Sunday, March 19, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 2

Continued from last week...

Again, natural law is the fulfillment of our humanity, not a limit on our freedom. If our Christian theory is correct, that man is made in the image and likeness of God, then we are human only to the degree that we reflect the divine nature. If God is the author of life, then the murderer diminishes the divine image in himself, and is thus less fully human. God is undying and faithful love. Thus the adulterer is less fully human. The enslavement to passion and pleasure of which our generation is so fond, is not freedom. It is suicide. It kills the eternal person made in the image of God.
Jesus said “I have not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” (Matt 5:17)  There are Christian sects that maintain Jesus meant we must still obey all the minutiae of the Old Testament, No pork, no shrimp, worship on Saturday instead of Sunday, etc. This completely misses the point as far as I am concerned. I believe that Jesus not only fulfills the law, but Messiah Jesus IS the fulfillment of the law. I once said this to Rabbi Lefkowitz.

He said quite pointedly, “What does that mean?”

Good question. How can a person be the fulfillment of the law? First what is the law? The word translated law in English is Torah. Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible, sometimes called the Pentateuch. The word “Torah” does not quite mean what we mean by the word “law.”  “Torah” in Hebrew means “teaching”, or “instruction.” Webster defines law as, “…a binding custom or practice of a community: a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority.”

In our understanding, then, law is to be defined as “the rules.” There are rules in the Torah, certainly, but Torah is a lot more than rules enforced by an authority. Torah is divine instruction on how things work here on spaceship earth. It is meant to be the user’s manual for human life.  Perhaps the idea is made clearer by the Hebrew word “Halakha.”  “Halakha” is the collection of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and oral Torah. It includes the 613 mitzvoth. Mitzvoth means “commandments.” This is an important word. As I understand it, a mitzvah, (singular of the word “mitzvoth”) means not only a commandment but also implies that its very observance is a blessing. The Halakhot are found in Talmudic legal interpretation and the customs gathered in the book, “Shulchan Aruch” (Hebrew for the prepared table, the Torah being a banquet).  All this comes from a Hebrew verb, “halakh” which simply means to walk.  The Jews often speak of Halakhic law, no meat and milk together, no cheeseburgers no shrimp tacos.

The Torah thus teaches us how to walk, how to make our way in the world.  If one understands that Torah is infinitely more than a rule book, but an instruction about how to walk in the world, how to live, then to say that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law is much more understandable, at least to one who is His follower. Moses gave us a book to teach us. In Himself, Jesus gave us a vision of the Almighty.  “He is the visible image of the invisible God.” (Col 1:15)  One might say that He is the Torah come to life. His way of life is the perfect instruction.

The Torah is not a rule book, but it most certainly contains rules, or mitzvoth, 613 of them to be precise. I maintain that Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of all of them together and each of them individually. There’s the word again: fulfillment. What does that mean? I was at Passover at the Rabbi’s house one year a while ago, and though the little congregation in my neighborhood was very small and very poor — mostly old Russian exiles —they splurged and got a fancy schmanzy Khazzan (cantor) for the Holidays. The cantor, a bit of a stickler (actually he stickled a lot) was also at the Passover Seder (Seder, Hebrew for order of service). At a certain point in the dinner the cantor started to stuff as much Matzo (unleavened bread) in his mouth as he possibly could. I thought we were going to have to perform a Heimlich maneuver as he turned red and continued to jam matzo into his already stuffed mouth.

I asked the Rabbi’s son, Levi, what the cantor was doing. Levi said, “He’s fulfilling the mitzvah. Moses told us to eat unleavened bread during Passover, He didn’t say how much. The cantor is trying to make sure that he has fulfilled the mitzvah by doing as much as possible, just to be on the safe side.” 

Bingo! Light goes on over my head! In my soul I am doing the dance of joy.  To fulfill the law! To do more than is required. Most of us want to know the rules so we can do the bare minimum. To fulfill the law is to want to do the maximum. If the law is a good thing, and teaches us how to live and walk, we want more of it, not less. “Teach me, O Lord, your ways!” (Psalm 86:11) The Torah and its mitzvoth are not rules applied by an external authority. They are insights into the very nature of reality. It is fascinating that in the very attempt to fulfill the Law of Moses, the cantor admitted its incompleteness.

Moses told us to eat unleavened bread. He didn’t say how much. The Torah is thus lacking. Jesus answers that question when he says, “I am the bread come down from heaven…. The one who eats my flesh will have life eternal.” (Jn 6:54) the verb here is very strong. It literally means not eat, but “to chew continuously.”  That pretty much answers the cantor’s question.  Exodus (13:6) says, “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.”  Thus Jesus fulfills one of the mitzvoth by becoming bread, and by bread becoming the messiah.

Now we only have 612 more laws to explain.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

Why are some people so caught up in the rules? Don’t they understand that Jesus did away with the rules? To be Christian is to live in radical freedom. The Bible says this constantly. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (St. Paul’s letter to the Romans) Jesus said it is not what goes into a man but what comes out of his heart that makes him unclean. St. Paul tells us we are saved by grace, not by works of the law. Why is it that the haters keep talking about rules and regulations when Jesus said that they don’t matter at all? The Gospel has done away with the law. Why do some people say we can’t love whom we please, but we can eat pork? Doesn’t the law condemn both?

Grace Uberlaw

Dear Grace,

So, you would have no objection if I robbed your house and ran off with your daughter? After all the law forbids both, but grace must allow whatever I really believe is appropriate for me. I think you are a little bit confused. Let’s deal with that wonderful biblical truth that we are saved not by works of the law, but by grace received through faith. “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law.” (Romans 3:20) That would seem to be pretty clear, until you look a little more deeply at the phrase “works of the law.” It is mentioned in only two places, the writings of St. Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

There is an interesting scroll called “MiqsatMa’aseh haTorah.” (4QMMT) One of the things discussed therein is the question of whether a stream of water, poured into an unclean clay vessel from a clay picture can allow the ritual uncleanness of the vessel to leap up the stream of water and pollute the clay pitcher, so that not only the vessel but the pitcher also must be destroyed. I am sure that you remember from your reading of Leviticus that clay once made unclean cannot be purified, and I am sure that you regularly ponder the problems of ritual uncleanness. 

The Qumran sectaries insisted that yes, the pitcher would be polluted by the stream of water being poured into the unclean vessel. The scroll ends with the word, “and these are some works of the law.” So, the phrase “works of the law” refers to liturgical and ritual fine points of the Torah and not, I maintain, to the great ethical issue. There are 613 points of the law recorded in Torah. Why is it that we obey 10 of them and scrap the rest? We don’t exactly scrap the rest. Many of the 613 are refinements and applications of the Ten Commandments; still we don’t worry about eating meat and milk together, or about having the occasional cheeseburger. (Definitely not Kosher.) The simple reason is that the Ten Commandments are reflections of the very nature of God. God is faithfulness, so do not commit adultery. God is Father, so honor you mother and father. God is the author of life, so thou shalt not kill.

There are religions that believe God’s absolute sovereignty means even divine law is arbitrary. In other words, God could change his mind about morality if he wanted to. If He woke up on the wrong side of the cloud one morning, murder and adultery would be just fine. We don’t believe this. There is a classic question, “Can God make a stone so big that He himself could not move it?” The answer of Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism is “No.” Well you may say, “I thought God was unlimited and could do whatever He wanted.” I would counter that God is limited by nothing except by his own nature. For God to make a stone so big that he himself would not move it is would be like my standing in front of a mirror, raising my right arm and expecting the mirror image to remain unmoved.

Creation (and particularly humanity) is the mirror of God. They are not arbitrary because God is not arbitrary, as Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” I would add that neither does He play dice with humanity. There is a law built into the very nature of things. That law is essentially the Ten Commandments. It can be summed up very simply, “What you hate do to no one.” I would rather not be robbed, so I should not steal. I do not like being deceived, so I should not lie. I don’t want my spouse to cheat on me, so I should not cheat on my spouse. It is all summed up in the words of Jesus, “What you hate do to no one.”

The heart of the law is empathy for those around us. Natural law is the ability to see the humanity of others. Natural law is the fulfillment of our humanity, not a limit on our freedom. If we think that law is only a limit on our freedom, then we are like children who think we are the center of the world, and it’s all about me, and it is a very childish generation that wears its baseball caps backward and thinks it can do what it pleases.

Next week: Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 14 (and last)

Letter to Robinson K.  Russo concluded, finally, I hope.

Last week I shared a little bit about appropriate relationships. They are tough for a priest. Not many people can see the man and the priest at the same time. Avoid people who make a great fuss over you and not over the priesthood. It is very difficult to take one’s ordination as seriously as it should be taken, without taking one’s self too seriously. We priests are taken from among men as the letter to the Hebrews says. We are just men, yet the work we do, our very presence makes the demons tremble. You’ll find this out if you ever have anything to do with exorcisms. The devil really doesn’t like priests. Neither does the modern world. Just coincidence? Remember, Jesus promised we would be hated. If everybody likes you, you’re probably not doing your job, provided they dislike you for the challenge that you present, and not simply because you are a jerk.

I say this, from experience. Often enough I have been a jerk. We are very unworthy people called to a super human, no, a supernatural life. Among parishioners you will find the rare person who can love the man and his faults while at the same time honoring the grace of his ordination. I say all this because as a parish priest you are going to need real friends, not just groupies. The groupies, when they realize that you are just a man tend to drop you like a bad habit.

There are people however who you don’t have to impress. They are impressed enough by the holiness of your calling. I cannot count the times people have said to me, “Father just come over and relax. Our home is yours.”  Sounds good, but do they mean I can come over and get a beer from the fridge and sit in in front of the TV in my boxer shorts? It most certainly does not. Just try it and they will be on the phone to the chancery office and the Department of Children and Family Services. There are however some people who mean it. I am thinking of a family in the parish whose house I can visit in my sweat suit on the way home from the gym. (Still boxers would be imprudent.) They respect me and yet are happy to serve me lunch in the kitchen. There is another family to whom I have become very close, and when I realized that I would know these folks better than most, I said that I would only visit if I didn’t have to eat. They said fine and have always stuck to the agreement, though I wish they weren’t such good cooks. It is amazing how people like to force food on you. “But Father, you have to have some.” To which I say, “No, I don’t,” and if they have so much of their self-image wrapped up in whether I like their food, this is probably going to be a toxic relationship. I like food. And there are a lot of really good cooks out there.

When I was in seminary I jogged three miles a day and was the dead lift champion of the college. I have gained 75 pounds since my ordination. I am a cautionary tale. Be honest with people right from the beginning.  “If you force me to eat when I don’t want to, I don’t think I can keep coming over.” Honesty is the best policy at the beginning and all the way through any relationship. Don’t worry that you will hurt their feelings. It is not your job to make them feel good. It is your job to be a vehicle for the Lord in their lives, and maybe the kindest thing one can do is help manipulative people realize they are being manipulative when they think they are being kind.

Speaking of exercise, it is extremely important, and I don’t mean sports. We old men think we are into sports if we watch the game and eat a lot of nachos. This is not exercise. Get a regular exercise program and stick to it. Prayer and exercise are high priorities in the life of the priest. You’ve got to be healthy. You don’t have a wife to nag you. You must nag yourself.

Get a good doctor even at your age, one who knows something about nutrition. I have a great one. One of the first things he did was check me for vitamin deficiencies. Amazing! A doctor more concerned about health than illness! Regular prayer, regular exercise, regular social life with real friends and family, start these habits the day of your ordination, well maybe the day after, or still better way before.

Why? Back to my overriding complaint. The parish priesthood and the diocesan priesthood are not the same thing anymore. And this brings up money. A diocesan priest does not take a vow of poverty. He is responsible for his own clothing, vehicle, entertainment, vacations and out of pocket medical cost. We do have good insurance in this diocese. I pay taxes, lots of taxes. Technically I am self-employed as far as social security goes and I pay quarterly. It’s when we turn seventy that things get interesting. Just at the time when health is declining and you need people who you trust and with whom you have a history, they will throw a swell party, give a nice gift, usually monetary, a firm handclasp and then they will show you the door.

In times past, as you know, the pastor was usually carried out of the rectory feet first when he died. The parish was his home, the parishioners his family and children. For religious orders, who do take a vow of poverty, there family is their order, and though they have no money of their own, at least in theory, they are taken care of by the brothers or sisters of their order. We diocesan priests were exempt from the social security tax. In the days of Cardinal Bernardin, we were strongly encouraged to waive that exemption, so that we could receive social security and Medicare. The diocese didn’t think it would be able to support all those sick old priests, what with medical costs spiraling. We are responsible as diocesan priests for our own retirement. The diocese provides us with a pension of (I think) $1,200 a month, $600 if we live in a religious facility or rectory. That and social security are what we have to live on in old age if we have not planned well.

Save money. Get a good stock portfolio. Find a good accountant and a good financial advisor. And do not forget your responsibility of charity. Set aside an appropriate amount on a regular basis to give to charity. Make some of that charity personal. By this I mean give to people you know who are down on their luck or in need of a little help. How can you ask your parishioners for money, which you will do a lot, if you are not generous yourself? All this talk of money may sound crass, but it is realistic. The diocesan priesthood is very realistic. We build buildings, manage maintenance, deal with contractors, plumbers, zoning boards and lots of lawyers. When you retire, if in your days retirement is possible, those may be the best years of your priesthood. Time for prayer, time for study and you don’t have to worry about the endless meetings, the fund raising, the maintenance etc. etc. If you have maintained your independence and your health, and above all your faith, you can still be truly useful to the Lord and the Church.

This may sound daunting. I don’t mean it to be. I think you young guys are so much better than we old guys were at your age. There aren’t many perks to the business of religion any more, but still you hear something calling in your soul. Remember, it isn’t about the fund-raisers and the building campaigns and all the other things that really are important and will inevitably be part of your service to the Lord, but it easy to forget that it is primarily about Jesus, our Lord. Some people will see you as a plaster saint. Others will see you as the very devil. All the weirdness of a very strange way of life is worth it. You get to hold God in your hands. You get to give God to the world. I have loved being a priest in these difficult times and cannot conceive of having lived another life. That other life that I turned my back on, might have been easier, but this one, the call to the altar, has been amazing.

You and your schoolmates are in my prayers.
The Rev. Know-it-all

PS I really am done. Next week something more pleasant and not quite so personal. And remember to take what I say with a grain of salt. This has been my experience and it may not be everyone else’s.