Unto the Beasts that Perish


The Readings for the 5th Wednesday of Ordinary Time (B2)

Omnia haec mala ab intus procedunt, et communicant hominem.
All these evil things come from within, and defile a man. 

In the world of Middle Earth, every race has their own language: there’s dwarvish, two different elvishes, orkish, something called the Black Tongue, and several humanish languages as well. There could come a problem if you wanted everyone to hangout together, though. How do they talk to each other? Tolkien included something called the Common Tongue, whereby all the races could talk together. It’s the Lingua Franca of Middle Earth, the way to do business.  Evidently the phrase, “Lingua Franca” refers to “Italian-Provençal jargon with elements of Spanish, French, Greek, Arabic, and Turkish formerly widely used” in the Levant, which is perfect! I think today of how so many different varieties of English are spoken in the “Anglosphere” on top of so many other local languages from Hindi to Hebrew, from Inuit to Irish. 

In Jesus’ Day the Common Tongue was not Latin (as the Royal Tongue of Rome) but rather Greek. It was the common, shared language of businessmen in much of the world since the days of Alexander the Great. It had devolved a bit, picking up bits and pieces here and there. The Dialect of Greek thus spoken is called Koine, or common Greek as opposed to Classical or Attic Greek. It was the common language of the lower classes as well as of those who travelled. This language, Koine, is important: it’s what the New Testament is written in. It’s the language of the Greek Liturgy

It’s also an adjectival form of the word Jesus uses here as a verb, κοινόω, koino, meaning “to make common” but rendered as “Defile”.

I think this is important because (although they are sins) in this passage Jesus list a lot of things that make a man common: 

Ab intus enim de corde hominum malae cogitationes procedunt, adulteria, fornicationes, homicidia, furta, avaritiae, nequitiae, dolus, impudicitiae, oculus malus, blasphemia, superbia, stultitia.

For from within out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. 

Again, although they are sins, here Jesus list them as things that make a man common.

But the verb koino doesn’t refer to “common” as in common tongue or shared (community) property. Common here is a very particular thing, one is made common after one has been made holy: 

A chalice sanctified for the Mass used as a receptacle for beer pong or tiddly winks.
A steak dinner served on an altar.
Priest’s robes used for a Halloween Costume.
A wedding ring melted down and used for a septum piercing.
Taking something holy and using it for a common, everyday, unholy (not always “anti-holy”) purpose. 
What is interesting about this passage is that it means Jesus is equating the idea of ritual impurity with what we would see as sin.

This is why it is easy to avoid issues of kosher food in the Church, whilst still worrying about the parts of the Mosaic code that talk about sex – even when they come in the same couple of verses. Why it’s ok to not worry about mixing linen and wool, but divorce is right out. It’s the things outside the body that don’t matter. Things inside make us common. How do they make us common?

Psalm 49 (in the Coverdale) closes with this image: Man being in honour hath no understanding but is compared unto the beasts that perish.
Homo, cum in honore esset, non intellexit. Comparatus est jumentis insipientibus, et similis factus est illis.

This is how far we are fallen in our passions, our sins, our use of the holy for everyday things. We are beasts. We use all the things of this world as people who live in this world and so we are defiled (made common) by them. Jesus calls us back: to come out of the things that defile us. He calls us to use the things of this world not as they are used here, but as steps to God; to use things as they were intended by God in creation before the fall. To use things to their telos, their intended end.

Lent is coming (in 1 week). Now we are in what is traditionally a time of “carnivale” which means “goodbye, meat”.  Carnival made good sense: it was a way to use up all the meat and dairy products one had – but was not going to be able to use until Easter. So, as good stewards, we are called to use them up rather than waste them. So what started as a just and decent use (by sharing) of superfluous goods became, over time, an excuse for surfeiting. 

The time of abstaining that should lift us up becomes just more excuse to party. Now we have the party even without the fast.

What were we before?

There’s the thing. We were created to be in the Image and Likeness of God. We were intended to stand at the celestial heights, the Queens and Priest-Kings of Creation. We were called to be “a little lower than the angels” but we have fallen from there.  

We are become common. 

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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