There are certain truths about God and religious observance that any person of good will can discern and acknowledge. For example, we accept that we shouldn’t kill or cause harm to others who disagree with us about divine realities. Also, we realize that we shouldn’t use coercion or violence to intimidate or force others to convert or accept our doctrinal beliefs.
While these might seem like no-brainers – pretty obvious to devout worshipers of God – it seems our fallen race is in constant need of re-learning them.
Such was the case in this Sunday’s Gospel reading in the Catholic Mass. Saint Luke describes the conclusion of the Lord Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and that “he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” The Lord was a person on a mission. He knew what was being asked of him. He was aware of what he needed to accomplish in the Holy City and, after finishing his work in his home region, he was now ready. He set his face like flint to Mount Zion.
No doubt, the apostles understand the significance of this journey south. While not knowing the depth of the Lord’s mission, they saw his power and had confidence that whatever his work would be in Jerusalem it would certainly be a high blessing for Israel.
On their way, they were understandably agitated when the Lord was not welcomed in certain towns. In their anger, however, they forgot some common sense. They allowed their passion to lead them beyond the realm of reason.
We’re told that the brother-apostles James and John, who were well-beloved by the Lord and had a privileged access to him in intimate moments of his life, asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”
The request is the cry of every zealot. It’s the reaction of every irrational believer toward those who have refused or offended his beliefs. The petition is reflected in the justification of every religious system devoid of reason and good will. It is the wayward motivation of every religiously-motivated terrorist who thinks his cause is righteous and is not bound by universal standards of goodness and civility.
Some may ask, however, if the request of the two apostles wasn’t consistent with the narrative of the Old Testament. Doesn’t the Bible contain multiple accounts of raw violence toward unbelievers and those of rebellious hearts?
Admittedly, in light of a literal reading of the Old Testament, the use of force appears to be an acceptable reproach to unbelievers. But a literal reading has never been the norm. The Christian tradition has always seen Jesus as the definitive interpreter of the Scriptures. The entire Bible is read through his life and teachings. And in response to the apostles, we are told: “Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.”
The Lord rebuked the appeal to violence. He denounced it. In this action, he is auto-correcting the language of man and developing the biblical understanding of what God is asking for and what he is seeking from his followers. The Lord’s rebuke gives a standard from which all other biblical accounts must be reconciled.
Yes, many throughout salvation history misinterpreted the commands of God. For example, the call for purification was seen through cultural lenses and led to the herem (the infamous genocide of the Canaanites) rather than to efforts of conversion, such as with Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho.
The maxim stands: The Bible is the Word of God in the language of man. And in light of the Lord’s teachings, we realize that our language deviated from the divine Word.
Of course, such a misunderstanding has been perpetuated throughout the ages. Many believers throughout Church history, who have less theological innocence than the ancient Israelites, have betrayed the Lord’s teaching. They have sought violence rather than evangelization. They have settled for coercion rather than doing the real work of persuasion. In such cases, the Lord – as with James and John – admonishes and denounces them.
It should never be forgotten that the Gospel in incompatible with any form of forced conversion or religious bigotry. It will always shine out and condemn any offenses against freedom and human dignity, especially when these pertain to the interior depths of a person’s religious belief and adherence.