We have been recently hearing a good deal from everyone about how Pope Francis is taking the Church in a “different direction”, In fact recently Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was quoted as saying that Pope Francis would not change doctrine, he was quoted as saying the following:
“The cardinal said Francis’ early stress has been on changing the emphasis of the church, which in the past has been “too strident, maybe too repetitious.”
The pope wants to focus more on evangelism, mercy, and care for the poor, O’Malley said
Whenever I read something like this I wonder if anyone has actually read the gospels because it strikes me that this is not exactly how Jesus is depicted. As a little exercise I thought it would be interesting to pick one of the Gospels and run through what Jesus actually said and did in order to see how he squares with what the current Church is saying and doing. This is a useful exercise since Jesus is the model of course. Now of course all of the scriptures give a slightly different view of Jesus but I do not think they are radically different views. At some point it might be useful to do this exercise looking at all the synoptic Gospels but let’s start with the shortest Gospel, that of Mark.
What I plan to do is a very brief summary of the Gospel and to highlight what Jesus says and does, and what he talks about and how. I suggest you grab a Bible and follow along:
Mark Chapter 1: The Gospel opens at a brisk pace; Jesus is introduced to us via his baptism by John the Baptist. What follows are a number of cures in which Jesus says very little. He tells us the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we need to repent. (Repent means to feel remorse at ones sin, so Christ presumed we knew we were sinful) Then follows the call of Peter, James and John (“I will make you fishers of men”). Some cures follow an unclean spirit is rebuked, Peter’s mother in law is healed, and so is a leper. I would note that Jesus has yet to tell anyone how much he loves them, but perhaps it’s early.
Mark Chapter 2 : We see more cures, including the paralytic , who he cures with the comment “your sins are forgiven you”. The Pharisees interpret this as blasphemy since sin being an offense against God could only be forgiven by God, and Jesus rebukes them and uses the cure of the paralytic as proof he could forgive sins. He also “violates” the Sabbath in a technical way by plucking heads of grain, proving he is Lord of the Sabbath. Not much about Love here either, just indirect proclamations of divinity ( command of the Sabbath and forgiveness of sin).
Mark Chapter 3: More casting out Demons, he heals the man with the “withered hand” and he preaches to larger crowds while conflict with the scribes and Pharisees grows. Little of his actual teachings are presented, yet the Scribes and Pharisees think he is possessed or insane. (Perhaps I repeat myself as the ancient world thought them one and the same). In any case don’t you wonder if all Jesus was doing was preaching mercy and Love this was a pretty strange reaction of the Scribes and Pharisees don’t you think? Wonder if they perceived him as “strident”? I would note at this point Jesus has said nothing about poverty or love in general but as been about curing the sick often in the context of preaching about the need to repent or the overall theme of forgiveness of sin. The 12 apostles are commissioned in this chapter as well.
MK, Chapter 4, 5 and 6: More rapid fire chapters. I would note here Jesus there are the parables of the Sower and the Mustard seed, there is the calming of the waters as well. Chapter 5 depicts some of the more dramatic cures, including the Gesardene demoniac, and the resurrection of Jarius’s daughter. Jesus makes no mention of “love” and is depicted as authoritative, and forceful. For example the crowd which is reasonably skeptical that Jesus will have much to offer Jarius’s daughter who is dead, are cleared from the house on Jesus’s command! Jesus subsequently tells everyone they should believe, he then raises her up and orders the onlookers to give her something to eat. Picture how outrageous Christ’s behavior must have appeared to the town’s people right up until the point Jarius daughter became responsive. In any case it is unclear to me how following this Jesus bears any relationship to pondering how “broken” we all are now. Chapter 6 includes the feeding of the multitudes, Jesus walks on water and there is the beheading of John the Baptist. Jesus still tells nobody how much he loves them. He does not talk about the poor. He continues to heal the sick and sends the disciples out to preach repentance. He tells the disciples that if the people do not listen to them shake the dust of their town from their feet and it will be a “testimony against them”
Mark Chapter 7, 8, 9, 10: Marks gospel gallops along at its no nonsense brisk pace. Mark apparently was not into the touchy –feely long winded style of your average Parish director of religious education. In chapter 7 Jesus critiques the Pharisees for the hypocritical and legalistic understanding of the Mosaic Law, and “declares all foods clean” by noting that what goes into a man does not make him unclean, but what comes out. We then are told specifically what sorts of things make someone unclean. Jesus tells us the list includes evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, envy, licentiousness, deceit, slander, pride, foolishness…. (I would note parenthetically Jesus does not seem to be afraid of calling some kinds of sexual behavior sinful, as he groups fornication adultery, and licentiousness with theft, murder and slander.) It is interesting there is the harsh language used to describe the interaction with the Syrophoenician woman who seeks help for her daughter (Mark 7: 24-30) although Jesus ultimately cures the daughter. In chapter 8 we have another feeding of a large crowd, the cure of a Blind man, and Jesus proclamation of Christ as the Messiah. During much of this we are given very little dialogue from Jesus at all. Immediately following Peter’s confession of Christ as the Messiah, there is the startling episode in which Peter objects to the idea of the crucifixion. Jesus than sternly rebukes Peter, calls him the devil and states that anyone not willing to suffer and die for the Gospel will not be worthy of it. He states that whoever is ashamed of Christ then at the Day of Judgment Christ will be ashamed of them. (One wonders if this is strident yet).
Chapter 9 features the Transfiguration, and the exorcism of the boy with a “mute spirit” which is strikingly similar to epilepsy. Then there is the statement, that for those who give scandal (that is leading others to sin) it would have been better for them never to have been born. Wow… Not much love and such in that passage. Finally we have the uncompromising ban on divorce and remarriage, equating this with adultery. ( Have we officially hit strident yet? ) Chapter 10 finishes up with the admonition to the Rich man to sell his belongings and give it to the poor if he wished spiritual perfection and Jesus’ saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He also notes however with God’s grace all things are possible. He is described as looking at the man with love but never is given to saying anything terribly warm and fuzzy. We conclude with a cure of a blind man.
Mark Chapter 11, 12, 13: We read about Jesus’ return to Jerusalem. The theme will be increasing friction with the religious authorities as they try to trap Jesus with the question regarding whether it is legitimate to pay tax to Caesar, Jesus escapes this by pointing out we give to Caesar what is Caesars, but to God what is God the point is that God is ultimately above Caesar (that is the state). Jesus also throws out the vendors from the Temple, forcibly, overturning their tables and such. (By the way when was the last time someone from the DRE office mentioned this scene?) . Jesus gives the great commandment in chapter 12 (“You shall love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself”,) Chapter 13 has the Olivet discourse.
Chapter 14, 15, 16: The Gospel concludes with the Passion, and the Resurrection, and the Ascension, as well as a version of the “Great Commission”.
Now I would note several things here.
1) Nowhere does Jesus say “I love you” or anything like this. This is not to say he did not “love us”, obviously the crucifixion is an act of great love and of course John’s gospel says God is love, but rather the point is that this constant emphasis that “God loves us” is not consistent with the way the Gospels portray how Jesus acted. He showed us he loved us, but did not constantly verbalize it.
2) He was not subtle or particularly gentle. In Marks Gospel Jesus is almost always rebuking, or calling for repentance. He acts forcefully and sometimes almost violently (throwing the vendors out of the Temple), He quite bluntly calls some things sins, and even says some sins leave the sinner in a state in which they would be better off not being borne ( see Chapter 9). One might even say he was at times ” harsh” or God forbid, perhaps even to the kind of cleric who gets readily gets the vapor he might have been “strident”.
I do not deny that each of the Gospels portray Jesus somewhat differently as might a portrait of someone done by several different artists. Still what strikes me is how little our current style of preaching resembles anything actually said and done in the Gospels. Let’s look at Cardinal O’Malley’s comment to the Boston Globe one more time:
The Church was perhaps “too repetitive”. Really? But how many times does Jesus say to repent in Mark’s Gospel? How many times does he critique the Pharisees for hypocrisy? We should focus more on “mercy”. Who could argue with mercy? I would just note to seek mercy the sinner must be convinced the need mercy. Part of the critique of the Pharisee is that they thought they were fine, not in need of God’s mercy. Since in the ancient world most Pharisees were religious we associate an arrogant self righteousness with religious belief in the Bible. Today arrogant self righteousness goes one step further and denies the very possibility of sin. Have you ever met a liberal Catholic who thought they personally were sinful? Perhaps this is to paint with too broad a brush, but my point is one can be a pious self righteous hypocrite or a non pious self righteous hypocrite. At least the pious one might think that sin is possible. In any case in the Bible Christ preaches both mercy but as a consequence of repentance, in the absence of repentance there is judgment. Remember he tells the disciples to shake the dust of the towns who disregard the gospel “off their feet” as testimony against them. He depicts the evil tenants who reject the Masters servant as eventually coming to a bad end at the hands of the Master. It is fine to preach mercy but not in the absence of preaching about turning from sin.
We conclude with the following reminder. We have often said that one of the problems in the collapse of reason within the Church is we make assertions untethered to facts and evidence. The next time someone tells you we in the Church should do X, Y or Z, ask them where in the Gospels did Jesus behave similarly? True the teaching of the Church cannot be reduced to things Jesus explicitly taught about or did since Jesus did not touch on every issue that confronts the modern man, but Jesus remains our model, and if someone advocates something that is clearly inconsistent with the way the Christ of the Gospels conducted himself they should explain the inconsistency.
Let us always remember to ask for the Lord for mercy in the spirit of repentance!