There is a surface-level appearance of dichotomy in Christianity between dogma and pastoral care. Dogma is a bad word in the secular world and this has spilled over into the religious. I remember a bumper sticker I once saw, like the above title, either Tell Your Dogma to Stop Chasing My Karma, or My Karma Just Ran Over Your Dogma.
In the world of popular Christian thought, referring to the general set of assumptions that most people who call themselves Christians tend to take for granted (a formless thing floating in a cloudy pool, I grant you), dogma is associated with “Pharisees and the old law”. The New Testament describes a transition from the old law to the new law that is the center point of the whole contention today between the various sects and denominations on the one hand, and the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church on the other. Reading “the Bible alone” puts blinders on a reading of history. (Reading all sorts of non-Biblical sources and non-faithful Biblical criticisms has its own downside of causing the loss of, or watering down of faith of many Catholics.)
I would like to approach this problem of Jesus’ criticisms of the Jewish leaders of His time, because it is a hazy area that I see many people, both Catholic and Protestant, having trouble discerning. To do this, I want to start by taking a good, hard swipe at a straw man. This straw man is not set up by me, it is set up by those who propound it. It is a nonsensical New Age idea, and it goes roughly like this: Jesus, whose life is unknown from the age of 12 when he was found in the Jewish temple until the age of 30 when he started his public ministry, at some point, probably when he was 18, sojourned in India, where he learned and developed an Eastern mystic mindset that allowed him to return to his homeland and zap the Jewish priests with his “no flag, no wind, only mind” wisdom.
The answer to this is clear from Gospel passages:
And it came to pass, that, after three days, they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his wisdom and his answers. And seeing him, they wondered. And his mother said to him: Son, why hast thou done so to us? behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? did you not know, that I must be about my father's business? [Luke 2:46-49]
And Jesus went from thence, and retired into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And behold a woman of Canaan who came out of those coasts, crying out, said to him: Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David: my daughter is grieviously troubled by the devil. Who answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying: Send her away, for she crieth after us: And he answering, said: I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel. [Matthew 15:21-24]
When His earthly parents couldn’t find Him, He answered respectfully that they should have known to look for Him in the Temple, since He must be about His Father’s business. When He began His earthly ministry at the age of 30, He had clearly learned enough about the religious leaders to find them severely wanting. That tells us that He spent His time, not in India, but in Jerusalem, watching and learning about the scribes and priests, the Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes. The nail in the coffin of the New Age claim is when Jesus says He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
I am keeping strictly to the Bible to make this point. But this highlights the apparent dichotomy that is the subject of this article. Without the proper background, it is hard to understand why the Son of God is so critical of His Father’s priests. After all, the Father established the priesthood. They must have served a function. And if we accept the Catholic Church’s authority, we recognize that the priesthood still serves a function.
So, did Jesus essentially throw out the baby with the mikvah water by removing the priesthood from the Jewish nation? Weren’t there some good religious leaders? We know there were some, of course, such as Joseph of Arimathea. But what was it that was endemically wrong that caused this historic break? The word for the answer is often misunderstood by Protestants. The word is “tradition”.
And there assembled together unto him the Pharisees and some of the scribes, coming from Jerusalem. And when they had seen some of his disciples eat bread with common, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews eat not without often washing their hands, holding the tradition of the ancients: And when they come from the market, unless they be washed, they eat not: and many other things there are that have been delivered to them to observe, the washings of cups and of pots, and of brazen vessels, and of beds. And the Pharisees and scribes asked him: Why do not thy disciples walk according to the tradition of the ancients, but they eat bread with common hands? But he answering, said to them: Well did Isaias prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines and precepts of men. For leaving the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, the washing of pots and of cups: and many other things you do like to these. And he said to them: Well do you make void the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition. [Mark 7:1-9]
These traditions of men that Jesus refers to are those traditions of the rabbis that were added to the Law and assembled in the Talmud. This is not the place to try to give a snapshot synopsis of something so massive as the Talmud. The most basic explanation is that the Talmud contains commentary on the Law. Those who follow it are enjoined to say certain prayers and follow certain rules for their daily tasks, including, as stated in the Gospels, ritual washings of the hands and eating instruments. Clearly, in Jesus’ eyes, they were following these Talmudic traditions to the exclusion of the commandment of God. There is a controversy here that is described but not really exposited, as if we have been invited to join a family for dinner and an argument breaks out over some long-standing grievance we are not privy to.
Some of the greater sins Jesus describes of the various religious authorities are these: they love the best seats at the Temple; they value the gold of the Temple more than the God of the Temple; they would cross the road rather than help a victim of a crime, in other words they won’t dirty their hands; they believe themselves to be worthier in God’s eyes than the less fortunate. They strained at gnats but swallowed camels, they were whited sepulchers that were clean and shiny on the outside but inside filled with dead men’s bones. Jesus’ most poetic vituperation was reserved for the authorities. In short, believing themselves to be the elite, they didn’t realize that they didn’t please God. They are “hypocrites”.
Why do these seem to offend God more than, say, the woman caught in adultery? That is what appears to be the case, but it is not. The difference between the Pharisee who said, “O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican” [Luke 18:11], and the publican who said, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” [verse 13], is that the Pharisee did not acknowledge his sin, whereas the publican did. The woman caught in adultery presumably went on to “sin no more” [John 8:11]. Jesus’ anger was kindled at the religious leaders who were not humble. They let their election, their chosenness, go to their heads, and they even elevated their own traditions above the commandments of the law.
In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, chapters 6-7, he lays out that Jesus was made a high priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech. While the Levite priesthood took tithes of the people according to the law, Abraham the patriarch gave tithes to Melchisedech before Levi was born. Paul says that in this way, Levi being in the loins of his father, he, too, paid tithes to Melchisedech.
If then perfection was by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchisedech, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being translated, it is necessary that a translation also be made of the law. For he, of whom these things are spoken, is of another tribe, of which no one attended on the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprung out of Juda: in which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And it is yet far more evident: if according to the similitude of Melchisedech there ariseth another priest, Who is made not according to the law of a carnal commandment, but according to the power of an indissoluble life: For he testifieth: Thou art a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech. There is indeed a setting aside of the former commandment, because of the weakness and unprofitableness thereof: (For the law brought nothing to perfection,) but a bringing in of a better hope, by which we draw nigh to God. [Hebrews 7:11-19]
St. Paul expounds here on the consistent New Testament teaching that the old law is carnal, but the new law is spiritual.
But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. [John 1:12-13]
And seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them: Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire. [Matthew 3:7-10]
None of this is new, but it is pivotal. The old law is abrogated, which was given to the Jews, not because it was wrong, but because it was fulfilled by Christ, Who was a Jew through His human nature, but was Spirit through His Divine Nature. Again we see Jesus as the meeting-place between Heaven and Earth.
What happened to the Jewish priesthood was that they lost the spiritual sap and so they could no longer bear spiritual fruit. They clogged their arteries with worldliness. They constricted the force of God’s commandments with their own traditions of praying to wash the hands and plates, of restricting milk and meat being served on the same table which the Torah doesn’t restrict, it only says not to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk because that suggests the kid is so young it is nursing.
So, isn’t this the same thing the Catholic Church does? Doesn’t the Catholic Church make everyone pray to statues and Mary and undergo complex rituals and believe the Catechism and the Canon Law, all of which are far beyond the Bible and the spiritual law of the New Testament?
The simple answer to this question is, no, they don’t. No one is forced to pray to statues. No Catholic is under duress to pray the rosary. Only the priests must go through the rituals of the Mass, the laity must be there once a week and pray with him, but even Protestants bring their children to their services once a week. Only the religious brothers and sisters, along with the priests, are obligated to pray the Divine Office, and that is a purely voluntary vocation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is simply an outline of what the Church teaches to be believed- the first 200 pages are an exposition of the Apostle’s Creed. Canon Law is fairly non-complex, a very short book in the annals of law books. The simple truth is the biggest problem in the Church today is not Pharisaism, it is the opposite. The Church is moving so far away from tradition she is in danger of dissipating like a mist. Vatican II was meant to speak to a generation that had been knocked nearly senseless by the Second World War and ended up being hijacked by the generation of the summer of love. Jesus was brought on the train to Marrakesh, and we were told by the new gurus that the Pope owns 51% of General Motors (the Stock Exchange is the only thing he’s qualified to quote us).
Okay, I’m overstating. But several things happened that took the Catholic Church down from a height of post-war respect in the 1950’s, and fair or not, the Second Vatican Council is a symbol of that downshift. In the next blog post I’d like to start examining that further.
YouTube: Bishop Sheen on What's My Line
-Bennett Cerf: "That is the most solid round of applause I've heard in a long time."