20 July 2009

Here's your sign...

16th Week OT (Mon): Ex 14.5-18; Matt 12.38-42
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Redneck comedian, Bill Engvall, does a comedy routine that Jesus would have appreciated. Amazed at the dumb questions people will sometimes ask, Engvall says that these folks ought to be required by law to wear signs that read, “I'm Stupid.” That way the rest of us would know not to rely on their dimmed lights for illumination. For example, Engvall says, “Last time I was home I was driving around I had a flat tire, I pulled my truck into one of these side-of-the-road gas stations, the attendant walks out, looks at my truck, looks at me, and says, 'Tire go flat?' I said 'Nope, I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me. . .Here's your sign.'" Imagine for a moment that signs like the one Engvall advocates were used to point us to other risky folks—“I'm Gullible,” “I'm Passive-Aggressive,” “I'm Irascible.” I shudder to think what sign would get hung around my neck! If Engvall were to be transported back to the first-century to follow Jesus around, what sign would he put around the necks of the Pharisees? They ask Jesus for a sign. What would it say? “We're Skeptical”? “We're Scared”? “We're Hard-headed”? Our redneck comedian would be very disappointed to hear Jesus say, “"An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it. . .” Well, that just ruins the whole show, doesn't it?

And that is precisely what Jesus wants to do—ruin the Magic Show that the Pharisees demand to see, a show that will prove to them once and for all that Jesus is who he says he is. We might think that another healing miracle or another water-to-wine act would bring the Pharisees around to Jesus' side. But Jesus knows that no demonstration of divine power will open an “evil and unfaithful heart.” Much like the high priests of Scientistic Materialism in our own day, the Pharisees are bound to a way of being and a method of seeing that inherently blinds them to any reality not accounted for in their dogmatic worldview. So, even if Jesus levitated, changed into a walrus, or unveiled to each of them the Mystery of the Trinity, they would neatly secure their controlling paradigm with a perfectly reasonable explanation. The Way of Christ is walked in faith; trust is the first step, not the availability of material evidence.

Why is this so? Why not give our doubting hearts and closed minds every advantage in coming to the faith? This question assumes that material evidence will give us an advantage in deciding to follow Christ to the Cross. Is this the case? Material evidence would be extremely helpful for coming to faith if we begin by accepting that all physical beings and processes are created by a loving God. But that begs the original question, doesn't it? We can't accept that we are creatures unless we first accept that there is a Creator, and thus the circle of doubt continues. Well, why doesn't God just download evidence of His existence and the nature of His being into our brains? Why not create us as believing creatures and skip over the need for signs and wonders? Trust is an act of a free will; faith is freely given and received. There is no such thing as being compelled to trust or forced to have faith. For the believer, evidence is weighed in the presence of God and judged according to His gift of human reason.

Jesus doesn't refuse to give the Pharisees a sign of his identity out of spite or competition. He wants them to believe because they have come to trust in the God they claim to worship. He wants them to grow in compassion, charity, and hope because they have come to have an abiding faith in the One Who has revealed Himself in the enduring witness of their ancestors. If each and every Pharisee must see a miracle in order to believe, then all they will ever believe in is the miracle. This is not enough to live the hard life Christ promised to his followers. Witness a miracle and you still have to reason your way back to the miracle's source. There is nothing definitive about signs and wonders unless they are witnessed by faith.

The questions asked by the Pharisees are more than simply stupid. Jesus says that they reveal “an evil and unfaithful” heart. So, the sign around the necks of the Pharisees would need to read, “I'm Evil and Unfaithful.” To change those signs to “I'm a Believer” takes more than assenting to the evidence of provided by signs and wonders. It takes an act of will to trust in the Divine Worker of those signs and wonder. It takes an act of hope that the promises of God are fulfilled in the coming and coming again of His Son, Christ Jesus.


  1. I think it is a sign that you are ready to go back to Rome when you are using Bill Engvall in your homilies ;)

    I loved your point though about seeing signs with faith and the act of Hope for a change in heart.

  2. When I was growing up, I kept being told not to be smart, so in obedience to that, I am stupid.