Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rise and Fall

When Joseph and Mary carried baby Jesus into the Temple for consecration, they met an old man named Simeon whom the Holy Spirit was upon (Lk 2:25). Simeon had the gift of prophecy. He foreknew this child was Messiah and foretold that Jesus would grow up to become a source of division among Israel. Israel's faith would be tested; the test would cause many to "rise and fall" (Lk 2:34). Thirty years later, as prophesied, Jesus confounded the Temple aristocracy and stirred division with His perfect righteousness (Jn 8:46) and claim to divine sonship (Mt 26:63-64; Mk 14:61-62; Lk 22:70; Jn 18:6,36). "I did not come to bring peace but a sword" (Mt 10:34), Jesus preached. The sword was His tongue (Rv 1:16) and it split the faithful from the unfaithful upon hearing. Lastly, Simeon expressly prophesied to Mary that her "own soul a sword shall pierce" (Lk 2:35).

This meditation is upon the "sword" by which our Lord's hearers "rise and fall". To quote Blaise Pascal, 17th century French Catholic mathematician (yes, the guy you learned about in math class), "In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't."


1. Of the seven men selected to be deacons in the early Church, only Stephen is explicitly described as "a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit" (Ac 6:5) and "grace and power" (Ac 6:8). Scripture does not state how Stephen became Christian; his narrative begins at his ordination by the apostles (Ac 6:6). Being given the "ministry of the word" (Ac 6:4), he preached the Gospel and debated many groups of people who "could not withstand the wisdom...which he spoke" (Ac 6:10). Unsurprisingly, the Gospel singed the ears of his Jewish "brothers and fathers" (Ac 7:2), who accused him of blasphemy, detained him, and forced him in front of a religious court full of false witnesses. Stephen courageously testified to the history of Israel persecuting their own prophets, while the court "ground their teeth" (Ac 7:54) and "covered their ears" (Ac 7:57) before falling into a murderous rage. Preparing for impending death, Stephen raised his head to a vision of the Blessed Trinity -- "the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Ac 7:55) -- and then "fell asleep" (Ac 7:60). Interestingly enough, in his vision, Jesus is "standing" at the right hand of God, which is different from other scripture indicating Jesus "seated" (Lk 22:69). Did Jesus rise from His throne to honor Stephen's martyrdom?

2. The man born blind was not only afflicted by lack of sight, but also afflicted by the prejudice of a society that believed his disability was punishment for sin (Jn 9:2). Jesus refuted. On the contrary, the man's disability was allowed "so that the works of God might be made visible through him" (Jn 9:3). When the man "washed and was able to see" (Jn 9:11), "his neighbors and those who had seen him earlier" (Jn 9:8) and the Pharisees all questioned repeatedly how this was possible. They couldn't accept what happened. Rather than believe in a clear miracle, they doubled down on cynicism. Consequently, they intensified their accusations that both Healer and healed were public sinners (Jn 9:24,34), and then threw the man out of the synagogue. The irony of this all is apparent. The Pharisees, who always had natural sight, could not see spiritually the truth about Jesus (Jn 9:41); the man born blind not only gained natural sight, but the eyes of his soul were opened to see that Jesus was "a prophet" (Jn 9:17).

3. Entering Capernaum, Jesus met a centurion who sought healing for his ill servant (Mt 8:5; Lk 7:2). Jesus praised him, a Roman, for his great faith (Mt 8:10), in contrast to the "sons of the kingdom" (Mt 8:12) who should have been the foremost of believers -- after all, salvation belongs to Jews first and Gentiles second (Rm 1:16). Although the centurion loved Israel and built them a synagogue (Lk 7:5), nothing indicates that he believed in Jesus according to Jewish prophecy. How so? The praise of him is similar to the praise of the poor window who put two coins into the Temple treasury (Mk 12:41-44; Lk 21:1-4). If the centurion acted upon proverbial "two coins" worth of knowledge, it explains why Jesus praised him so highly. Rather than deep scriptural insight, his belief in Jesus was informed by his worldly experience of power and authority. As the centurion had the authority to command his servants into action (Mt 8:9), and he himself was also commanded from higher rank, so did Jesus have authority from the Father to command nature. This logic is reminiscent of John's Gospel: "Consider my works, for they prove that I came from the Father. No one could do them unless he was sent by the Father" (Jn 10:38). Indeed, the Roman soldier believed in the words of Jesus -- no matter how small his belief -- and saved the life of his servant.


4. King Herod Antipas, son of King Herod the Great, is best known for beheading John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29) and sending Jesus back to Pilate for trial (Lk 23:6-12). Of peculiarity was Herod's relationship with John. Although John publicly accused him of adultery, which greatly provoked Herod's wife into a murderous rage (Mk 6:19), he nevertheless liked John and kept him around -- albeit imprisoned. Why keep John around? Scripture reveals that Herod "was very much perplexed" when John spoke; "yet he liked to listen to him" and identified him as a "righteous and holy man" (Mk 6:20). Unlike many in Herod's court, John was not a sycophant. He spoke daringly to Herod, and, as it seems, Herod was not completely deaf to the truth. He lent his ear to the man who was to "make straight the way of the Lord" (Jn 1:22). The occasion was a period of grace for Herod to think about his marriage. If Herod recognized John as being right about the adultery, his response to the truth was one of prolonged hesitancy before hostility -- like the response of Pilate to Jesus.

5. Someone who walked away from the Gospel was the so-called rich young man. He "knelt down" before Jesus to ask how to "inherit eternal life" (Mk 10:17). After Jesus enumerated the Commandments, which the man affirmed his fidelity from youth, he was advised to sell his "many possessions" for the poor's sake and then follow Jesus, which "at that statement his face fell" (Mk 10:22) and "he went away sad" (Mt 19:22). There is no more mention of the man after his departure. Did he retain his wealth unto folly like in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21)? Did he squander it all on a "life of dissipation" before turning around like in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:13-32)? Had he uneventfully "changed his mind" and "did his father's will" like in the Parable of the Two Sons (Mt 21:29-31)? It is unknown how he ultimately fared. What's known is how "hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:23) -- but not impossible (Mt 19:26).

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