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JESUS AS SIGN OF CONTRADICTION

Read­ing Time: 16 minutes

(Ref. Texts: Jer 38:4–6.8–10; Heb 12:1–4; Luke 12:49–53)

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his moth­er Mary, this child is destined for the fall­ing and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34).

The truth of the mat­ter is that the whole world has already been turned upside down by the work of Jesus Christ” (D. Bon­hoef­fer). 

Genesis

In 1979, “Sign of Con­tra­dic­tion” was pub­lished. This book is a col­lec­tion of Len­ten dis­courses of bish­op Karol Józef Wojtyła, who later became pope John Paul II in 1978. “Sign of Con­tra­dic­tion” is a col­lec­tion of bish­op Wojtyla’s reflec­tions to pope Paul VI and his co-work­ers dur­ing their Len­ten Retreat in March 1976. The title of the book is a ref­er­ence to Simeon’s proph­ecy to Miryam in occa­sion of the Present­a­tion of Jesus in the Temple in keep­ing to the Jew­ish cus­tom (cf. Luke 2:22–32), that Jesus is destined to be the cause of the fall­ing and rising of many in Israel and will be a sign that will be rejec­ted. Fur­ther­more, because of him, the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, while a sword will pierce the mother’s soul (cf. Luke 2:34–35). Accord­ing to Wojtyla, the words of Simeon “sum up most feli­cit­ously the whole truth about Jesus Christ and his mis­sion…” (Sign of Con­tra­dic­tion, p. 197). Luke 12:49–53 con­tains three ideas: The pur­pose of Jesus’ advent and mis­sion (cf. Luke 12:49); the means by which he would accom­plish mis­sion (cf. Luke 12:50); and, the con­sequences of his mis­sion (cf. Luke 12:51–53). Is Jesus really a sign of contradiction?

Which Contradiction?

After read­ing this Sunday Gos­pel pas­sage, the first cap­tion that came to my mind was Jesus, sign of con­tra­dic­tion, a cap­tion that re-called my mind to the Work of Wojtyla. But which con­tra­dic­tion? There are at least four ways of intend­ing this cap­tion ‘Jesus – sign of con­tra­dic­tion.’ First, it could be an affirm­a­tion that implies Jesus con­tra­dicts him­self accord­ing to human under­stand­ing and eval­u­ation of Jesus’ words and actions. Secondly, it could be an inter­rog­a­tion, where the inter­rog­a­tion mark expresses sur­prise on the part of believ­ers on wheth­er Jesus now con­tra­dicts him­self, by mak­ing con­tra­dict­ory utter­ances. Thirdly, it could be taken neg­at­ively by those who would want to dis­cred­it Jesus and his mis­sion by insist­ing on the lit­er­al under­stand­ing of his meta­phor­ic­al, alleg­or­ic­al, pro­ver­bi­al and para­bol­ic teach­ings and stor­ies. Fourthly, sign of con­tra­dic­tion could be taken theo­lo­gic­ally and soteri­olo­gic­ally. It is this last mean­ing that I have in mind. Jesus, sign of con­tra­dic­tion, is a theo­lo­gic­al and salvif­ic affirm­a­tion that expresses the entire mis­sion of Jesus. It is also with this found­a­tion that the oth­er three defin­i­tions and the Gos­pel of this Sunday should be understood.

Understanding contradiction

Accord­ing to its Lat­in ety­mo­logy, con­tra­dic­tion is a com­pound word, which derives from con­tra (against) and dicere (to speak). This means that con­tra­dic­tion is to speak against or speak­ing against someone or some­thing. As a noun, con­tra­dic­tion refers to: i) a com­bin­a­tion of state­ments, ideas, or fea­tures, which are opposed to one anoth­er, ii) a situ­ation in which incon­sist­ent ele­ments are present, iii) the state­ment of a pos­i­tion oppos­ite to one already made. While these three mean­ings reflect the first three ways of under­stand­ing con­tra­dic­tion as lis­ted in the pre­vi­ous para­graph, the Lat­in ety­mo­logy reflects the fourth mean­ing of sign of con­tra­dic­tion as theo­lo­gic­al and soteri­olo­gic­al affirm­a­tion. Jesus is that sign that was spoken against, that is spoken against and that will con­tin­ue to be spoken against by the unin­formed and the presumptuous.

Luke 2:34 and Acts 28:22

Beside Luke 12:49–53, it will also be good to ded­ic­ate few lines on Luke 2:34 and Acts 28:22. After bless­ing the child, Simeon turned to the moth­er and said “behold, he is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and a sign, which is spoken against.” Vari­ous Trans­la­tions render this Greek text dif­fer­ently. For instance, the New Revised Stand­ard Ver­sion (NRS/NRSV) has “this child is destined for the fall­ing and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.” The New Amer­ic­an Bible (NAB) has “…and a sign that will be con­tra­dicted.” How­ever, all por­tray the same mean­ing. Trans­lated in a com­mon lan­guage, the text means Jesus will cause many in Israel to fall and rise, and he is a sign that people will speak against. This speak­ing against will be repeated in every age.

…destined for the fall and rise of many… (Greek text: kei­tai eis ptōsin kai ana­stas­in pollōn). The Greek term trans­lated as ‘destined’ is kei­tai from the verb keimai. In Luke 2:34, keimai is taken in the fig­ur­at­ive sense where in ref­er­ence to a per­son, it means be appoin­ted, set, destined. Hence, Jesus is appoin­ted, set, or destined to…. Fall and rise (or fall­ing and rising) refer to two Greek words ptōs­is and ana­stas­is. Like keimai, ptōs­is and ana­stas­is are to be under­stood in their fig­ur­at­ive senses. While fig­ur­at­ively, ptōs­is means ruin, down­fall, destruc­tion, ana­stas­is means growth in every sense, advan­cing to a high­er status, hence, rising espe­cially spir­itu­ally. Prac­tic­ally, ptos­is is the oppos­ite of ana­stas­is, which also means bring­ing back to life. That is, resur­rec­tion (cf. Matt 22:23; John 11:24; 1Cor 15:12ff). There­fore, that Jesus is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, Niger­ia and else­where means he will cause many to grow spir­itu­ally or be des­troyed spir­itu­ally (be saved or con­demned). Now, wheth­er a per­son dies or is des­troyed spir­itu­ally or wheth­er he or she rises or grows spir­itu­ally, depends on how the per­son reacts to Jesus’ words, teach­ings and actions.

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