Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Torah of Messiah

Oh. My. God. My God for real, not taking Your name in vain.

In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI gives a brilliant commentary on Rabbi Jacob Neusner's insightful critique of Jesus in his book A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. Rabbi Neusner has, Benedict writes, done a great service in laying bare the heart of the Jewish dismay at Jesus' treatment of the Sabbath ("the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath") and the Fourth Commandment ("Who is my mother and who are my brothers?")

The Pope, along with Rabbi Neusner, rejects the traditional interpretation that Jesus was voicing a criticism against the Judaism of his time, "a critique of an ossified legalism -- hypocritical to the core and guilty of dragging religion down to the level of a slavish system of unreasonable obligations that hold man back from developing his work and his freedom."

If that was all Jesus was doing, Rabbi Neusner says (and Benedict agrees), he would have been staying well within the boundaries of expected behavior of a Jewish rabbi. The prophets had done no less.

The celebration of the Sabbath and the obedience to parents dictated by the Fourth Commandments are, rather, two of the strongest glues binding together the Jewish people into an "eternal Israel" that remains faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through all time and all history. Jewish social order is built upon strong family loyalty and ties, which the Sabbath rest has been absolutely crucial in maintaining:

"So to keep the Sabbath, one remains at home. It is not enough merely not to work. One also has to rest. And resting means, re-forming one day a week the circle of family and household, everyone at home and in place." - Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, p. 80

The Sabbath is not just a matter of personal piety; it is the core of social order. This day "makes eternal Israel what it is, the people that, like God in creating the world, rest from creation on the Seventh Day."

But, Rabbi Neusner says, Jesus puts himself squarely at the center of the social order when he claims to be Lord of the Sabbath. He has just said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." This is a highly theological text, Neusner says. "Because it features the motif of rest, and the connected motifs of labor and burden, it belongs thematically with the question of the Sabbath. The rest that is intended here has to do with Jesus.

"No wonder then that the son of man is lord of the Sabbath!" Neusner says. "The reason is not that he interprets the Sabbath restrictions in a liberal manner... Jesus was not just another reforming rabbi, out to make life 'easier' for the people... No, the issue is not that the burden is light... Jesus' claim to authority is at issue... Christ now stands on the mountain, he now takes the place of the Torah...

Is it really so that your master, the son of man, is lord of the Sabbath?... I ask again -- is your master God?" -- Neusner, p. 88
Rabbi Neusner says that Jesus' claim to be lord of the Sabbath undermines the cohesion of "the eternal Israel" and the foundation of Israel's social order in the family.
"We pray to the God we know, to begin with, through the testimony of our family, to the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. So to explain who were are, eternal Israel, sages appeal to the metaphor of geneaology -- to the fleshly connection, the family, as the rationale for Israel's social existence." - Neusner, p. 58
When Jesus teaches that his mother and brothers are not his blood kin but those who do the will of God, Neusner asks, "Does Jesus not teach me to violate one of the two great commandments... that concern the social order?"

It is the tying together of the Torah of Moses and the Torah of Messiah that to me explains the meaning of Jesus' puzzling statement, "I did not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, I came to complete them." Pope Benedict writes of this thusly:

"When we read the Torah together with the entire Old Testament canon, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Wisdom Literature, we realize very clearly a point that is substantially present in the Torah itself. That is, Israel does not exist simply for itself, in order to live according to the 'eternal' dispositions of the Law -- it exists to be a light to the nations.

In the Psalms and the prophetic books we hear more and more clearly the promise that God's salvation will come to all the nations... We hear that the boundaries will fall and that the God of Israel will be acknowledged and revered by all the nations as their God, as the one God.

It is our Jewish interlocutors who, quite rightly, ask again and again: So what has your 'Messiah' Jesus actually brought? He has not brought world peace, and he has not conquered the world's misery... Yes, what has Jesus brought?

We have already encountered this question and we know the answer.

He has brought the God of Israel to the nations, so that all the nations now pray to him and recognize Israel's Scriptures as his word, the word of the living God.

He has brought the gift of universality, which was the one great definitive promise to Israel and the world.

The vehicle of this universalization is the new family, whose only admission requirement is communion with Jesus, communion in God's will. For Jesus' "I" is by no means a self-willed ego revolving around itself alone... Jesus' "I" incarnates the Son's communion of will with the Father... Communion with the Son is filial communion with the Father - it is a yes to the Fourth Commandment on a new level... It is entry into the family of those who call God Father and who can do so because they belong to a 'we' -- formed of those who are united with Jesus nand, by listening to him, united with the will of the Father, thereby attaining to the heart of the obedience intended by the Torah. [emphasis mine- Rae]. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 116-117

What Benedict says next takes this all out of the pietistic, individualistic realm completely. It has great relevance to our current discussions on the relationship between church and state. Although we may get it wrong over and over again, the essential freedom we have in the Torah of the Messiah frees us to create a truly secular social order.
"... what is happening here is an extremely important process whose full scope was not grasped until modern times, even though the moderns first understood it in a one-sided and false way. Concrete juridical and social forms and political arrangements are not longer treated as a sacred law that is fixed ad litteramfor all times and so for all peoples.

The decisive thing is the underlying communion of will with God given by Jesus. It frees men and nations to discover what aspects of political and social order accord with this communion of will and so to work out their own juridical arrangements... The concrete social and political order is released from the directly sacred realm, from theocratic legislation, and is transferred to the freedom of man, whom Jesus has established in God's will and taught thereby to see the right and the good."

... In our day, of course, this freedom has been totally wrenched away from any godly perspective or from communion with Jesus. Freedom for universality and so for the legitimate secularity of the state has been transformed into an absolute secularism." -- Benedict XVI, p. 118-119

This all boggles my mind. Hence the long post. I am thankful for Pope Benedict XVI. His mind is very different from Pope John Paul II's, and I see a wonderfully complementarity between the two that addresses so much of what the successors of Peter need to say to our world.

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