by Fr. Jack McArdle
Some years ago, at the height of the Mao-Tse-Tung reign in China, revolutions were the order of the day. Some high-minded idealists, and subversives began to speak a common language; many of the intelligentsia, especially the younger and more disillusioned, were pouring forth revolutionary rhetoric, and modern guerrilla warfare came into existence. It was as if a generation had come on board who were fed up with the feudal serfdom of all that went before. There was need for a change to meet the new thinking of a new age. Consolidated authoritarianism, high-security investment, and plain simple greed, do not like the idea of change. Change means letting go, and venturing into something that may not be totally controllable or predictable. This scares them, because of all that they stand to lose in the process. The powers-that-be have always resisted every attempt to change a system over which they had control, and which was built on their best interests. Revolutionaries were seen as dangerous, unscrupulous, and certainly not mentally stable. They were seen as destructive by nature, and not as people who set out to build, to reform, to improve what went before. Such people stirred up every ounce of paranoia in the minds and hearts of those under threat, and their elimination from the formula, by whatever means, was the only way of preserving the status quo. Many of these so-called revolutionaries were noble and idealistic souls, inspired by a thirst for justice, and by a righteous indignation at the injustices they witnessed on a daily basis. Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King come to mind as people who hoped to change the way things were, and to do so without destructive violence, or without replacing one form of tyranny with another. There have been revolutions that toppled the oppressors, to be replaced by those who became even more authoritarian and oppressive than those they removed. This usually resulted when the revolutionaries were clear on what was to be eliminated, but totally ignorant about what should replace it. It is easy, then, for their own egos and ambitions to become ends in themselves.
I believe Jesus to be the greatest revolutionary, the greatest rebel the world has ever seen. A rebel is someone who refuses to conform to the way things are. They refuse to be bound into a system they see as unjust and unacceptable. Jesus came with no less a mandate than to change the world, and the history of the world for all time. The overall purpose for Incarnation, for Jesus coming among us, was to reverse the results of the Fall, to redeem the children of God who were caught up in a mesh of deceit and untruths. When Adam and Eve fell for the lie in the Garden, the human race came under new management, came under the influence of Satan, the father of lies. This was one particular dimension of our human condition that required the personal intervention of Jesus. This had to do with the aberrations that had crept into how the religious leaders of the day saw themselves before God. To accept what they stood for, to listen to what they taught, and to see all this as being right and just, and in accordance with God's will and plan, that was something that was really offensive in God's eyes. When we see the righteous indignation of Jesus, as he cleared the Temple with a whip of cords, we get some idea of how he saw things as they were. His upending of the tables, his scattering of the money, his routing of the sellers is highly significant of the zeal and the attitude he brought to the task of restoring the proper balance between God and his creatures. He pointed to this again when he spoke of rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.
The Pharisees and the religious leaders had the whole system tied up, and under their control. The people were hide-bound by laws, rules, and regulations. The role of the Scribes was full-time interpretation of the law, while the Pharisees were full-time enforcers of the law. All righteousness was invested in the strict observance of the law. Imagine the shock waves when Jesus announced that he was replacing this love of law with his law of love! Imagine the gasps of horror, and the rumblings of outrage when he suggested that their Temple would be destroyed, and that it really didn't matter where people worshipped their God, as long as this was done in spirit and in truth. They prided themselves on being children of Abraham, and they reminded Jesus of this fact. This was their way of declaring their heritage, and the legitimacy of their religion. Jesus retorted that God could raise up children of Abraham from the very stones that lay on the ground around them. Jesus was interested in where they were at now, and what they had done with what had been passed onto them. He reminded them of the many exceptions that were allowed in situations past, when, for example, the people were hungry, and they were permitted eat the bread that had been made sacred, by being offered in the Temple. He showed them how they had squeezed all the elements of humanity out of the law, and had come up with something that was controlling, unfeeling, and completely insensitive to the reality of human living. Their law was a body without a soul, and it could never be life-giving. Because he had come that they should have life, he, therefore, had to confront the religious leaders on all and every aspect of the law, and their application of it. There was a prophetic dimension to his teaching. A prophet is not someone who foretells the future, but someone who interprets the present, speaks God's word in the present, and condemns what is wrong and evil in that present. No wonder prophets often ended up as martyrs, because it often happens that the messenger gets shot, because the hearers don't like the message.
There are several levels of courage. There is animal courage, human courage, and moral courage. A mother will rush into a burning building to rescue her child. A bomb disposal expert will need a very steady hand as he moves to disconnect the wires. And, lastly, a prophet will speak his/her truth, without fear or favour, just because of the moral courage that they have about their convictions. On a human level, life is so much easier and less complicated when we conform, and avoid rocking the boat. Jesus didn't have to speak to the Samaritan woman, or touch the leper. He didn't have to heal the man on the Sabbath, or to sit down at table with sinners. And yet, as I write this, I know that this is not true! Yes, indeed, he had to, because of everything he was, and everything for which he stood. The very reason for his presence among us is seen at its sharpest focus, when we see exactly how and why he rebelled against the status quo. If he allowed himself be hide-bound by the laws and customs of the time, he, too, would be in bondage. 'The Sabbath was made for the good of people, not people for the Sabbath', were his words. For the Scribes and Pharisees, the law was paramount, and the only reason for their existence was to serve, fulfil, and obey the law. The teaching and behaviour of Jesus was totally at variance to everything they held dear. Jesus did not go around whispering his message in quiet corners. At his trial, he told them 'What I teach is widely known, because I have preached regularly in the synagogues and the Temple. I have been heard by people everywhere, and I teach nothing in private that I have not said in public. Why are you asking me this question? Ask those who heard me. They know what I said.' This is courage and honesty of a very high order, and it became more and more evident that he would have to pay for this with his life. Part of being a rebel is a willingness to lay down one's life for the cause. Jesus declared this to be the highest form of love.
It would make a very interesting study if one were to paint in the background of the religion. expectations, and customs of Jesus' day, and then to overlay that with his actions and his teaching. Jesus was not being rebellious just for the sake of being so. As a matter of fact, he declared that 'I have not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfil it'. At first sight, that seems strange, and somewhat contradictory. Law, in itself, should be there for the general good. If I have to slow down to thirty miles per hour, while passing through a town, this is because it is in the best interests of all that I should do so. When I speak of law here, of course, I speak of a law that is just, and not there to oppress. A just law is there to protect, and, even if I chaff, or complain about its restrictions, I should be willing to accept the possibility that there are others involved in the situation besides myself. Observing just laws is a way of serving the common good. When I was growing up in the Church, we had many laws that are no longer operative. They were there for a purpose, and when circumstances permitted, the laws could be altered, or removed entirely. Before we had concelebrated Masses, many of our larger churches might have many Masses going on at the same time, on side altars. Some people attached the greatest importance to the reception of Holy Communion, and, therefore, went from altar to altar, with the intention of receiving Communion as often as possible. This meant, for some of them, that they had not been present at one complete Mass! A rule was brought in, restricting Communion to once a day, and that put an end to their gallop! This rule can now be rescinded because the circumstances are no longer the same. At the first Mass, it was 'after they has eaten', that Jesus instituted Eucharist, celebrated the first Mass, and offered himself to them as food and drink. It wasn't long after that that Paul calls on the people to have their eating and drinking done before they leave home to come to celebrate Eucharist, because some of them were known to have too much drink taken before Eucharist began. To correct this abuse, the law of fasting before Communion was introduced; and this law can also be rescinded, when the need no longer exists. (In more recent times, we have witnessed the virtual disappearance of midnight Mass at Christmas and Easter, because the time coincided with the closing of the local pubs, when there often resulted a conflict of spirits!). Because Jesus had come to fulfil the law, a great deal of the law was no longer necessary. The Ten Commandments were to be replaced by the Two Commandments of Love --- for God, and for neighbour. If the religious leaders saw the law as a path to God, then, in Jesus, God had come among them in person, and he himself would be the only path back to the Garden. In doing this, Jesus had stood everything on its head, because it was God who made the journey towards us, rather than us struggling to get to him. The observance of a just law should bring a benefit to the observers. The law should never be an end in itself; rather should it be the means to an end. Throughout all of the Old Testament, God should have been the end, purpose, and sole reason for the law. Jesus had now arrived, so things had come full circle. I think, in fairness to the Pharisees, it is not very realistic to expect them to understand or accept that! Their whole purpose for being was on the line, and we shouldn't be surprised that they would fight with great ferocity to protect their vital interests.
To be a Christian is to be a rebel, in the best sense of that word. Jesus came as a sign, 'as a sign of contradiction'. He spoke to the world of other values, of other ways of being and of doing. The whole purpose of Christian living is its witness value. 'You shall be my witnesses to the ends of the earth', he told his apostles. The greatest struggle for the Christian is to avoid being contaminated and polluted by the values and mores of the world. The life of the Christian doesn't make much sense to those with a worldy mind-set. Turning the other cheek, and forgiving seventy times seven is utter foolishness to such people. Salt, of itself, is not very appetising. It is only when mixed with something else that it can become a flavour, or a preservative. A lit candle is seen to best effect in darkness. Jesus said that Christians are to be the salt of the earth, and a light to the world. They must be seen, and they must effect the very atmosphere in which they live and breathe. They must light a candle, rather than curse the darkness. They must always witness to a higher value, to a more loving way of being and of acting. Unless the Spirit of God is active within the heart of the Christian, providing the enthusiasm of the prophet, the witness value of the living will wane, and end up as nothing different from that of the world. The Christian must be a rebel at heart, someone who 'hungers and thirsts after justice'. A Christian is on a mission, and, like Jesus, 'how can I be at peace until it be accomplished?'.
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.