Maybe grace isn't ours to boss around or to dole out in human measure
On two separate occasions within the Gospels an exasperated-sounding Jesus Christ turned to his disciples and said some variation of, “Don’t you guys get it yet?”
Actually, what he said was, “Do you still not understand?”
In both cases, Jesus was talking about food and feeding the people. In Chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel Jesus has just fed a multitude with seven loaves and a few fish (bread with a noted connection to divinity in the number seven; fishes, an early symbol for Christ). Off alone on a boat with the apostles, the first thing he hears from his closest witnesses is, “Uh-oh, we’ve only got one loaf of bread on board.”
Jesus seems to have sighed at the persistent human need for signs and wonders and also warned the apostles about giving much over to “the leaven of the Pharisees.” Leavening makes things blow up; it excites and agitates for process. Beware, said Jesus, of the Pharisees who do that.
The apostles (thick as bricks and an early sign that the Church, if it were to survive, would do so by the grace of the Holy Spirit and not because of the humans in charge of it) still natter on about the bread they don’t have. As though Jesus couldn’t simply be the bread, himself, if he wanted. Jesus responded:
“When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments did you pick up?” They answered him, “Twelve.”
“When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?” They answered [him], “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
The situation is a slightly different in Matthew’s Gospel, but it was still about food, about what the unwashed may take and eat.
He said to them, “Are even you still without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled into the latrine? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Jesus, of course, cannot be defiled; nothing we do can defile Jesus, and he, naturally, can never ever be a source of defilement. Our hearts and minds—what we entertain within them and emit from them—are what pollute our souls.
Yesterday, I finally reached my limit of synod related social media warnings that the Eucharist may indeed be medicine for sinners—but only for the good sinners—when someone wrote: “Francis said ‘medicine for the weak‘—not ‘for unrepentant sinners’!”
I was struck by that, and what immediately came into my head, like a thunderbolt, and to my great surprise, were those words: “Do you still not understand?”
Taking it to prayer, what bubbled up was this realization, a response to the writer: “Yes, medicine for the weak, because it is our weakness that keeps us from having either the understanding or the courage to repent. The weakest person I ever heard of was someone who wouldn’t read a book about Christ because—as she admitted—she knew it would change her, and she didn’t want to have to change. Change takes courage; repentance takes courage. Before that it takes something else: it takes recognition of one’s own sin, one’s own weakness. Eyes that cannot see clearly are “weak” eyes; souls that are uncomprehending or undaring are “weak” souls.
To not see one’s weakness is perhaps the greatest weakness of all.
Both instances of Jesus asking for comprehension came about over food: the first time over what feeds the soul of humanity, which is the Bread that comes down from heaven; the second over what laws humanity must follow before they may eat.
That’s what all the drama and controversy of the synod is about: who may feed on Jesus, the Living Bread, and who is insufficiently washed.
Do we still not understand?
“The weak,” Pope Francis says, those in need of medicine are the unrepentant—the people who don’t even realize that repentance is needed because they are sustained by false, puffed-up foundations of modern feel-goodism.
“The weak” are also those whose dependence on the rulebook (and it’s a sound one) leaves them unwilling to trust any word beyond it. A simple willingness to allow discussion is enough to convince them that the Church—which Jesus said would last forever because it was Bride, and that he would be the Bridegroom to the end of the world—is ready to collapse.
“The weak” are those who have commingled their theology with their ideology, as though they were flesh and blood—sustainable only in support of each other.
“The weak” use the words “unrepentant sinners” as though they are not constantly in need of repentance themselves.
“The weak” sneer at others for “not getting it,” because I’m pretty sure that when Jesus asked, “Do you still not understand?,” it was was with pity, not malice.
“The weak” are you, and me, and them. Whoever they are.
“The weak” are also part of “the poor” Francis keeps talking about too. “The poor” who hear the Good News and accept it and then load it into a cannon to shoot at others, because they are weak.
“The poor” are those who hear the words of the Bride of Christ and think she is blowing hot air, because if she is not, they must change, and they fear to because they are weak.
“The poor” may hear the saints and the prophets and the people and the popes but think the only possessor of the whole truth is the weak little voice within them, which goes, but, but, but, me, me, me, I, I, I …
We are all “the weak.” We are all “the poor.” We are all, in some nook or cranny of the soul, “unrepentant sinners.”
And our weakness comes from hunger, whether we know it or not.
What did Saint Paul mean when he warned about “unworthy” reception of communion? Did it have more to do with confessing real belief, or a sinless state? I don’t know. I know an atheist, though, who kept receiving Holy Communion because she felt drawn to it; now she is a nun. This suggests that Grace isn’t ours to boss around or to limit.
We are a church of faith and reason. I believe every word of the Creed. I believe every word articulated from the mouth of Christ Jesus, and I mean to obey the doctrine and dogma that have grown from his teachings and the traditions. I believe marriage is indissoluble and that divorce does not exist in Catholic marriages, but findings of nullity do. But belief does not automatically confer understanding. What I understand today is that we are all deeply in need of medicine, and none of us can defile the purity that is Christ, nor can the Holy Eucharist defile any one of us.
The community of faith is another component of our medicine; it is part of our “treatment” within the fullness of the Body of Christ. It, we can defile, all unintentionally, by allowing a multitude on the hillside to starve, while we argue whether we have bread enough, or whether all hands have been sanitized.
My dear synod fathers, my dear co-religionists, I am a nobody and am the first to admit it—I am shocked to hear myself ask this question. But what if Christ Jesus is rolling his eyes at us because we are still wondering whether people should disperse and go find bread elsewhere, when the True Bread is before us and abundant? What if, as the debate rages over whose hands are clean enough to eat the Food that cannot defile, he is sighing and asking us, “Do you still not understand?”
My final thoughts on this can be found here.
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia