sleep or darkness that fell upon Abraham. This seems to be very much like what happened to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. The presence of God is deep and heavy. We may not be ready for it totally, and definitely not without sufficient preparation. And it is only when we awaken from our spiritual slumbers that we realize what is happening right in front of us. We may wonder if God is working in our lives. Specifically, when how He might be doing so when it is not as evident as we want.

Sometimes God gives us a glimpse of what He is doing. We get a snapshot of the bigger picture, or perhaps what might be called a ‘mountaintop’ experience of the glory of Christ. When the mountaintop experience happens, we don’t want to leave. St. Paul also writes of such an experience (2 Corinthians 12:1-6). We must be prepared to take the graces God gives us and then continue our path. The glimpses help sustain us when times are tough. We have a deeper connection to our heavenly home, while still realizing a strong sense of purpose on our earthly pilgrimage.