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Foolish Controversies

December 13, 2013 Length: 8:59

Fr. John Oliver reflects on the importance of keeping justice, mercy, and faithfulness preeminent, as opposed to foolish controversies, genealogies, and dissension.

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From the third chapter of the New Testament book of Titus: “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” Often a serious point comes wrapped in a funny story. This one, from comedian Emo Philips, comes to us from a couple of decades ago.

I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too. Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too. What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” and I pushed him over.

Again, from the book of Titus: “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless,” and sometimes, apparently, fatal.

It is painfully easy to get caught up in the rules of religion, is it not? Divisions emerge over details that shouldn’t cause division. Christendom continues its splintering, not over great matters of theology, but because we haven’t been very good at playing nice with each other. We forget the biblical mandate to “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless,” but what about what Christ called the “weightier matters of the Law”—justice, mercy, and faithfulness?

These are three qualities on display, for example, by the Good Samaritan. You remember that story. He was the one man in that story who had the least reason to display them. The parable of the Good Samaritan, the story itself, takes place somewhere on a dusty road between Jerusalem and Jericho. If we were to look at a map of the Middle East, we would find that that’s a distance of about 17 miles of well-traveled road. Our Lord tells us of a man who was walking that route when he is ambushed by a pack of thieves who not only steal his clothing and his possessions, but also his health. They leave him half-dead.

The first pedestrian to draw near is a priest, meaning a religious leader from a religious sect, someone who will surely know the passages in the Torah—the first five books in the Bible—about giving aid to those in need. If the priest knew those passages, however, he conveniently forgot them. We don’t know what went through the priest’s mind—too busy to help, too late in getting somewhere, checking his smartphone. We don’t know. Maybe he was too occupied with foolish controversies, dissensions, and quarrels about the Law. We only know that this religious man ignored what true religion is about. The priest passes by.

The second pedestrian is a Levite. He is from a lower and more common class of people than the priest. Surely he will help. He knows what it’s like to be in need, to feel beaten down by life. Sometimes, however, those in need are so used to being in need that all they know is taking and not giving. The Levite passes by.

A third pedestrian approaches, and he is a Samaritan, a socially despised mix of Jew and Gentile. The priest should have known better because of his training in the Torah. The Levite should have known better because of his own status as a person in need. But it was the Samaritan who demonstrates the biblical model for salvation: helping those whom Christ in the gospel of Matthew calls “the least of these.”

Some Christians fixate on rules and regulations of religious life. Other Christians are serving those in need. Which kind are we?

For the past few months, the Church has taken its Sunday morning gospel passages from the third of the four gospels, the book of Luke. Why does the Church focus our attention on St. Luke’s gospel during this time of year? Maybe as a way of helping us understand just what kind of Christ will enter the world at the upcoming feast of the Nativity on the 25th of December.

Each of the four gospels emphasizes a particular dimension of Christ and his ministry. Matthew accentuates Christ as the Messiah, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Mark emphasizes Christ as the Suffering Servant, the one who came to carry the sins of the world. John gives us the cosmic Christ, the Logos or Word of God who is the great “I am.” And Luke’s gospel has been called the global gospel because of its theme of salvation as a universal gift. Throughout Luke’s 24 chapters, our Lord is shown extending his love to people of every class and background: Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, Roman soldiers, children, the sick, the powerful, the powerless. Christ’s salvation is for all.

To be true to its founder, the Church must avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless, and instead tend to the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. At the close of the Advent Fast, the world will welcome the Christ whose very first homily recorded in holy Scripture was not a commentary about religion; it was a revelation of who he is and what he is like:

I have come to preach the Gospel to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, preach deliverance to captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them who are bruised.

How can we who bear his name do any less? What a joy it is, and a good thing for lightening the conscience, to keep first things first by remembering the charitable heart of our faith, ministering to those in need, serving those who will feel more human because they have been found worthy to be served, and helping others become greater by making ourselves smaller: small enough to fit in a manger. This is justice, this is mercy, this is faithfulness—this is Christ.


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