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James Martin, S.J.February 12, 2011

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

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David Scire
13 years 5 months ago
Thanks for this article.  This is such a huge part of following Christ.  It is certainly one of those instances that are simple, but not easy.  God please make me truely conscience of what comes out of my mouth.
Kathy Berken
13 years 5 months ago
Have you seen the new Secret deodorant ads, part of their new campaign, directed at adolescent girls? It's their intention to stop the mean-girl talk and bullying, etc., that is increasing among young females. I saw a t-shirt with the Secret logo and it said, in big letters, ''Be Nice.''

When I was in high school, I found a poster that had words on it which are very much a cliche now, but it was not then. It read, ''It's nice to be important but more important to be nice.''

well, ''nice'' is not always the same as kind, but to most people it hits home.

I find it much more challenging to disagree with somebody on a blogpost without using bad language or name calling. I figure that if i start that, i am up for attack myself, and then my point is in danger of being lost in the mudslinging.

but I found it interesting that the video clip you posted with the 14th scene from ''The Last Days of Judas Iscariot'' was filled with obscenities. I understand that this was Judas talking from hell. But the other scenes posted on YouTube also has the bad guys using bad language. I find that the overuse of those words loses its effectiveness.

Stephen Bauer
13 years 5 months ago
Thanks for this teaching.
Michael Cremin
13 years 5 months ago
Man, what a jerk! (Just kidding! Great post, and oh so true. Thank you, Father Martin) :)
13 years 5 months ago
Just to add to the chorus.  Great post!!

And someone should make a bumper sticker of

'It's nice to be important but more important to be nice.'
13 years 5 months ago
I agree, too, and I will work on this on the blog (again)

btw, didn't you, Fr. Martin, just call certain posters on here "hate-filled" on the Daily platform?
13 years 5 months ago
I guess nobody today is perfect ;)
13 years 5 months ago
Yikes, these seems about right...a passage by Mark Shea:


..."you cannot build a life on protest, not even a protest against heresy.  If your Catholic faith is primarily a reaction against Those People Over There (whoever They are) then it is not about Jesus Christ, but about anger over some human hurt you have received (like the hurt of getting drivel from teachers who have betrayed their office and used it to subvert the gospel).  The Catholic faith is not a mere reaction to this world.  It is about God breaking into this world with joy in order to save it.  It is hell, not the Faith, that is on the defensive.  That’s why “the gates of hell” (a defensive image from siege warfare) shall not prevail against the Church.  So the trick is to be joyful, not angry and bitter, in your work of subverting the dominant paradigm.  Have worldly teachers sold the Faith for a pot of heterodox message?  Sure!  What did you expect the world to do? "
13 years 5 months ago
“The trick will be not so much to remain orthodox (that’s fairly easy, considering how dreadfully dull the theological legacy of the Pepsi Generation is).  Rather, the trick will be avoiding becoming a bitter Pharisee who turns Catholic faith into a particularly nasty and uninviting sort of Protestantism."

Double yikes...I am printing this and reading it often...(I am much more of a happy Catholic in person but this strikes home on here...)
13 years 5 months ago
Great post, as usual, Father Jim, but I am a bit puzzled by the sentence: "but without kindness we’re not Catholic.  We’re barely even Christian." I would not have thought that the call to kindness is part of what distinguishes Protestants and Orthodox from Catholics!
Bill Mazzella
13 years 5 months ago
"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."

So important as others above have noted. Jesus practically equates anger with murder. Authority can be quite scandalous when it more often shows anger than kindness. This is a redeeming factor in Timothy Dolan in New York. He struggles with the nastiness of his peers while he appears to be kind all or most of the time. As I see it people like Dolan are compromised by a system which centers on obedience over charity.  As Paul relates in his famous chapter 13, charity is the sine qua non of Christian life. There is a place for anger. But it has to be carefully assessed as in the abuse of children and innocents among others. 
13 years 5 months ago
"Second feature of Peter Canisius: In order to convert people and there were millions to convert in his day, to convert people from error to the truth, it is not enough to preach to them, you must first practice charity towards them. In other words, you will win over those who have been mislead by error only if you practice charity. Charity first and then, proclaim the truth.

John Hardon SJ

Great guidance...
david power
13 years 5 months ago
I am in agreement with previous commentators, this is a very good post.It informs and shows us the wonder of the words of Jesus and how they must be treasured by us and opened up if we can do it.
 I disagree that Christianity can be boiled down to "be nice".It is nice to be nice and Christians should be nice but if that was the message nobody would have been running from Lions or beheaded or cooked to death.
Pope Benedict in the First part of "Jesus of Nazareth" explains that the true centre of the message of Jesus is Jesus Himself.
Nobody would be scandalized by niceness but the original Christians and Christ Himself were a lot of scandal. God entering history to say "be nice to each other" would be a bit of a let down. Anyway Fr Jim you knows all of this anyway. I hope that  you write more frequently on this very subject.
Bill Mazzella
13 years 5 months ago
. God entering history to say "be nice to each other" would be a bit of a let down.

David no one is saying that here. The point that is being made is that too often Christians fail to be nice or charitable. As they refer to legalisms and rubrics. As most of the comments concur above, the example of one's life as the most powerful sermon is of utmost importance. Rants about people being nice can tend to ridicule charity which is done too often in Christian circles. So to be clear we are talking Sermon on the Mount. Not Emily Post.
david power
13 years 5 months ago

I agree and so does St Augustine. "Love,and do what you like" Hard to top that!
I too liked the post by Fr Martin and wrote as much above. I just think he mis-phrased his point on that line.
The post has the virtue of showing us something we may not have seen before .
Thanks again to Fr Martin. 
13 years 5 months ago
I feel obligated to preface this comment with an acknowledgement that Jesus intended for us to be kind to one another. 

"If you engage in name-calling, you’ll go to hell."

I suppose we could take a lot of what Jesus said and make it all feel-good and just the way we're comfortable with it.  Not sure why Fr. Martin would lead with a discussion of Jesus' exact words in Aramaic, then take the word "raca" and equate it with "name-calling."

Yes, sometimes dialogue gets emotional and people don't always choose good words to express themselves; but it doesn't always mean that they're being unkind, it usually means that they're being.....emotional.  When the big Italian side of my family gets together, it is loud, emotional, and there's lots of name-calling.  It's how we express ourselves, and it's all great fun amongst a group of people who love one another very much.

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