The Daily Bread, 27th March 2020.
Readings: Wisdom 2:1,12-22; Psalm 33(34):16,18,19-21,23; John 7:1-2,10,25-30
As we move towards Passion Sunday, the 5th Sunday of Lent, you could say that the readings of the Mass show that “the plot thickens” around Jesus. This is just reflecting what actually happened at the time. The full impact of what Jesus was doing and saying only gradually began to sink into the minds of the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem. Their initial dismissal of Jesus as an “upstart” is shown, especially in John’s Gospel, to develop into annoyance, then offence, then outrage. And as these stages unfolded, their irritation muted to condemnation, jealousy, anger and eventually hatred of Jesus.
At first, Jesus was seen as fitting in with Jewish tradition, or at least as teaching it with a freshness of style and approach that were acceptable. Leading Pharisees admired and even praised him. But as Jesus began, in their eyes, to violate the sabbath, to subject the Mosaic law to a new law of the Spirit and to desecrate the Temple, the tide began to turn, and to turn swiftly, against Jesus. They could just about tolerate his miracles of healing and even of exorcism, but when he began to raise the dead they quickly found themselves facing the key question of the whole Gospel: who is Jesus of Nazareth really? But their pride and lust for power and money would not let them entertain the notion that he was the Son of God, even although some of them probably knew it. If he were, they knew they were finished. And so instead they had to finish him – not realising that, in his wisdom, the Father already knew they would do so and turned that very rejection (the Cross) into his Son’s victory and his enemies’ defeat (the Resurrection).
Our first reading today was not chosen by chance. It comes from the book of Wisdom and it is worth reproducing in full:
The godless say to themselves, with their misguided reasoning:
‘Our life is short and dreary,
nor is there any relief when man’s end comes,
nor is anyone known who can give release from Hades.
Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us
and opposes our way of life,
reproaches us for our breaches of the law
and accuses us of playing false to our upbringing.
He claims to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a son of the Lord.
Before us he stands, a reproof to our way of thinking,
the very sight of him weighs our spirits down;
his way of life is not like other men’s,
the paths he treads are unfamiliar.
In his opinion we are counterfeit;
he holds aloof from our doings as though from filth;
he proclaims the final end of the virtuous as happy
and boasts of having God for his father.
Let us see if what he says is true,
let us observe what kind of end he himself will have.
If the virtuous man is God’s son, God will take his part
and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies.
Let us test him with cruelty and with torture,
and thus explore this gentleness of his
and put his endurance to the proof.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death
since he will be looked after – we have his word for it.’
This is the way they reason, but they are misled,
their malice makes them blind.
They do not know the hidden things of God,
they have no hope that holiness will be rewarded,
they can see no reward for blameless souls.
Note that the text begins by characterizing the reasoning of the godless as “misguided.” It is not then too far a step to take to say that their reasoning is without reason, i.e. irrational. The same idea returns just towards the end: “This is the way they reason, but they are misled, their malice makes them blind.” Perhaps we could paraphrase: the malice or ill-will of the godless makes them irrational. Their very thought process gets warped, and it is warped because they have made their thinking subject to their evil choices; they have not looked at things honestly, fairly and squarely. Concretely, faced with Jesus, the major part of the religious authorities of the time made the choice to hold on to their own version of their religion because it suited their baser greed for power, position and money. Having made that evil decision, they manipulated their thinking to fit in with it and so to justify the murder of Christ.
What this comes down to is that the religious authorities did not in fact want the true God in Jesus, since he would only upset their lucrative applecart. They wanted their own version of the God of Moses, whom they had masterfully emasculated and cut down to size to suit themselves. But it is only logical to then conclude: they did not want God at all! They only wanted themselves and were making a mockery of the Jewish faith by manipulating it to their own ends. Cardinals who sold indulgences at the time of the Reformation were no different. And, sadly, probably many other examples could be added.
We are of course right to say that sin is an act of the free will (otherwise it’s not sin). But sin once committed, once we get the taste of it, warps the way we think if we do not repent of it. Sin is usually sweet, enthralling, fascinating, lucrative, empowering even. Look at the narco-business, the pornography business, the arms business. Now, neither power nor money nor pleasure are in themselves sinful. They are given to do good. But the wrongful desire and use of such things, and of many others, easily makes them become the prey of sin. And once the sinful pursuit of it takes root, and any notion of it being sinful or needing repented from is thrown to the wind, then that sin corrupts the thought processes. To use the words of Wisdom, it leads to godless and misguided reasoning. Its malice leads to intellectual and moral, and eventually religious, blindness.
This is why we need so much to expose our conscience to Christ, to open ourselves out to Him unfailingly. And once his Light has shone upon us and shown us the truth, it is why we need to let go, to renounce our sin, painful and costly though it may be. We will only think aright if we choose and act aright. Sin darkens the mind and the will and, once that darkness is then misguidedly called light by those it imprisons, the death of Christ in the soul will follow, the death of truth, the death of goodness. This is why the teaching and doctrine of Christ and of his Church, in matters of faith and salvation, are such a gift. Are they difficult sometimes? Most certainly. Easy to understand? Not always. Do they clash with the “enlightened” minds of philosophers and scientists and others? At times, they do. But if Christ is the measure of our lives – and I mean the real Christ who has revealed himself to, in and through the Church, not the romantic or dumbed-down Christ of those who don’t want to receive Him as He is – the opinion of a philosopher or the findings of a scientist can in no way be given precedence. By all means, in their specific fields, let’s listen to them. But they have nothing to say about the realities of God as revealed and given to us in Jesus Christ. Neither philosophy nor science will save us even if they are gifts of God to help us on our way to salvation.
As we approach Holy Week, it would be a good exercise to reflect and see if we can detect in ourselves any sign of a link between a sin we may be inclined to commit and the way we then think about that sin. If we find there to be a tendency to justify or minimize it, let’s ask the Lord, who died to destroy sin and to ennoble us with his loving grace and truth, to purify not only our wills of that sin but also our minds of their “misguided reasoning.” Let’s not fall into the same trap into which that other “great” figure of the Passion narrative fell so calamitously, Pontius Pilate, when he asked of Christ the Living Truth standing before him, “Truth? What is that?” Truth is not a what, but a Who.