Some people think that God’s life is completely inaccessible to them, that the life that Jesus lives in this world is too far removed from their experience and the conditions of their life for there to have any relationship to them at all. This is not the case, if for no other reason than for the fact that Jesus died for their sins, not in the abstract, but in the flesh, and in relationship to the concreteness of their particular existence. But there are plenty of other reasons that we can add to this, some of them can be found in today’s short gospel passage (Mark 3:20-21).
Jesus did not grow up in some rarified, idealized utopia, but in Nazareth, a town whose reputation was such that Nathaniel declares, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). Likewise, in today’s gospel, Jesus’ relatives, the people that he grew up with and around, do not seem to be very supportive of the life that he leads when he proclaims the good news. These relatives “set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mk 3:21). If we face resistance from our surroundings and from our family when we set out to live the life that Jesus shares with us through the Holy Spirit, we should not think that we face obstacles that are unknown to our Lord. Indeed, Jesus grew up surrounded by such obstacles in Nazareth and from his own kin; he faces them down in a definitive way when he is tempted in the desert. So let us not think that we are so far from the Lord that we are incapable of living the life that he offers us. He has come down from heaven to earth, even to the very last place on earth, so that we might take his hand and begin to live, here and now, the life that leads us up to heaven with him.
In 1 Samuel 24, while Saul is hunting David to put him to death, the LORD delivers Saul into David’s grasp. David has the opportunity to take Saul’s life, and thus to be freed from the unjust persecution that David has been suffering. Instead, all that David does is to stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s mantle—an act that he even has qualms about, since he recognizes Saul as his king.
We should reflect on what it means for the LORD to have delivered Saul into David’s grasp. Just because David can now kill Saul—because God allows him the opportunity to do so—does not mean that David should kill Saul. God wishes for us to do God’s will freely, which also means that God can present to us occasions where we have the opportunity to take some other path. God does this not to tempt us to another path, but so that we can exercise our freedom to choose that better path that God would wish for us. In this case, David freely chooses to spare and honor Saul, which is what God wishes for David. Even Saul recognizes that David’s choice is godly, much to Saul’s chagrin: “Great is the generosity you showed me today, when the LORD delivered me into your grasp and you did not kill me… And now, I know that you shall surely be king and that sovereignty over Israel shall come into your possession” (1 Sam 24:18, 20). Saul knows that if he were to have been given the same choice by God, he would not have chosen the part that God would have willed, and therefore David’s choice was the one more fitting for the king over God’s people.
It is not so much what we can do that reveals who we are, but what we choose to do within that realm of possibilities that does so. David’s free choice to spare Saul when he could have done otherwise points to that supremely free choice through which Jesus reveals his divine life through his life as a man among us. When Jesus’ disciples try to protect Jesus from his passion, Jesus responds, “do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26:53) At any moment, Jesus could have said no to his passion and could have called it off. But he never does: he loves us to the very end, never refusing to bear the burden of sin that we lay upon him, even though, as Jesus himself declares, the Father would send legions of angels to defend him if Jesus but asked. In our lives, too, God gives us possibilities where he allows us to freely choose between the good that he offers and another life that might seem more superficially attractive. Let us reflect on the greatness of this choice, and then choose the path that more closely resembles that path that Jesus freely chose for himself, which alone truly merits the name of Love.
Envy, being one of the seven deadly sins, can be a reliable indicator that we seek our own will, rather than God’s. After David slays Goliath, the women sing, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands,” and Saul thinks, “They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me” (1 Samuel 18-19). Saul is jealous, angry, and fearful, because his attachment is to his own glory rather than the glory of God. Had Saul truly desired what was for God’s greater glory, then he would rejoice at the victory that God had accomplished through David and would have considered it only fitting that David would be celebrated more than Saul himself. Perhaps Saul would even have humbly recognized that God himself desired for David to be king, and might have willingly and obediently deferred to God’s desire. But that God should desire such a thing is what Saul most fears, and so, since God does desire this, Saul makes himself an enemy of God.
Perhaps we may think that we are more restrained that Saul in our jealousy, for who among us would contemplate killing someone out of envy or rage? And yet, Jesus does not allow us such comfort, for he warns that even those who bear such sentiments in their hearts do great evil (Matthew 5); John goes so far as to say that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer (1 John 3:15). If we feel envy for others, let us ask ourselves in what way we have chosen love of self over love of God, and even ask what false gods we have been worshiping and what illusory lives we have been chasing through this love of self. Then, let us surrender this false and sacrilegious worship and offer ourselves to the true worship that Jesus Christ reveals, wherein the good things that God bestows on our neighbor are no longer cause for envy, but rather for rejoicing, for they show that our loving God is faithful and does marvelous things. If we learn, by God’s grace, to rejoice in our neighbor’s blessings, perhaps we will come to discover our own.
The story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) stands as one of the most well-known stories in all of the scriptures. We find the story particularly attractive because our sympathies often lie with the “little guy,” the “underdog” who faces daunting forces and, against overwhelming odds, comes out on top. While that is part of this story, that is not actually the point of the story. Perhaps we would grasp the point better if we did not think of it so much in terms of David and Goliath, but rather in terms of David and God and Goliath and God.
Goliath neither serves nor honors the God of Israel. Israel does not seem terribly confident in the power of Israel’s own God either: Israel quakes at the sight of Goliath. David, on the other hand, having been anointed by Samuel and guided by the Spirit of the LORD, knows not only that the God of Israel will not forsake his people, but also that the LORD wants to use his own people to manifest his glory in the world.
The great mistake that modern purveyors of “David and Goliath” stories make is that they want David, not Goliath, to get the glory. But David wants no such thing; he wants God, not himself, to get the glory. The fact that David and Goliath are so mismatched should help make it clear that David does not beat Goliath on his own. Rather, it is the power of God working in and through David that defeats the Philistine champion. Nonetheless, God wishes this glory to be accomplished in and through the least of men—this ruddy youth—in the least of peoples (cf. Dt 7:7). God does not strike down Goliath for David; rather, he wishes for David to do what he can, and then guides the stone so that it is miraculously effective in bringing down its target. Likewise, God does not intend to do everything for us in such a way that we have nothing to do, but rather he demands that we do what we can, that we launch the stone that we can launch, in obedience to him. If we act from this loving obedience, then God will see to it that all things ultimately work for our good and his greater glory.
The contemporary Roman rite of baptism of children contains two anointings: one before the sacrament of baptism, with the oil of catechumens, and one after the baptism with the sacred chrism. These anointings anticipate a third anointing, that of confirmation, which in the Roman rite is normally given years later, once the young Christian has reached an age where he or she can intentionally and personally claim the faith and be guided by the Holy Spirit that is conferred in the sacrament of confirmation. The fact that this third, uniquely sacramental anointing, normally occurs long after baptism in the Western Church can prompt us to reflect a bit more deeply on the two anointings that remain tied to the Roman rite of baptism. The anointing with the oil of catechumens is a special blessing that the Church offers catechumens for strengthening and enlightenment in the period before baptism. Adults preparing to become Catholics can receive this anointing several times during the catechumenate period. The anointing with sacred chrism is a bit more mysterious. Sacred chrism is used primarily to anoint kings and to ordain priests. The fact that newly baptized children are also anointed with this oil, and into the body of Christ who is priest, prophet, and king, mysteriously links them to this reality of kingly anointing, which predates Christianity.
In 1 Samuel 16:1-13, God commands Samuel to seek out the youth whom God wishes to have anointed as king of Israel to replace Saul, whom God has rejected. This new king will be one of the sons of Jesse, but God does not choose the regal-looking eldest son Eliab who seems the most appropriate for the task according to Samuel’s own reckoning. Indeed, the one that God has chosen is so young and so little qualified that Jesse did not even think to invite him to meet Samuel; Jesse must call him in from the fields, where the boy is tending the sheep. That youth is David, and from the time that Samuel anoints the young lad with the oil of kingship, “the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David” (1 Samuel 16:13). This, certainly, is not confirmation, which will be a sacrament of the new covenant. It is, rather, an anointing into kingship, which is what we confer using the sacred chrism, after baptism. Christians affirm Jesus to be the long awaited Son of David, the David who receives his kingship at this moment; we Christians are anointed into that same kingship, which Christ shares with us. Let us therefore be attentive to the way God teaches David to be a king, for it is this same kingship, through Christ, that God shares with us.
In Saul, God gives Israel the king that it wanted (1 Sam 8-9). But Saul is pious a bit too much according to his own reckoning rather than according to the ways of the LORD. God’s ways are not our ways, but he invites us to make his ways our ways, so we might live from the holiness that comes from God, rather than any other light that we might claim for our own.
God’s command to Saul was clear: Israel was to conquer and destroy the Amalekites and all of their livestock. In his own pious way, Saul carries out the battle and wins the victory, but instead of killing all of the spoil, Saul saves the best of it so that it can be sacrificed to the LORD. That all seems well and good: if the sheep and oxen are to be killed anyway through the sacrifice that Saul intends to offer to the LORD, then what difference does it make whether they are slaughtered immediately, as the LORD had commanded, or whether they are brought to his altar at Gilgal where the people can be present and can share in the sacrifice. To Saul, the latter option seemed better. This choice seems pious enough, but it was disobedient. God did not ask for sacrifice, but, in this case, simple slaughter. Saul does not carry out the command of the LORD, because he think that he knows better than God what would be for God’s greater glory.
We, too, must be careful, lest we let our own piety get in the way of God’s will. As we seek to bring honor to God, we should ask ourselves whether we are actually seeking to do God’s will, or whether we seek to do what we think that God’s will ought to be. If we are doing the latter, then we are actually doing our own will under the pretense of doing God’s will, and that is perhaps the most dangerous temptation of all. If we are so tempted, then let us strive to bear in mind the LORD’s admonition to us, though the prophet Samuel: obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than whatever offering you would make in the stead of the obedience that God asks of you (cf. 1 Sam 15:22).
When Saint Jerome famously declared “ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,” he was referring not only to the four gospels, but the whole of the Christian scriptures in both the old and new testaments. For much of this week, we will reflect especially on the readings that the liturgy offers us from the books of Samuel, seeking to discern how the lessons that God offers us in these scriptures can help us to grow in our knowledge of the life that God offers us in Christ.
As Christians, we believe that God’s relationship with Israel, God’s chosen people, can help each one of us understand how God deals with us as well. Today’s reading (1 Samuel 3) continues the story of young Samuel, whom God had given Hannah and whom Hannah has given back to God (cf. 1 Samuel 1-2). Samuel grows up in the temple of the LORD with the ark of God, as a child given over to God under the care of the prophet Eli. It seems that Samuel would be as familiar with the LORD as anyone could be. But it is not enough to just hang around God’s house to grow close to God. We see this in the sad example of Eli’s own sons, who tragically reject the ways of the LORD even in the LORD’s own house. But even as well-disposed as Samuel is towards the LORD, Samuel must let himself be stretched. The LORD reveals himself to Samuel, not as a part of Samuel’s interiority, as if God was some sort of “imaginary friend,” but as an Other who calls to Samuel from outside and waits for Samuel’s response.
God does not “explain all things” to Samuel directly, but rather wishes to make use of Eli’s instruction to dispose Samuel to hearing and responding to God’s voice. Whatever Eli’s other failings may be—and we do hear about them in 1 Samuel—Eli does fulfill his office of teaching and preparing Samuel in exactly the way that God wishes. This is something that we ought to bear in mind if we are ever tempted to turn away from the ministry of the Church because of the failings of her leaders. Flawed though they—and each one of us—may be, God still wishes to make use of them to lead us in his paths. Though God will chastise Eli for his failures (1 Sam 3:11-18), God nonetheless makes use of Eli to teach Samuel to say the words which we all need to learn to say to God as well: “speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”
In today’s gospel (Lk 18:1-8), as in many of the gospels that we have heard throughout the past week, Jesus exhorts us to a true and genuine faith in God, especially in those times when it seems that our faith is without response on God’s part. In last Sunday’s gospel (Mt 25:1-13), the Bridegroom is delayed in his return. In Thursday’s gospel (Lk 17:20-25), we hear that the kingdom that the Lord brings is among us, but we do not recognize it, because in this age the Lord is rejected and suffers greatly.
Today, Jesus calls us to hold on to God as insistently as a woman hounding an unjust judge who does not wish to deliver the justice that she seeks. This image can be a bit disconcerting, since God is not an unjust judge but the source and origin of justice itself. However, the image also holds great power, and Jesus would not offer it to us if it were not useful to the life of faith that he offers us. In fact, Jesus wants us to “call out to God night and day,” asking him to “secure the rights of his chosen ones.” To be faithful means to endure in the relationship God offers us, to remain faithful “for better and for worse,” always depending on God’s grace in the messiness of this created world and what we have made of it. So God also endures faithfully in his promises to the fickle, beloved creatures that we are. Likewise, the Son endures abandonment in his passion and descent into hell.
“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” There may well be people with doctorates in theology and spiritual gurus when the Son of Man comes, but will there be anyone who truly looks to God for the grace which can only come from him? Will there be anyone who endures in faith in the Bridegroom who is delayed, whose justice seems to be just a pipe dream? Do not lose heart! The Son of Man will come in his glory, and he calls us to endure in faith until that day as he has endured out of love for us. When he comes, he hopes to find faith on earth. Let us pray that we do not disappoint him.
Ignatius of Loyola teaches that that all things on earth exist to help human beings to live the life of praise, reverence, and service that God’s love offers them (SpEx 23). In light of this, Ignatius says one is in consolation “when there is some interior movement in the soul which causes it to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, such that it can love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but only in its Creator” (SpEx 316). But what does it mean to “love no created thing in itself, but only in its Creator?” To make sense of this statement, we need to enter into the mystery of God’s love and the faith that it offers us.
An analogy from human love can help us. If a man wishes to surprise a friend experiencing a difficult period in her life by making her a favorite dish from scratch—a blueberry pie, say—then this dish is clearly intended as an instrument of love so that joy might enter into a difficult situation. Let us imagine the cook surprising his friend with the pie at the door to her home. If she “lets herself go” and “loves the pie in itself,” then she might dispense with formalities and “pig out” right there at the door, eating the pie straight out of the pie tin. That would clearly be an awkward situation. But let us imagine the opposite: the friend realizes what a great symbol of love this pie is, and so decides not to eat it at all, but instead puts it in a display case so that anytime she is down, she can look at it and remember how much she is loved. This would, likewise, be disappointing to the cook, who lovingly made the pie so that his friend would enjoy it. The proper way to actually receive the gift might be for the friend to invite the cook inside, cut and serve two pieces, and then enjoy the pie together with the one who made it for her out of love. She would actually be delighting in the pie—that is why the cook offered it to her, after all—but she would not be loving it in itself, but in the love conveyed through the gift by its creator, the cook. This is an example of consolation.
God is the Creator, and he offers us all things that he has created as a gift of love, so that we might make use of them to live out the life of love that he offers us. God wishes us to love and delight in the beautiful and good and true things of this world, but not in themselves. Rather, we should delight in them in the way that the Creator wishes, being drawn into the ever-greater Love that is their source, such that we, too, join in this life of love. This is the reality that today’s first reading (Wis 13:1-9) indicates. Let us ask God for the grace to truly delight in the beauty of created things, not in an idolatrous way, but in the way that God intends, so that we might receive the gifts that God offers us and share these gifts with others in the same love.
“Just as lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” So we hear towards the end of today’s gospel (Lk 17:20-25). Charles Wesley indicates something of this awesome reality, in his beautiful hymn “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending,” whose verses draw liberally from John’s visions in the book of Revelation (listen to it at https://goo.gl/EU8yhS). Jesus assures us that his coming will not be something that we can point to or indicate in any external way. When we await people who say, “‘look, there he is,’ or ‘look, here he is,’” we repeat the mistake of the Israelites who did not recognize the Christ because they were awaiting an earthly, political savior. Instead, the true Christ, the true savior, was in their midst, and not only did they not recognize him, but—together with the rest of the world—they crucified him.
The one who is to come—and the Kingdom that he bears—also stands in our midst, but we do not recognize him. Yes, in the fullness of time, the Son of Man will be known as surely as lightning flashes light up the sky from one side to another, but in this age, “he must suffer greatly and be rejected by this generation.” And so, following Revelation, Charles Wesley gets this right in this hymn. On that day, “Ev’ry eye shall now behold Him, robed in dreadful majesty; those who set at naught and sold Him, pierced, and nailed Him to the tree: deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.”
The cross where we crucify Jesus, most often through our treatment of the least among us, will be the place from which will shine the glory of God’s love. Blessed are those who wail at this revelation, for at the very least they will realize that all for which they have striven to gain for themselves in this life has been for naught. Perhaps they might finally surrender to the true life and love that Jesus brings. The Lord comes not to save our property, or secure our political or civil rights, or to help us win battles or wars. He comes to save us in the truest, fullest sense. He comes to offer us the only life that will endure as worthy of that name, a sharing in his own life of love. His love is not the superficial, feel-good love of nice sentiments, catchy jingles, and words emptied of meaning, but the magnificently omnipotent Love that reveals its power through powerlessness, in its suffering to save a generation that rejects it.