Editor’s Note: John Henry Newman was a well-known churchman in England, during the 19th Century. Originally an Anglican, he eventually became Roman Catholic, was ordained a priest and became an important historical figure in English Religious History. Here we present one of his homilies on understanding scripture.
We have in the Gospel for this day what, I suppose, has raised the wonder of most readers of the New Testament. I mean the slowness of the disciples to take in the notion that our Lord was to suffer on the Cross. It can only be accounted for by the circumstance that a contrary opinion had strong possession of their minds—what we call a strong prejudice against the truth, in their cases an honest religious prejudice, the prejudice of honest religious minds, but still a deep and violent prejudice. When our Lord first declared it, St. Peter said, “Be it far from thee, Lord, this shall not happen to Thee.” He spoke so strongly that the holy Evangelist says that he “took our Lord and began to rebuke Him.” He did it out of reverence and love, as the occasion of it shows, but still that he spoke with warmth, with vehemence, is evident from the expression. Think then how deep his prejudice must have been.
This same prejudice accounts for what we find in today’s gospel. Our Lord said, “Behold we go to Jerusalem, and all that is written of the Son of man shall be accomplished. For He shall be delivered to the Gentiles, and shall be mocked and scourged and spat upon; and after they have scourged Him, they will put Him to death, and the third day He shall rise again.” Could words be plainer? Yet what effect had they on the disciples? “They understood none of these things, and this was hid from them, and they understood not the things that were said.” Why hid? Because they had not eyes to see.
And so again after the resurrection, when they found the sepulchre empty, it is said, “They knew not the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” And when St. Mary Magdalen and the other women told them, “their words seemed to them as an idle tale, and they did not believe them”; and accordingly when our Lord appeared to them, “He upbraided them with their incredulity and hardness of heart, because they did not believe them who had seen Him after He was risen again.”
This is certainly a very remarkable state of mind, and the record of it in the gospels may serve to explain much which goes on among us, and to put us on our guard against ourselves, and to suggest to us the question, Are we in any respect in the same state of imperfection as these holy, but at that time prejudiced, disciples of our Lord and Saviour?
It will be well to observe what the cause of their blindness was—it was a false interpretation which they had given to the Old Testament Scriptures, an interpretation which was common in their day, and which they had been taught by the Scribes and Pharisees, who sat in Moses’ seat and pretended to teach them Moses’ doctrine. It was the opinion of numbers at that day that the promised Messiah or Christ, who was coming, would be a great temporal Prince, like Solomon, only greater; that he was to have an earthly court, earthly wealth, earthly palaces, lands and armies and servants and the glory of a temporal kingdom. This was their idea—they looked for a deliverer, but thought he would come like Gideon, David, or Judas Maccabaeus, with sword and spear and loud trumpet, inflicting wounds and shedding blood, and throwing his captives into dungeons.
And they fancied Scripture taught this doctrine. They took parts of Scripture which pleased their fancy, in the first place, and utterly put out of their minds such as went contrary to these. It is quite certain that the Prophet Isaias and other prophets speak of our Lord, then to come, as a conqueror. He speaks of Him as red with the blood of His enemies, and smiting in wrath the heads of diverse countries; as ruling kings with a rod of iron, and extending His dominion to the ends of the earth. It is also true that Scripture elsewhere speaks of the Messias otherwise. He is spoken of as rejected of men, as a leper, as an outcast, as persecuted, as spat upon and pierced and slain. But these passages they put away from them. They did not let them produce their legitimate effects upon their hearts. They heard them with the ear and not with the head, and so it was all one as if they had not been written; to them they were not written. It did not occur to them that they possibly could mean, what nevertheless they did mean. Therefore, when our Lord told them that He, He the Christ, was to be scourged and spat upon, they were taken by surprise, and they cried out, “Be it far from Thee, Lord—impossible, that Thou, the Lord of glory, should be buffeted and bruised, wounded and killed. This shall not happen unto Thee.”
You see that the mistake of the Apostles, and their horror and rejection of what nevertheless was the Eternal and most blessed Truth of the gospel, arose from a religious zeal for the honour of God; though a false zeal. It were well, if the similar mistake of people nowadays had so excellent a source and so good an excuse. For, so it is, that now as then, men are to be found who, with Scripture in their hands, in their memories, and in their mouths, yet make great mistakes as to the meaning of it, and that because they are prejudiced against the true sense of it.
“I speak as to win men” as the Apostle says; “Judge ye what I say.” Is it not so, my dear Brethren? Far be it from me to be severe with such, but is it not so, that in this educated and intelligent and great people, there are multitudes,—nay more, the great majority is such, as to have put a false sense on Scripture, and to be violently opposed to the truth on account of this false interpretation? The Church of Christ walks the earth now, as Christ did in the days of His flesh, and as our Lord fulfilled the Scriptures in what was and what He did then, so the Church fulfils the Scriptures in what she is and what she does now; as Christ was promised, predicted, in the Scriptures as He was then, so is the Church promised, predicted, in the Scriptures in what she is now. Yet the people of this day, though they read the Scriptures and think they understand them, like the Jews then, who read the Scriptures and thought they understood them, do not understand them. Why? Because like the Jews then, they have been taught badly; they have received false traditions, as the Jews had received the traditions of the Pharisees, and are blind when they think they see, and are prejudiced against the truth, and shocked and offended when they are told it.
And, as the Jews then passed over passages in Scripture, which ought to have set them right, so do Christians now pass over passages, which would, if dwelt on, extricate them from their error. For example, the Jews passed over the texts: “They pierced my hands and my feet,” “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” “He was rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,”—which speak of Christ. And men nowadays pass over such passages as the following which speak of the Church: “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted to them”; “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church”; “Anointing them with oil in the Name of the Lord”; “The Church the pillar and foundation of the truth”; and the like. They are so certain that the doctrine of the one Holy Catholic Church is not true, that they will not give their mind to these passages, they pass them over. They cannot tell you what they mean, but they are quite sure they do not mean what Catholics say they mean, because Catholicism is not true. In fact a deep prejudice is on their minds, or what Scripture calls blindness. They cannot tell what these passages and many others mean, but they do not care. They say that after all they are not important—which is just begging the question—and when they are urged and forced to give them a meaning, they say any thing that comes uppermost, merely to satisfy or to perplex the questioner, wishing nothing more than to get rid of what they think a troublesome, but idle, question.
Now is it not strange that persons who act in this way, who skip over things in Scripture, and go by their prejudices, and by the bad teaching they have received in Scripture, should yet boast that they are scriptural and go by Scripture, and use their private judgement? No, they do not judge, they do not examine, they do not go by Scripture; but they take just so much of Scripture as suits them, and leave the rest. They go, not by their private judgement, but their private prejudice, and by their private liking.
Now I will add one thing more. Persons who act thus are of very different character, just as those who stumbled at our Lord when He came on earth were very different from each other. Both the hard-hearted Pharisees and the tender-hearted Apostles were surprised and shocked at Christ’s Passion and death. And so now two sorts of persons are offended at the Holy Church—some are hopeless, other are hopeful. The event shows it. We cannot decide which are the one, which the other, except by the event; but so it is—some are driven further and further from the Church, the more they hear and see of it, and others as time goes on are brought nearer to it, and submit themselves to it.
This being the state of the case, how are we Catholics to behave ourselves to such prejudiced and erring persons? We should imitate our Lord and Master. He was most patient with them; He abounded in long-suffering. “A bruised reed did He not break, and smoking flax did He not quench.” He did not argue, but He quietly led them on. He displayed His wonders to them. He gradually influenced them by His words and by His grace, and then enlightened them, till they believed all things. Till that Apostle, who doubted most stoutly of His resurrection, cried out, overcome, “My Lord and My God.” So must we do now—so does the Church do now. Argument is well in its place, but it is not the chief thing. The chief thing is to win the mind, to melt the heart, to influence the will. This the Church does. After the pattern of her Divine Lord she draws us with cords of a man, with cords of love, with divine charity; “she hopeth all things, endureth all things,” she opens the gates of her temple, she lights up her altars, she displays the Most Holy under the sacramental veil, she bursts forth into singing, till the wayward soul, overcome and subdued, says with the Patriarch, “It is enough—let me now die, for I have seen Thy Face; Nunc Dimittis, Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation. I have heard of Thee with the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth Thee.” And, as our Lord after His resurrection opened the understanding of the disciples to understand the Scripture, so now are the hearts of men softened and enlightened, and they see that the Church fulfils all the prophecies about herself, all that is written in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms; and thus they fall down and worship, and confess that God is here of a truth.
Blessed are they who thus fall down and worship. Blessed are they whom the grace of God leads on to embrace the truth. Blessed who yield their minds to the gentle influences of the Holy Ghost, and stop not till He has brought them on to the haven. But, my Brethren, what I have been saying does not apply exclusively to this or that set of men, but belongs to us all. For all of us, not this or that man only, but all of us, Catholics or not, are led forward by God in a wonderful way—through a way of wonders, a way wonderful to us, a way marvellous, strange, startling, to our natural feelings and tastes, whatever our place in the Church may be. As faith is the fundamental grace which God gives us, so a trial of faith is the necessary discipline which He puts upon us. We cannot well have faith without an exercise of faith.
This is implied in the very passage which has given occasion to the remarks which I have been making. When the disciples shrank from His words about His own death and passion, what did He do? He met a blind man, and He took him and gave him sight. Why did He give him this special favour? He expressly tells us. He says, “Thy faith hath made thee whole.” Here was a tacit rebuke of the slowness to believe in His own disciples and friends, all things are possible to him that believeth. This poor outcast is a lesson to you, O My own people. He puts you to shame. He has had faith in Me, while ye stumble at My word, and when I say a thing, answer “Be it far from Thee, Lord.”
The office this day gives us another instance of the same great lesson. The Church reads today the history of the call of Abraham, and meditates upon his great act of obedience, in lifting up his knife to slay his son. Abraham, our father, is our great pattern of faith, and his faith was tried, first by being called on to leave his country and kindred, next by being told to sacrifice his dearly beloved Isaac. The first was trying enough, but what a stumbling-block the second might have been to faith less than his. If the disciples were shocked that the divine Antitype should be put to death, surely Abraham too had cause of offence that his own Isaac was to be struck down and slain by him, by his hand, by the hand of his father! Yet he went about the fulfilment of this command, as gravely, as quietly, as calmly, as if it was a mere ordinary action. Thus he showed his faith and gained the blessing.
Be sure, my Brethren, that this must be our way too. Never does God give faith, but He tries it, and none without faith can enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore all ye who come to serve God, all ye who wish to save your souls, begin with making up your minds that you cannot do so, without a generous faith, a generous self-surrender; without putting yourselves into God’s hands, making no bargain with Him, not stipulating conditions, but saying “O Lord here I am—I will be whatever Thou wilt ask me—I will go whithersoever Thou sendest me—I will bear whatever Thou puttest upon me. Not in my own might or my own strength. My strength is very weakness—if I trust in myself more or less, I shall fail—but I trust in Thee—I trust and I know that Thou wilt aid me to do, what Thou callest on me to do—I trust and I know that Thou wilt never leave me nor forsake me. Never wilt Thou bring me into any trial, which Thou wilt not bring me through. Never will there be a failing on Thy part, never will there be a lack of grace. I shall have all and abound. I shall be tried: my reason will be tried, for I shall have to believe; my affections will be tried, for I shall have to obey Thee instead of pleasing myself; my flesh will be tried, for I shall have to bring it into subjection. But Thou art more to me than all other things put together. Thou canst make up to me all Thou takest from me and Thou wilt, for Thou wilt give to me Thyself. Thou wilt guide me.”