This restatement of Benedict XVI’s indirect criticism of militant Islam is also, of course, an indictment of the violence done through the ages in the name of the Church Catholic. The Pope felt it incumbent to expound on one of the passages from Sunday’s liturgy, Luke 12:51-53:
Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.And just what did Jesus mean by that? the Pope asked. “It means that faith is not something decorative, or ornamental; it is not there to decorate your life with a little ‘religion.’” No: faith, said Pope Francis, involves choosing God as the center of one’s life. He added that God is not empty, he is not neutral, God is love.
“Jesus,” continued Pope Francis, “does not want to divide people from each other, on the contrary, Jesus is our peace. But he lays down the criterion: live for oneself, or live for God.”
This is indeed the choice we all face, ever since Jesus walked the earth and brought his message. That message has divided the peoples of the earth, exactly as Jesus foretold: “father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother ...”. And in its name, man has engendered wars and much violence.
Violence nevertheless remains incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, who told believers to “turn the other cheek” (exactly as He did when scourged, at Pilate’s command). “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
But atheists and unbelievers will counter the Pope’s homily with examples drawn from the Jewish Bible, the “Old Testament.” There God is often in the middle of it, raining death and destruction down upon the enemies of Israel, against the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah; indeed, against the whole world -- except for Noah and his family.
Such a charge, however, would miss the Pope’s chief point. He said that faith in Christ was incompatible with violence, not that God abstains from violence. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.” (See Heb. 10:30.) After all, what do you think people will say about the enormities of violence and destruction that Revelation tells us will occur at the Second Coming? (Hint: it won’t matter – it will be too late.)
Marcion, too, missed the same point, when he tried to excise the God of the Hebrew Bible from his own version. Faith in Jesus Christ came in with the New Testament and the Resurrection. That was the event that signaled the change in man’s relation to God.
No longer would man strive to attain righteousness through works of the law – Jesus’ sacrifice had bridged that gap for all who accepted Him as their Savior. But at the same time, Jesus’ sacrifice meant that the choice for humans – God /Jesus or man – was now more stark than it ever had been before. And that is the reality that underlies the Pope’s little homily last Sunday.
We must realize that man’s awareness and learned abilities (what many refer to as culture) are not constant over time. (And I by no means intend to imply that man’s culture, on the whole, has “progressed.” There are a lot of 20th-century examples to refute that notion, and the jury is still out on whether man will escape self-annihilation. My point is that man’s cultural abilities are different today from what they were 2,000 or 3,000 years ago -- but man remains fallen, and with a constant tendency to place himself athwart God's will.)
This undeniable fact requires that we avoid all anachronistic approaches to understanding God’s timeline through the record of His revelations to man. In a different sense from its actually being God's Word to man, the Bible may also be viewed as a record of man’s gradually increasing abilities to perceive, receive, and transmit that constant and unchanging Word. When people say “The Bible has changed from when it was written,” what they really are saying is that man has changed since the Bible was first written down.
This same undeniable fact puts a great obligation upon us alive today not to confound the Message – God’s unchanging and eternally abiding Truth – with the medium by which that Truth comes down to us. That, again, was Marcion’s error, and it is the error of all who perceive the Hebrew God as “incompatible” with the God whom Jesus made known to us.
The Word itself never changes; man’s abilities to perceive, receive, and transmit it to others, and to later generations, do – and they differ from generation to generation.
Thus, many of the things Jesus said to his contemporaries sounded very strange (and some still do today, as G.K. Chesterton observed in The Everlasting Man). Jews in Pharaoh’s day would no more have understood what Jesus later said about what defiles a man (Mk 7:19-23) than many people today do.
Through the middle ages and the Renaissance, man’s cultural abilities and awareness expanded (not necessarily “progressed” – see above), and the Church flourished in tandem.
However, as man’s abilities and awareness expanded, Satan appears to have adapted his methods to those changes, as well. He went from demonic possession of individuals (e.g., Mk 1:32-33) to control and management of entire memes and societies, e.g., via the “Enlightenment” (a misnomer if there ever was one – but that is another story).
The point here is this: God's message to man remains constant and unchanging; and Satan's objectives likewise are unchanging. What changes is man -- but only in certain superficial ways involving language and culture. Man's tendency to sin -- his fallenness -- does not change. And because that does not change, while his estimation of his progress, and control over nature, does change, then man -- to the degree he thinks himself more sophisticated than his predecessors -- is now probably more susceptible to Satan's snares than ever.
Witness -- culture is engaged in a great civil war over who shall control and direct its orthodoxy (commonly called "progress"): from the jihadists to the “enlightened” humanists and atheists (who bring with them the agenda of the secular progressives), or Christians, who bring with them their Bible, and the Word recorded in it. The clashes between these groups make a substantial part of every day's headlines – and not just in Egypt. But what is at the root of those clashes?
The message of the Word is, as I say, unchanged. Our ability to experience its singeing intensity, however, is vastly heightened – indeed, so much so that today’s atheists and humanists are so afflicted by what they perceive of the Word that they become aggravated, and positively militant, in defense of their human-based worldview.
Now, draw the consequences of these points: the atheists and humanists see man, not God or Satan, as in charge. (The jihadists see their god Allah in charge, which comes to the same thing.)
One of Satan’s well-known tricks, however, is to make a victim in his grasp believe that the victim himself, and no supernatural demon, is in control of his own destiny.
But for Christians, we know all too well the snares of Satan – as well as his power over mortals.
What Christian would presume to think himself more clever, capable and powerful than Satan, the original rebel and still earthly Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies?
As between God and Satan, we know that Satan loses (Gen. 3:14; Rev. 12:7-9).
As between Satan and man, Christians know equally well who loses (unless you are a saint) – see Judas Iscariot; see the legend of Faust.
Therefore, whose side do you want to be on? (You have to choose; not choosing is to make a choice for Satan’s side, whether you recognize it or not.)
That is it: the Ultimate Choice. It is always – at any time before you die – free for you to make.
But not making the Ultimate Choice – exercising your “free will” to continue with everything as before – is a choice made not so much by you consciously, but (some would say) by God for you: the choice to leave you to your own devices in a losing battle with Satan.
In that sense, as Paul explains, God predestines you for your fate – because He knows the choices you have consistently made in the past, are making today, and will continue to make in the future -- unless God's eternal and omnipresent Word penetrates to you, the present culture notwithstanding.
The Ultimate Choice is terrifyingly simple, stark and absolute – as the Pope put it: “live for oneself, or live for God.”
There is no other possibility for a committed Christian. (So does that mean that we Christians are “predestined” as well? I leave that query to the theologians and priests.)
Beliefs – and culture – are one’s destiny for the time being. Destiny ripens into “predestination” when one is indifferent, unable, or unwilling any longer to look one’s destiny in the face, and to appreciate where it is taking one. To escape such predestination, one has to be given the grace to grasp the enormity of this Ultimate Choice, in crystal clear terms.
To be perfectly blunt: that Ultimate Choice is God, or Satan -- heaven, or hell.
Those who would argue that the alternatives are instead God or man -- the secular humanists and progressives, the atheists and their ilk -- are simply walking into Satan’s trap, from which there is rarely, if ever, any escape.
That is their choice -- but Jesus demands: “What will yours be?”