The modern world needs Christians to be credible witnesses, lights to the nations
By Father Timothy Hepner
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time / Aug. 29
Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; Psalm 15:2-3,3-4,4-5; James 1:17-18,21b-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23
As the school year has begun, teachers are rediscovering that kid. You know: The kid who is always ready to prove how smart he is by blurting out the answer or going so far as to correct the teacher. In the first reading, it seems Moses really wants the nation of Israel to be that kid: “Observe [the laws] carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’”
Why should Israel be so boastful about its intelligence? The Jewish people were surrounded by nations of immense intellectual achievement. The Babylonians developed quadratic equations and astronomy, the Persians irrigation, the Egyptians paper and accounting, the Greeks geometry and political science, the Romans concrete and durable roads. Amidst these luminous civilizations, how could a nation claim that their God was the one, true God who created and governed the universe?
The Jewish law became proof of the intelligence of the God of Israel. Ancient peoples had a more unified view of human knowledge. Philosophy, science, and morality were all ways of understanding the wisdom inherent in the universe and acting according to that wisdom. To have a law which was just, which gave God his due and directed the passions of humanity in a way that fostered concord and overcame innate human selfishness, was a miracle from above. It proved that humans could, in fact, have an intimate relationship with the creator of the universe and not be blown around by selfish desires.
LIVING THE NEW LAW
All intellectual advancement seems to be an attempt to cheat death, either by medical progress or by advancing one’s own civilization. But what good does all that intelligence do if it can’t get you eternal life? God’s original plan for humanity was eternal life, and his law could provide a taste of this life. As the Jewish people were dispersed among the Hellenistic world, their living the law of God became a light to the nations. Many “God fearers” acknowledged and worshipped the God of Israel as the God of the Universe. God’s logos (law, word, logic) was the governing principle of the universe, intelligible by science yet transcending human reason.
No one expected that the Logos himself would become incarnate and walk amongst his chosen people. Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, fulfilled the law of Moses and made it higher and deeper so that, through a relationship with him, we could live on earth as they do in heaven. Jesus tells the Jewish people, “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” Selfishness, disorder, and the breakdown of society are rooted in the human heart, but they are overcome through being born again and living the new law as a Christian.
Building on these ancient, fallen civilizations, Christian civilization would far outpace their scientific advances and create the world we live in today: a world of penicillin, Apple Watches, space probes, and quantum computers. This could never have happened if we did not view the universe as an intelligible expression of an intelligent creator.
But along the way, scientific advancement was divorced from morality, and Western civilization forgot its Christian roots. Today people believe science and faith are in conflict and they forget about Gregor Mendel, the monk who founded modern genetics, or Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest who proposed the Big Bang Theory.
Christians are called to be credible witnesses and continue the tradition of scientific excellence. Gratuitous anti-rationalism among Christians helps modern secularists to reject the faith. The modern world needs Christian moral tradition to guide it. But most of all it needs Christians to be lights to the nations by living heroic sanctity and allowing the love of Christ the Logos to overcome their selfish desires. It needs you to be that Christian.
Father Timothy Hepner is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, Monmouth, and St. Patrick Parish, Raritan. He also serves as chaplain for the St. Augustine Newman Center at Monmouth College.