October 20, 2013
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
R. (cf. 2) Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
From the Book of Exodus, we hear this morning about the battle between Moses and the Amalekites, which concludes: “And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” What are we to make of this? We turn to two great voices of our Christian tradition: St. Augustine and Origen.
To begin to make some sense, let’s go back to the year 400, when St. Augustine wrote his famous Confessions. In each generation since, it has been beloved and revered. Why would this work, written now 16 centuries ago, maintain such appeal? In a nutshell, though it is an autobiographical work about the conversion of St. Augustine to the Christian Catholic faith, the nature of its appeal is simply this: 1600 years ago, St. Augustine wrote the story of my life and your life.
I want to share the central text with you—Augustine’s description of his moment of conversion to Jesus and the Christian gospel. Some background: Prior to this moment, Augustine had some attraction to the Christian faith, but, because his life was so ensnared in patterns of sinfulness (he called them specifically his misery and uncleanness—certainly sexual in nature), he could not make the choice—which in his day meant the choice to be baptized. In the scene about which we’ll soon hear, Augustine knows that he is in a miserable state, as he sits and talks with his friend Alypius, but his sin has such an attraction to him that he wants to continue to try to co-exist with it. As he famously said just a bit earlier in his Confessions: “ Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” (VIII, 7, 17) Finally, the enormity and hopelessness of his actions and way of life overcome him—he breaks into tears and, embarrassed in front of his friend, goes off by himself to weep. There, he hears the mystical voice of children, who speaking in Latin say: tolle, lege: take up and read! He picks up the writings of the apostle Paul, the Letter to the Romans, opens to Ch. 13, vs. 13, and reads words that changed him forever.
[VIII.12.28] “Now when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. That I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that even his presence was no restraint upon me. This was the way I felt at the time, and he realized it. I suppose I had said something before I started up and he noticed that the sound of my voice was choked with weeping. And so he stayed alone, where we had been sitting together, greatly astonished. I flung myself down under a fig tree—how I know not—and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: “And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities.” For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?”
[VIII.12.29] I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which—coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. . . . So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.”[Rom. 13:13] I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. (Outler Translation)
Why am I convinced that this is my story and your story? Because it is so utterly truthful about the attraction each of us has to things that cause us misery and no peace. Like Augustine, though we know we have no joy and serenity when we draw up near to these things—anger, greed, gluttony, lust, pride, envy, laziness—yet we try to co-exist with them—to keep them alive—to “make provision” for them, that is, to feed them. How we try to deceive ourselves that we try to live with the deadly things that kill our souls, our relationships with others, and our relationship with our God. Finally, in God’s mercy, St. Augustine was shown the truth of his life and all our lives, that finally we must make NO provision for these deadly things, not even a little, or else they will do their deadly work.
This is when we return to Moses and the Amalekites. This seemingly obscure story about Moses and the people fighting the Amalekites, a violent people in Palestine, is also our story—a story about the perils of a lukewarm coexistence with harm and evil. In this story of all of our lives, Moses and the people fight the Amalekites. Whenever Moses keeps his hands raised in blessing over the fight, Israel prevails; when he weakened, the Amalekites gain the upper hand. Finally, we hear the jarring account: “And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” At first, such violence seems wholly inappropriate to the Holy Scriptures—for example, as these words were just proclaimed, we immediately followed them up with “thanks be to God.”
But, our Catholic tradition confirms that such passages of violence are truly the word of God—but since Jesus has revealed to us a God who is gentleness and all compassion, what are we to do with such passages of violence and seeming retribution—as the word of the Lord? Our faith has insisted upon the entirety of the Bible (though at points some tried to edit out the seemingly unseemly parts) led in a particular way by the influential thought of another shining figure in our history: Origen, a scripture scholar from the 3rd century, some 150 years before St. Augustine. Origen helped us to see that scripture has many different senses, meant to be more than some mere recounting of historical facts. More important is the spiritual sense behind the words. So, when Joshua is described as “mowing down the Amalekites,” our faith has understood the Amalekites as spiritually symbolic of anything that might try to thwart the ways of God—which must be figuratively “mowed down with the edge of the sword,” vanquished completely. n the words of St. Augustine—make no provision for them—do not feed them—root them out completely.
The good news, the message of the scriptures, for us today, then, is this: “Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword”—and so must we, with God’s help, do the same. In other words, there are certain things, certain poisonous things, that we cannot allow to remain in our lives—or they will be deadly to our souls. As it was revealed to St. Augustine through the words of Romans 13:13: Make no provision for them! Make no provision for your Amalekites—whatever stands in the way of loving God and loving neighbor. In other words—stop feeding those things that poison our souls—root them out completely—put them to the sword. May the Holy Spirit be as good to each of us as it was to St. Augustine—show us that we cannot live if we make provision—that is feed—the deadly sins in our lives—anger, greed, gluttony, lust, pride, envy, laziness. Give us Lord, the courage, the strength, the desire, the will, to put them to the sword—so we can finally live fully in the true freedom of the sons and daughters of God!