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The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel

Pentecost Sunday of Year A (John 20:19-23)
June 4, 2017

By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD

IN THE story of the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) in the First Reading of Pentecost Vigil, the people of Shinar wanted to build a city with a tower, but God punished them. As can be inferred from v 4 (“to make a name for themselves, lest we be scattered”), it seems that they sinned not only for trying to make a name for themselves on their own initiative and quite independent of God, but also for refusing the command of God to fill the earth (1:28). Of course, others think that their sin consists in trying to build a tower with its top in the sky (11:4) as a sign of pride and rebellion against God, but there seems to be no basis for this conclusion. At any rate, as used in the narrative, the story is meant to teach us about the ongoing sin of man and, when read together with the next chapter, which focuses on Abraham, about true greatness whose origin is God (12:2), and about the birth of Israelthrough whom all nations will be blest. Originally, however, the story was an aetiological legend about the origin of the diversity of languages and nations. In v 7, the Yahwist writer uses the word balal, which means to mix, to confuse: “Come, let us go down and confuse the language.” The city, with its tower, was left unfinished because Yahweh confounded the speech of the builders; hence, its name became Babel, or confusion. In English, the word babble means confused or incoherent speech. Because of the confusion of language, people could no longer understand each other; on the contrary, unable to reach agreement, they could not be united. Hence, the quarrel among nations, and their lack of communion and reconciliation. Because they could not get through their head, they were fractious and fragmented.

Today, we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. For Christians, it is not simply the 50th day after the Lord’s resurrection; rather, it is also the time when the Church, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, received its mission to bring all people to God. Thus, in the Gospel, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the early Church: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them. If you hold them bound, they are held bound” (John 20:21.23).

Pentecost signifies that the risen Lord is active in the world, reconciling all men to God and to one another. Thus, one of the theological meanings of the event is that Pentecost is a time of reconciliation and communion. Indeed, from linguistic evidence, there is no doubt that the account in the First Reading (Acts 2:1-11) is meant to reverse the experience of Babel. Luke says that the Jews who came from every nation under heaven and were staying in Jerusalem witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit on the apostles, “they were much confused because each one heard these men speaking his own language. The whole occurrence astonished them” (Acts 2:6). If in the story of the tower of Babel, people were confused because of their different languages, here the Jews who came from every nation on earth were confused because each one heard the apostles speaking in his own particular language. Thus, Pentecost overcomes the division of men at Babel. That is why Luke uses tongues as of fire (v 3) to convey this signification. This means that through the tongue of the Spirit, which is ultimately charity, all men will be reconciled. Pentecost is thus a time of reconciliation and fraternal communion.

It might be difficult to expect our political parties to be reconciled to one another and establish fraternal communion so that the country could move toward achieving the kind of society that our constitution envisages. But a Christian always expects that the Church be a community of reconciliation and communion. And precisely because the Spirit that was poured out at Pentecost is active in the Church, such a community could be promoted if Christians are to be informed with a spirituality of communion. According to John Paul II in his Tertio Millennio Adveniente, this spirituality means that we are able to think of our brothers and sisters in the faith within the profound unity of the mystical body; it means sharing their joys and sufferings; it implies the ability to see what is positive in others; it means knowing how to make room for others, bearing their burdens, and resisting temptations that constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealous; and above all, it means our contemplation of the Trinity dwelling in us. If people can see this spirituality shining on our faces, they will certainly recognize the miracle of Pentecost working in the Church and, who knows, our political structure and system could be affected in the long run. And the Babel among our political parties will be transformed into reconciliation and communion.