The Reticence of God

It has been a persistent claim of those critics who believe that Jesus saw himself as a prophet, a herald of the coming kingdom and nothing more, that the Church by the light of credulity made the prophet into the only Son of the Father and the divine-human savior of the world. Part of the oft-cited evidence is the fact that Jesus nowhere said, “I am God, I am the Son of God, I am the Savior, I am consubstantial with the Father.” So what these critics neglect is the truth that had Our Lord made such claims for Himself, which could never be, He would have tempted those to whom He was sent to see Him as the publicity seeking magician that He was not. Jesus allowed others to bear witness. He would sometimes answer to the attribution. When the Samaritan woman said, “I know that Messiah is coming, the one who is called Christ,” Jesus said “I am he” (John 4:26). And when Pilate asked, “Are you a king?” The Lord replied, “You have said so.” But as today’s Gospel relates, as they came down the mountain Jesus charged Peter, James, and John: “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (17:9).

There are reasons for this reticence. There is a motion in the Gospels directed toward the revelation of Jesus in His sacrifice, and the revelation of Jesus’ power is not to be made evident before His hour has come. This progression underlies the dramatic structure of the Gospel of John, which moves from the miracle at Cana: “O woman,…my hour is not yet come” (2:4) to “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). And when that hour has come what is revealed is the cross, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, an event considered defeat by the great world but known to eleven disciples as the revelation of the power of God not through the display of the divine power and majesty but as the possibility of a new heart. And the Gospel of John tells us the reason why Jesus does not seek the witness of men. “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I bear witness to myself, my witness is not true; there is another who bears witness to me. I know that the testimony which he bears to me is true” (5:31). The text continues: “The Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen and you do not have his word abiding in you for you do not believe in him whom he has sent” (37–38).

The reference in today’s Gospel is to the moment on the high mountain when Peter, and with him James and John, sees Jesus with Moses and Elijah enwrapped in the Glory of God and hears the voice of the father: “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased; hear Him.” Thus Blessed Peter remembered: “We were eye-witnesses to his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased,’ we heard the voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (II Peter 1:17–18). It is the work of the apostles to bear witness to who Jesus is, but as He warned in Matthew 16:17, they do not do so by their own perspicacity but because God has revealed the truth to them. Though the Gospel is a proclamation, it is addressed to the soul and waits upon realization inspired by the Holy Spirit. When at Pentecost they heard Peter’s testimony, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What shall we do?” And Peter said, “Repent.” Jesus comes not to argue or to threaten—the reality of a lost soul is not a threat—but to gather those whom the Father has given him. “It is the will of him who sent me that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me” (John 6:39).

The reticence that waits on God, that belongs to Trinitarian love, breaks pride and makes humility, is rooted in the life of God. “I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me” (John 8:28). “I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10). Jesus accepts only the praise that belongs to belief and love and is rooted in the Father’s witness through the Holy Spirit. Satan has a style. It is power tending to violence, bombast tending toward self-congratulation. The Son of Man waits for the witness of the Father. Thus the unlovliness of the triumphalism that sometimes besets the Church, whatever its variety. Thus the sometimes disappointing reticence of the Church to proceed to the public excommunication of individuals; to be content with an appeal to conscience that reminds that if they, or we, witness against church teaching by our lives we are in danger of severing that tie of the heart that binds us to the Church and hence to Christ.

There is a Christian way of life, not a lifestyle but a way of life, that is the source of all the courtesy and gentleness in our world. Even in decay the title gentleman is not without certain force of witness, the root of which is to be found in the reticence of Jesus Christ and hence in the love that He brings into the world. It suffers long and is kind. It does not take advantage of weakness but lifts up and heals. Whether To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel or not, and difficult as it is to separate the political themes from his character, Atticus Finch is a great soul. Victor Hugo’s Bishop of Digne is the hyperbole and Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility and Clara Peggotty in David Copperfield are the vernacular expression of this gentleness. One minor proof of the existence of a natural law of the heart is the repugnance which we feel when faced with the self-assertive insistence on the privileges of power. Instantly we smell the smoke of Satan, and we do so because it contradicts the behavior of Our Savior, who told His disciples: “Tell no man until God’s work is evident to the eye of faith.”

But there is also this to be remembered. Christ comes first in humility, showing patience toward fallen mankind. But He will come again in glory and majesty to judge the living and the dead. His judgment of the world and all that are in it does not contradict His unwillingness to convert with a display of power that every eye will see and before which every knee will bend, for truth is the presupposition of love and without justice there is no mercy.


One Response to Thoughts on the Gospel Reading for Sunday, March 16, 2014, Matthew 17:1–9

  1. Thank you and God bless you Dr. Patrick