Letter #16, 2017: Hard Hearts

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May 2, 2017, Tuesday

“The Lord softens those with hard hearts, those who condemn all who are outside the law.” —Pope Francis this morning in his homily in the chapel of the Domus Santa Marta, his residence in Rome

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(Vatican Radio, May 2, 2017) — “The Lord softens those with hard hearts, those who condemn all who are outside the law.”

This was the message of Pope Francis homily, during Tuesday’s Mass in the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence.

(Here is a photo of the Pope delivering his homily in the chapel of the Domus Santa Marta)

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[Note: In what follows, I give the description of the Pope’s homily precisely as given by Vatican Radio (link), with a few lines of explanation or interpretation here and there, and at the end. Throughout, the Vatican Radio text is in ordinary text, while my added comments are in brackets and in italics.]

Today’s Homily, in the published account of Vatican Radio

He (Francis) said that those who are hard-hearted do not know the tenderness of God and his ability to remove hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh.

Beginning with the first reading, in which St Stephen was stoned to death by the temple authorities in Jerusalem, the Pope reflected on the witness of Christian obedience.

[Here is the text of the first reading, which begins with the words of St. Stephen to those who are about to stone him to death:

Reading 1, Acts 7:51-8:1

51 ‘You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears. You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.
52 Can you name a single prophet your ancestors never persecuted? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Upright One, and now you have become his betrayers, his murderers.
53 In spite of being given the Law through angels, you have not kept it.’
54 They were infuriated when they heard this, and ground their teeth at him.
55 But Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.
56 ‘Look! I can see heaven thrown open,’ he said, ‘and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.’
57 All the members of the council shouted out and stopped their ears with their hands; then they made a concerted rush at him,
58 thrust him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man called Saul.
59 As they were stoning him, Stephen said in invocation, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’
60 Then he knelt down and said aloud, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And with these words he fell asleep.
1 Saul approved of the killing. That day a bitter persecution started against the Church in Jerusalem, and everyone except the apostles scattered to the country districts of Judaea and Samaria.]

He (Pope Francis) said that those who stoned Stephen to death did not understand the word of God.

Stephen had called them “circumcised of heart,” which was the equivalent of calling someone a pagan.

[Note of Possible Clarification: The phrase of the Pope cited by Vatican Radio as “circumcised of heart” seems to be a slight error on the part of Vatican Radio, and if it is an error, it reverses what I think must have been the Pope’s actual words. I say this because the Scriptural text of today’s reading, in the first line in the selection above, says St Stephen called his accusers “uncircumcised of heart.” Therefore, it seems likely to me that the Pope cited these very words, and said “uncircumcised of heart,” so that there is an error here in the transcription. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the Vatican will issue a correction on this point.]

According to the Pope, there are different ways of not understanding the word of God.

For example, when Jesus had met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he had called them “fools.”

[Note: In Luke 24:25-27, Jesus says: 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.]

This was not an expression of praise, but it was also not a strong word either, unlike Stephen’s expression.

“They did not understand, they were afraid, because they did not want problems, they had fear, but they were good men, open to the truth,” said the Pope.

“And when Jesus rebuked them, they let his words enter them and their hearts burned within them, whilst those who stoned Stephen were furious and did not want to listen!”

This, according to the Pope, is the drama of the closed hearted.

Turning to Psalm 94, the Lord admonished his people not to harden their hearts.

[Note: Here is the text of Psalm 95, which the Pope refers to as Psalm 94, with the words about not hardening one’s heart underlined. The numbering of the Psalms differs after Psalm 8 and up to Psalm 147 by one more or one less because we have the Psalms from two different traditions, one numbered according to the Hebrew Masoretic text and the other numbered according to the Greek Septuagint text; after the Psalm is a complete explanation from Catholic writer Jimmy Akin.)

Psalm 95
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
3 For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if only you would hear his voice,
8 “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,[a]
as you did that day at Massah[b] in the wilderness,
9 where your ancestors tested me;
they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

Here is the explanation of the numbering from Jimmy Akin:

Why Are the Psalms Numbered Differently?
by Jimmy Akin

While the Bible is divided into chapter and verse today, these divisions developed over time and were not in the original manuscripts, with few exceptions.
One exception is the book of Psalms, which is divided into 150 different chapters, each of which is a different psalm. Those divisions are original, because this was the hymnbook for the Jewish Temple, and the different psalms were different hymns.
So it’s ironic that different editions of the book of Psalms today do not have the same chapter numbers.
You may have had the experience of seeing a reference to a quotation from one of the Psalms, going to your Bible to look it up, and finding that the quotation is not there!
What’s going on?
It may be that the quotation actually is there, but one psalm before or after the one you looked up.
For example, suppose you wanted to look up the famous line:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
This is famed as the first verse of Psalm 23. But if you look it up in certain Bibles–like the Douay-Rheims–you won’t find it there. Instead, it’s the first verse of Psalm 22.
The explanation is that there are different ways of numbering the Psalms, and different Bible (and other documents) follow different numbering system.
One numbering system is that used by the Hebrew Masoretic text. This is the version used by most modern Bible translations.
Another is that used by the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. This version was inherited by the Vulgate and thus by the Douay-Rheims.
Because both numbering systems are in circulation, Catholic sources often use both systems, which is why you’ll see references like “Ps 23[22]:1” (or “Ps 22[23]:1”, depending on which numbering system they’re treating as primary).
Okay, fine. There are different numbering systems for the Psalms. But what makes them different?
The answer is that the Hebrew numbering sometimes combines (splices, joins) a psalm that is reckoned as two psalms in the Greek numbering–and visa versa.
Let’s take a look at how that happens.
(Note: I’m not assuming anything about whether one version is joining two psalms that were originally separate or whether it is dividing a psalm that was originally one. Simply for the sake of clarity, I’ll describe what you’d see in the Hebrew version first and then what how things would appear if you looked for the equivalent passage in the Greek version.)
The first time the numbering varies is when the Hebrew psalms 9 and 10 are joined as the Greek psalm 9. That causes the Greek numbers to be one less than the Hebrew numbers for most of the book, which is why the Hebrew 23rd psalm gets reckoned as the Greek 22nd psalm.
The same thing happens when the Hebrew psalms 114 and 115 are joined as the Greek psalm 113.
“Oh, no!” you may be saying to yourself. “Now they’re going to be off by two numbers!”
Well, they would be, except the very next Hebrew psalm–116–is divided into two in the Greek numbering, resulting in Greek psalms 114 and 115. So now the Greek numbering is only one psalm behind the Hebrew numbering again.
Whew!
Since both the Hebrew and Greek editions of the book of Psalms both have 150 entries, though, how do they get joined back up again?
That happens when we hit Hebrew psalm 147, which also is divided into the Greek psalms numbered 146 and 147.
With that resolved, the two numbering systems can now march arm-in-arm through the final three psalms: 148, 149, and 150.]

Then Pope Francis said, the prophet Ezekiel makes a “beautiful promise” to change the heart of stone into a heart of flesh, a heart that knows how to listen and receive the witness of obedience.

[Note: Ezechiel at Chapter 36, Verse 26, has the Lord say: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” In the next verse, Verse 27, Ezechiel continues: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.”]

“This causes suffering in the Church. The closed hearts, the hearts of stone, the hearts which do not want to be open, do not want to hear, the hearts which only know the language of condemnation.

“They know how to condemn, they do not know how to say ‘Explain it to me, why do you say this? Why this? Explain it to me.’

“No, they are closed. That’s all they know. They have no need of explanations,” said Pope Francis.

The rebuke that Jesus speaks of also led to the killing of the prophets, “because they spoke to you what you did not want to hear. A closed heart cannot let the Holy Spirit enter in.”

Pope Francis said “There was no place in their hearts for the Holy Spirit. In fact, the letter today speaks of how Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, he had understood everything, he was a witness to the obedience of the word made flesh, and this was done by the Holy Spirit. He was filled. A closed heart, a hardened heart, a pagan heart, doesn’t let the spirit in and feels himself in himself.”

According to the Pope, the disciples on the road to Emmaus represent us, “with our many doubts, many sins. Many times we want to move away from the Cross, from the truth, but let us make space to hear Jesus, who makes our hearts burn. The other group, who are closed in the rigidity of the law, who do not want to hear Jesus, are saying worse things than Stephen did.”

The Pope concluded with a reflection on the meeting between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.

He said that every one of us enters into a dialogue between Jesus and the victim of the hearts of stone, the adulteress.

And to those who want to stone her, Jesus says “Look within yourselves”:

“Today, we look at the tenderness of Jesus, the witness of obedience, that great witness, Jesus, who has given life, which makes us look for the tenderness of God, confronting us, our sins, our weaknesses.

“Let us enter this dialogue and let us call for the grace of the Lord which softens the rigid hearts of those people who are always closed in the law and condemn all who are outside the law.

“They do not know that the word became flesh, that the word is a witness to obedience.

“They do not know the tenderness of God and his ability to take out the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.”

[Concluding comment:

There is no doubt of the great power and attraction of the Scriptural prophecy that a “new heart” of “flesh” will at some future time, which has become present in Christ, be given to human beings, through the grace of God, to replace the “old heart” of “stone.”

The image is one of new and deeper life, of overwhelming love for others replacing a narrow, judgmental attitude toward one’s neighbors.

There is no doubt, likewise, that this “new heart of flesh” is depicted as bringing into existence in the “new human race” a profound tenderness toward others in keeping with God’s great mercy and tenderness toward fallen and suffering humanity.

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So the Pope is powerful and persuasive when he cites this prophecy and expresses his passionate longing for this transformation to come to pass, saying “let us call for the grace of the Lord which softens rigid hearts.”

One might add, however, that the scriptural passages in question include the prophecy, in Ezechiel 36:27, that these “hearts of flesh” will cause those who receive them “to walk in My statutes” and to “be careful to observe my ordinances.”

In this sense, the new heart, one might argue, will not signify the abrogation of the Law, but will help make it possible for human beings to follow Jesus ever more lovingly, ever more closely carrying out His Law of love — a law which does not set aside but fulfills the Law of the Old Testament.

Pope Francis, arguably, emphasizes the first consequence of this spiritual “new heart,” the mercy and forgiveness of others which the “new heart” brings, because he fears greatly any sort of closed “moralism” which may make the hearts of those attempting to follow the Law unmerciful, untender, unloving, toward others.

For Francis, mercy, tenderness, love for sinners, is so fundamental, so essential, so needed, that he has emphasized it almost exclusively throughout his pontificate, and he has done so again today in this homily.]

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What is the glory of God?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

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