In today’s culture, we stress political correctness: caution not to offend the listeners or readers. This attitude may also affect the way the word of God is communicated. It may happen that, in passing on our faith to others or in proclaiming the Gospel ‘Good News’, prudence takes over simply to avoid the impression of imposing one’s faith or moral tenets on others.
This may result in modifying the Gospel message to make it palatable and acceptable to our listeners, to accommodate their aspirations and not to disturb their minds and hearts, especially if their lives don’t tally with the principles we are proclaiming. We may be tempted to find a nicer, harmless way to tune Jesus’ message to the likes of our audience.
The Gospel and the current culture do not necessarily concur in everything. Theologian Anselm Grȕn explains this in the concept of ‘Parrhesia’, as reflected in the Gospel. Parrhesia was already something fundamental to the democracy of ancient Greece. It meant the liberty with which the Greek orators had the freedom to express openly whatever they wished to share, without giving a thought to any reprisals that could come from their audiences, or to accusations which those in power could put up against them.
One can cite an example of Parrhesia from John’s Gospel, which shows squarely the frankness in which Jesus taught and spoke. When the High Priest cross-examines Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching, Jesus answers: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in the synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly” (Jn 18, 20). Citing from the Greek version of John’s Gospel, Grȕn says that, “I have spoken openly to the world” in the Greek is “parrhesia lelaleka to kosmo”, which lays an emphasis that Jesus faced his audiences with confidence and courage. He did not trim his language in front of his listeners, nor did he fear to touch on issues likely to meet some strong reaction from the elders at the table or from of the people around him. With his unique style, Jesus spoke to different hearers, without making any distinction to their backgrounds, their belief or their capacity to understand all he said. Before him, there were always both friends and foes.
Another example of the ‘parrhesia’ is when Jesus declared that he is to give his body and his blood to the world in the Eucharist. The Jews disputed among themselves, saying: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus replied: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of God and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The disciples, as well, considered this as “a hard saying” and “many of his disciples “turned back and no longer walked with him.” So Jesus said to the twelve: “Do you want to go as well?” (Jn 6, 51-53; 60; 66-67)
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke uses the word Parrhesia in the same sense it was used by the Greek philosophers. He says that the apostles proclaimed the good news sincerely, firmly and without fear. Luke, author of the Acts, presents Peter and John preaching with so much clarity and conviction, even before the Grand Council of Israel. Their courage astonished the elders of the Council when they “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men. They wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4, 13). The passion of the first Christians in proclaiming the ‘Good News’ couldn’t but impress.
A mixed reaction
The Jewish authorities, however, did not lose time to put the apostles under lock and key. In contrast, pagans who were addressed first by Peter and then by Paul, did not react in the same way, but responded with great joy, realising that the Good News might meet the needs they felt in their inner self. After all of us have in ourselves that deep desire of finding a sense to our lives. Neither did the Athenians, believers in several gods, oppose Paul. Speaking to the elders in the Areopagus, Paul did not keep back from mentioning the Resurrection of Christ, although he could see that the Greeks were not ready to understand and accept his story. In fact “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked him.” But others were struck with his wisdom and told him: “We will hear you again about this”, and “some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” (Acts 17, 34)
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul underlines the prerequisites that those who proclaim the Good News should cultivate in the delivery of their message. Paul writes that he was given the grace of proclaiming Christ to the pagans, “in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith.” (Ef 3,12) In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read that: “Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope.” (Heb 3, 6) The first Christians, who time and again were questioned about their faith or their world-view, were not afraid to speak openly about their hope, because it was faith and hope in Jesus that inspired their way of life.
The balance in proclaiming the word
Pope Francis mentioned the term Parrhesia during a pilgrimage for catechists from all over the world in September 2013. The Pope said that Parrhesia may be a forgotten concept, but it has traditional roots in the Church.
Hence the need for all who are engaged in the proclamation of the Good News to do this with courage and full authenticity. They should be inspired by Paul in the Areopagus, as he went from everyday experience to proclaiming Jesus, mentioning both the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ. He was not afraid to make it clear that the Cross and the Resurrection are the very centre of the Christian Faith.
There ought to be a close balance between the proclamation and the lives of the people, and at the same time assuring that the message be always oriented to Christ. Peter, in his first letter, gives us this counsel: “In your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence and keep your conscience clear,…“ (1 Pt 3, 15) Peter invited Christians to proclaim the Good News, not with aggression or arrogance, but with gentleness and humility.
As in all walks of life, everyone has a style of his own in doing things. This holds true also for the proclamation of the Gospel. There are those who are too cautious in talking about their faith, while there are others who do this too outspokenly, as if those who do not share their beliefs are below standard.
The Parrhesia of the Christian herald should have the balance shown by Peter and Paul, so that the Good News will reach others with liberty and enthusiasm. This should be done in a humble way, through dialogue, taking time to listen to those present. The proclamation of the Gospel can spread hope which sorely needs real love, forgiveness and peace.
By Joseph Galea