Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Parables of Jesus: The Tree and its Fruit

Matthew 12:33:

[33] Either make the tree good and its fruit good: or make the tree evil, and its fruit evil. For by the fruit the tree is known.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

It's a beautiful day outside, I've just eaten supper, and I've only got about half an hour before going out to visit a friend. So what I'm trying to say is, I have to make this quick. So let's dig in!

In the previous chapter, Jesus is seen upbraiding the crowds for their lack of faith, for choosing to be scandalized by Him, rather than being thankful for the wonders He was performing for them. In this chapter, we witness exactly what Jesus was talking about in the Pharisees. They are critical of Him, and even accuse Him of casting out devils by the power of Beelzebub, prince of the devils.

So, once again, we see Jesus chastising them in the chapter. He begins by demonstrating the absurdity of such an accusation. You're probably all familiar with the "a house divided" argument. He also makes a couple of other arguments, which I won't get into at this time. Rather, I want to focus on the image of the tree and its fruits that Jesus alludes to.

It's important to understand this context though. And immediately preceding this verse, Jesus says, "Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come." Then, He gives us this very well known image of the tree, saying "For by the fruit the tree is known."

He explains further, "O generation of vipers, how can you speak good things, whereas you are evil? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of a good treasure bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of an evil treasure bringeth forth evil things."

The image is actually really good, and pretty well understood. It's also simple. If  you have a good heart, you will do good deeds and speak good things. If you have an evil heart, you will do evil and say evil. This is very much in line with what Jesus said in the previous chapter, wherein he spoke of taking scandal. The disposition of the heart is what causes a person to be scandalized by others, even when the others are doing good!

Likewise here, when Jesus is doing good works, the Pharisees, rather than praising God and honoring Jesus for the good He is doing, instead accuse Him of being possessed, and casting out demons in the manner of a witch doctor.

Jesus is going a bit deeper here, however. These aren't just grumpy men who are irascible and moody. There's something more fundamental going on here, and the image of the tree is central to it. If a tree is producing bad fruit, what's happening to it? It's not strong and healthy, but rather it is sick, and rotting from within. Its core corrupted.

But the tree has a long and ancient heritage within Jewish lore. It goes right back to the Garden. Adam and Eve had their choice of fruit from any and all trees in the Garden, including the Tree of Life, but they were not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This language, this imagery, shows Adam and Eve in a perfect state, a perfect condition, in their Original Innocence. They were permitted everything except one thing: sin--which brings about within a person a loss of innocence and a profound understanding of the goodness of the good and the badness of the evil.

This tree was a tree of death, and eating its fruit brought death to humanity. More importantly, the Tree of Life which stood at the center of the Garden represents the Divine Life, or the Holy Spirit, residing within the heart of the person. Adam and Eve enjoyed communion with God in their Original Justice. Once they ate of the Tree of Death, the Holy Spirit departed them.

This is what Jesus is getting at when He's talking about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit comes to reside in each of us in the life of Grace, to blaspheme the Spirit is to drive Him out. Disbelief in His power, disinterest in the life He has to offer, unrepentance for your sins, and the notion that you have nothing that needs forgiveness are all manifestations of this blasphemy. Unrepentant deadly sin is the unforgivable because forgiveness requires receptivity to that forgiveness, and an opening up of oneself to the life of Grace, which is the Life of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus is talking about a tree that is rotten to its core, and therefore produces bad fruit, He's talking about a soul that is devoid of that which gives it life: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the abundance of the heart, filling it with life and love. The Holy Spirit is that good treasure, and if we are filled with the Divine Life, His grace overflows out of us, and our fruits, our actions and words, will be filled with life and love. When we drive the Holy Spirit out, then what is our treasure? What is our abundance, but death, and loathing, and anger, and hatred, and accusation?

When Jesus says in verse 29, "how can any one enter into the house of the strong, and rifle his goods, unless he first bind the strong? and then he will rifle his house," the strong one here is the Holy Spirit, and we are the house. No one can enter into us (no demon can possess us), unless we first bind the Holy Spirit and let the demon in. But with the Holy Spirit unbound within us, no demon can touch us. We are protected from them, and the death that they bring.

But Jesus warns us. In verses 43-45, He says, "when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation."

It's a strict warning. Jesus is there to drive out the evil spirits from within us. He is here to free us from our sins and bring life to us. We may let Him do so, but if we do not let the Holy Spirit come within and fill our hearts, if we allow our souls to remain empty, neglecting prayer and fasting, then our souls become that empty, swept, garnished house. We may practice good virtues, but if it is not born out of the love that the Holy Spirit brings, then when that demon returns, and finds it empty, he will return with others and make our souls more desolate than before.

And isn't this the truth! How often do we confess our sins, but then neglect the life of Grace. We do not pray, nor fast, nor give help to the poor. We do not do those things Jesus commands us to do. And after a short time, we fall back into our life of sin, and often fall back into it more deeply than before. When we clean our souls, we must invite in the Spirit of God. We must persist in that life of Grace, keeping it alive. We must take the Eucharist often, and exercise those Gifts we received in Baptism and Confirmation.

Then, filled with the life of grace, we will bear good fruit. Be a living tree, and do not bind Spirit. Bear good fruit, not rotting fruit.

God bless you, and thank you for reading!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Parables of Jesus: Children in the Markets

Matthew 11:16-19:

[16] But whereunto shall I esteem this generation to be like? It is like to children sitting in the market place. [17] Who crying to their companions say: We have piped to you, and you have not danced: we have lamented, and you have not mourned. [18] For John came neither eating nor drinking; and they say: He hath a devil. [19] The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by her children.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

Hello dear readers! Before I get into this one, I just wanted to briefly share an astonishing insight that I had never had before, until after I had published my most recent post. I sat thinking about what I had just written, it suddenly the language between two of the passages I had referenced jumped out at me. The two passages are these:

Matthew 7:[24] Every one therefore that heareth these my words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock, [25] And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock. 

Matthew 16: [18] And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

There are three images Jesus uses in both: the rock, building a house on it, and standing against the storm. In the first, Jesus is telling us to build our lives, our households, our kingdoms on the foundation of His teachings, and we will stand firm in the face of tribulation. In the second, Jesus says that He's going to build His kingdom (the Church) upon Peter, and by doing so it will stand firm in the face of the trials that Hell will throw at it. The elevation of Peter here is astonishing, and until my last post, I had never drawn a close comparison between these two passages before. Of course, this is because Peter is graced by the Father with the truth of who Jesus is. In other words, it's because the Father is gracing Peter in this way, with sure truth, that the Church will stand firm. Therefore, what makes Peter the rock is the grace of the true Rock, God Himself. Nevertheless, that Jesus would make this declaration is startling to say the least, and an incredible gift to Simon bar Jonah. Amazing.

Anyway, just wanted to share that. Now, on to the next one!

Today's parable is given by Jesus in reference to the generation of people in Jesus' day. The parable itself is fairly straightforward. Jesus is comparing that generation to bored and dissatisfied children in a market--and He makes this a blanket statement because this is the treatment He is receiving by-and-large. Not that this applies to everyone back then, but it certainly applied to the majority of people.

So what about these children? They complain to their companions "we piped but you didn't dance, and we lamented but you didn't mourn." Without any context, we might be sympathetic to the children who are doing the complaining. I mean, after all, they've gone through all this trouble to enrich their companions with good music and moving lamentations, but they didn't appreciate it!

The truth is that this isn't about the companions at all, but about the children themselves. You can imagine children sitting in a market, having nothing to do. Their parents are either working, or shopping, so they're left to sit idly by while they wait. Bored, listless, restless, and irritated, they try to draw attention to themselves, but complain no matter how their companions react. The truth is, the children are just miserable and won't be satisfied no matter what their companions do. They are ready to complain about anything, and make accusations against their friends.

The problem Jesus is zeroing in on here is the problem of scandal. Earlier in this chapter, He says to the disciples of John the Baptist, "blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in me." And then right after this, He begins rebuking the multitudes. For what? For being scandalized by Him. He says, "For John came neither eating nor drinking; and they say: He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners." The reason the multitudes weren't responding favorably to Jesus' miracles is because they didn't want to.

This is really what the sin of scandal is about. It's not about the person who causes the scandal. It's really about the disposition of the person taking scandal. Yes, that's right. It is a sin to be scandalized by others. Why? Because you intend to see only that which is evil in them, and you interpret their actions in the worst possible light.

After this teaching, Jesus then goes on to rebuke the cities of Corozain, Bethsaida, and Capharnaum because they had great miracles being wrought in their midst and they, rather than glorying in it, they instead chose to be scandalized by it, and to accuse Him of evildoing, rather than seeing the blessed goodness of it.

This chapter is the first of three on this theme. In this first one, chapter 11, Jesus is said to be going about teaching and preaching and performing miracles. Then He rebukes the crowds for their scandal-taking. In chapters 12 and 13, we get to see some episodes where Jesus is teaching and preaching and healing and the Pharisees, rather than exalting in His goodness, attempt to catch Him in false teaching and contradiction, and accuse Him of healing by the power of devils.

So this chapter really sets up the next two, and gives them their proper context. The fundamental sin of the Pharisees, and those who follow them in this regard, is the sin of taking scandal. We should heed these words carefully, and always offer the benefit of the doubt to our brothers and sisters in Christ who appear to be sinning. Perhaps they do so unwittingly. We don't know. Rather, we should recognize the good that they are doing, or the good that they are professing. We ought not to take scandal in others.

Let us listen to the words of Jesus, when, in finishing His prayer to the Father at the end of this chapter, He says, "Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light."

Let us shed the cares of this world, our recalcitrance and cynicism, entrusting everything to His care, and instead let us live in the joy of the Gospel, delighting in the Lord and in one another.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Parables of Jesus: The House upon Rock

Matthew 7:24-27:

[24] Every one therefore that heareth these my words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock, [25] And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock. 

[26] And every one that heareth these my words, and doth them not, shall be like a foolish man that built his house upon the sand, [27] And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall thereof.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

There are three parts to the Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. The passage above is how Jesus ends the sermon. So, that's the context we're in when Jesus says "Every one therefore that heareth these my words..." These words that Jesus is referring to are His whole teaching on the Mount.

If you asked me to summarize the three parts of Jesus' Sermon, I'd probably put it this way: the first part pertains to right action, the second part pertains to right relationship, and the third part pertains to right judgement. Roughly speaking, these three parts correspond to the three spiritual faculties of will (action), heart (relationship), and intellect (judgement). In the first part, Jesus speaks about those actions which make us holy, blessed (the beatitudes), and which we ought to do for our own good, and for the good of others. In the second part, Jesus teaches us how to pray, how to fast, how to properly relate to God. In the third part, Jesus teaches us right judgement, how to exercise our intellectual faculty for good.

And at the end, He tells us that not all those who cry "Lord, Lord" will enter heaven. Why? To some, He will say, "I never knew you: depart from me." The answer is in the passage above, that we must both hear His words and do them. We must fast and pray, we must exercise right judgement, we must keep the commandments, and exercise the beatitudes; we must pursue God.

He who does these things will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock, and he who does not will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. Both men will be subject to the same calamities--rains, floods, blowing winds--but the house that is built on rock will remain standing, and the one on sand will fall.

What's Jesus really getting at here? Well, it's very interesting because the Jews had an old image of the Lord God as a rock of refuge and strength. Consider Psalm 17:2-3 (in some Bibles this is Psalm 18:2):

[2] I will love thee, O Lord, my strength: [3] The Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer. My God is my helper, and in him will I put my trust. My protector and the horn of my salvation, and my support.

This word firmament is often translated as rock. Here, the Lord is the rock, the place of refuge. Also, consider Isaiah 22:20-25:

[20] And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliacim the son of Helcias, 

[21] And I will clothe him with thy robe, and will strengthen him with thy girdle, and will give thy power into his hand: and he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda. [22] And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open. [23] And I will fasten him as a peg in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to the house of his father. [24] And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father's house, divers kinds of vessels, every little vessel, from the vessels of cups even to every instrument of music. [25] In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, shall the peg be removed, that was fastened in the sure place: and it shall be broken and shall fall: and that which hung thereon, shall perish, because the Lord hath spoken it.

Here, Eliacim is being delegated as, essentially, prime minister to the Kingdom of David. The Lord says He will "fasten him as a peg in a sure place." A sure place is variously translated as "a firm place", "a wall", "a steadfast place"... in other words, a rock. As long as he is fastened to the sure place, he will be a throne of glory, and when he is detached from that sure place, that throne will be broken and shall fall, and whatever was hung thereon will die.

God is that sure place. As long as Eliacim is Faithful, Israel will be glorified, and when he is unfaithful, the kingdom will fall. Jesus reminds us again of this reality later on in Matthew 16:16-19, when He appoints Peter as prime minister over His Kingdom using the same formulations:

[16] Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. [17] And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. [18] And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [19] And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

We are shown a great mystery in Jesus' passage at the end of His Sermon on the Mount when He tells us that whoever hears His words and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The first part of this mystery is that by giving us this simile, Jesus is declaring equality with the Lord God of Israel. Yahweh is the rock and refuge of Israel. Jesus here declares His teachings to be foundational, a rock and refuge. This is affirmed in the way chapter 7 ends: [29] For he was teaching them as one having power, and not as the scribes and Pharisees. Indeed, throughout Jesus' sermon, He references certain commandments given by God, and gives a new commandment for each, essentially declaring He has the same authority as God.

The second part of this mystery is that there is a certain closeness between God, Himself, and the teachings, the doctrine, that He hands to us. While in the Old Testament, God is Himself the Rock of refuge and salvation, here Jesus' teachings, and obedience to them, are the Rock of refuge and salvation. We should not be lead to believe there is a change here, that somehow God has distanced Himself, leaving us to rely on His teachings only. Rather, we should come to realize that He and His Doctrine are inseparable. To hear and do what Jesus teaches us, is to enter into Him, into that which makes Him who He is. He declared Himself to be "the way, the truth, and the life". Thus, to enter into right action (the way), and to enter into right judgement (the truth), and to enter into right relationship (the life), is to enter into Him. This is why He declares of those who do not hear and do what He teaches and commands, "I never knew you."

The third part of this mystery is that He there is also a certain closeness between God and His Church, and in particular Peter (or the Petrine Office). In Matthew 16:18, Jesus identifies the Petrine Office as the Rock, giving that office the power to bind and loose (that is, the power to make and dissolve laws--not moral laws, but what we would call canonical laws, or laws of the Church).

Thus, the Rock of the wise man is threefold: God, Himself, is our rock of salvation, God's teachings, His Doctrines and Commandments, are our rock of salvation, God's Church, and in particular the teachings and laws of the Petrine Office, which are always consistent with Biblical and Traditional Church Doctrine, is our rock of salvation.

Therefore, let us built our house upon that firm foundation: God, His Law, and His Church.

God bless you, and thank you for reading!