To Help People, We Need to Meet Them Where They Are At

To Help People, We Need to Meet Them Where They Are At June 7, 2018

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11 RSV).  Jesus, the good shepherd, was so concerned with the salvation of our souls, he was willing to lay down his life for our sake. He showed us the way to follow him is to die to the self, to no longer be attached to ourselves but to look upon others with loving compassion, doing what we can to help them:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.  He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (2Ptr. 2:21-35 RSV).

This is especially true for those who want to follow him either in a pastoral position, such as a priest or a member of an active religious community, or those who feel called to explore the mysteries of the faith in order to teach them to others. They must make sure what they proclaim truly serves to benefit those being taught, without any concern as to what praise and honor they get in return.

And yet, this preaching is difficult because truth is transcendent to it; as a whole, it is incomprehensible, unable to be entirely encased in words. Our words should be used to help those we speak to, to help them guide their thoughts towards the truth, but we must always warn them, the literalistic way of engaging our words must be let go so that the spirit of truth behind the words can be fulfilled. This is why St. Basil, and many other learned Doctors of the Church, had to consistently give apophatic warnings to their readers, reminding them that the words used to express the truth matter less than the truth itself:

But, before I take up the matter itself of the profession of faith, the following warning should be given: It is impossible to express in one word or one concept, or to grasp with the mind at all, the majesty and glory of God, which is unutterable and incomprehensible, and the Holy Scripture, although for the most part employing words in current use, speaks obscurely ‘as through a glass’ even to the clean of heart.[1]

When controversy arises, when theological error or heresy is promoted, the proper synergy between God and humanity is undermined.  Human work and accomplishment gets distorted, and, depending upon how the heresy develops, either too much or too little is expected of humanity, leading to one or another crisis, not only of faith, but of deed as well. It is for this reason, heresy needs to be refuted, to help restore the proper balance in the relationship between God and his creation. Where people find themselves as a result of that distortion will determine the kind of response needed; whatever answer provided must start with whatever element of truth which is already believed and understood,  and using it as a foundation, supply to it what is lacking, so that the fullness of truth can once again be accepted. Teaching against heresy is necessarily a pastoral concern, which is why the best dogmatic definitions come out of pastoral activity instead of mere intellectual pursuit, and why pastoral work often ends up producing dogmas which, while true, must be understood within the context from which they were pronounced.[2]

The truth which cannot be grasped by the human mind, the truth which cannot be encased in words, can still be demonstrated by words. St. Clement of Alexandria, therefore, explained: “Now the instruction which is of God is the right direction of truth to the contemplation of God, and the exhibition of holy deeds in everlasting perseverance.”[3]

We must reach people where they are at, work with them, and show them the way they need to go in order to grow in truth and goodness. Since different people are at different levels of the truth and goodness, what is said to some will be less refined than what is said to others. Comparing the two, the meaning is the same, but how the meaning is portrayed is what will differ, just as if someone were to ask, “Where is the moon?” someone pointing it out in one place and time will point it the moon in one direction, but a different way somewhere else; if someone were to take one response and transpose it half-way around the world, keeping the finger in the exact same form and pointing the exact same way, it will no longer be pointing to the moon but away from it, and so in theology, ignoring the context of theological statements can lead to someone abusing them and turning them against their intended meaning.

St. Basil, understanding this, explained why refutation and exhortation, while both serve a function, will result in different approaches or engagements with the truth:

As a man would not take in hand the same implements for waging war as he does for working his farm (for the tools of those who labor for their livelihood in sweet security differ from the full accoutrement of those drawn up for battle), so he who delivers an exhortation on sound doctrine would not say the same things as he who is engaged in putting his adversaries to rout. The speech which refutes and that which exhorts represent different genres. [4]

It is not just refutation of error, but exhortation for those already following the right path, which is needed for the promotion of the truth and the goodness which prevails from such engagement with the truth. Pastoral concerns are not just in guarding the people from error by refuting it when it comes along, but also encouraging people when they are doing things right, to make sure their engagement of the truth does not become distorted.

Likewise, as the truth and goodness are one, hinted at by what has already been said, all of this can be said in relation to the good. The good itself is transcendent, and we can grow in goodness, even as we can grow in truth. Where we are at in our journey towards holiness, and whether or not we are turned toward the good or away from it, depends upon many factors, so that those who are moving toward the truth from one direction, might seem to be opposed to those moving toward the truth from another direction, and yet when the two converge, it will be shown it is not the direction but the truth itself which makes them united together, proving that their apparent contradiction was actually an affirmation of the good.[5]

What needs to be done is, once again, is to seek that which builds up, that which is helpful, instead of merely tearing people down for being wrong:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Cor. 10:23-24 RSV).

Or, as St. Stephen of Muret indicated, “To know if a deed is for good or ill, it must be considered in the light of its intention.”[6] Which might appear wrong will, if understood properly and in its pastoral context, will be proven good and useful as it helps build up and restore someone who has strayed way off the path towards righteousness. Pastoral concern, in relation to morals, will always have to take into consideration the concrete reality in which they are pronounced, so that the objective goal, the good which the concern seeks to reestablish, can be brought in harmoniously, which is the only way the good can be properly restored. Any use of the objective good for the sake of discord or destroying someone ends up being a distortion of the good and will not lead to the good itself.

Jesus, the good shepherd, therefore acted with skillful means, guiding sinners back to the goodness by building them up with his love. He understood their needs, and how to lead them to the proper goal, a goal which seeks to build everyone up together. His teaching, his words of rebuke, his correction of legalists, came as a result of their misappropriation of the good by their absolutizing a lessor good as the final and proper good. They could not direct others by building them up, and so instead, they tried to prop up their understanding of the good, idolizing it and forcing people to fall in obeisance to it.  When the Sabbath, which was a good made for humanity, to give a time of rest for spiritual growth, was turned into a thing which enslaved humanity, Jesus reminded everyone its express purpose so as not to condemn people who did not follow the legalism which became encased around the celebration of the Sabbath: “And he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath;  so the Son of man is lord even of the Sabbath’” (Mk. 2:27-8 RSV). Likewise, his teaching on divorce must not be misconstrued with extreme legalism, but must be understood as a tool which sought to help all involved; and yet, in his very words on divorce and its ills, he recognized how hardness of heart could require a dispensation, so that Moses the lawgiver rightfully allowed for a bill of divorce in some situations (cf. Matt. 19:8-9).[7]

Jesus exemplified this approach in one of his parables:

He told them a parable also: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it upon an old garment; if he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.  But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.  And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, `The old is good.’ (Lk. 5:36-39 RSV).

Old answers, old wineskins, could have been useful and good at the time in which they were originally employed, but as things change, trying to respond to present concerns merely by reusing the old wineskins will only end up seeing the situation grow worse, until it explodes in front of us and a major cleanup needs to take place. This is not to mean we are to entirely disregard the old – we are to make new wineskins following the way of the old, establishing anew the truth with the new wineskin, following and guiding people according to the needs of the time, with a pointer which can deal with and explain the truth to the people at that time without creating a mess. The truth remains the same, but the container which we use to point to the truth should change as the needs of people change. This is what Jesus was able to do, as he worked not merely by establishing abstract principles, but working with people on a personal level, making sure the truth was realized in concrete form. That is, after all, one of the reasons for the incarnation itself.  And this, we must also follow, if we want to be like him in as we teach others.


[Image=Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] St. Basil, “Concerning Faith” in Saint Basil: Ascetical Works. trans. M. Monica Wagner CSC (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 60.

[2] This is often the problem with those who look at and read theological manuals without understanding the meaning being presented by them. They will be more concerned with the word choice, conforming their minds to the words, instead of what was intended by them. They can be seen as both fundamentalistic and literalistic in their dogmatic hermeneutics, but of course, their methodology is what often causes theological chaos later. Historically, this can be seen in the example with the Nicene Creed; in its original form, it had several anathemas tied to it. One such anathema said that anyone who denies God is one hypostasis is to be anathema. The understanding of the word hypostasis would change after Nicea; the implication at Nicea was that anyone who denied the oneness of God would be anathema. However, later theologians would find hypostasis works well to describe the different persons of the Trinity, declaring, therefore, the Trinity in three hypostases. Their meaning was not different from what was proclaimed at Nicea, but they would find some contending against them and their uses of hypostasis because of what was included in the original Nicene Creed.

[3] St. Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor” in ANF(2):223.

[4] St. Basil, “Concerning Faith,” 60.

[5] We can think of the old maxim, all roads lead to Rome. If asked how one was to get to Rome, those living to the west of Rome would have to take a road going eastward, while those who lived east of Rome would have to take a road leading westward. The answers given by someone in London or Jerusalem might seem to contradict each other, if only the answer “journey east” or “journey west” was recorded, but once the start of the journey was known, the two answers would be able to be proven to harmonize with each other.

[6] St. Stephen of Muret, Maxims. trans. Deborah van Doel OCD (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2002), 86.

[7] This is affirmed in various ways, throughout Christian history, with economia in the East, and all kinds of judicial and canonical decisions in the West (such as when, in medieval times, a couple was split by their Lord, never able to be together again; canons were made which allowed remarriage for them).


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