October 2, 2016
St Francis Sunday
St. Michael and All Angels
Today we take time to honor St. Francis the patron saint of our parish and St. Michael and All Angels the defenders of the Church and humanity. Both, combined into a single special day, at least for us. They have a lot in common with our Gospel reading today, as St. Francis and all Angels live out something Apostle Nathaniel (AKA Bartholomew) is complimented for from Jesus Himself. Let us examine what it is.
"Sincerity is the key. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
Comedian George Burns said that. Here's something another comedian, W.C. Fields said when caught reading the Bible: "I was looking for loopholes."
Aren’t we all!
Evangelist Billy Graham has something to say about loopholes: "You're born. You suffer. You die. Fortunately, there's a loophole."
Loopholes and sincerity. I bring them up because the character who we're introduced to in today’s gospel reading is a person who's apparently quite sincere and isn't looking for loopholes. He doesn't need to look. He's just that nice of a guy.
It's quite a compliment Jesus pays Nathanael at their first meeting. When Jesus saw Nathanael walking toward him, he says, "Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him!"
That's not something that could be said about everyone, and not even about every Christian; many of us, even many of us who have good intentions, tend to be calculating in our speech, weighing what we say to put our best foot forward or to avoid encouraging someone who's a pest.
"No deceit," which is the wording in the New Revised Standard Version, is an accurate translation of the underlying Greek word. However, we prefer the rendering of the New American Bible: "Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him." Duplicity is simply easier on the ears. We don’t like feelings or thoughts of guilt.
Or maybe we would prefer "guile" over “duplicity” because even the word has a dark sound to it. A person with guile sounds like someone you'd want to avoid. Almost Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-ish. The word "guile" has its roots in the Old English word wigle, which denotes witchcraft and sorcery. That word was picked up by French speakers where it became guille, which came back into Middle English as guile. In modern English, the word has lost the witchcraft connotation, but it retains the sense of deceitfulness, or of "snare." (In fact, the Greek word John used that's translated as deceit or guile is dolos, which was derived from an even older Greek word meaning "decoy.")
But Nathanael, Jesus declares on their first meeting, is a true Israelite, without guile or duplicity -- he's not crafty, not deceptive and not out to take advantage of others. Some bible translations paraphrases Jesus' statement as "There's a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body." Sounds more like our American way of putting it.
Some Jews who may have grown up learning the Hebrew Bible would immediately recognize other biblical connections behind Jesus' comment about Nathanael. Psalm 32:2 declares, "Happy is the one whom the LORD does not accuse of doing wrong and who is free from all deceit". And Isaiah 53:9 describes the suffering servant of God as one who has "no deceit in his mouth."
So if Nathanael was without guile, it means that he makes no claim about himself that he does not strive to live up to. He does not wear a mask in public to hide his true feelings. He gives honest answers. He's sincere and upright. He doesn't look for a loophole; he's not angling for some ethical wigle room.
It was a great compliment Jesus gave him.
Because Nathanael has no guile or duplicity, Jesus calls him a "true Israelite." There's a certain irony in that, for the person in the Bible who was originally given the name Israel, and from whom the people of Israel took their name, was Jacob. He was the one who, as a young man, took advantage of his hungry twin brother Esau and persuaded him to hand over his birthright for a bowl of stew. He's the one who later tricked his father into giving him the blessing meant for Esau. He's the one who later fled from his father-in-law's house after deceiving him about his intentions (Genesis 31:20). In fact, even his name Jacob means "He supplants." (And supplanting is defined as "usurping the place of another, often by underhanded tactics.")
Yet after Jacob wrestles with a divine figure, God blesses Jacob in the form of a new name, Israel (which means, "one who strives with God"). It's not clear that the new name given to Jacob results in a character change, however. Even later that day, after a peaceful reunion with Esau, Jacob deceives him as well, dissembling about where he intends to travel next (Genesis 33:12-14).
Jesus' comment about Nathanael's being a true Israelite, however, indicates that however Jacob/Israel behaved, God's intention for the people of Israel is that they be without duplicity -- people of integrity. So Jesus' "no-duplicity" remark makes Nathanael a model for the kind of character Jesus' followers should embody and display.
That's reinforced by one more allusion to Jacob which Jesus makes in his conversation with Nathanael. After Nathanael declares his belief that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus tells him that he will see " heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." That references the dream Jacob had of angels, ascending and descending, connecting heaven and Earth (Genesis 28:10-17). In the original event, the place where Jacob had the dream, Bethel, came to be considered holy, but Jesus is saying that the angels will ascend and descend upon Him as they did on Bethel.
So, what’s the lesson here? This reminds us that for Christians, Jesus himself is the holy place. As God dwelt at Bethel, so he dwells in Jesus and wherever Jesus is present.
So what Jesus is saying is that honest character, like that of Nathanael, is to be one mark of the people of the new Israel -- those who respond to the call of God in Christ Jesus, which, of course, includes us.
Now, what does it mean for us to be people without wigle? Maybe we can understand it better by thinking about what it does not mean.
To be without duplicity does not mean to be pushovers or naively trusting of all. In the animal kingdom, dogs comprise one species that's surely without duplicity. It's generally easy to know what dogs are feeling, because it shows all over their bodies. If they're happy to see you, you know it. If they're frightened, you know it. And so on. What you see is what they are. They don't seem to possess the genes for deceit; they essentially are simple, trusting creatures who can be easily fooled. They're without duplicity, but also without human wisdom.
Jesus is not calling for us to be dog-simple or easy targets for scam artists and identity thieves. When Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the gospel in the towns of Palestine, he told them, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).
Likewise, to be without duplicity does not mean to deny that we are complex individuals who are sometimes driven by motives that we're not even aware of or shaped by experiences and scars from earlier times in our lives. In the living of our days and in our dealings with others, we sometimes use defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization or passive aggression. When we're able to be radically honest with ourselves, however, we can work to get past such mechanisms and deal with conflicts in more straightforward ways. But still, it's doubtful that Jesus was trying to make us feel guilty for being human. Being without duplicity is not a call to deny our complexity, but to live by our highest values.
Consider the old TV show House. Its main character, Dr. Gregory House, is a diagnostician at a major medical center. He's clearly a complex man but one who is filled with duplicity. His highest allegiance seems to be to logic, not to honesty or kindness or fair play, and certainly not to God, who doesn't fit into his view of the world. Yet those who know him best tell him he's actually driven by the desire to avoid the pain of honest relationships.
House's behavior makes for interesting television, but it would be a cold world if everyone were like him. Further, he operates on the assumption that everybody lies, and he frequently reminds his team of that assumption. Often, when faced with a patient whose illness he's having trouble diagnosing, he sends members of his team to break into the patient's home to see what the person might be hiding. He assumes that his patients have not told the truth while giving their medical history. And sometimes he's right. The shows were often a study in duplicity.
To be without duplicity doesn't mean that we have no social skills. Often social skills are taken to assume that we lie in relatively innocent dealings with others; we tell so-called white lies. We say, "No, that doesn't look like a toupee at all" even when we can spot it a hundred feet away, or "The cookies were great," when we didn't like them or "What an adorable baby!" when we're thinking, "Too bad she looks like her father!"
Actually, it's possible to be sociable and friendly without lying, though it takes a bit more thought, or finesse as some like to call it.
More importantly, to be without duplicity means to live with our hearts open to truth, and not run from it. It means that when we become aware of unflattering truth about ourselves, we make the necessary changes truth requires of us. We don't bend facts to fit some false idea of ourselves. We're truthful with others and truthful with ourselves. And we admit it when we have made a mistake or a misstep. (Note how Nathanael quickly abandoned his prejudicial statement about Jesus -- "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" -- once Jesus spoke with him. One commentator describes Nathanael as "a good man, hampered by prejudice, but quite willing to be enlightened.")
Have you ever lived or worked around someone who is sneaky? How did it make you feel to be around that person? Probably not good. Fr. Roy Cimagala, a priest in the Philippines, writing about this Scripture reading on Nathanael, says that people without duplicity are ...
“Humble enough to accept things as they are, never bending them to make the pieces fit [their] own ideas. Rather, the contrary. That's why you immediately feel good every time you meet such persons. They always exude such welcome and wholesome aura about themselves in spite of their imperfections. They contribute in making society more at peace and in harmony.”
Make no mistake, living with integrity and exuding a wholesome aura is not the sum total of Christianity. And there are certainly wholesome people of integrity who are not Christians. To follow Jesus also means to live by the Great Commandments, to follow the example and teachings of Jesus and to embrace him as Savior and Lord. But living without duplicity is one expression of loving God and loving neighbor. We are all called to this life in the examples we see in our Patron, St. Francis and that of the good angels, like St. Michael, Raphael and Gabriel.
There come times for all of us when to lie, to be sneaky, to take advantage of someone else, to misrepresent our actions, to deny our wrongdoings or to do some other devious thing would be expedient. But Nathanael, St. Francis and all the Angles can serve as a reminder for us that our Lord praised living without guile or duplicity, and so that makes it the Christian thing to do.
Let us pray.
Father God, in the world you created and we have hence misshaped, we are people of duplicity when we are honest enough not only with You, but ourselves. We have found life to be so much easier to be one person to someone and yet different person to another.
Father, we ask You today to help us see that the only true way of living out our lives as Christians is to be true to You, ourselves and especially to others. No one wants to cause hurt feelings, of course, but we must gain the finesse to speak the truth in ways that shows whom we are talking to that we love them even if we are speaking of something about them we may disagree with.
Help us to be more like Your Apostle Nathaniel who, thou doubted at first anything good could come from Nazareth, had an open mind and a willingness to believe there is still good in the world and good in everyone. When we are open to seeing and learning that our biases can be wrong, we become better Christians and more able to love You and Your created works – our fellow mankind. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.