"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Not a Nice Guy

I don't mean me; I've never been thought of as a "nice" guy. At least I've never been called one to my face. I mean Jesus. Many people prefer a nice-guy Jesus: a dreamy, effeminate idealist who can be safely consigned, if not to actual irrelevance, then at least to the realm of sentiment, where he serves to soften the hard edges of life without rudely interfering with the activities of the boardroom and the bedroom. Much popular religious art reinforces that image of Jesus. But today's Gospel is one of the passages that does not sanction it.


I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."

I was once called "divisive" by a prog priest for saying that I loved this passage and explaining why. Had that fellow grasped the irony of what he said, he would not have said it. I hope he grasped it later, in prayer.

The reason I love this passage is its clear implication that those who follow Jesus must draw a sharp line in the sand that will not be erased with the soft passage of time. I don't mean the obvious line we draw against certain kinds of felonies; among Nice People Like Us, that is uncontroversial. I mean the line to be drawn between Truth and Untruth. That is controversial. For just as in the ancient Roman Empire, relativism is popular today as the default option for getting along with people who are different: what's "true for me" is not "true for you," as they say; I'm OK and you're OK. To be sure, that attitude is often appropriate when we're dealing with matters of taste. It is sometimes appropriate even when we're dealing with disagreements about the best means to attain agreed-upon ends, which is really what many political disagreements are about. For sometimes there is no single "right" resolution to such issues. But when it comes to ultimates, such an attitude will not do at all. If Jesus really is what Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church together present him to be, then the only appropriate attitude toward him is complete faith and surrender, which entails being baptized with suffering. That was the life, and death, of many of the early Christians. And if Jesus is not what they collectively present him to be, then the only appropriate attitude is to dismiss him as one more deluded would-be messiah, even crazier than the ones the Romans brutally crushed both before him and after him—though without, as in Jesus' case, the active collusion of the Jewish leadership.

There have been many attempts, mostly among modern, "scientific" biblical scholars, to evade that choice and thus to brush away the line in the sand. Thomas Jefferson, judicious editor of the Jefferson Bible, was a good example of how intelligent people can cut Jesus down to their own size. As an antidote to that sort of thing, I recommend the Pope's book Jesus of Nazareth. But evading the choice is not just an intellectual phenomenon. Because we are all sinners, we all do it sometimes in our own egregious ways and, more insidiously, our sneaky little ways. We make compromises all the time hoping, for example, to avoid trouble with that ol' mother-in-law Jesus alludes to. There are countless other compromises. Sometimes we compromise faith itself, because conformity to popular opinion, relativism, or just cynical skepticism wins us more points and costs us less than orthodox, undiluted belief. Always we compromise our virtue—or at least put off the development of virtue—because that's easier and more gratifying than dying to self so that He might live in us. And often we can't be honest with ourselves, or even with God, because we're afraid of paying the bill that fully facing the truth would present to us.

In anything pertaining to the spiritual life, we must prefer honesty to niceness. Of course we'd thereby create much division. But we'd be on the right side of that line in the sand.
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