Sunday, 22 April 2012

Do not think I have come to destroy the law or the prophets...

One of the more dangerous elements of the progressive creative reinterpretation of Scripture and Church teaching is the attack on the concept of both moral absolutes and adherence to rules, whether divinely instituted, or established by the Church in accordance with its mandate to govern.

Disdain for the law

Consider for example those US Seattle parishes who have declined to follow their bishops instruction to promote an anti-gay marriage petition, on the grounds that it would be 'divisive'  and inconsistent with being a welcoming, hospitable community.

Those priests, bishops and laity who reject current disciplines on celibacy, General Absolution and much more.

And the tired old commentaries of 'spirit of Vatican II' bloviators in assorted places which I won't bother linking too, on the grounds that they are a danger to the faith!

The 'Jesus Movement' as a rebellion against the law?!

The curious distortion of the Gospel that appears to lie behind some of this is the idea that rather than being fully human and fully divine, Jesus, at least until his Resurrection, was actually some kind of rebel leader. 

I thought all that 70s nonsense was dead and dusted.  Apparently not though, since Mr David Timbs, for example, writes in his latest 'v2catholic blog' post that:

"Jesus the bearer of God’s revelation [rather more than just the 'bearer of God's revelation I would have thought!  Rather he is actually God] received a stunning revelation himself. The one who preached a message of a complete change of life and conversion underwent a profound change of direction and was himself converted." [Well no.  As he embarked on his public life, it certainly took on a new phase which I suppose one could call a change in direction, but to suggest that Jesus was or could be 'converted' is surely erroneous.  In his divine nature, Jesus is unchanging.  In his human, he was clearly always aware of his identity and mission as the story of his being found by his parents in the Temple at the age of twelve going about his Father's business attests.]

This conversion came with his submission to a baptism of repentance of which he himself had no need. [It is true that he did not need it, but rather submitted to it as an example.] Instead, Jesus chose to accept this ritual as it exposed him to the plight of his fellow Jews. His baptism signified a profound identification with sinful humanity [true] and it changed him [false]. That change manifested itself very quickly but first Jesus had to make a judgment about what was truly the mind of God and what was the mind of his traditional faith. [An utterly false dichotomy!] Ultimately, it would cost him his life.

He goes on to argue that as an observant Jew, Jesus would have prayed the traditional prayers (though I think he is actually confusing post-Christian rabbinical practice with that of the time of Jesus in an effort to make yet another bash on the ordination of women).  Still, we know that Jesus and his parents obeyed the Old Law, in that he was duly circumcised, made the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem and so forth.  That would be because they were in fact divinely instituted laws (as the Old Testament makes clear), binding on the people of the Old Covenant (albeit not on Jesus himself).

Mr Timbs interprets Jesus' ministry as being all about 'liberation from those particular forms of servitude that afflicted the mind, heart and spirit of human beings', which he sees as 'the forces of spiritual and psychological oppression'.  He argues that the problem was excessively rigid interpretation of the Mosaic Law. 

That certainly was an issue at the time ('the law is for man, not man for the law'), but surely the bigger issue that Our Lord tackled was surely the law without love: external observance motivated by things other than genuine commitment (viz the story of the Pharisee and the publican praying in the Temple)?

The real slavery of the law, as St Paul points out, was grounded in the absence of grace, for with grace we can do anything, without it, we are doomed to fail.

I come to fulfill the law...

In fact if one actually reads the Gospels themselves, in the light of the Church's tradition, rather than in the form of distorted modern repackaging, one can find numerous injunctions to follow the law. 

Jesus enjoins sinners, for example, not to go out and keep on sinning, but to sin no more! 

The really key exposition, though, is the Sermon on the Mount, where after setting out the Beatitudes Our Lord says, in St Matthew 5:

"17 Do not think that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 18 For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled. 19 He therefore that shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But he that shall do and teach, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."

St John Chrysostom, in his commentary on Psalm 110, provides a very useful exposition of just what this means.  He starts by pointing out that in the psalms, God as creator of the world and the universe is often closely linked to the concept of God as lawgiver:

“As he often does, he does here too, moving from the wisdom in his richly varied creation and from his care to his lawmaking, and discussing in turn this part of his providence. I mean, he corrected the human race not only by creating a creation of this kind and extent but by laying down laws...In the same way here, too, after speaking about his marvels and wonders and works, he shifts his attention to the subject of his precepts, speaking this way…”

St John points first to the concept of the laws of science:

“...They are, you see, precepts for creation, observed by all creation, sun and moon, day and night, stars, the course followed by land and nature.

He also points to the natural (moral) law, written on men's hearts:

They are precepts given to nature from the beginning, when he formed the human being, and about them Paul says, "You see, whenever nations, despite not having the Law, carry out the Law naturally, they, though not having the Law, are a law unto themselves....And again, "I delight in the law of God, you see, in my inmost self."”

And finally there is the written law of the Old Testament and the New, the laws that never pass away:

“There are also laws that are in writing. And all these remain in force. If some have been abrogated, however, they have been changed not for the worse but for the better. That one, for example, "You shall not kill," has not been abrogated but extended; and that one, "You shall not commit adultery," has not been cancelled but has become more comprehensive. Hence he also said, "I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfil them." That is to say, the person who does not give way to rage will be far more likely to abstain from murder, and the one not giving free rein to a roving eye will keep a greater distance from adultery."

It is in order to understand the essential continuity of the Old and New law that we should read the Old Testament, for what the Old commanded on pain of punishment, the New enables us to truly fulfill with the aid of grace.  Even those many abrogated laws provide an important context for many of the laws and practices of the Church today, for the New Testament is hidden in the Old. 
 
Our Lord, in other words, is not urging rebellion against the law, but rather teaching us how to fulfill it, with the aid of grace.
 
And his decisiosn to change or abrogate the precepts of the old law was not a rebellion in any sense, but rather the exercize of the power of the Supreme legislator.
 
In short there is no tension between the 'Will of God' on the one hand, and the Law on the other, for the law is also of God.  Rather, the law is foundational.
 
Consider for example the story of the rich young man. He is only told to go out and sell all he has after assuring Our Lord that he keeps the commandments (Luke 16):
 

"18 And a certain ruler asked him, saying: Good master, what shall I do to possess everlasting life? 19 And Jesus said to him: Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone." [An important reminder of his divinity]

What is required?  Our Lord continues:

"20 You know the commandments: You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery: You shall not steal: You shall not bear false witness: Honour your father and mother."

Wolf, hireling or good shepherd?
 
In the Extraordinary Form, this Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday, the Gospel is St John 10:11-16.  In the Ordinary Form, that Gospel is read next Sunday. 
 
So a good week to contemplate which of these categories we each fit in, for we are all surely called to be shepherds in our own proper way, whether of ourselves alone, of our families, those we work with, or those we influence through our words and actions.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Throughout his public life, our Lord, through his parables, explained the different aspects of his law which was that we love one another. Jesus taught; he did not discuss. He told his disciples; Follow Me. He never ever said that we should follow our own conscience. Unfortunately, there are some ‘Catholic’ theologians, politicians and media people telling us to do just that. Take marriage for instance. Jesus tells us very clearly that it was for marriage that God made us male and female – the two genders that are built into our nature, and that separate us into two distinct groups. No ambiguity about it. Yet, we have Catholic politicians and others taking a stand against our Lord by telling us to follow our own conscience. Very sad

Anonymous said...

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Antonia Romanesca said...

“One of the more dangerous elements of the progressive creative reinterpretation of Scripture and Church teaching, is the attack on the concept of both moral absolutes and adherence to rules, whether divinely instituted, or established by the Church in accordance with its mandate to govern..”
Yes, this causes you to reflect on certain diocesan situations, where clerics of a certain tinge have been able to set up structures sometimes 25 years old now, where the mentality has been ‘our rule is to have no rules!’ [this is perceived to be just so chic]. Plus: ‘our way is not the Vatican way!’ Then along comes a new bishop, who has to exert himself in extremis for some 5 years, to correct all the mess. Surely we have to pray hard for worthy, conscientious and diligent bishops, who have to carry this particular burden?

Antonia Romanesca said...

“One of the more dangerous elements of the progressive creative reinterpretation of Scripture and Church teaching, is the attack on the concept of both moral absolutes and adherence to rules, whether divinely instituted, or established by the Church in accordance with its mandate to govern..”
Yes, this causes you to reflect on certain diocesan situations, where clerics of a certain tinge have been able to set up structures sometimes 25 years old now, where the mentality has been ‘our rule is to have no rules!’ [this is perceived to be just so chic]. Plus: ‘our way is not the Vatican way!’ Then along comes a new bishop, who has to exert himself in extremis for some 5 years, to correct all the mess. Surely we have to pray hard for worthy, conscientious and diligent bishops, who have to carry this particular burden?