Take up your cross

If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

Do I want to be a follower of Jesus? Absolutely! More than anything! But those words are easier to say (or write) than to let His words in Mark 8:34 come home. Okay, if I want to be a follower of Jesus, then here is what I have to do. There are two parts to it, and neither of them are easy.

I must renounce myself. Following Jesus means following Him. It does not mean wandering off in any old direction that I happen to like; it does not mean being stuck in the ruts of a life lived according to the patterns and habits of my whole life. It means leaving the dead to bury their dead and following him (Matthew 8:22). Following Jesus means that He sets the agenda, and that I go where He goes.

I must take up my cross. As if it’s not bad enough that I can’t go my own way, I must take up my cross. It is pretty obvious what Jesus is talking about if we only look at His life. After being tortured, He had to carry the Cross on which He was crucified—the Cross on which He died. So too for me: I must take up my cross and follow Him. I must take up the pain and suffering that I experience (both at my own hands and at the hands of others) and carry it to my death. There is no other way. We must not expect happy lives free of pain; as Jesus said, those who have such things have their reward. To the contrary, Jesus calls us to take up our sufferings and burdens (whatever they may be) and to follow Him.

This is a hard saying. Who wants to suffer, anyway? Isn’t it much more pleasant to avoid suffering at all costs? Wouldn’t it be better to avoid all the hassles and pains of carrying a cross? Sure the heck it would! But that is not the life to which Jesus calls us. More than that: as his disciples surely knew, one who is carrying a cross is carrying it to his death—to his execution. A cross wasn’t just a heavy load to drag behind yourself over hill and dale; it was a gallows of sorts. So Jesus wants me to take up my cross (whatever it may be and in whatever it may consist) and follow him outside the city…to die. Lord, grant me such love for You that I will not shirk the Cross, and that I may freely and gladly follow You to the cross.

Do not be afraid

It happened that he was standing by the lake of Genesareth, at a time when the multitude was pressing close about him to hear the word of God; and he saw two boats moored at the edge of the lake; the fishermen had gone ashore, and were washing their nets. And he went on board one of the boats, which belonged to Simon, and asked him to stand off a little from the land; and so, sitting down, he began to teach the multitudes from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, Stand out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch. Simon answered him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and caught nothing; but at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had done this, they took a great quantity of fish, so that the net was near breaking, and they must needs beckon to their partners who were in the other boat to come and help them. When these came, they filled both boats, so that they were ready to sink. At seeing this, Simon Peter fell down and caught Jesus by the knees; Leave me to myself, Lord, he said; I am a sinner. Such amazement had overcome both him and all his crew, at the catch of fish they had made; so it was, too, with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were Simon’s partners. But Jesus said to Simon, Do not be afraid; henceforth thou shalt be a fisher of men. So, when they had brought their boats to land, they left all and followed him. [Luke 5:1-11]

There is something here that is astonishing to me, and I am not talking about the incredible load of fish that St. Peter and Co. were given. It is St. Peter’s reaction, and the Lord’s response to him.

I think I understand St. Peter. A sign beyond his personal experience has just come up and landed in his boat with dozens (hundreds?) of fish tails flopping about. His reaction feels like mine might be: “I am not worthy; I am a sinner.” How else would one respond to such an astonishing thing? When he asks Jesus to leave, it isn’t with smugness at all but rather with a profound recognition of his unworthiness to be associated with or even near Him. This is totally comprehensible to me, the perfectionist who is far from perfect. Sometimes I can hardly stand to be with myself because of my imperfections; how on earth could I possibly bear the presence of the Holy One of God, which would be a constant reminder to me of my weakness, of my flaws, of my sins? Depart from me, Lord. I am a sinner!

But here is the thing.

Jesus knows all this about St. Peter, and He knows it all about me. He doesn’t tell St. Peter to stop ragging on himself as though Peter was wrong to consider himself unworthy or to acknowledge his sinfulness. He does not say otherwise to me. What He does say to Peter, and I think by extension to each of His children, is: Do not be afraid. He accepts Peter as he is, He loves Peter as he is, He has plans for this Peter who will over and over again say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, even deny that he knows Christ at all.

Does He say any less to any of us? To me? He does not, because He loved us enough to die for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8-12). He knows that I am wretched. He knows that I am imperfect; His response to me when I say “Depart from me, Lord; I am a sinner” is the same one that He gave to Peter: Do not be afraid. Lord, I am not worthy. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. Lord, I am afraid; give me courage.

Huddled Masses

In today’s Gospel (Luke 4:16-30) the Lord Jesus demolishes the expectations of those who (not without reason) called themselves God’s chosen people. Just as Elijah was sent not to a widow of Israel but to a Sidonian woman, and just as Elisha healed not an Israelite leper but Namaan the Syrian, so He too was coming to announce a gospel that would be for all people and not merely the Jews. The people of His hometown were so greatly offended by this message that they sought to kill Him.

The good news of salvation is not just for the Church, either. It is for all people everywhere. There have been times and places (maybe this is one of them? And is this one of those places?) where Catholics have sought to hide the light of the Gospel under a bushel basket. Ironically this same kind of problem exists in the secular world as well. We have come a long way from welcoming immigrants to this country, from opening our arms to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I suppose that if I had my way I probably wouldn’t be writing about this subject again so soon after having just done so. But given the readings there really was no other option. Immigration is a particularly controversial topic today, and if we are going to think rightly about it we have to slow down and think rather than simply react. People don’t leave their native homes in order to go migrate someplace else for the purposes of wrecking that new home. They just don’t. That would be silly. No, they are coming here because they are seeking a better life for themselves and for their children. This is the same proposition that brought the first colonists here. It is the same proposition that brought millions of the downtrodden from Europe here in the last couple centuries. It is the same proposition that brought my ancestors here from Germany and the Netherlands and the British Isles and France (among other places). And now that we are here, now that I am here, shall we say — shall I say — “Immigrants go home”? Really? Seriously? True, our ancestors were here first (unless you include the natives…and we really should include them), but that is an accident of history. We have no better claim to this place than did our forefathers, and today’s immigrants have the same dreams as they. It is pretty shameful, in my opinion, for Americans of all people to be talking about stemming the tide of immigrants. I say that as one who not so long ago wanted to stem the tide by having the government force the flow into particular legal channels. But those channels are not keeping up. The immigrants are fleeing here for a reason, and we need to help them. No, that doesn’t inevitably mean opening the government’s larders to them, but it does mean giving them the same opportunities that our forefathers had. We have done it before, and we surely must do it again.

No longer strangers

This post is inspired by this and this.

Jesus said that what is outside a man cannot make him impure or unclean. Instead, it is what comes out of a man — out of his heart — that makes him unclean. In the immediate context of Mark 7 he is talking about food and handwashing. We are not made ritually unclean by the things we eat nor by the cleanness of our hands when we eat. What makes us unclean are the things that come out of our hearts. Our actions make us unclean when we sin. So do our words.

But if it is true that nothing outside us can make us ritually unclean, then that truth extends not just to foods but likewise to other people. And so St. Paul says that the divisions among people are effectively shattered by the Cross of Christ. Once, we Gentiles were strangers to the covenant of God, but we who were once far off have now been brought near in Him. We are no longer aliens but citizens with the saints in the kingdom of God (Ephesians 2), and for this reason there is no longer Jew and Greek (racial barriers are destroyed), and there is no longer slave and free (economic barriers are destroyed), and there is no longer male and female (Galatians 3).

What might this mean in the immigration crises the world experiences today? Maybe the best way to think about it is to think about what it would be like if the shoe were on the other foot. What if we were the ones who were emigrating because our native homes were ravaged by poverty and violence and war? Would we not anxiously seek refuge elsewhere? The answer is a simple “Heck YES we would!” We all know this. We in the West know this if we ever stop to think about it. We’d be doing the same thing. On a small scale we already know this, as when people fled New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. So what do we do now when people flee here from other countries? They bring new languages and strange (to us) customs, but they are fleeing from something or other and they are seeking better, safer lives for themselves and their children.

In keeping with Mark 7, these people are not unclean. They are desperate. They are not going to ruin anything here in the USA or in Western Europe or anywhere else. They will not make us unclean or impure. What certainly will do that, though, is our response to their search for refuge and for homes and for help. If we kick them to the curb, it seems pretty clear that we are kicking Jesus to the curb: see Matthew 25. How then will He greet us if we turn them away? It is a fearful thing to consider…

I must decrease

It is the feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, and it is easy to think of lots of politically-oriented things to say, and to prod myself to the same sort of courage that John had when it came to telling people what they needed to hear and not what they wanted to hear. They needed to hear truth, and John gave it to them in its unvarnished wholeness, shirking nothing. But it seems too easy to me to mumble about speaking truth to power; I live in a day and age where power neither wants nor needs to listen to anybody. This is in part because (or so I imagine) power is invested so much in listening to what everybody says at all times anyway.

There is another aspect of the life of St. John the Baptist that strikes me as more compelling today, and it is summed up in these words that John spoke: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). It is easy for pride and attention-seeking to put themselves forward into the spotlight, most especially in an era characterized by spotlight-seekers who crave their fifteen minutes of fame. It is a lot more difficult, maybe, simply to bloom where I am planted.

It is a difficult thing to me to distinguish where personal ambition leaves off and zeal for the truth begins. Why do I wish to put myself forward? Why do I think that I must push myself into the public forum? What pomposity it feels like. Who am I but a dead dog? Is it not better to do those things at hand? I do not know whether God calls me to speak publicly for Him, but I know for a fact that He calls me to be a faithful husband, a good father. I know this because this is the vocation He has given me in marriage. This is not to say that there are no other forms of service I may offer to God, but why do I hope to offer them? Is it the humility of the servant heart or the vainglory of ambition that drives me to dissatisfaction with my place in the world? That question answers itself, doesn’t it?

A less-easy question for me to answer is to know that to which God actually calls me. Maybe the answer rests not in the things I’d like to do or think I can do but rather in that vocation I mentioned. If I must decrease like St. John the Baptist, then why am I thinking about how I can increase (even for what seem like good reasons)? Lord, help me to decrease like St. John.

Prepare yourself

The parable of the ten virgins is difficult for me to understand–or, maybe, it is a hard passage of the Gospel. Contrary to what one might expect the five virgins who prepared by bringing extra oil are commended not because they shared their oil with the other five but rather because they didn’t. This strikes me first as being contrary to the charity that God wants us to show towards all. Aren’t the five who have oil being selfish?

The Carmelites offer this commentary about the response of the five prudent virgins to the foolish ones’ request for help:

The prudent ones could not respond to this request, because at that moment what was important was not for the prudent ones to share their oil with the foolish ones, but that they would be ready to accompany the bridegroom to the place of the feast.

This is helpful to me. There are times when the right thing to do is to love God first of all even if it means that we cannot show others the love which at other times we might freely give them. It reminds me of the occasion when Jesus called people to follow Him, and at least one of them gave a response that seemed perfectly innocent on its face: he wanted first to help with burying his father. Jesus replied, “Do thou follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead” (Matthew 8:22).

Following God and loving Him: this is our first and highest duty, excelling all others. We must be prepared to do this no matter what, and we must actually do it no matter what. Excuses won’t cut it. Foreseeable preparations must be made. We must be ready when Jesus calls us.

More on Matthew 24

This morning I wrote about Mt. 24:42-51. It occurred to me almost as soon as I hit “Publish” that more could be said about the passage than I did in my brief remarks, and I’d like to do that now (and still more will surely be able to be said after this post too).

In the passage the Lord says that the servant will be blessed who is found doing what his Master commanded when He returns. Obviously what we do matters. The Lord Jesus is not coming back for the purpose of scooping up a bunch of sheep who are doing whatever the heck they want and relying upon mere faith to pave their way to heaven. No. The Lord is returning for the sheep who are doing His will. These are the servants who will be blessed at their Master’s return. It will not be just any old servants living in whatever way they see fit; the ones doing that will be “cut to pieces” and tossed out with the hypocrites. The upshot is that there is a critical sense in which we are not saved by faith alone. God’s grace (without which we absolutely cannot be saved) enables us to do His will, and if we do not freely do it out of love for Him, then we have no reason to expect to receive the welcome of the servant who is found working when the Master returns.

This is not much more than what St. Paul says in Romans 6:1-2: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Perhaps some folks take this to be a condemnation of the idea that we may actively commit sin while still living in God’s grace, but if you think about it for a moment it seems pretty clear that sins of omission are likewise excluded by St. Paul! We can’t just sit there; we must be doing the work the Master intends for us. As St. James says, if we merely hope for the succor of the poor man but do nothing to provide it for him, our faith is dead. We must be about the Master’s work, or we risk being cut in pieces and tossed out with the hypocrites. These are words directed to those who profess Christ, not to those who don’t. Let us love God gratefully for the salvation He has freely given us, but let us also work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Matthew 24:42-51

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” [NRSVCE]

It may be easy for us at times to forget that our Lord is returning, and that it may be at a time when we do not expect. It may be all the easier for us to forget this if we neglect the fact that “His Coming” may in fact occur for us when our time is at an end. I do not know the day of my own death, and it is certain that on that day I will receive recompense from God. Have I been a faithful servant to Him, or have I done whatever it is that I wish? The question will be asked and must be as surely answered. Lord, grant that I may be alert and watchful for Your Coming.

A living wage

This continues to pop up on news sites I visit. The original report does not say a whole lot about the man’s motivations although they do come across as a genuine concern for the wellbeing of his employees; this story strongly suggests that Christian faith played a role in his decision to set the minimum salary for his employees at $70,000/year, and to cut his own pay from $1 million to $70,000 as well.

A few thoughts occur to me about this. First, to suggest that this move is socialist (as Limbaugh and others have) is ludicrous. Socialism is about state ownership of the means of production; a state-enforced minimum wage law has more in common with socialism than does voluntarily paying one’s employees what arguably qualifies as a living wage. One might conceivably argue whether his decision makes “good business sense” from the capitalist perspective but one cannot rationally accuse a generous employer of being a socialist solely because he is generous.

A second observation occurs to me, and that is that this man’s actions appear to be pretty darn consistent with the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. That doctrine calls for workers to receive a living wage, one which is more than what’s needed for bare survival. That doctrine also condemns socialism, so it seems pretty clear that it is incumbent upon employers to do the right thing. Of course a living wage so defined is going to vary from place to place, but the point is not in the particular wage but rather in the outlook of the employer: does he recognize that he holds his property in stewardship and not absolutely? Does he understand that people have a natural right to a better existence than bare poverty, particularly when the only barrier is the distribution of property?

A third observation is that what this businessman has done is exactly consistent with the parable of the laborers in the field (Matthew 20). Does it make any sense for so-called free market advocates to condemn a man for doing what he wants with what is his own? Limbaugh and others seem to me to be advocating an economic theory based not solely upon private property but upon greed too. The Bible and the Church call us to a higher standard. We are called to hold our goods in love not only of ourselves but in love of our fellow man. I do not know if this businessman’s decision will prove to be successful for him and his company, but if it fails it will not be because real concern for others is bad for business.

A limit of inerrancy

The Bible is inerrant, but we are not: This is a fundamental proposition held by both Protestant literalists and by the Catholic Church. Both groups agree that the Bible is inspired by God such that all that Holy Scripture affirms is true and without error. This does not mean that there are not hard questions that still must be answered, and I for one am willing (where I once was not) to concede that perhaps I do not have all the answers to those questions.

Some of them are better than others. The claim that the Bible supposedly proposes a value of 3 for Pi is flatly absurd, for example. But there are others that are more difficult. For example, did Edom allow Israel to pass through its territory peaceably (Deuteronomy 2:29) or not (Numbers 20:18)? We can’t have it both ways in terms of the way the actual event took place; either Edom let them pass or they didn’t. So which is it?

Although I am willing to consider proposed resolutions of this difficulty that allow us to retain the idea that both Numbers and Deuteronomy are intended to be literal historical accounts both of which must be interpreted literally, I do not see how that notion can be retained in the face of this seeming contradiction. But the Bible is inerrant. This is an article of faith. There are two implications to this fact which we do well to keep in mind when struggling with difficulties like what Edom did (or didn’t) allow. One is that an article of faith requires the exercise of the virtue of faith, and that faith is addressed to things that we cannot or do not know by means of reason. It may well be the case, for example, that the Bible is inerrant just as we believe, but that we do not have a resolution for a difficulty like this. Faith does not pretend to answer literally all our questions; when it comes to an infinite God, there will always be things about Him that we will never understand just because we are not infinite. But there is a second implication I think is more helpful in addressing a seeming difficulty like what Edom did.

That implication is that we may be wrong though the Bible is not. It is often said that both Deuteronomy and Numbers present literal history to us, but let us be frank. In the absence of some unusually good harmonization of the seeming (?) contradiction between Deuteronomy 2 and Numbers 20, the only rational thing we can do is to acknowledge either that Deuteronomy or Numbers does not present literal history or that neither of them do. This choice by itself does not in any way imply that either of these books of Scripture contain error. It simply means that at least one of them is not intended to be understood in a flatly wooden and literalistic manner. Rather, at least one of them must be of a literary type that does not require literal truth in every detail. This is not a unique case, but it does emphasize once again the dangers of careless handling of God’s holy and inspired Word.

So what is the “limit” to inerrancy I reference in this post’s title? The limit is something in us, and it is that inerrancy does not mean there are no difficulties in biblical interpretation. Taking things literally does not solve all problems. Sometimes it actually creates difficulties. We are limited and fallible, and we need to keep this fact in mind when we come to biblical interpretation. This is yet another reason why we must seek to interpret the Scripture in keeping with the living tradition of the Church. The Lord promises to ensure that the Church is preserved from error when it comes to matters of faith and morals; He does not make that promise to you and me personally.