I was born and raised Episcopalian. (Someone once pointed out that only Episcopalians add the term “cradle” to that, I’m a cradle Episcopalian. And in fact, I was placed in a cradle.) And I’m not what one would consider popish, but generally I do love this Pope, Pope Francis. I think he gets it right 99% of the time. Even still, there are times when we read something he does or say, and we make a face plant. That’s probably because everything that comes out of his mouth is analyzed to pieces. I’m probably not even a C-student when it comes to analyzing what comes out of my own mouth.
All that said, this week, a friend from high school, an Orthodox Jew, shared an article critiquing the pope around some comments he had made. You might find this interesting, you might not, but essentially it revisits early statements made by St. Paul, from the earliest of Christian time and brings it into the present day. (And you thought religion was boring and old hat.)
What it comes down to is the following:
From Reuters: Israel’s top Jewish religious authorities have told the Vatican they are concerned about comments that Pope Francis made about their books of sacred law and have asked for a clarification. In a letter seen by Reuters, Rabbi Rasson Arousi, chair of the Commission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Dialogue with the Holy See, said the comments appeared to suggest Jewish law was obsolete.
The Torah contains hundreds of commandments, or mitzvot, for Jews to follow in their everyday lives. The measure of adherence to the wide array of guidelines differs between Orthodox Jews and Reform Jews. At the audience, the pope, who was reflecting on what St. Paul said about the Torah in the New Testament, said: “The law (Torah) however does not give life. “It does not offer the fulfilment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfil it … Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfilment in Christ.” …
“In his homily, the pope presents the Christian faith as not just superseding the Torah; but asserts that the latter no longer gives life, implying that Jewish religious practice in the present era is rendered obsolete,” Arousi said in the letter. “This is in effect part and parcel of the ‘teaching of contempt’ towards Jews and Judaism that we had thought had been fully repudiated by the Church,” he said.
And there you have it, and so you see, things are just as relevant today as they were when Christ walked the earth. And what we believe, and what we say matters.
Now, I don’t want to be the Pope, who must walk the tightrope of proclaiming the Gospel for the millions of Roman Catholic Christians, and at the same time has that 1% of the time that he trods into a mess of his own making, and then must come to terms with the kerfuffle. So, please, don’t think I’m throwing stones at the Pope, I’m not. But it’s complicated, ….AND with God’s grace, there is also forgiveness too, and thus not so complicated, too. Conveniently, our readings are helpful this week.
The Gospel this week needs a smidge of unpacking first. First off, the Gospel writer of Mark takes a little liberty. Mark might have you believe that there was a commandment about hand washing. The way this came about is the following. The interpretation was writ large from the passage in Leviticus, to be a “holy people, because I the Lord am holy.” The meaning of the Greek word that get translated as “deviled,” is probably more akin to “common.” (in other words, not holy…) The Pharisees moved their practices from the temple to the home. This is not really a bad thing at all. If we bring our ritual practices into the home, we may then treat ordinary things as God-given and holy. And remember, Jesus is never actually against practices that are Jewish. (I’m pretty sure the Pope isn’t either; he was probably just having an off day.) Jesus is against scrupulosity for the sake of scrupulosity. So, God forbid my current practice of washing my hands right before the Eucharist becomes a thing that becomes scrupulous. And of course, Jesus is not wrong calling out practices that are hurtful. There are things that hurt, that make you unholy, that have you turn your heart away, turn your back on the holiness of God… this is not whether, or not, you wash your hands.
Then as now, as always, Jesus is clear, always has been such as when he says, “I have come not to abolish the commandments, but to fulfill them.” This is very similar to our reading in Deuteronomy this week. “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” It is slightly different from the 613 laws, primarily in Leviticus, but in all honesty, even orthodox Jews don’t follow all 613 mizvot either. Fulfilling the commandments is not adding to them or taking anything away
And this is also similar to Jesus quoting Isaiah, in this Gospel. Just as Jesus reshaped and clarified what was meant in scripture, so Old Testament prophets did so as well, or we would not have heard Jesus’ quote from Isaiah,
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
And this is all also so clearly not different than the letter of James. Although Martin Luther didn’t think much of James, mostly because James barely mentions God, still James has the ethos of Christianity. Do the good deeds that Christ would have us do.
And so this is where I come down, The God of the Old Testament and the New Testament is the one in the same, and God is life giving. In and of themselves, laws don’t give life. Following God by following and fulfilling the laws, that gives life. Saying anything that can be construed as hurtful is always a problem. It takes away from the “life-giving” aspect that you had hoped to live out, mostly because people routinely take things out of context and then the horse is out of the barn.
Still there is grace for Pope Francis, and for the Jewish leaders, as they work through this. There is grace for us as we live into the commandments and into the way of Christ, that both give life together, and there is forgiveness when we do not.