Rev. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.
However many times Jesus seems to have told his disciples that He would have to suffer and die for us, and then rise from the dead, the Scriptures show us again and again how much His resurrection caught them by surprise. In today’s Gospel, for example, Jesus appears to the women who had gone to anoint his body. Overjoyed at hearing from an angel the news of His resurrection, they leave the tomb but are still fearful. They are not expecting to see Him risen. But at the appearance described in today’s reading, they fall down before Him, embrace His feet, and do Him homage. He tells them not to be afraid, and to tell His brethren to go to Galilee where they will see Him.
Presumably there were in that day as in ours experiences of the resuscitation of someone far along in the dying process and the correlative difficulties in trying to ascertain whether someone is really dead.. Bur this sort of thing is not at all the case with the death of Jesus. Pilate had his centurion ascertain beyond the possibility of doubt that Jesus really died, and the Gospels recount the story of how blood and water flowed out when the centurion opened His side with a lance.
If even a disciple who had often heard Him say that He would rise from the dead had trouble thinking in the new categories of the resurrection, it is all the more understandable for the authorities who had brought about His death to think in these terms. Confronted with the soldiers’ report about an empty tomb, they concocted a tale about the theft of the body and bribed the soldiers who were on guard duty to say that His disciples had stolen the body. They simply could not imagine that the claims about the resurrection of Jesus might be true.
The veracity of the claim that He rose from the dead is a question for every age. The claim is so astonishing, it colors everything else. Perhaps today we take it for granted from having heard it so often. But when the claim was freshly made and heard for the first time – and for us as well, if we really think about it – the question might not have been about its truth so much as about its very possibility. If anything is final and definitive, death seems so. In this light we can understand the way in which the authorities reasoned when they paid off the guards. That the disciples had stolen the body would seemed far more likely than that He had really risen from the grave.
The passage from the Acts of the Apostles shows us a very different St. Peter. Now, utterly fearless in carrying out his principal task as an apostle – being a witness to the resurrection of Jesus – Peter and the others show themselves transformed by the gift of supernatural fortitude that they had received along with all the other gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And not only does the Holy Spirit set Peter on a course from which he and the others would never waver – even when faced with the prospect of martyrdom – but the Spirit gives him the gifts of wisdom and counsel needed to determine how to preach about this mysterious fact.
The bulk of what is recorded from Peter’s sermon in this part of Acts concerns the completely new light that Peter has been given about the scriptures. Suddenly Peter is graced with an understanding of Psalm 16 that was brand new. The promise that God had made to David that a descendant from his house would sit forever sit on David’s throne has now come into focus for him as actually a prophecy about Christ. This promise to David must have seemed empty and broken, for the throne was no longer occupied by anyone from David’s line but by the likes of Herod. Yet Peter’s experience of seeing Jesus risen lets him explain psalm 16 in a wholly new light, for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus makes everything different.
The passage from psalm 16 reads in this way:
I saw the Lord ever before me,
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
Therefore my heart has been glad and my tongue has exulted;
my flesh, too, will dwell in hope,
because you will not abandon my soul to the nether world,
nor will you suffer your holy one to see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.
It is now clear to Peter that the psalm is not about David but about the Messiah. What is means is that David foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, for Jesus had not been abandoned to the netherworld, nor did his flesh see corruption. God the Father raised Jesus from the dead; and of this fact Peter and all the apostles had been made witnesses.
Someone with a skeptical streak could presumably ask why anyone should believe Peter and the others. For any of us who have not seen Jesus risen, there is need for an act of the will if we are going to believe a witness – we will need to decide that we take Peter and the long chain of tradition between him and ourselves to be credible. Are they credible in making such an astonishing claim? It is quite understandable that we might prefer knowledge of what we ourselves have experienced, or what we can work out for ourselves by our own reasoning.
But what Jesus arranged for all of us is the testimony of those who saw Jesus after His resurrection from the dead. Are they credible? On this point we do well to borrow from a defense of apostolic credibility that St Paul supplies for us in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. Either the Apostles really did see Him raised from the dead or they did not. Unless we accept that they really saw him, they must have been mistaken or must have had some sufficient motive for lying about what they saw.
What possible motive could they have had for claiming to have seen Him if they never did? If it were merely wish-fulfillment, it does not take much pain or the prospect of more pain ahead to realize that wishing something to be the case does not make it true. None of them grew rich or powerful from making a claim that they knew to be false – they lived as itinerant missionaries, and all but John died as martyrs. If they had generally talked nonsense or seemed crazed, one could perhaps chalk it up to madness, but there is no report of that. In fact, the sophistication of Peter’s speech here at Pentecost and that of the other sermons and writings that we have from the apostles gives evidence to the contrary. If they were just overly credulous but down deep unsure about what they saw, one would have expected at least some of them to have recanted or to have expressed some doubt in the face of actual pain and torture and the prospect of being put to death.
For St Paul, there is no good explanation for the resolute insistence of the Apostles that they saw Him risen except that they saw Him risen. What they saw made all the difference for them, and it was for this purpose that Jesus appointed as His witnesses. It can do the same for us, and it can be the reason for living our lives differently. Perhaps there was a day when we could have been content and comfortable in being Christian. The increasing challenges of our day, however, make this stance ever less possible for us. Let us be thankful for the witness of Mary Magdalen and the other Mary mentioned in today’s Gospel, and for the witness of Peter and the other Apostles recounted in the passage from Acts. They show us a pattern for our faith. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus makes everything else look different.
by Rev. Joseph Koterski, SJ
It is often the case that Spring Training and Lent coincide on the calendar. Baseball players need to get into shape again at this time of year, and it includes both physical exercises and work on various athletic skills. For Christians, Lent gives the opportunity for spiritual exercises and renewal of various holy practices.
The focus in today’s Gospel on being compassionate and on restraining our judgment is an important part of the clinic that the Church offers us in Lent. The compassion that Jesus insists upon so strongly refers not so much to emotions of sympathy or pity but to acts and attitudes of care, concern, and mercy that intentionally resemble the love of God Himself. “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate,” Jesus tells us. “Do not judge, and your yourself will not be judged.”
How should we understand Jesus in this passage? The compassion of the Father is manifested to us in a great variety of ways that are suitable for our human lot. Above all, His compassion is shown by sending us His Son, to share our condition, to redeem us by His suffering and death, and to lead us to salvation. It is manifest in His readiness to forgive the sins of those who repent and to restore in us by His grace what was damaged by sin.
Reflection on how the Father is compassionate gives us some clear directions for our own compassion. The mission of the Son to work out redemption is a mission that will involve pain and suffering, but the generosity of God is not to be outdone. It does not come about because it is something that God owes us, but simply because of God’s goodness in response to our needs. In the person of Jesus we encounter one who knows every aspect of our condition and one who loves us, not because we are worthy but in order to make us worthy. It is a compassion that calls sinners of every stripe to abandon what is sinful and to return to God. In God the repentant will find a Father who accepts them back and who gives His grace in abundance to turn the order of their loves around, the better to conform to His will.
In the call to compassion Christ invites us to join Him in showing mercy to others and in working for their holiness. It is a call to exceeds the natural and normal inclination to love and care for those whom we somehow find worthy. It is a call to reach out to others not because they are worthy but because they are in need. It is a call to extend ourselves to others by being mindful of their condition and by offering something that can truly be helpful to them in their needs, both physical and spiritual.
To imitate the Father’s compassion well, we need to distinguish between true and false compassion as well as to find good ways to bestow what help we can in ways that others can receive it. As we ourselves know, it is often more comfortable to be the one giving than the one receiving, for in at least some circumstances it can seem embarrassing to have to receive the charity of others. We would do well to find ways to make our gifts in ways that those we want to help can receive what we have to give and yet retain a sense of their own dignity. It is not just a matter of finding some pocket change for a beggar on the street but also of finding out the person’s name and talking to them a bit. And when it comes to the serious matter of dealing with someone who has been involved in sin or wrongdoing, we may find that the obligation of true compassion actually means finding a way in which to give fraternal correction or to challenge someone to think about what God really wants of us. In that case it would be a false compassion simply to ignore or overlook something that goes against the law of God, let alone to approve it or to enable it. Such conduct would not be a compassion that imitates the compassion of the Father, who manages both firmness and gentleness in calling the sinner back to Himself.
In a similar way, when Jesus insists “Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourself,” He gives us clarity about how we are to restrain our inclinations to be the prosecutor, judge, and jury when we notice something wrong or sinful. As the old adage very wisely puts it, “judge the sin, not the sinner.” We do not know the conscience of another person – only God knows that. But being clear about the distinction between the sin and the sinner gives us the way to honor the Lord’s directive here about not judging other people. We dare not claim for ourselves the prerogative that belongs to God alone – making judgments about a person’s moral state. But the obligations of practical charity, fraternal correction, and fidelity to God’s will ever remain. In a given case, true compassion, according to the Father’s heart, may well mean that we have to take the risk of challenging someone whose conduct is running counter to God’s will. Our task is to be creative and find a way to do it in a way that seems judgmental, but that is firm and yet gentle, like the Father’s way of calling us sinners back to Himself.
Good thing that we have Spring Training, I mean, LENT!