Astonishing Words

1 February 2009 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Dt. 18, 15-20; Psalm 95; 1 Cor 7, 32-35; Matthew 1, 21-28


There are times when we find the Lord’s words refreshing as waters from a brook. These are the times when the weariness of life’s takes its toll on us. When our heavy workload or the lack of tranquility in our lives, whether due to our own choices or our sinful lives, pushes us to yearn for something new; to hear something that would comfort us. In the experience of death, our grief does not need a scientific explanation of death, but words of consolation. In the experience of empty promises like words from politicians seeking election, we need to hear people who can speak of our woes and whose person we can identify with. We do not need the usual speeches that has lost its luster and credibility. But we need someone who speaks sincerely and credibly. And for many of us in these situations, we yearn for someone who can speak the words of God to us to give us strength, courage and hope. This is what the Lord promised the Israelites in the first reading. The Lord will send a prophet, like Moses, from their own kin, whom they will listen to. He will speak the words of God fearlessly. Whoever listened to Him, gains life. Whoever doesn’t, dies.

When Jesus taught at synagogues in Capernaum, people were astonished at his teaching. We do not know what He taught, but we know how He taught them: with authority. We also know the effect of his words: astonishment, amazement, and powerful. His words are strong: when He commanded the spirits, they obeyed Him. The words He spoke was refreshing and new. He did not teach like the scribes who would mimic the words from other people --- just imagine a speaker who quotes this and that person, but you would not hear what he has to say. When Jesus taught, He knew the basis of His teaching: He would recall the Scriptures and the decisions of the great patriarchs and prophets of history. But He would put His mark on it.

In composition writing, great writers acquire a license. They often break the rules of grammar and account for their own style. I was taught by one of these great writers like Doreen Fernandez, Frs. Joe Galdon SJ and Al Nudas SJ. They said that to break grammar rules, one must first master them.

The same thing, I believe, when we have to form our own opinions about our lives and our faith. Before we open our mouths to say what we think, we must first reflect if what we are about to say is solidly based on facts. We can be credible if we actually know our stuff.

There was a time when what distinguishes a Catholic from other Christian sects is the knowledge of Scripture. Catholics were ignorant of Scripture, while the others could actually quote books, chapters and verses of the bible. Remember that many Catholic bibles are covered and stored; but, I know of friends from other faith traditions, whose bibles are marked, highlighted and creased. We sometimes forget that what makes a book, a book is when it is used. What makes a bible, a great book, is when it is read, reflected on, studied and lived. I believe, the worn bible is the most sacred of all.

If we are to become Christ in the world today, we must have a worn bible whose pages we have flipped and prayed over time. Because, when we are asked to preach the Gospel, the written Word of God comes naturally from our mouths. But we just don’t quote, we offer our own personal experience. This is what is refreshing: the Word of God applied to real life today. When we are able to do this, we participate in the grace of the Holy Spirit. Then our words would be as powerful and as astonishing.

But I pray that the words we speak touches lives.

4 comments:

author@ptgbook.org said...

It is certainly important to read the Bible. But it is also important to read the Bible in an attitude of being willing to believe and act on what God says. As I point out in my blog, too many people read their own interpretations into the scriptures. But we need God's help to understand the Bible, and God gives that help to those who are willing to believe what He says.

God may test us on this. He may show us in the Bible something surprising, something different from what our traditions have taught us, or something different from what we want to believe. If we put aside our traditions and opinions and believe what God says, then God can help us understand more of the Bible, one point at a time. But if we choose our own traditions and opinions, then we stop believing God, and He stops helping us. Then the understanding stops at that point.

Jessel Gerard said...

Hi! Thanks for the comment. I agree with what you said in the first paragraph.

And what you've said about the surprise one discovers in the Scripture, like something that's different from traditions (traditions do change in time: so new wine in new wineskins). This I agree.

However, there are certain difficulties with "putting aside our traditions and opinions" or "choosing our own traditions and opinions, then we stop believing God." This is the difficulty: we are not like a blank slate: we existentially live within a culture, a tradition? How do you free yourself from them?

I think, understanding means being aware of our traditions and opinion, then we correct, modify, or reject it by further praying (thus asking God to enlighten us and help us). Understanding then is enriched, not stopped --- nor does God stop helping us. He helps us all the time. Faith is reasonable --- thus we can understand, though not fully grasp the mystery. Simple: we know God is love (we understand it), but the more we reflect on God's love, we discover more, and more, and more and more. It is inexhaustible. But we CAN understand. Reason and faith go hand in hand.

author@ptgbook.org said...

You raise a good point about our opinions and traditions.

You are correct, we should not try to cast aside everything we believe and try to be like a blank slate. What I mean is, there sometimes comes a time, if we are reading the Bible honestly, that we have to make a choice between believing what God says in the Bible and believing something that has become our tradition. When that happens, we should give greater priority to what God says than to the tradition we were raised in. The problem comes if we give greater priority to our tradition than to the Bible.

I will give you an example from my own life of a question I face many years ago.

I was raised in the Roman Catholic religion. As you know, Catholics use images in worship such as holy pictures and statues of Christ and the saints. They do not worship the images, but use them as an aid to worshipping God, as they describe it. I agreed with that and that was my practice growing up. Around age 19 I started reading the Bible seriously and I saw something in the Ten Commandments that did not fit the Ten Commandments that I was taught in religion classes in the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church says that the first commandment is "You shall have no other gods before me" and the exact Bible verses they quote for this is Exodus 20:2-6. They say the second commandment is "You shall not take the name of God in vain" and they quote Exodus 20:7 for this. They say the ninth and tenth commandments are "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" and "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods." But this doesn't fit Exodus 20:17, because "wife" is between "house" and "male servant". In other words, there is no way that God intended the commandment against coveting to be considered two commandments. This might not be important if we did not know how many commandments there were, because this could just mean there were nine, except there are verses in the Bible that say that the number of commandments is ten (Exodus 34:28). What this means is that in God's sight, Exodus 20:2-6 are two commandments. Exodus 20:2-3 is a commandment against worshipping false gods and Exodus 20:4-6 is a commandment against using images as an aid in worshipping even the true God. That God does not approve of using images to worship Him is confirmed by other passages in the Bible, including the incident of the golden calf in which Israel made the golden calf while Moses was in the mountain, and proclaimed a "feast to the Lord". It is obvious from this passage that Israel was using the calf as a representation of what they thought the true God looked like and was using it as an aid to worshipping the true God. Yet this is exactly what the second commandment forbids.

So at that point I had to make a choice. If I followed the traditions of the Catholic Church, I would not be believing and obeying the Bible. If I believed and obeyed the second commandment in the Bible, I would not be believing and obeying the tradtions of the Catholic Church. I also found many other discrepancies between the Catholic religion and the Bible, including the custom in the Catholic Church of addressing the priests as "father" (Matthew 23:8-10). It was clear on these points and many others that I could not continue to practice the Catholic tradition I was raised in and also believe what God says in the Bible. I had to choose one or the other. I chose to believe God, and as a result I could no longer be Catholic. I no longer used images in worship, I no longer could call a priest "father", etc.

As you say, we exist within a culture. How do we free ourselves? My whole family (father, mother, two older sisters) were Catholic. I was the youngest. They did not agree with me. They believed their traditions more than the Bible. They remained Catholic. I did not. Did this cause friction and alienate them from me? Yes it did. I paid a price. Christ said we have to be willing to lose our lives if necessary (Matthew 10:34-39).

You wrote, "I think, understanding means being aware of our traditions and opinion, then we correct, modify, or reject it by further praying (thus asking God to enlighten us and help us)." I agree that we should be aware of our traditions and opinions, then we correct, modify, or reject them, but it should be based on what we read in the Bible, not just what we think we should do after praying. When we pray we speak to God, when we read the Bible with a mind willing to believe God, then God speaks to us through the Bible. When our attitude is willing to believe the Bible more than our traditions, God through the Holy Spirit working with our minds can help us understand the Bible. But God's Spirit will not lead us to believe something contrary to the words of the Bible.

I think many people fall into a trap of thinking that the thoughts they have about God and about doctrine are coming from God's Holy Spirit, and that God's Spirit is leading them, yet when you compare their beliefs with the Bible, they are quite different. God's Spirit will not contradict the Bible anymore than the Bible will contradict itself.

Faith and reason go together, you are correct. There is a differnce though. Using reason and logic, I was able, while I was still a young man, to prove through fulfilled prophecy that the Bible was inspired by God. I wasn't trying to exercise faith in this. I was able to find prophecies in the Bible, written thousands of years ago, that predicted events to happen in the last two hundred years, and they happened. They happened in a way that I could not explain as a coincidence. That convinced me that a God who was able to predict the future inspired the Bible. I do not think that was faith. For me, it was logic, nothing more.

But I realized that this proof that God inspired the Bible was NOT proof that the Bible was true, because it didn't proof that God was always truthful in what He inspired. Would God ever lie or deceive me? I did not know any way to prove this one way or the other or to reason it out. I knew that for me it had to be a choice of what I would believe. I simply made a decision and a commitment to trust and believe God that He is righteous, that He will never lie, and that His word, the Bible, is true. I made a choice for the rest of my life to believe God. That was faith.

When I use the Bible, I still use reason to try to understand what God is saying. I use reason to collect all the verses on a particular subject. I also pray and trust God to help my reasoning powers and guide me to do it correctly. I use reason sometimes to look up a word in the original Greek or Hebrew using Bible reference books or software. So I use reason to determine in the Bible WHAT God is saying, just as I used reason to detemine many years ago that "you shall not covet your neighbor's goods" and "you shall not covet your neighbor's wife" were not two commandments as God gave them. But once I know WHAT God says, I use faith to BELIEVE God and strive to obey Him. I use faith to TRUST God to tell me the truth in the Bible. And I trust God to help me with His Holy Spirit to not only reason correctly in the way I put scriptures together, but to have the faith to believe God.

But God knows the heart, and if I am not sincere, even if I kid myself, I am not kidding Him. He knows if I am really willing to believe Him more than my tradtions. And if I interpret scriptures to try to fit what I want to believe rather than simply take the scriptures for what they really say, I may be deceiving myself but I am not fooling God, and in that case I have NO assurance that God will help me with His Holy Spirit to understand the Bible correctly.

Jessel Gerard said...

I think what you wrote is great: you have your personal journey. You love the bible, and I do too. We share a common love. Then we are connected.

I have plenty of friends who have been Catholic, and now are not. I eat with them. Talk with them. Enriched by them. As Scriptures have it: we shall know the Spirit, by its fruits.

I have been a better person, as well as my family and friends, by being Catholic. I too struggle a lot too. But no one is righteous in judging that my prayer is inauthentic.

I have seen my friends who are not anymore Catholic, becoming better. And I rejoice with them, as I rejoice with you.

I guess, today, we should look at what unites us because we have many things that divides us.

I am not a priest who gets offended if people don't call me, father. That's only a title. I don't make it an issue: there are other things worth worrying. But I do feel like a father to many of my students who come to me for advice, or visits me for different reasons. You're not going to take that away from me are you?

Do take care. And thank you, let many people appreciate the Bible. You're doing a good job. Maybe you can be like my friends who eat with me, share their lives with me, treat me respectfully as a fellow human being --- to your family. And tell them that as Catholics, they ought not to discriminate, especially because you're their son or brother: they would cease being Catholic if they do. They shouldn't be your cross.

That would make you and your family truly Christians in deeds, as Jesus in the Bible.

A challenge: maybe you can search out those people who have never heard of God or Jesus. Or those who are not even convinced. Why go and convince those who are already in the fold? There are many atheists, agnostics, and what have you in the US, far worse than your Catholic family. You can put up a stage with a microphone and preach to these people. Go to the teenagers who are in the streets. Like the many prophets in the Old Testament. Go, that would be a great, great and great thing for someone like you. Perhaps that would be your calling. The Holy Spirit, I am sure, will speak through you since you know you are correct. Tell me, if you're successful, and I would love to know the method so I too can be helped by you.

I will promise to pray for you and the success of your ministry (I hope God would listen to a person like me as he does to you).