Hard Sayings in Scripture

Geraldine Thompson, a Sister of Saint Joseph who taught English at Saint Michael’s College, Toronto, was utterly charming in person, . . . and challenging in conversation. Once she asked me, “Why is it that preachers will explain in detail aspects of the Sunday readings that everyone knows and but say nothing about other passages that we all find perplexing?” For instance, she might have wondered why Jesus told us to cut off a hand or tear out an eye: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”[1] Perhaps she has a point, because I’ve never heard a sermon address that verse. Well, what could be said about it? To begin with, I may note that there are times when anyone would gladly tear out an eye, if it were cancerous, for example, and had to be sacrificed to save his life. Our Lord, in his dramatic way, was telling us to be as concerned about our spiritual health as we are about our physical well being; for to preserve the former may require actions as desperate as those we embrace to safeguard the latter.

Would anything in the readings for the fifth Sunday of Easter fall into the category that Sister Geraldine described as “perplexing?” Certainly not the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, recounting the appointment of Stephen and six others as assistants to the Apostles, traditionally taken as the beginning of the diaconate. The second reading, from 1 Peter, is perhaps a bit more challenging because of the comparison of Christians to “living stones,” but in context the meaning is clear in that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,”[2] built upon the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. And John’s Gospel, often mystical and mysterious, is nevertheless generally accessible to us who see in Jesus the Word made flesh.

And thus, on this fifth Sunday of Easter, the priest—whatever his venue—may resort to the usual platitudes in his homily, as long, that is, as he omits any reference to the final line of the Gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.”[3] If Sister Geraldine were present, she would surely ask, “How can anyone do greater works than Jesus?” That’s an intriguing question in that it may be addressed on two levels: first, creation and then redemption. The Gospel of Saint John opens with praise for the eternal Word, present to the Father and the agent of creation: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”[4] It is an indication of the nobility of man that he uncovers possibilities latent in creation by making things that are not found in the natural order, such as a violin or a computer. There is thus what one might term a development, but, as C.S. Lewis pointed out,[5] it can never be against but always in harmony with the laws of nature; science and technology may make use of gravity, e.g., but they cannot ignore or eliminate it, much less “conquer” it. It is a mark of man’s fallen nature, however, that ingenuity governed by greed or misled by ignorance can destroy rather than enhance the perfection of nature as we see in the pollution of the oceans, to cite but one egregious instance.

But can there be anything superior to the wonders that Jesus performed during his earthly life? Certainly, the work of redemption, accomplished by his death and resurrection to life, is unique and unsurpassable. But there is in the Church a sort of extension of the actions and miracles of Jesus. He told the Syro-Phoenician, i.e., gentile woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[6] Hence, the preaching of the Gospel to the nations, as realizing the universal mission of Israel, is in terms of numbers more than what Jesus accomplished, and in that sense is greater. There are also new sorts of miracles, such as the shadow of Peter curing the sick, Paul’s immunity from the venom of a snake bit, the stigmata of Saint Francis,[7] the subsisting on the Eucharist by Saint Catherine of Sienna, which can be considered a continuation of the signs performed by Our Lord; but it would be a rash man, indeed, who would think of these later marvels as essentially superior to those reported in the Gospels.

Another aspect of the question merits consideration, in that modern medicine accomplishes cures as marvelous in their way as those of Jesus. The blind see by having cataracts removed or retinas reattached, the lame walk on artificial joints, the deaf hear with hearing aids, the dumb learn to speak, not to mention heart by-passes, brain surgery and a host of other medical miracles. As Christians, we are called upon to reflect on these wonders in the light of the Gospel. For the common element in what began with Jesus and has continued in the Church is a recognition that physical distress is a summons to conversion, as when the paralytic who had come to Jesus to be cured heard him say, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven,” and only thereafter, “Rise, take up you bed and go home.”[8] To be true to the Gospel, therefore, any medical procedure should being with an acknowledgement that man is a union of body, soul and spirit.[9] Everyone knows that a bodily illness will affect the mind, and also that mental stress has a physical counterpart. What is less widely accepted is the fact that spiritual malaise is equally deleterious to the whole person. It follows that to limit treatment merely to preserving physical health or assuring mental stability is to ignore the spiritual aspect of the human condition and so leave the patient still infirm. If you wish to see an instance of holistic medicine, turn to the cure of the lame man in the Acts of the Apostles. He is described as “walking, and leaping and praising God.”[10] He can walk because his body has been made sound; he can leap because his soul is filled with joy; and he praises God because his spirit recognizes a grace received. Saint Paul’s prayer, “May the God of peace sanctify you wholly,” thus reminds doctors and therapists to use their skills for the physical and mental well being of a patient even as they honour the role of family and friends to visit and strengthen him, and of chaplains and priest to console and anoint him.

[1] Matt 5.29.

[2] 1 Pet 2.9.

[3] Jn 14.12.

[4] Jn 1.3.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943).

[6] Matt 15.24.

[7] And perhaps of Saint Paul: “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Gal 6.17.

[8] Matt 9.2, 6.

[9] “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1Thess 5.23.

[10] Acts 3.8.