Fr. James Martin Treats Sacred Scripture Like a Cheap Logic Puzzle

By John Zmirak Published on November 21, 2017

Fr. James Martin, SJ is at it again. Maybe he’s trying to speed ecumenism with Mainline Protestant churches. Because it seems each week he comes out with a statement every bit as crazy as anything you’d hear from the most jaded post-Christian posers. You know, the kind who gather in ersatz vestments to “bless” abortion clinics with songs by Leonard Cohen, who was vocally pro-life. A few months back, the Institute on Religion and Democracy reported on lesbian Methodist bishop Karen Oliveto. She warned us not to make an “idol” out of Jesus. Oh yes, and she called him a racist, albeit a penitent one.

Not to be outdone, Fr. Martin weighed in this week, completely inverting the meaning of one of Jesus’ own parables.


Now, I’m no priest. My degree is in literature, not theology. But you don’t need expertise to see where Martin is deeply wrong here. What you do need is contact with the living tradition of how the Church reads the Gospel. You need to be humble. To defer to the consensus of the apostles, Church fathers, and faithful preachers who came before us. Not to stumble upon a passage like a bratty high school sophomore and reach for witty ways to subvert it. It’s a story invented by the Son of God to teach us needful truths of eternal salvation. Not some profane logic puzzle.

I was a bratty high school sophomore when I met my first Jesuit. And I posed him “clever” questions. I offered perverse readings of Gospel passages. And he shot me down in flames, every time. The humiliation … did me good.

Smacking Down the Sophomores

I learned that firsthand. I was a bratty high school sophomore when I met my first Jesuit. And I posed him “clever” questions. I offered perverse readings of Gospel passages. And he shot me down in flames, every time. The humiliation … did me good.

Fr. John Hardon was one of a vanishing breed of faithful, highly educated men who doggedly served the church. I think one of the main purposes the good Jesuits once served was to smack down smart alecks like me. To teach us reverence for sacred things, and to prick the soap bubbles of our ever-expanding egos.

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The Hard Sayings of Jesus

The Gospel isn’t easy. Jesus does indeed have a number of “hard sayings” which we must struggle with. (I’ve wrestled with them in several books.) What’s more, He is unlike any other person who ever walked the earth: at once fully God and fully man. Tempted, yet sinless. In one sense the omniscient Creator. Yet he “grew in wisdom and in years.”

No surprise, then, that disputes over Jesus’ nature were the first to split the church. The Arians denied His full divinity. The Patripassians overreacted. They claimed that the Father (patri) also suffered (passio) on the cross. The Donatists overemphasized His human nature. So the Monophysites diminished it almost to nothing. And so on.

The echoes of these disputes still split the apostolic churches. The hunted Copts of Egypt are the heirs of the Monophysites. Many persecuted Christians in Iraq descend from Nestorian churches that once reached as far as China. (Read Philip Jenkins’ learned, heartbreaking The Lost History of Christianity for their story.)

Jesus, the Paradox

When reading the Gospels, it’s easy to get sidetracked into false reactions if you forget Jesus’ distinctive, paradoxical nature. Lose sight of His humanity, and you will find His passion pallid. A pantomime. He can’t really be suffering all that much, if He’s also enjoying the presence of the Father and the Spirit. If His divine nature entirely overshadowed the human, then He could never be surprised, or confused, or even really frightened. So in what sense would He be human?

Lose sight of Jesus’ divinity, and He sounds amazingly arrogant.

Lose sight of His divinity, and He sounds amazingly arrogant. The claims He makes are outrageous. He accuses people like the Pharisees of the most appalling hypocrisy … on what apparent evidence? That’s something I pointed out to Father Hardon. He nodded patiently, then pointed out, “But Jesus could read their hearts.”

Well, okay then. That’s different.

I later read a fascinating book (God or Christ, by Jean Milet) on just this subject: how Christians have overemphasized Jesus’ human nature for centuries. The motive was to make the Gospel more appealing, but the outcome was appalling: the milk-and-water humanitarian gibberish that too often passes for Christianity.

The Parable of the Talents

With all this in mind, let’s go back to Fr. Martin’s sophomoric misreading of that parable (Matt. 25). Jesus is trying to help the apostles understand the kingdom of heaven. It’s the second story He’s telling with that in mind. In the previous passage, He’d offered the Parable of the Wise and Foolish virgins. So Our Lord imagines a Master who entrusts servants with “talents.” (As Father Martin helpfully points out, they were very valuable coins!) He rewards those who put them to fruitful use, and punishes the one who buried his in the ground.

The consensus interpretation of that passage, going back to the early Church, is the obvious one. Don’t squander God’s precious gifts — either natural or supernatural. Don’t hunker down in fear or selfishness, but put them to use. Employ your natural gifts (intelligence, charm, leadership, generosity) in service of His supernatural message. To do any less shows smallness of soul (pusillanimity). It brands you as a “worthless servant” who belongs in “the outer darkness” where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matt. 25:30)

Indeed, to make the point even more strongly, Jesus asks us to imagine God as a sharp, hard-driving Master, “reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not winnow.” (Matt. 25:24) Now this part is a “hard saying.” Let’s admit that. (At least that’s what the useless servant says of his master. Though he certainly doesn’t act like it! As the master points out, if he’d really believed that, he would have invested the money.)

Jesus Condemning the Father?

Does Jesus really mean that His Father is unjust? Clearly not, since God has sown and winnowed everything that is. He’s the source of all existence. There are no fields or crops from some other god that He has confiscated. They don’t exist.

So why invoke that image? This is where humble theological reflection comes in, and bends its knee. We ought to assume that what Christ says is coherent. That He said it out of love for us. Or at the bare minimum, that it doesn’t include any heresies. We ought to pay it at least the same respect we would to lines of Shakespeare, and not try to deconstruct it into nonsense.

A Reverent Reading

In light of that, then, what’s a reverent reading of Jesus’ words? Perhaps He meant to provoke a proper “fear of the Lord.” How easily we tell ourselves that it wouldn’t be “fair” for God to hold us responsible for x, y, or z. We take our modern, squishy, therapeutic notions of justice and project them on to God. Modern Europeans who welcome returning ISIS fighters and put them back on welfare probably ought not to be our models of divine justice.

If Jesus is talking about the Kingdom, then the Master is clearly the Father. But if Father Martin is right, then Jesus is telling us something deeply disturbing. He’s warning us that His Father is “wicked,” bent on “exploitation.” That message would be plainly diabolical, so even Father Martin might agree it’s safe to dismiss it. 

So then Jesus is not talking about the Kingdom. He’s just introducing some random, proto-Marxist parable about economic exploitation. He’s wedging it in between one passage where He clearly says “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom” and another where He says “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” Maybe Our Lord had ADHD.

Or maybe Fr. Martin needs to learn a little humility when handling holy things, like the Word of God. As it is, he reminds me of a high school religion teacher I once had. He told me, smirking: “Jesus didn’t have a degree in theology. I do.”

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  • Paul Trey

    I’m glad Fr. Hardon “smacked you down” but didn’t knock you out.

    • Brian W

      One finds that adolescents and young adults used to be much harder to knock out.

  • Dean Bruckner

    Here is proof, if we needed it, that James Martin is not a child of God. Any heart that has been warmed and captured by grace wants to please the One who rescued him. He loves to offer his present and future wealth to God, saying, “Lord, this is for you.”

    James Martin is saying this to his gods, but those gods are Money and Self. He says to them, “Lords, this is for you!”

    • Billiamo

      Of course he’s a child of God. A wayward one, like many of us, but come on.

  • Jim Kolan

    This whole sorry episode is not surprising following, as it does, closely on the heels of Fr. Martin’s teaching on how Jesus learned humility from the Syrophoenician woman and as a result gave up his racist tendencies. I am worried for Father Martin. He doesn’t seem to understand that Jesus is both God and man.

  • Patmos

    From another tweet of his in the same thread:

    “It’s an interesting, and much-debated parable. Of course a parable cannot be tied down to one meaning…”

    How is this guy even a priest?

    • samton909

      Good question. You know, if a man supports the gay lifestyle, you cannot be admitted to seminary. He seems to be supporting the gay lifestyle all the time, and opposing the Catholic lifestyle. So the question is, how can this guy who would not be admitted to seminary allowed to remain a priest?

  • robertobellarmino

    I disagree, poor Jimmy Martin’s interpretation is not even cheap logic. He is in way over his head.

  • samton909

    “Sophomoric”…There, you found it!

    The perfect word to describe Father James Martin. Everything about the man is sophomoric. He’s a lightweight. A lightweight of lightweights. Now, don’t get me wrong. There may be a group out there that can only digest the most lightweight of lightweight versions of Christianity. Maybe there is a place for this sort of childish stuff. Maybe.

  • ArthurMcGowan

    “That message would be plainly diabolical, so even Father Martin might agree it’s safe to dismiss it.”

    But don’t bet on it.

  • ArthurMcGowan

    The insight seems to be spreading that “it’s not about the book.”

    Indeed, it seems more and more likely that the book–insipid, vapid, content-free–was written to distract. It contains no heresy! It has a nihil obstat! Look! A squirrel!

    Meanwhile, Martin criss-crosses the country oozing praise for sodomy, gay marriage, sacrilegious communion, etc.

  • James B

    Fr. James Martin is the kind of maniac who is now emboldened under Pope Francis and couldn’t care less about criticism.

  • demathis

    Sadly, it seems that nothing can be done about
    James Martin. Notice I left off the title Father.
    He no longer represents Him.

    • Mark Mills

      It was my intention to leave off the title”father”, as well.
      Martin is unworthy of his ordination.

  • Daniel G. Fink

    The desire to be contrarian regarding the Church’s teaching on active homosexuality apparently infects the will to be contrarian in other matters (e.g., “It may not be that burying talents has anything to do with spiritual sloth”) in which Sacred Tradition has spoken. It is exactly an issue of spiritual pride.

  • Catholic Dan

    Apparently, James Martin identifies deeply with the servant who buried his talents. Because that servant did not really know his master, he fashioned is master to reflect himself. It’s the servant who is cruel and dishonest. This is a case of man making God to his image and likeness. The other two servants knew their master and knew that he could well afford to lose whatever risks the servants took to earn profit. Moral of the story Martin missed: the better you know the master, the better you can serve his interest, not your own petty ones.

  • Mongo

    The import of Jesus parable in that instance seems clear enough. Use your talents, great or small. Do the best you can with what you have.

  • Mario Cataldo

    I can’t tell you how often he tweets these twisted ideological concoctions to his own ends. What is more troubling is the amount of likes he gets. Very scary stuff come judgement day.

  • ranger01

    Look around and its fairly clear that homosexuality and humility are mutually exclusive.
    It is very doubtful that Fr Martin is a heterosexual man. Bet on it.

  • ckuss

    1. Father Martin does not say that the second interpretation he mentions is his interpretation; he just says that some scholars have suggested such an interpretation. 2. The first interpretation he mentions is not subject to the vague unsubstantial criticisms that this article indulges in. Father Martin is not indulging in weird unnecessary interpretations of the Evangelical text; he is simply reading it closely. Just because most preachers on this parable apparently do not do this out of mental laziness, does not mean that Father Martin is is misinterpeting the Gospel. Just because they get started on their sermons on Sunday morning, and without paying any real attention to the Gospel text say to themselves: “This parable (as everyone knows) is about using your talents, “natural and supernatural” doesn’t make Father Martin wrong for seeing beyond the tired and misleading cliche.

    The man who hides his talent conceives of his master as explotiative and does not play his game. (If someone has read Melville’s story Bartleby the Scrivener, he will find another, longer, and also very significant parable about this theme.) Father Martin is telling us that we should not think of God as an exploiter. But Zmirak tells us not to worry about whether God is an exploiter or not, because the parable is about using your talents, natural and supernatural, as everyone knows. Zmirak is defending his beloved capitalism and its logic. If God is an exploiter than we should all be exploiters: the universal economy works best when we all exploit each other just as God exploits us. Here you have the trickle-down notion of universal economy. (I suspect that Zmirak may be trying to set up a theology in which Trump’s tax plan is defensible and in which those who criticize Trumpian ideology can be dismissed as Marxist Jesuits. But does that make his interpretation of the parable the orthodox Catholic interpretation?)

    But anyone who takes the parable seriously must ask himself whether the man who hides his talent has the right conception of His Master/God? It is not an easy question. It is too easy just to take the side of power. The man who hides his talent is a dummy, and he gets what he deserves!

    But God is not an exploiter. This is the conclusion that we should reach. The parable is not so easy as the cliche interpretation suggests.

    The parable is not about “‘using your talents, natural and supernatural” as if the natural and the supernatural existend on the same plane. This interpretation turns God grace into “stuff” and thus misunderstands what grace is all about.

    The parable’s real meaning is that love ought to be responded to with love. It is not a eulogy of selfish motives, though a thoughtless reading makes it that.

    The parables of Jesus should not be read thoughtlessly.

    • Boy are you reaching! You just had to bring current U.S. politics into, didn’t you?

    • Degrandbob

      You’ve been drinking that liberal Kool aid too long! It’s obvious your inner sanctum and Buddhist logic of not worrying about a God is your personal distorted belief. Please , control your disorder within your daily Zen meditations. You are simply a progressive sniper with a hardened heart!

  • Gerry McDonnell

    The Apostle Paul asked the question in (1 Cor 2:11), ‘What man knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? Then he goes on to say that ‘In the same way no-one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God’ he tells us in verse 14 ‘The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned’. In other words you will never be able to understand the Scriptures unless you have the Holy Spirit teach you.

    The natural man cannot understand the word of God. That’s why Jesus could not use any of the Scribes and Pharisees in his own day. They had all the understanding in their heads but they had no heart knowledge. Why didn’t they recognise the Messiah? All the Scriptures pointed to him. It doesn’t matter what theological college you have been to. It doesn’t matter how many degrees or letters you have acquired after your name, because your head knowledge, your intellect and your education will never give you the revelation that you need to discern what is written, for only the Holy Spirit can reveal Christ to you and only the Holy Spirit can enlighten this word to you, otherwise it is just a book of words.

    Whenever you try to interpret without the Spirit it may say something totally different to what it means. A good example would be the parable of the talents, It has nothing to do with your talents or your gifts. It’s a parable about service and stewardship. The man with 1 talent did the same as Adam did, he hid because he was afraid and if you try to serve God out of fear, then it will cause you to be bowed over in the presence of God, like Adam there will be a sense of shame and you will be spiritually impoverished, you will be like the dutiful son in the parable of the prodigal son having a slavery mentality serving God out of a wrong heart, going through all the religious observances but unable to join in the celebrations of the new life that Jesus offers us.

  • Elizabeth Schmeidler

    James Martin has been making up his own brand of theology for quite some time now. I’ve tried to look at what he is doing from every perspective, but there is no way around it. He is teaching/preaching heresy. He is in my prayers, as the consequences of his actions, especially considering his position as priest, will be grave, as he is leading many astray and dishonoring the Word and our Lord, Who is the WORD.

  • Degrandbob

    So, why hasn’t this heretic (Martin) been removed from his position….and sent packing? To me, he’s a disciple of the anti Christ movement….using a priest’s title to spew his blasphemous views on Catholic doctrine.

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