Father David's Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
What kind of people are the greatest danger to Christianity today? Who were the most vicious opponents of Jesus in his time? Am I like them in any way?
The Entrance Antiphon asks help against the "wicked. the deceitful and the unjust" (Psalm 43). These are the people who would block us from accepting what we ask for in the Opening Prayer: "Father, help us to be like Christ your Son." Our worst enemies are not those who are against our leading virtuous lives. Even atheists accept many of the moral principles Christians profess, just because they make sense and are useful to society. Our most dangerous enemies are those who accept religion - even Christianity - but do not accept the reality of Jesus Christ. Like the "chief priests and the Pharisees," the "elders and scribes" who opposed everything Jesus did and eventually man- aged to get him killed, the greatest enemies of Christianity are those within Christianity itself who reject change.1
This may sound like an extreme statement. But why did Jesus excite frenzy in the Pharisees? Why did the "elders" and the "priests" with the most authority hate him? Why did the "scribes," the "teachers of the law," find him such a threat? What is the one thing all three of these groups had in common?
They all had something to lose - or thought they did - if Jesus and his teaching became the focus of people's religion. He was a threat to the status quo they had established, and of which they were the invested defenders.
The "elders" (respected, influential laity) and the power brokers in the Jewish hierarchy saw Jesus as a threat to their hold over the people. (Jesus always supported authority, but exposed it when it was being abused to suppress leader- ship or to keep people from looking at the truth). The Pharisees and "teachers of the law" denounced and attacked anyone who gave a teaching or interpretation of the law contrary to their own. Jesus, by putting people into contact with the mind and heart of God, was opening a channel that by-passed them. He had to die.
Jesus came to give "new wine," "a new teaching - with authority," a "new covenant" and a "new commandment." For those who follow Christ "everything has become new". It is not enough just to observe rules; but "a new creation is everything." We must be "clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the Creator." In short, every Christian teacher must be one who "brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."2
1 see Matthew 16:21; 21:42-45
2 see Matthew 9:17, Mark 1:27, Luke 22:20, John 13:24, 2Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15, Colossians 3:10, Matthew 13:52
“A new thing”
Isaiah 43: 16-21 inspires us to say - at the risk of sounding like wild liberals! - "God hates the status quo!" The status quo is stagnation. Nothing God has created remains the same.
A forest ranger told a group of tourists on an observation tower, "You see that forest below us? It is all dying and rising." There is no such thing as a static tree. Sands shift in the desert. Even the glaciers are moving!
God declares himself through Isaiah:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
God is always leading us forward, both as individuals and as a community. It is an axiom of the ancient spiritual writers: "Live fish swim upstream; dead fish float downstream." If we are not moving forward we are losing ground, In religion, attachment to the status quo breeds formalism, legalism, Phariseeism, all the things God rails against. None of our prayers and observances please him unless we "Learn to do good!"1
"Learn to do good!" Living by Christ's heart is not something we can be taught once and for all; we have to keep learning it all our life. If we ever "settle for what we've got" we can be sure we are denying the faith! Suppose our slave-owning ancestors had done this? Suppose we had espoused the status quo in the days of racial segregation? Suppose the bishops at Vatican II had clung to keeping the Mass in Latin?
(Uh-Oh! Did I cross a line with you? Ask what the doctrinal implications are of conducting our communal worship in a language kept intentionally unintelligible to the laity. What error does this teach about the nature of the Mass?)
God's focus is on nourishing us that we might respond, act and grow!
I give water. rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people. so that they might declare my praise.
We have to ask about everything we do in church: "How is this helping me to develop and grow?" Discipleship is learning. If I am not learning I am not a disciple of Jesus Christ. If I am opposed to learning and to doing what is new, I have to ask if I belong to the party of the "Pharisees, chief priests and teachers of the law" who could not stand the presence of the living Jesus among them.
The dynamic spirit of Christianity is echoed in the Responsorial Psalm: "The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy" (Psalm 126).
“Moses ordered us”
In John 8: 1-11 Jesus infuriates the "scribes and Pharisees" by refusing to apply the law of Moses according to their understanding of it.
In the book of Leviticus Moses ruled: "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death"2. But Jesus refuses to condemn a woman they caught in the act of adultery. Instead of automatically following the letter of the law, he asks whether it would be according to the mind and heart of God to enforce it against this woman.
This shakes the whole security system of the scribes and Pharisees, for whom the literal interpretation of the law was a way to escape the responsibility of making personal judgments - not to speak of discerning the mind of God! They see that if Jesus is allowed to keep teaching, soon people will be thinking for themselves instead of blindly following what their official teachers tell them. People will start measuring laws by the breadth of God's love instead of by the rigid narrowness of the legalists. Authorities will lose control. They won't be able to predict what people might do. Many, well-intentioned or not, will make mistakes. Law and order will be weakened. This, for the Pharisees, is the worst evil imaginable.
Not for Jesus. He is more concerned with making the Father, and the Father's love, known to people than with assuring the strict observance of every law. "This is eternal life," he said, "that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."3 If people learn to know and love God, they will probably interpret most of his laws correctly. And if not, it is still better that they should focus on God's heart in trying to keep his laws than to leave God out of the picture and just observe the letter of the law.
The correct path for Christians is to start with discipleship focused on efforts to understand the mind and heart of God, and to understand God's laws in the light of what we learn about his love. If we go the other way, which is to focus on the letter of the law and assume that they reveal to us the kind of person God is, we will not understand either God or the real intent of his laws.
The same is true of rules in the Church. We should never judge the Church by what we understand of her laws. Rather, we should interpret Church laws in the light of what we understand of the Church as the loving, nurturing body of the living Christ on earth.
Those who find this irresponsible, or dangerous should ask themselves whether, in confrontation with the living Jesus, they would have sided with him or with the "teachers of the law," the "chief priests and the Pharisees."
In Philippians 3: (5-7 and) 8-14 Paul says he was a super-Pharisee in keeping the law and in his zeal for attacking those who did not. But he changed. Now, he says, "I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." By comparison, he "regards as rubbish" the security and satisfaction he found in keeping the letter of the law. Now he says (echoing Isaiah) "I forget the past and I strain ahead for what is still to come." This is life. This is change. This is discipleship.
1 see Isaiah 1:10-18
2 Leviticus 20:10
3 John 17:3.
Insight: How do I feel about change in the Church? About strict observance of Church laws?
Initiative: In every rule you keep or enforce, imagine you are Jesus.