Luke 1:5-25 - Errors of Discernment
In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.
Once when he was serving as priest in his division's turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord."
Then Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." And the angel said to him in reply, "I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time." Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute. Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home.
After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived, and she went into seclusion for five months, saying, "So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others."
Yesterday we reflected about the need to discern the spirits. How can I be sure that I put my faith into something worthwhile? How can I know that my decisions are aligned with what Jesus wants? We came upon the examples of Mary and Joseph. They both heard messages from an angel and - after pondering it in their hearts - trusted them. Today we hear about Zechariah. He was visited by the same angel, received a very similar message, but did not quite believe in it.
Discernment is scary - but it shouldn’t be
What follows could be interpreted as a punishment for the old man’s lack of trust. This interpretation would cater to the frequent anxiety which accompanies a discernment: “What if I understand the signs in a wrong way? What if, for all my pondering and reflecting, I come to the wrong conclusion? What if I misinterpret God’s will? Will that not lead to punishment?” This fright makes many discernment processes stagnate. This fright is wrong.
Discernment is an ongoing process - not an oracle
When we discern, we want to find out God’s will in order to do God’s will. The problems with this logic arise when we understand this discernment in the sense of some oracle: a mysterious instruction which points us into a specific direction in a punctual occasion. God is far more than an oracle. Discernment is not limited to a single instruction in a punctual occasion.
Discernment is relational - not an instruction
Discernment is enrooted in a living relationship with Our Lord. Think about it: misinterpreting a message is dramatic only in a type of communication which can not rely on immediate correction. Handbooks, instructions, street signs: these are the type of information which must be clear enough to allow only one possible interpretation. In an ongoing conversation, however, the interlocutors can continuously evaluate whether the other is getting that what they are saying; and if not, they can rephrase their ideas until they perceive that the other has understood correctly. Instructions communicate, by definition, specific and impersonal messages. God’s will for you, on the other hand, is deeply personal. It belongs to the type of things which can not be reduced to an instruction. Like love, trust, or friendship, God’s will needs a more personal and relational form of communication. Discerning God’s will must therefore have the form of an ongoing conversation. “God, what I hear you saying is that I do this and that…” If you misinterpreted His words, He can easily correct you, can He not?
Discernment is based on wanting to do God’s will
If we go back to today’s Gospel, such a correction is exactly what could be going on. Zechariah was praying; in the name of the people, he offered incense to God and thus begged Him to come to the people’s rescue. He wanted God to act; he wanted God to show them the way; he wanted to do God’s will. But when God responded and showed him what he were to do, Zechariah did not interpret correctly.
Discernment implies to consider all the elements at hand
He did the right thing in his discernment, considering the big picture and reasonably weighing in with objective elements such as his and his wife’s age. And so he thought that God could not want from him what the angel stated. Did he close himself to God’s will? No. He simply did not understand it.
Discernment means listening and obeying
There is a difference between consciously deciding to not do what God asks from us and to misinterpret what God asks from us. The latter is an unintentional misinterpretation; the former is disobedience. While a misinterpretation can sometimes show stubbornness, rationalism, or a lack of trust it does not oppose God’s will as such. Disobedience, on the other hand, shows that we do not actually want to do God’s will. And in that case, there wouldn’t be any discernment at all - even if we called it that. This, again, is similar to a conversation; one in which you do not actually want to understand what the other one is saying. You simply want to express your own standpoint. Sure enough, such a conversation would not lead you to “discern what the other is trying to tell you;” not because of what the other says but because of how you listen.
Discernment means interpreting
If Zechariah would have simply closed himself to God’s will; if he would not have wanted God to work the miracle, then God would probably have respected his freedom, his disobedience. But Zechariah was not closed to God’s will; all he did was misinterprete. A misinterpretation in a discernment does not stop God from guiding us towards his will - because he sees in our heart that we actually want to obey Him. If you sense that your interlocutor unintentionally misinterpreted what you said, you will most likely continue the conversation all the more and make another attempt to explain what you mean. God acts the same way. So do not be all too scrupulous in your discernment. If you remember that your discernment is not punctual anyways but an ongoing process; if you remember that it is relational and God is there to correct you when you are wrong; if really all you intent is to listen for God’s will and if you are ready to obey it; if you are honestly considering all the elements at hand and reflecting sincerely: then do not be afraid to interpret to your best knowledge and take the first step as well as you can. “God, to my best knowledge, this is what you want me to do. I do it with you. I do it for you.”
Discernment means allowing God to correct your conclusions
And if you are wrong? How did the angel react to Zechariah’s misinterpretation? Did he disappear and left him in his error? Did God sit back and wait for Zechariah to bang his head against the wall he was turning towards or fall down the cliff he was approaching due to his error? No. The angel corrected him solemnly: “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.” God was not thrown back by Zechariah’s discernment. He kept to His plan and made sure that Zechariah would understand it eventually. He knew that Zechariah wanted to do His will; He knew that Zechariah needed to learn to listen better in order to interpret His will correctly. In order for Zechariah to penetrate God’s current plan - such a mysterious one as it was! - the priest had to stop focussing on the immediate circumstances. “But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” This was no punishment. This was how God helped Zechariah to understand the divine plan.
Discernment means to walk with God
What we can say after looking at the different examples of discernment of Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah is that God accompanied each one of them on their path towards understanding His will. Their vocations were as difficult as they come. And they were not all equally “qualified” for them. But God had chosen them as instruments not because He could simply give them “instructions” and then trust that they were going to take it from there. At the contrary, He chose them because they were inclined to do His will - not only by following a punctual oracle, but by walking with Him, by keeping up their discernment throughout their lives, by living a relationship with Him so honest and invested that God knew that He was going to be able to direct them step by step. These are examples of true discernment: Hearts that want to follow God’s will heartbeat for heartbeat.