Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Above Applause and Opposition!

The days leading up to Passion Sunday the Catholic Church proclaims the Word of God according to the Gospel of John. Chapters 6 thru 13 address the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. Every miracle our Lord performed, every act of kindness, and every teaching he gave was just one more thing that added to this tension. To be sure, any exercise in his public ministry was just another reason to put him to death.

It would seem that the Apostle John, also known as John the Evangelist, wanted to stress that our Lord’s road to Calvary was paved with mini-crosses of opposition and conflict from his own people. The thing is that our Lord, in order to heal and liberate souls, had to be willing to make some people unhappy. He did not set out to offend people for its own sake but he had to be at least willing to endure the anger of those whom he offended. Take, for instance, the following instances where Our Lord was forced, out of love for souls, to clash with religious authorities:

• His teaching on the Eucharist
• Thwarting the attempt to stone a woman caught in adultery
• Making the infirmed whole again on the Sabbath
• Healing a man who was blind from birth
• His teaching on the Good Shepherd, the hireling and the thief
• Raising Lazarus from the dead
• Defending Mary of Bethany when she poured oil on Jesus' feet
• And of course his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Passion Sunday

With every good word and every good deed on the above mentioned episodes, Jesus endured opposition from very important people. Elsewhere in the Gospels you will notice that he approached people differently. For instance, the Pharisee Nicodemus was a man of good will but he was ignorant on certain spiritual matters. When he inquired about being born again in John 3, our Lord patiently and diplomatically corrected him. However, when he came across obstinate sinners, those who cared little about the truth, he took a different approach. In fact, it is true to say that he offended these obstinate sinners by speaking the truth, he became even more explicit in what he said.

The Gospel of John chapter 6 is a good case and point. In this chapter our Lord gives a sermon on the Eucharist. With each reference to it, Jesus becomes a little more explicit. But when the critics among his audience show their displeasure, he does what few Catholic men do nowdays: he repeats himself with unmistakable clarity.

The following progression is in reference to the Eucharist (in John 6). Notice that he begins with the least offensive description of this doctrine but then pushes the envelope; to the point where he loses prospective followers. He begins by saying,

• “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”
• “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven…”
• “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
• “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

At this point the Jews begin to murmur. But what does Jesus do when he notices his critics are getting offended? We would probably stop here so as not to offend; to keep the peace, if you will. Nevertheless, instead of backing off or apologizing, our good and loving Lord gets even more explicit about what Communion with him really entails. He says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Here, Jesus is no longer using nice and amorphous terminology like “food” or “bread.” He steps it up. He clarifies that the "bread" he speaks of is his flesh. And what is the reaction from his listening audience? More murmuring! Even more people are getting offended and are on the cusp of walking away. One can only imagine how nervous the Apostles were getting. They were losing friends by the second. Now, for the sake of peace and for the sake of not being “divisive” or “polarizing” the good Lord should have tone it down! Right? Wrong! Although that is what we are taught to do in the twenty-first century, Jesus doesn’t tone it down. He goes beyond being explicit. If you were to read the original Greek you would think he has become deliberately graphic.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat [i.e. gnaw] the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh [i.e. gnaw] and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”  That was the last straw. Many walked away and Christ’s Church just diminished in size as a result. So much for accommodation! And so much for keeping the peace!

The point is this: In order to do people good, our Lord had to be willing to make some people mad. If he wasn't willing to do this there would be no St. Mary Magdalene, no Zachaeus, and no St. Matthew. All three were outcasts and despised. And by reaching out to these souls, our Lord angered many. But thankfully, he did not relent. He reached down and lifted up these souls to the heights of sanctity. Again, we can safely assume he did not set out to offend anyone. Nevertheless, he knew that the manifestation of his love to the broken and infirmed meant taking upon himself many crosses. In each case, he either merited one more enemy or caused another disciple to walk away from his company. But as Mother Theresa used to say, he “did it anyway.”

When Christ reenacted King Solomon’s entry into Jerusalem by riding a donkey on Palm Sunday, he demonstrated that he was a man of royalty (read I Kings 1:33-38). However, there was something greater than Solomon in their midst. Indeed, it was a preview of what the Archangel Gabriel promised to Mary: “The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33) But the hosannas and the human applause on that day were short-lived. He knew that a similar crowd (many of whom might have been the same people) would be chanting something quite different on Good Friday. And that something was: “Crucify him!”

The juxtaposition of human praise on Palm Sunday and a vociferous condemnation on Good Friday is invaluable lesson that our Lord sets out to teach his followers; especially those in positions of authority and those having influence. And the lesson is that we must be indifferent to both human respect and derision when doing the will of the Father. This means that the perks of human praise should not be made synonymous with God’s favor; nor should it become a standard by which we measure success in doing the Lord’s work. On the other hand, opposition or condemnation from people just may be an indication that God has anointed our work and wants us to persevere.

Be mindful that there is a widespread belief out there that if speaking the truth or doing a good deed will "ruffle feathers" or "rock the boat" then such an approach should be aborted. But as we have seen, our Lord teaches us otherwise.

Perhaps we should revisit the counsel of our spiritual ancestors. We don’t have to go that far back to find a manly, Christ-like approach to “controversial” issues. For instance, in the nineteenth century Cardinal James Gibbons wrote a book for his seminarians called The Ambassador of Christ. In it he equips the future leaders of the Church with a pastoral attitude that will enable him to persevere in doing God’s will no matter what kind of reactions they will get from onlookers. Indeed, the good Cardinal maintains that human applause and criticism should be a matter of indifference to the disciple of Christ:

"The vice opposed to self respect is human respect. Human respect is a base condescension by which, from the fear of offending others, or from the desire of acquiring their esteem, a man says or does what his conscience conceives to be unlawful. It is not easy to exaggerate the baneful influence which this moral cowardice exerts on mankind, especially on impressionable youth, under the alluring guise of friendship and love of applause...

God has established in your breast the sacred tribunal of conscience by whose dictates you are bound to decide. But in yielding to human respect, you act the part of a temporizing judge like Pilate, who pronounced sentence, not in accordance with the evidence before Him, but in obedience to the clamors of the multitude. You sacrifice principle to expediency, you subordinate the voice of God to the voice of man, you surrender your Christian liberty and manly independence, and you become the slave of a fellow creature.”

It cannot be better said than this: “The vice opposed to self respect is human respect.” The Gospel of John tells us, quite eloquently, that Jesus did not allow human respect or disfavor to get in the way of building-up the lowly and glorifying his Father. There is a high demand for this virtue in today’s Church. We need it in a bad way! Let’s pray that our Lord will be generous with the virtue that he, himself, exercised throughout his public ministry. May this grace be poured out upon the Church today!