Blasphemously Charging Blasphemy, Fifth Friday of Lent, April 11, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent
April 11, 2014
Jer 20:10-13, Ps 18, Jn 10:31-42

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today in the Gospel we see once again the hostility of many of the Scribes and Pharisees to Jesus. They pick up stones in the Temple area to stone Jesus. Later they try to arrest him so that they can try him and have him executed. Jesus, St. John tells us, “escaped from their power,” not because he was running away out of fear, but because his hour had not yet come, the hour that would soon arrive. Jesus confronted his persecutors, not in the hope of winning an argument — he was the winning argument! — but in the hope of leading them, even one, to conversion. “I have shown you many good works from my Father,” Jesus said, “For which of these are you trying to stone me?” They replied that they were not stoning him for any of the miracles he worked, but for “blasphemy,” for “making yourself God.”
  • That’s a charge we shouldn’t pass by too quickly with historical hindsight. It was a very serious charge. As we’ve been hearing in the Gospel readings over the past two weeks, Jesus has multiply indicated that he is divine. For a Jew who worshipped the one true Lord, who was instructed by God himself not to have any other gods but Him, Jesus’ describing himself as the Son of the Father, his saying that the Father and He are one, his forgiving sins, which only God can do, would seem to them a gross violation of the first Commandment.
  • Imagine if I were to say to you today, “I am God. Worship me!,” what would your reaction be? You might not throw hymnals and pocketbooks at me, but if I kept repeating it, you would quickly realize that I’m either nuts or blasphemous. But if I took you down to the cemetery and began to raise whole rows of graves from the dead; if I led you to the cemetery by walking with you on Watuppa Pond; if I began to heal every sick parishioner of cancer, blindness, paralysis; if I began to tell you all you had ever done; if I began to feed all of Fall River starting with a few buns and sardines; you would have to scratch your head and at least wonder whether your categories were God’s categories, whether you needed new wine skins to assimilate the new data. Jesus had already been performing all the works God had prophesied that the Messiah would do when he came. Then, with that as the ground, he tried to help his listeners grasp that how God planned to hear the voice of his people throughout the centuries praying for rescue and liberation (today’s Responsorial Psalm) far exceeded their imagination: God himself would come as the Messiah!
  • But the Scribes and the Pharisees were too stiff-necked and hardened of heart to assimilate the new data. They didn’t even want to ask the right questions. What Jesus was proposing was a type of divine love that went way beyond externally keeping bilateral Covenant agreements, that God would enter our nitty gritty and liberate us from within in a way that to others might seem like a defeat culminating in public execution but from God’s perspective would culminate in the greatest victory ever imaginable. They didn’t care about how many works Jesus had done. They were not prepared to accept him even as the Messiah not to mention the Son of God and therefore they rejected the works as coming from below not above and stoned him first with their hardened hearts and steely speech before they would raise rocks to hurl at him.
  • Jesus’ response to their accusation of blasphemy today is instructive. He first uses a rabbinical argument. He cites Psalm 82:6, which says about the judges of the people, “You are gods, sons of the Most High” because they are supposed to rule with God’s wisdom and justice. If that’s the way they refer to magistrates, then it is not blasphemous, Jesus was saying with classical rabbinical logic, to refer to oneself as gods. We were all made in God’s image and likeness and God, in some way, wants us to reflect his own divinity in our humanity. To any Jew without a hardened heart, that ought to have been enough to recognize that one couldn’t ipso facto declare Jesus blasphemous for stating his divine filiation: “If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and Scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”
  • The second argument Jesus utilized concerned his works: “If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Jesus was admitting that they might have problems with his speech flowing from the narrow windows with which they were looking at God’s light throughout the centuries, but he was challenging them to consider the works Jesus was doing. The miracles he was accomplishing couldn’t have been done by mere human power or by a magician’s sleight of hand. They needed to be done by a supernatural agency, either diabolical or divine. And when one examined the works themselves, especially the exorcisms, did it make any sense that they were done with serpentine power? It would be like a Red Sox player who won the triple crown in helping his team while seriously injured to win the World Series being accused of being a secret double-agent of the Yankees. That would totally defy common sense. At a spiritual level, it would, in fact, basically be blasphemous. To accuse Jesus of blasphemy is itself blasphemous, limiting God’s own power and accusing God of being diabolical.
  • Jesus’ two arguments lead us to some concrete moral applications. First, do we recognize that God has said to us, differently than Jesus but even more powerfully than to ancient Jewish judges,  “You are gods, sons of the Most High?” Do we remember that dignity? Do we choose and act in accordance with that dignity? That leads to the second point. Could we say to others, “If you do not believe me [that Jesus is the true Son of God, that the Church he founded is the path to salvation, that her teaching about any particular defined matter is true], believe at least the works that I do?” Do are works show our faith? Do they announce the Good News? Do they manifest the joy, the peace, the love, the mercy, the self-mastery that flows from a genuine communion with God?” The whole preparatory period of Lent is meant to help remind us of our dignity and restore us to that dignity. We repent of all those times we haven’t lived as God’s beloved sons and daughters and return home where he vests us anew with signet rings, sandals and garments and throws a celebration for our return (Lk 15). And we are instructed by Jesus to believe in the Gospel, not just with our minds and hearts, but in all our actions.
  • We finish by focusing on one concrete means by which we’re called to manifest that we are sons and daughters of God in our actions. It’s the way Jesus fulfilled Jeremiah’s own words and life taken from today’s first reading. Jeremiah begins by saying he’s surrounded by plots against him, even the betrayals of those whom he thought were his friends: ” hear the whisperings of many: ‘Terror on every side! Denounce! let us denounce him!’ All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine. ‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.'” It would have been very easy in those circumstances for Jeremiah simply to flee in order to save his life, for him to give up on the mission God had entrusted to him. It might have been tempting for him to strike his persecutors before they had the chance to strike him. Instead, he entrusted himself to the Lord, saying to him, “To you I have entrusted my cause!” He knew that God was just and wouldn’t let evil win. He knew that God would right the wrongs. He knew that God would ensure that the evildoers wouldn’t triumph but stumble. And so he entrusted himself to the Lord whom he called his “champion” and the Psalm called our “strength, rock, fortress, deliverer, shield, stronghold and horn of salvation.” Jeremiah said that he was waiting to “witness the vengeance” that the Lord would take on him.
  • That “vengeance” would be fulfilled in Jesus, and it would be done in a way that Jeremiah would not have been able to foresee. Jesus, like Jeremiah, could have done so many things to escape from harm or to annihilate his persecutors in anticipation of their coming after him. Instead, he totally entrusted himself to the Lord in order to witness his vengeance, the vengeance that would totally restore justice to the disorder caused by sin. That vengeance was mercy. As Jesus’ persecutors were hammering him to a Cross he cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus took upon himself all of the justice owed to us because of our sins and paid the price. We witness God’s “vengeance,” God’s justice, united to his merciful love every time we look at the Crucifix! This is the greatest of all Jesus’ works in the Father’s name. And at Mass we receive within us that same Jesus who carried out that work of holy revenge on Satan, on sin, on death and we ask him to help us to help others, in seeing our works, come to the source of that same “vengeful love.”

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
JER 20:10-13

I hear the whisperings of many:
“Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!”
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
“Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him.”
But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion:
my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.
In their failure they will be put to utter shame,
to lasting, unforgettable confusion.
O LORD of hosts, you who test the just,
who probe mind and heart,
Let me witness the vengeance you take on them,
for to you I have entrusted my cause.
Sing to the LORD,
praise the LORD,
For he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the wicked!

Responsorial Psalm
PS 18:2-3A, 3BC-4, 5-6, 7

R. (see 7) In my distress I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice.
I love you, O LORD, my strength,
O LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.
R. In my distress I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice.
My God, my rock of refuge,
my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold!
Praised be the LORD, I exclaim,
and I am safe from my enemies.
R. In my distress I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice.
The breakers of death surged round about me,
the destroying floods overwhelmed me;
The cords of the nether world enmeshed me,
the snares of death overtook me.
R. In my distress I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice.
In my distress I called upon the LORD
and cried out to my God;
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
R. In my distress I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice.

Gospel
JN 10:31-42

The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus.
Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from my Father.
For which of these are you trying to stone me?”
The Jews answered him,
“We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy.
You, a man, are making yourself God.”
Jesus answered them,
“Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, ‘You are gods”‘?
If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came,
and Scripture cannot be set aside,
can you say that the one
whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world
blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me;
but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me,
believe the works, so that you may realize and understand
that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
Then they tried again to arrest him;
but he escaped from their power.He went back across the Jordan
to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.
Many came to him and said,
“John performed no sign,
but everything John said about this man was true.”
And many there began to believe in him.