Wolves in the Synagogue
Fr. Patrick Reardon · December 19, 2011
Fr. Pat addresses those who come to Divine Liturgy with bad attitudes and for the wrong reasons.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, out of the Holy Spirit. Amen. When I was glancing over the assigned text for this morning, I noted that the Epistle was chosen because this is the Feast of St. Barbara. I read it and wished I knew more about Barbara, so this morning during Matins, I listened very closely to that biography of Barbara that’s read there in the Synaxarium after the Gospel.
And then, I listened very closely to Joseph’s reading of Galatians. It came right together. It just came right together. I know exactly why this text was picked, but I’m not going to preach on that this morning. Maybe next time Barbara comes on a Sunday, I might do that.
It would be a comfort, beloved, to think that all those who go up to the house of the Lord are led there by the Holy Spirit. It would be a comfort. It would also be an illusion. Even if experience did not testify that some people sometimes attend worship with the most deplorable attitudes and for the worst possible reasons. Holy Scripture itself would caution us to realism on the point.
An early example is Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, who used the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh as an opportunity to render life miserable to barren Hannah. This Peninnah is a certain type; the sort of person who goes to church, because there is the one place they can lord it over others. I think there’s some clergy that fall into that category.
Peninnah provoked Hannah very severely, says Holy Scripture, to make her miserable. She got one day a year, the annual pilgrimage, where she could make her miserable, and she so looked forward to it. The provocation was not unintentional. “Year by year, so it was, when she went up to the house of the Lord, and she provoked, therefore she wept and did not eat.”
It is easy to picture Peninnah looking forward to that annual pilgrimage with the family. It was her favorite time of the year, providing her the forum to feel superior and spreading discouragement. Now as it happened, the God who brings good out of evil caused everything to work out well for Hannah, and the story soon turns into an account of grace and divine visitation.
Still, there was a serious pastoral problem at Shiloh. And I suspect more than worshiper at the time wished the priest Eli, pointing to Peninnah would suggest to Elkanah, “Elkanah, when your family comes next year, why not leave Ms. Picklepuss at home?” In fact, this failure to do so should probably be accounted among Eli’s several pastoral shortcomings.
It would be nice if Peninnah was history’s last recorded example of a surly, mean-spirited individual using the Talmudine worship as occasion to make someone else feel wretched and forlorn. It is not the last example. Today’s Gospel gives us another. This morning we learned of a ruler of the synagogue, a singularly unattractive and grumpy person who objected to Jesus’ healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath.
In the midst of this spontaneous praise of God that ensued upon that gracious deed with all the people around praising God with heartfelt praise of God that they’ve just witnessed a miracle, this particular bellyacher felt it his duty to sound a warning to the congregation that the rubrics were not being followed.
This is a very unenlightened congregation. They were there busy praising God, and he said, Wait a minute! What about liturgical proprieties? I quote, “There are six days on which men ought to work. Therefore, come and be healed on them and not on the Sabbath day.” He’s faced with two things. He’s faced with adherence to the Torah, which in this morning’s Epistle is called a pedigogos. I think that was called guardian in your translation. With pedigogos, you get pedagogy from that.
But you have a miracle on one side and adherence to the law on the other. He chooses adherence to the law. He chooses works over grace. He chooses the law instead of faith. The first point to be made about this story is that it serves to warn us against hardness of heart. Hardness of heart can be found even in the house of God.
Quick to pass judgment on others and blinded by his own miserly spirit, this religious leader was unable to recognize the Divine Presence and the outpouring of Divine Grace. Devoid of mercy, he was also without courage. Instead of confronting Jesus directly, this coward had recoursed what has always worked for him in the past, he harangued the congregation about the woman herself. The one person he does not want to deal with is Jesus.
Now it is often said, and said more often than I think it is true, that churches are full of hypocrites. I don’t think churches are full of hypocrites. I’ve known lots of congregations and never saw one of them that was full of hypocrites. Here this morning, however, was one occasion where the Lord really did use that noun to describe someone in the place of worship. Hypokrites in Greek, by the way, simply means an actor. That’s all it means.
Unlike Eli, who failed to give a proper pastoral admonition to Elkanah, Jesus turned his not amused attention to this so-called ruler of the synagogue and He yells, “Hypocrite! Does not each of you on the Sabbath loosen ox or donkey from the stall and lead it away to water it?” Peninnah and the ruler of the synagogue behave like wolves, not like sheep, and Jesus treats them as wolves.
He gives the proper response to situations when an individual apparently comes to church for the purpose of making other people in the church miserable. Such folk need either to repent or to stay home. It is with a very clear conscience I must tell you this morning that although the text itself obliges me to teach this subject, I’ve had a very easy pastoral responsibility here. There’s absolutely no one in this congregation to whom I can say that, but if it ever happens, I will.
A second point of observation in this story is the crippled woman’s posture. You don’t see this very often anymore, because medicine has improved so much. But I remember times out of mine, when I was a little child, I saw very small ladies who were very diminutive, because their bones were shrinking; their spines were shrinking, and they were humped over. In fact, we called them hunchbacks. You saw that and a lot of things more in those days.
She’s bent over, and she can in no way straighten up. That is a dreadful affliction, because it touches symbolically about what it means to be a human being. The poet Ovid, in his account of the formation of the world, saw in man’s upright posture an indication that he resembled the gods. I quote from Ovid, “Now that the air was clear, the stars shown out.” Remember, Dante finishes each of his three sections of The Divine Comedy by speaking of the stars. The very last line of The Divine Comedy, “The other stars of Heaven.”
“Now that the air was clear,” said Ovid, “the stars shown out. The fishes swam in the sea; the birds flew in the air; while the four-footed beasts roamed the earth. But a holier animal was needed with a greater and higher capacity of mind.” This is a pagan speaking. Sometimes people say that we are returning to paganism. Oh that we did. That would be so much better than what we actually have.
Ovid goes on, “Man was made in the image of the gods with an upright stature. So while all the other animals turned their faces downward and looked at the earth, man raises his face to heaven and gazes on the stars.”
In short, man’s upright stature was understood, even by the pagans, as symbolizing the dignity of human nature; man’s ability to think of things higher than himself. “A holier animal with a higher, more capacious mind.” The human being was created for the knowledge of God, and Ovid knew that. A pagan knew that.
It’s not difficult to contrast this ancient pagan anthropology to the modern view of man. In much of contemporary anthropology, dominated by materialism, everything about man is explained in terms of material, chemical, electronic, and mathematical laws. It is common nowadays to regard even man’s highest thoughts as simply the results of electro-neurological stimulation taking place in the brain.
This devaluation of the human being has been much commented on by a man named Charles Murray in the last few years. Some of you older people remember Murray as one of the authors of The Bell Curve. Charles Murray has been talking about this a great deal the last few years; most recently, that I know of, in the Fall issue of The Claremont Review of Books, which I’m currently reading. I’m a little behind on it. I’m about a month behind on it. It’s a journal piece titled One-Dimensional Man.
What I’ve just described to you is what Murray deplores as what he calls the Europe Syndrome, not that everybody in Europe has it; for the same reason not everybody in the Middle Ages was middle-aged. So not everybody in Europe has it, but it is such a thing. And the Europeans are quite willing to let you talk about it.
When I was in Norway, perhaps three years ago, to talk about this; I went over to lecture on this very point, and a newspaper in Oslo and another newspaper in Bergen, each sent reporters to interview me. And each of those newspapers, there was a full page of the interview with me; complete with pictures. Anytime anybody gives me a full page of the newspaper, there’s not much happening in that country.
I told them that I thought that their culture had gone completely down the tubes. I told them that. I explained to them why. I explained to them what I believed to be the deep spiritual problem at the heart of what is called the European Union. I don’t want to go into the politics of it, but the culture and the spirit of it. This is what Charles Murray calls the Europe Syndrome. He says:
The Europe Syndrome consists of the belief that a human being is a collection of chemicals that activates and, after a period of years, deactivates. The purpose of life is to pass the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.
The human being is a collection of chemicals that activate and after awhile deactivate, and between those two things, you want to have as nice a life as possible. In this recent article, One-Dimensional Man, Murray takes up a theme, he’s developed several times. In the year 2009, he gave a lecture on the Europe Syndrome at Zurich. One will find a lot of it in Switzerland. By the way, it makes no difference if you’re a liberal or conservative. It doesn’t make a difference. They both have it. He gave this lecture at Zurich. After the lecture he tells us and I quote,
A few of the twenty-somethings in the audience approached and said plainly that the expression “a life well lived” did not have meaning for them. There were just words. They were having a great time with their current sex partner, the new BMW, and the vacation home at Majorca and saw no voids in their life that needed filling.
They reached that stage where being bent over and staring at the earth is thought to be normal. I quote from Murray, “It was fascinating to hear this said to my face, but not surprising. He confirmed that both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality.” When such people are told that they have empty lives, they are so spiritually dead that the words themselves make no impression on them.
Their response is very much what we would expect from a dog. No, not from a dog. Dogs do a little better than that. Dogs will sometimes go on their hind legs. The response is what we expect from a cat or a frog. Now, I do not speak to frogs all that often, once in a great while. Cats, I speak to a great deal, and they look at me rather quizzically, not the slightest idea of what I’m talking about. I get exactly the same response from some people. “We don’t know what you’re talking about.”
When I was a young man, one of the very first works I read in Greek was Plato’s Apology. One of the lines, I think I committed it to memory. I don’t have it down here. I hope I committed it to memory. “A life without striving is humanly unlivable.” When I read that as a boy, I said that this has to be one of the most important things that I’ve ever heard, and it’s fed me ever since.
You can live it, but you can’t humanly live it if you can’t live it as a human being, because it’s just life. An unexamined life, a life without striving, a life in which there’s no quest, it’s humanly unlivable. So you can actually say something to the person, and they have no idea what you’re talking about.
This is the reason Europe is dying. Economy follows culture. Now it’s obvious to everyone that Europe is dying, because now you can document it on the Dow Jones Industrials. You could have documented it, and Touchstone did, years ago. Look at the birth rates! The birth rates will tell you if you are living in a dying culture. Look at the birth rates.
Within the present century, if current birth rates hold steady, what history has traditionally called Europe will no longer exist. I don’t know about you, but I get no joy from thinking that. It brings me no happiness to think that Notre Dame de Paris, the great church of the Crusaders, will be a mosque within a century. Who can’t feel anguish about that?
The great places like Budapest and Stockholm and Milan will not be what we traditionally called Europe. Europe is so chronically bent over, unable to gaze at the stars, that it no longer believes that there’s stars there at which to gaze. At least one nice thing about this is we do have lots of communication. You can watch on television. You can hear news reports. Europe stands there as a billboard with a great big sign saying to our country, “Don’t let this happen to you!”
Third, having reflected on the leader of the synagogue and the crippled woman, let us now turn our attention and contemplate Jesus as he appears in today’s Gospel reading. Luke tells us, “Now when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said, ‘Ma’am, you are loosed from your infirmity.’ And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight and glorified God.”
Now, how does this begin? Listen again to what I read you. “And when Jesus saw her.” He saw her. That’s how it begins. This is also how Luke describes the raising of the widow’s son in the village of Nain. Luke says, “Jesus saw her.” This is how Luke describes Jesus meeting Zacchaeus. Remember the man in the three-piece suit up in the sycamore tree? “Looking up, Jesus saw him.”
In identical terms, John speaks of Jesus’ encounter with a man born blind at the beginning of John 9. “Jesus saw him.” Jesus raises His eyes and sees a group of people who followed Him into the wilderness. “He sees them,” says the text. “Seeing them, he knows they must be getting hungry.”
Over and over in the Gospels, Jesus sees people. When, He sees them, He does something for them. This is our prayer this morning. Let this be our prayer every day, brothers and sisters. Jesus, look at me. Jesus, please regard me. Look at me.
One of the great consolations, and it’s not ours to control, God has to give us the grace; we can’t produce this by our efforts, but the realization that Jesus is looking at us. This is the Jesus who is our friend. He sees us. Every burden in our lives, every anguish in our hearts, every anxiety in our minds, every silent tear, Jesus sees all of it.
This is the Jesus in whose company we live day by day as we strive to do the Father’s will on earth as it is in Heaven. This is also the Jesus who enables us to stand upright and gaze at the stars; the Jesus who turns our minds to the things of God and the remembrance of Heaven.