Every Excuse in the Book

By Patrick Gahan

Herod marched out every excuse in the book until he had no option but to kill John the Baptist. To be frank, John had harangued King Herod endlessly. “You are living in sin,” the Baptist scolded the king in every public place where they crossed paths. “You have broken God’s law by marrying your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18; Lev. 20:21).

And yet King Herod retained a fascination with John. Even after he arrested him, he would visit John in the palace dungeon in order to listen to the roughhewn prophet speak (Mark 6:20). Nevertheless, Herod ran out of excuses right in the middle of a posh dinner soiree, so that he had no recourse but to behead John as some sort of party favor. He just ran out of excuses.

I’ve always found it curious that all three Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — interrupt the story of Jesus with this intermezzo about John the Baptist’s execution. What do the Gospel writers want to show us through this calculating, deceitful, murderous interlude?

Allow me to digress here to remind us that the Gospel writers did not compose their stories as biographies of Jesus. No, they were writing to fledgling churches around the Mediterranean in order to show them what an earnest faith in Jesus Christ looked like and to call those who had drifted away back on the gospel path. I suspect they believed Herod has something to teach us about the procession of excuses we make to anesthetize ourselves against making a deeper commitment of faith, thus partitioning ourselves from any real hope.

The truth of this hit me broadside on July 4. I elected to stay in most of the day to escape the 100-degree heat and enjoy the peace. Sitting under a fan in my quiet office, I finished reading Sarah Ruden’s 2018 translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions.

Augustine could have just as easily written in the 21st century as in the fourth. In his candor, he confesses that he first excused himself from following Christ because he was not yet finished having fun. He loved women and ribald partying, yet his long cavalcade of trysts became more and more unsatisfying. Eventually, he confesses, “I wasn’t really in love. I was in love with the prospect of one day finding love.”

As he lived merely on the surface, love remained an idea, not a reality. Augustine’s second excuse is that he coveted the depth, beauty, and prestige of his occupation far more than he desired God. He was a highly gifted and esteemed professor of rhetoric, whose reputation resounded through North Africa, Milan, and Rome.

At one point, he laments that he tried to read the Scripture, but Cicero’s prose was so much more appealing. In a flash of honesty, he admits, “My sin was that I sought God not so much in himself, but in the things he created — most especially myself” (Book 1).

Augustine’s third excuse was that while he was a master of speech, he had no power over his appetites and his bad behavior. Most readers find it bemusing that Augustine shares a story about a theft of pears, which he and his running buddies committed when Augustine was but 15. This tale comes off as almost silly to us modern Westerners who have been assured the misdeeds of our youth are to be expected and summarily forgotten.

Augustine, on the other hand, relates the story with the utmost gravity because, looking back, he realizes they did not even hunger for the pears, but merely wanted to steal them. This fact is accentuated when they toss all the fruit into a pigsty, depicting the sorry state of Augustine’s soul. In this revelation, Augustine soberly admits that he has no power within himself to change his venal, hurtful behavior.

I suppose that is more about Augustine than most of you ever wanted to know, and yet there is a reason Confessions is the best-selling autobiography of all time: Augustine tells the truth about us and the panoply of excuses we have leaned upon to dismiss Christ from any meaningful place in our lives, thus, excising ourselves from hope.

“It’s not time yet. I’m still in my extended juvenile entertainment phase”; or “Once I get my career on track and my house in order, I’ll consider my walk with Christ”; or “I just don’t seem to have the will to change.”

Of the three excuses, only the third is profoundly true. On our own, we really “don’t have the will to change.” We may recall Paul’s confession in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “I prayed fervently three times to be delivered from my unbecoming malady, but Christ denied me, stating, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:8-9).

So how on earth did Augustine change? First, his mother, Monica, never gave up on him — even during her son’s most sordid, wanton, vainglorious periods. She not only prayed continuously for his conversion but also followed him around the Mediterranean, haunting him almost as a spectral companion.

Second, a procession of witnesses surrounded Augustine. The most important was Ambrose, the convicting Bishop of Milan. However, one of these friends, Simplicanus, tells him the story about Victorinus. To be clear, Victorinus was an esteemed intellectual who publicly professed his submission to Christ in front of the crowds that had once adored him as an artist. Augustine crumbled to the ground beneath a fig tree when he heard the news.

Third, while sobbing inconsolably beneath that tree, Augustine heard a company of young children playing and singing, “Pick it up. Read it. Pick it up. Read it.” Believing them to be messengers of the God from whom he had furiously run all his life, he found a Bible, opened it, and read the first paragraph that met his eyes: “Don’t clothe yourself in raucous dinner parties and drunkenness, not in the immorality of sleeping around, not in feuds and competition; but clothe yourself in the Master, Jesus, Christ, and do not make provision for the body in its inordinate desires” (Rom. 13:13-14).

Augustine declares, “I did not want to read further, and there was no need. The instant I finished this sentence, my heart was virtually flooded with a light of relief and certitude, and all the darkness of my hesitation and all my excuses scattered away” (Book 8).

Augustine, face down on the ground sobbing, is given that which he could not give himself: faith. I should add that he had tried self-help remedies for years, aligning himself with the Manicheans, who boasted intrepid ways to battle the darkness. But Christ doesn’t call us into battle. He calls us to give up the fight and surrender to his love. We can bet that we have Monicas in our lives who pray for our transformation day and night. Perhaps it’s a spouse, a parent, one of our children, or a friend calling on our Savior to make us whole.

Furthermore, witnesses abound, those who have come to Christ before us. Their lives illuminate our way to freedom, wholeness, and meaning. And God’s Word stands forever. The Scripture will speak the truth into us that the power and love of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is enough to remake us, and the brilliant light of his resurrection is the hope that never dims.

Augustine knew this, for in the second paragraph on the very first page of his venerable book he confesses, “Lord, in Yourself you rouse us, giving us delight in glorifying You, because You made us with Yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Knowing that, we find that we’ve come to the end of our excuses.

The Rev. Patrick Gahan is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in San Antonio.


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