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The Dominicans

Torch Commentary from the Dominicans

Torch provides a Catholic homily each week by Dominican friars; past homilies can be found on their site here

Harden Not Your Hearts

First Sunday in Advent. Year B  

Fr Matthew Jarvis reassures us of the possibility of repentance.

There are difficult words in our first reading from Isaiah, when he complains: ‘Why, Lord, leave us to stray from your ways and harden our hearts against fearing you?’ God seems to have hardened our hearts, and even abandoned his people to evil: ‘For you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins.’ How is that possible? Is God not our Father, our Redeemer?

This is a classic problem. The great Christian educator Origen, in the 3rd century, pointed out that many faithful people are perturbed by Biblical passages about God ‘hardening hearts’, because they think this means we are not truly free. In a world of pagan gods and Gnostic heresies, where the notion of Fate was widespread, Origen sought to reassure Christians that God has truly liberated us from any fatalism. So how can Isaiah say that God hardens hearts?

To understand this we need to go back to the Exodus, the foundational reference being to Pharaoh’s hardened heart when he refused to let the Hebrew slaves go free. What does the text actually say? Interestingly, sometimes it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:20,27; 11:10; 14:4), while other times it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15,32), or simply that his heart was hardened (Exodus 7:22; 8:19; 9:7). So, was Pharaoh free not to harden his heart, if God was hardening it anyway?

Not at all. The varieties of expression in Exodus seem to be inviting us to go deeper with this problem, to investigate how the freedom of Pharaoh has an interplay with God’s freedom. This is a vast topic, but a simple way to get some handle on it is to realise that there are two different ways that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. When Pharaoh hardens his own heart, this is a Biblical way of saying he freely set his will on something evil and refused to change back to the good. He refused to have compassion on the Hebrew slaves and was determined to maintain his own power and glory. Notice that hardening his heart blinds him to reality: he is blind both to the suffering of the slaves and also to the miracles that God is working in his land.

Something very different is meant when we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Here we don’t mean that God turned Pharaoh’s will towards something evil. Instead, we mean that God allows Pharaoh’s evil to get stuck in its own rut. Effectively, God says to Pharaoh: ‘So you are determined to want this evil thing? Fine, have it your way.’ And since evil is inherently self-defeating – remember, a kingdom divided against itself will fall (Mt 12:25) – God will win glory over Pharaoh by the sheer logic of Pharaoh’s own stubborn wickedness.

We know that God is continually calling all sinners to repentance and he wants none to perish: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice; harden not your hearts’, as we say daily in the Invitatory Psalm. But in his providence, God can allow a sinner to be temporarily fixed in his or her evil designs in order later to manifest God’s greater glory and love for all. Thus Pharaoh’s stubbornness leads to greater miracles and the crossing of the Red Sea, a prefiguration of our Baptism. Another case would be Pilate’s refusal to release Jesus, leading to the Crucifixion, in which we see the ultimate revelation of God’s sacrificial love for humanity.

So, as Advent begins, let’s hold fast to our total freedom in Christ. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Gal 5:1). We must use this freedom well. We are waiting, ‘waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed’ in his final glory. We do not know when, and so we must ‘stay awake!’

This is by no means a passive inertia. We are to be active in our waiting, like servants ‘each with his own task’. At the very least, this means we must be active in wanting our Lord to return, and calling upon him in our hearts. Isaiah speaks for all the people when he says apologetically to God: ‘No one invoked your name or roused himself to catch hold of you.’ God will do all the necessary work of salvation in us, but we must want him, desire him, and invite him in. God is constantly softening our hearts – if only we would let him!

Readings: Isaiah 63:16-17,64:1,3-8 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:33-37


Bishop Robert Barron is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He is also the founder of the global media ministry Word on Fire, which reaches millions of people by utilizing the tools of new media to draw people into or back to the Catholic Faith.

Bishop Robert Barron

In loving memory of Johnny Harrow (JFMH)

May he rest in peace.

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