Tired of all the trash-talking in the blogosphere, on talk shows and in our political discourse? Ever think to yourself, "Jesus had to be against that, right?" Well, here's a reflection on the Gospel reading for Sunday, Feb. 13, which offered us some lessons on charity in the Christian life (including the blogosphere).
To begin with, a question: How do we know that when we read in the Gospels is what Jesus actually said?
Well, for one thing our tradition tells us so. As Catholics, we believe that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, and so the writings that were chosen for inclusion into the “canon” of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were the ones that the early church felt most closely represent what Our Lord said and did. And we believe the Holy Spirit guided this process.
But even if you want to think of it in secular terms, it also makes sense to trust in the Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written relatively soon after the death and resurrection of Christ. Mark, the earliest Gospel, is generally thought to have been written about A.D. 60, only 30 years or so after Jesus’s earthly life had ended. At the time, there were still plenty of people around who had participated in Jesus’s ministry and could say to St. Mark, “Hey, that’s not the way it was!” Or, “You forgot to put that story in!” Or, “Actually, Jesus said it this way.” It would be like someone in our time writing about Ronald Reagan, or the end of the Cold War. It’s hardly a long period of time. There were still enough people around who would be able to inform whatever was written, by their first-hand experience.
So we trust in the Gospels.
On the other hand, Catholics are not fundamentalists. We do not take every word in the Bible literally. We know that the Gospels were compiled after a generation of oral histories, in which stories were probably altered slightly. That’s just what naturally happens as stories are passed on. And the Gospels were written by four different writers writing for four different communities. So even though it’s about the same person, Jesus, the evangelists wrote things slightly differently, stressing different things, focusing on different things (depending on their audiences) are so there are bound to be a few discrepancies. And there are bound to be contradictions, too.
A few examples will suffice. Jesus makes only one journey to Jerusalem in the Synoptic Gospels, while he makes several in St. John’s Gospel. The story of Jesus’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew describes Mary and Joseph is living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and then moving for the first time to Nazareth; while Luke has the two originally living in Nazareth, and traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home again. And when retelling the same stories and miracles, the Gospel writers use different words, even when they’re quoting Jesus. What Jesus says on the Cross differs from Gospel to Gospel. But again that’s not surprising, since you have four different people writing. They’re all true—and not in some vague philosophical sense, but in the sense that these things actually happened—but it’s not like reading a court transcript.
So when we look at different versions of the same story, or consider stories that seemingly conflict in the Gospels, how do we determine what it is the closest to what Jesus said? That’s always been a fascinating question for me.
Scripture scholars use a number of ways of meditating on these questions. For example, one of the most interesting is the criterion of “embarrassment.” If something seems like it could be potentially embarrassing about Jesus to the early Christian community, it seem as the most accurate of the retellings. The most common example is Jesus’s baptism. Doesn’t it seem odd that Jesus would be baptized by John the Baptist? After all Jesus is the sinless one, right? So considering that, Scripture scholars suggest that it’s close to impossible that the Gospel writers would’ve invented something of that nature, create something that might have been embarrassing to Jesus and place it in the story. So we can be almost 100% sure that Jesus was baptized by John in precisely that way.
Another interesting criterion scholars offer is the use of Aramaic words. Many Scripture scholars suggest that when an Aramaic word as preserved in the text of the Gospels, it most likely represents a striking phrase that Jesus himself used, which was remembered, pondered and treasured by his disciples and reverently passed on to the evangelists. Examples of this are Jesus calling his Father “Abba,” his raising the little girl from her deathbed by saying “Talitha cum,” or his opening the ears of the deaf man by saying, “Ephphatha” Be opened.
These are wonderful, almost miraculous, connections with the very words—literally—of Jesus. It’s beautiful to think that we’re hearing the precise words and sounds that came from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth. Amazing, really.
In today’s wonderful reading we have another example: Jesus talks about calling someone raca. Now raca is an ancient Aramaic word meaning “fool.” And, as I mentioned, given that the Aramaic has been preserved is most likely that we are hearing the precise word that Jesus used with his disciples.
Now you might be surprised at my focus on this almost throwaway line, which usually gets short shrift in homilies. After all, the Gospel reading raises issues that are seemingly far more important. Jesus talks about himself as the fulfillment of the Law, for example. That’s pretty important. He talks about adultery. He talks about divorce. He talks about lying. All these things are significant things to ponder as Christians and Catholics.
But he also talks about speaking kindly to one another, not slandering one another, not calling one another’s names, and does so quite in the strongest terms. And so we forget this little passage at our peril.
“Whoever says to his brother raca will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says “you fool” will be liable to fiery Gehenna. That’s pretty strong stuff. If you engage in name-calling, you’ll go to hell. Pretty surprising stuff, given what we often focus on in our church.
You know, I’ve often thought that 50% of the Christian message can be boiled down to two words: “Be kind.” Jesus is reminding us watch our tongues, to refrain from calling people names, to refrain from putting others down, to refrain from gossiping. To be charitable in our speech. Now of course being Catholic is a lot more than simply being kind; but without kindness we’re not Catholic. We’re barely even Christian.
And it’s an especially important thing to hear Jesus’s words in our digital age, when snarky blogposts, terrible texting, snotty Facebook posts, and mean-spirited Tweets zip around the web and cause serious harm. “Fool,” raca, is probably the mildest of imprecations that you’ve heard lately. And that also goes for speaking about other Catholics, and other Catholics with whom we disagree. Take a look at any opinionated Catholic blog, on the right and the left, and you’ll see all manner of terrible name-calling, again much worse than raca.
We ignore the invitation to practice personal charity, to treat one another with respect, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to avoid name-calling, to curb our tongues, and to simply be kind, at our peril. And this is not simply feel-good religion. It’s not simply wishy-washy niceness. It is at the heart of the Christian life.
Speaking charitable about others is a simple thing, but hard to do. Trust me, I engage in this kind of talk myself from time to time. I gossip. I may even call people names, like “fool” behind their back. It’s a terrible thing to do.
How do we know this? Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms. So don’t overlook this somewhat overlookable passage, which contains a word that we can be certain comes to us directly from the lips of Jesus.
Listen to his words and allow them to change your words.
James Martin, SJ