June 13, 2005

The Old Law & the New

It must be evidence of some personal flaw that I like Andrew Greeley's non-fiction so much. Even when he aggravates & grates (Exhibit A: in his 1970 The Jesus Myth he eschews distinctions between mortal and venial sins while in his '99 book Futhermore! he says that voting for Bush might be a mortal sin. So it would seem the categories are still useful when it comes to politics if not fornication.) But the guy can write and The Jesus Myth is strewn with interesting observations that will annoy just about everybody (which makes them seem more truthful). An example:
...Joachim Jermias notes that there have been two misunderstandings of the ethics enunciated in the [Sermon on the Mount]. I will call one misunderstanding "Catholic" and the other "Protestant". The Catholic misunderstanding is to see the ethical ideal laid down by the Sermon as a counsel of moral perfection rather than a strict moral imperative. Those who wish to or are able to are strongly encouraged to live by the Sermon on the Mount, but it is not expected of all men.

According to the Protestant aberration, the Sermon is indeed a description of a strict moral imperitative, but one which man cannot possibly respond to. Therefore, when faced with both the imperative and his own weakness, man has no choice but to throw himself to the mercy of God and plead for forgiveness for his inadequacy.

Both interpretations assume that Jesus is in fact laying down an ethical code, more noble indeed than that of the Pharisees, but fundamentally a code demanding maximum effort to see that each of the regulations is honored. But, as Jeremias observes, if we look at the life described in the Sermon on the Mount in its proper context, it does not represent an ethical code at all. It is a description of eschatological reality. The "hunger" and "thirst" are not physical; they are a yearning for God's kingdom. The "mourning" is not for earthly suffering but for the fact that the kingdom has not yet been fulfilled completely. So the Sermon on the Mount is a description of how those who positively respond to the invitation of the kingdom will be able to live...The Sermon on the Mount does not present a moral or ethical code that must be adopted...it is rather the way those who have decisively chosen for the kingdom will in fact behave.
The more reliable Cardinal Ratzinger, in his excellent Many Religions - One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World, says that "Where the conflict between Jesus and the Judaism of his time is presented in a superficial, polemical way, a concept of liberation is derived that can understand the Torah only as a slavery to external rites and observances." He goes on to quote the catechism, which defends the Pharisees:
This principle of integral observance of the Law not only in letter but in spirit was dear to the Pharisees. By giving Israel this principle they had led many Jews of Jesus' time to an extreme religious zeal. This zeal, were it not to lapse into "hypocritical" casuistry, could only prepare the People for the unprecedented intervention of God through the perfect fulfillment of the Law by the only Righteous One in place of all sinners.
And later:
The Lord's Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues. The Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity.

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