Saturday, February 15, 2014

Let's Not Cut and Paste the Gospel! (Sunday 6.A)

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable man. He was a Founding Father of the United States of America, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third U.S. President.

It’s likely that Jefferson wrote some of the most famous words in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

And yet according to Wikipedia, Jefferson “owned hundreds of slaves and freed only a few of them.”

Another interesting thing about Jefferson was that he produced his own version of the New Testament.  In the days when “cut and paste” really meant cutting and pasting, he sliced up a Bible and glued the texts he wanted to keep into a book. He got rid of all the miracles, signs and anything that showed Jesus to be divine. (You can take a look at it here.)

The inconsistency between Jefferson’s professed opposition to slavery and his personal life is hard to figure. But his do-it-yourself Scriptures are very easy to understand. Even if most of us wouldn’t actually take an X-Acto knife to our Bibles, we’re tempted to edit it all the time.

Some of us have already cut-and-pasted the Word of God by ignoring teachings that make us uncomfortable or with which we disagree. And almost all of us take Jesus more seriously on some points than on others.

Today, the Church gives us a long version and a short version of the Gospel. I was very tempted to choose the short version, and not just because I’m still fighting the flu. The short version avoids some tough words of Jesus, words that might upset some folks.

It would be comforting to follow the example of Thomas Jefferson and edit the Scriptures. But it’s surely not what we want to do—because the Gospels aren’t mere words on a page, but an encounter with Christ in his living word. We can't “edit” that encounter to suit ourselves.

Years ago I read a book that said “The Scriptures offer no other basis for conversion than the personal magnetism of the Master.” It sounded good but something seemed missing. Then I realized that the magnetism is the magnetism of a teacher, a teacher like none other, a teacher who said outrageous things, who made outrageous demands, who asks us not merely to be attracted to him but to follow him even to the cross.

People in every generation failed at following Jesus.  Sin’s been with us from the start.  But many folks today redefine discipleship to suit their needs or convictions. Instead of acknowledging that we’ve been unable to meet the demands of Jesus, due to weaknesses that he understands well, we shout that the Church is out of step, or the Church is unfeeling, or the Church is oppressive.

A lot of the disagreement we have in the Church today is not so much about doctrine as about discipleship.  The wisdom of the world has caught our attention, and we fail to see that God's wisdom is not one choice among many, but a gift of truth that leads to freedom and peace.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us at least four challenging moral teachings, depending how you count them. He tells us that anger and insults can be mortal sin. He tells us that we can sin gravely just by lustful thought. He abolishes the Jewish teaching on divorce by forbidding remarriage. And he calls Christians to a new standard of integrity when making promises.

I could give a homily on any of these, but most of us already know what these teachings are. My point today is more general: we are called to accept fully the authority of the Word of God in our lives.

This, of course, is not literalism or fundamentalism—otherwise we would be one-eyed and one-handed Christians after hearing what our Lord said in the Gospel today!

At the other extreme, someone might say “Well, since Jesus wasn’t serious about chopping off our hands, then maybe he didn’t mean what he said about divorce, either.”

Yet one of the graces we have as Catholics is the authoritative interpretation of Scripture by the Church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has reflected on the words of Christ since he spoke them, and there are many places—the Catechism of the Catholic Church being one—where we can find that wisdom.

In computer terms, we may need Google to help us understand what pleases God, but we cannot cut-and-paste to please ourselves.

Jesus understood that we would sometimes fail to live according to what he taught, and he showed clearly on the cross and elsewhere that he is merciful. But if we want to be his disciples, we need to start by taking him at his word, not by doubting our duty to obey his commands.

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