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Don’t Let Problems in the Church Steal Your Peace

Jimmy Akin joined Catholic Answers as a staff apologist in 1993 and is now director of apologetics, as well as a contributing editor to This Rock. The following “Brass Tacks” column appeared in April 2001.

Take a moment with me to cast your mind back over the centuries and ponder two incidents from the history of ancient Israel.

The first took place just over 1,000 years B.C. It is a story well worth your while to pull out your Bible and read, and it is found in the first four chapters of First Samuel.

At the time, the high priest of Israel was a man named Eli, who had several sons. According to the custom of the time, the high priest’s sons served as the priests at Israel’s national sanctuary. Unfortunately, “the sons of Eli were worthless men; they had no regard for the Lord” (1 Sm 2:12).

They abused their office as priests in a variety of ways, three of which are recorded for us in this chapter:

  • They took more than their share of the meat from the animals that were brought to the sanctuary as sacrifices (13-14)—the ancient equivalent of stealing from the collection plate.
  • They often took their portion at the wrong time during the sacrifice (15-16)—the ancient equivalent of rearranging the liturgy to suit one’s own tastes.
  • And “they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (22)—the ancient equivalent of having affairs with the church secretaries.

As priests, Eli’s sons were lazy, selfish louts who were unworthy of the sacred office that had been conferred upon them. As their superior, their father rebuked them but ineffectually, and he allowed them to continue in their ministry as priests. Scripture hints that he did this partly because he himself was desirous of the offerings they produced from the faithful and partly because of his affection for them as their father (1 Sm 2:29).

However that may be, he was insufficiently strict with them, and so God sent a prophet to rebuke the group. As the prophet declared to Eli beforehand, disaster fell upon his house. Among other misfortunes, two of his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died on the same day. When it came to pass, Eli—who Scripture curiously records was of sufficient bulk that he could have benefited from the Atkins diet (1 Sm 4:18)—fell over, broke his neck, and died.

Stay in the Boat

Surprising as it may seem, this passage was especially meaningful to me when I was in the process of becoming Catholic. Why? Because it was easy for critics of the Church to point to real or supposed examples of abuses in the Church, by priests or other leaders of the Church, either in its past or in its present.

With this Bible story firmly in mind, I avoided the distraction these critics sought to offer. While it was certainly true that “you will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:20), this was a test that applied to individual teachers, not to overall theological systems. Jesus even began this warning by saying, “Beware of false prophets” (Mt 7:15) not “Beware of false churches.” The emphasis was on the teachers, not the systems they represented.

The case of Eli made this all the more apparent to me since, had I been a pagan in the time of Eli and had I judged the truth of God’s religion by the performance of the priests of the day, I would have remained a pagan and missed the true religion.

That’s a sobering thought. And it taught me that theological systems must be judged independently of the apparent spiritual successes or failures of those who have embraced these systems.

As an individual discerning whether I should leave the Protestant ethos of my birth, I needed to focus on the theological evidence the Catholic position could mount for itself and ignore the failings of individual Catholics, however highly placed they might be. It did not matter whether Catholics had committed various misdeeds in the past, nor whether Catholics were committing misdeeds in the present.

I therefore focused my attention on the truth of Catholic theology and resolved to ignore the high crimes or misdemeanors of Catholics. As I put it at the time, “If there are problems in the Church, that’s no reason to stay out of the Church. If water is coming into the lifeboat, the solution isn’t to stay out of the lifeboat. It’s to get in the lifeboat and start bailing.” The only question I had to focus on was whether the Catholic Church was, indeed, the bark of Peter.

A Priestly Drubbing

The second incident from Israel’s history occurred much later, slightly less than a century before the time of Christ. In this period, Israel was ruled by men who served simultaneously as high priest and as king. At the time, the man in charge was named Alexander Jannaeus (ruled 103-76 B.C.).

One of Israel’s more important national festivals was (and still is) the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth). In Alexander Jannaeus’s day, one of the customs for celebrating Tabernacles was for the people to bring luabs to the Temple and wave them in celebration. A luab was a bundle of branches from trees in the vicinity of Jerusalem—palm, myrtle, willow—to which a citron had been tied. A citron is a fruit similar to a large lemon.

While the people held their luabs, one of the things the high priest was supposed to do was pour out libations from two silver bowls—one of water and one of wine. According to the custom of the Sadducees, the high priest was supposed to pour out the water bowl on his feet, but the custom of the Pharisees conflicted with this.

Alexander Jannaeus, who was a Sadducee, followed the Sadducee custom in performing the ritual, but the Pharisees were so popular at the time that the people became enraged, tore the citrons off their luabs, and pelted Alexander with them in the middle of the liturgy.

Well, that’s one way to deal with perceived liturgical abuses—though I wouldn’t recommend using it today. (In fact, it didn’t work so well then, either. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Alexander took revenge by killing about 6,000 members of the citron-lobbing crowd.)

This episode is famous enough that it is mentioned not only by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 13:13:5 [372ff]) but also in the Mishnah (Sukkah 4:9) and the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 48b).

The Moral of the Story

What lesson may be drawn from the example of these ancient citron-hurlers? They were expressing a natural human emotion: the desire to protest what they perceived to be a liturgical abuse.

Was it really an abuse? Who can say? I can’t. This might have been an instance where the Sadducee custom was more authentic than the Pharisee one was—or neither may have been correct. At this late date, however, we simply know too little about Israel’s authentic liturgical law in this period.

What we do know, however, is that the people perceived their high priest as doing something wrong and they protested. Admittedly, they showed remarkably limited judgment by throwing fruit at Alexander, knowing he was not only a priest but also a totalitarian monarch who, like most of us, wouldn’t take kindly to being the target of a hailstorm of oversized lemons.

But further, even if Alexander had poured out the water libation in an improper manner, was their response proportionate? Was that the right time and place to lodge a complaint? Would pelting the high priest with citrons restore the sanctity of the liturgy or only further desecrate it?

It doesn’t take someone with a Ph.D. in mob psychology to see that the people weren’t giving thought to higher questions. They were enraged and wanted to strike back at what they saw as a liturgical abuse. Why? Because they had surrendered their peace to someone else. This is a mistake that many people make today—though few pay for it with their lives, as did the ancient citron hurlers.

Let None Disturb Your Peace

In my work as an apologist, I encounter a lot of people who have allowed themselves to become so scandalized by real or imagined problems in the Church that they are driven to one form or another of spiritual fruit-chucking. They may savage the priest verbally behind his back, committing the sins of detraction or calumny, thus sewing seeds of discontent in the parish and undermining what legitimate ministry their priest might exercise. They may adopt an attitude that prevents them from entering into a spirit of worship in any liturgy by any priest. They may declare themselves unable to go to this priest for confession, and they may give up going to the sacraments altogether. They may become so embittered that they poison their own spiritual lives, depriving themselves of the peace Christ means for them to have, even in the midst of adversity. They may even rationalize jumping out of the bark of Peter into one of a number of schismatic movements.

All of these errors, regardless of degree, can be traced to one root mistake: giving someone else permission to control your spiritual peace.

As I deal with people who are in the kinds of situations just described, I find myself telling them over and over what I would have told the ancient citron hurlers: Look, don’t do it! Don’t make the mistake of turning over your happiness before God to someone else. You don’t have to do that. You may tell yourself, “I just can’t stand the way this Mass is being celebrated,” but you’re wrong. People say that they can’t stand something when they know full well that they can. They’re simply trying to rationalize a decision they want to make by telling themselves that they don’t have any choice.

You do have a choice. You have a choice how you will react to what someone else is doing. You can choose to react in a way that mourns whatever offense has been committed yet leaves your spiritual peace intact. Or you may choose to react in a way that poisons your spiritual life and robs of you of the peace God wants you to have. But it’s still your choice.

You can’t control what another person is going to do. But you can control how you choose to react.

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