Jesus Christ Washing the Feet of His Apostles, by Giotto di Bondone 1304-1306

208. Pope Francis and the Teachings of Jesus

17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” [Mark 7:17-23, NRSV]

  James TissotWoe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees

Emphasizing the principle of “pastoral conversion” has become a consistent insistence on the part of Pope Francis. Articulating the principle in words and carrying it through in deeds, he steadfastly returns to the Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed on the pages of the Four Gospels. Labels are often associated with various philosophical movements, so it is not helpful, because of his pastoral insistence, to label Pope Francis a humanist or a personalist or whatever. More helpful by far is to unpack the ethical stance in this insistence that emphasizes the value and agency of every human being as a child of God.

Let’s take three examples from the Gospels.

  1. By word and deed, Jesus boldly challenged the sacrosanct as he drew attention to the way the faith community lived out the religious dogmas.

Insisting that the purity law demanded proper pre-meal rituals, the Pharisees and scribes rebuked Jesus for failing to pass on to his followers the appropriate practices. These religious leaders had insisted that failure to observe the purity-rituals had rendered whatever food the people ate unclean. In Mark 7:1-23, Jesus turned the table on these men, exposing their worship rituals as men-made empty rules and calls out the pointlessness of their “purity culture”.

Jesus’ argument brings to light what is truly important: It is what comes out of a person that renders him clean or unclean, not what enters him. What comes out from a person comes from the heart; defilement or otherwise rests on this, not on what is ingested from outside which only enters the stomach.

  • Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

On this matter of food and drinks, basic to all of humanity, Jesus’ teaching renders it quite meaningless to differentiate “God’s people” from everyone else – a differentiation which the Jewish religious tradition had insisted for a thousand years. Jesus wants us to look at the human person instead, evaluation of whose personal character ought to be based not on what he puts into his mouths, but what comes out from his heart. Saint Paul later laid it out clearly, insisting that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

  1. In a straightforward manner, Jesus called out the religious leaders who burdened the people with tough doctrines and harsh laws but lifted not a finger to help in relief.

Readers today delight in seeing religious leaders of Jesus’ day put to shame by Jesus in the episode of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. They are familiar with how Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1-3). But what they relish immensely more, is when Jesus challenged those highly religious characters to search their own souls, beginning with the elders who were bent on stoning the poor woman to death: “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8:7). Jesus’ harshest words, however, appear to be reserved for the men who made a name for themselves by prescribing the laws of God in practical terms to be foisted on the people. With their misguided obsessions, they would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).

Showing impatience with their kind, Jesus called out the scribes and Pharisees who preached without matching deeds, who laid heavy burdens on others but never offered a helping finger, who displayed their deeds for high visibility, who made their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and who loved the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called elevated titles like “bishop, father, padre, rabbi” (Matthew 23:1-12). Jesus does not mince his words, when he utters the famous seven woes to the scribes and the Pharisee, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, blind fools, serpents and brood of vipers who won’t escape being sentenced to hell, and murderers between the sanctuary and the altar. These are very harsh and derogatory descriptions used on them on account of their evil deeds, as religious leaders, in blocking entries to the kingdom of God, turning proselytes into children of hell, swearing by the gold instead of the altar of the temple, attending to superficial matters and neglecting the weightier justice, mercy and faithfulness, and cleaning the exterior but ignoring their interior reality of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23: 13-36).

  1. Jesus prioritises the human person and treatment of others, insisting on living out the vertical piety through horizontal solidarity.

 Contrary to the scribes’ and the Pharisees’ meticulous insistence on the strict observance of the 613 laws distilled from the Old Testament, Jesus exhorted all to heed one fundamental law seen in two related dimensions: Love God and love each other.

What is immensely more important, Jesus insists, is to love God with all our hearts, minds and strengths, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, than burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mark 12:33).

No amount of temple-worship (our Sunday church services), in Jesus’ view, can remotely beat simply doing a good job of living well as a child of God would towards others. Jesus is telling his listeners that they all run the serious risk of irrelevant temple-worship (and today in churches) if they miss the depth dimension of worshiping God in words and liturgies that are proportionately matched by deeds outside the places of worship. True worship, Jesus teaches, is grounded in authentic living driven by the spirit of genuine freedom most clearly displayed in acts of heartfelt solidarity for the welfare of people in need of help. Truly a lay person – a carpenter from Nazareth – Jesus is hardly interested in being liturgically accurate in regards to the performance of prescribed religious rituals. What he wants, instead, is that we learn to value our fellow human beings, treating them with love and dignity, the same way we would want them to treat us.

Whenever Jesus talks about God desiring mercy not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13), he goes way beyond what is considered legally due from one person to another in accordance with the justice of the legal provisions; rather, he is referring to the sort of justice that must be performed by us so long as we have the opportunity to do so, because we are children of our Father who is in heaven. Treat people well, simply because God wants us to do so. That much is clear. And yet, for too long, we have confused doing justice with doing charity. We need to re-align our hearts and minds to the idea that instead of doing what we call charity, we are merely doing basic justice owed to the suffering Poor. It is unjust that we have plenty when others are poverty-stricken. God wants justice, not mere charity, for the Poor. Tear ourselves away from egoistic living and have a heart for the suffering Poor. Justice requires it.

If, therefore, the superficially religious had Jesus’ harshest words reserved for them, then next in line for harsh treatment by Jesus were the very wealthy who neglected the Poor and needy. Wealth, like many things in life, is neutral. It is our attitude towards wealth that multiplies its effect, negatively or positively. So wealth hoarded by the well-off, marks his soul for shrinkage. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the wealthy man who went to hell had to beg for the beggar to bring relief to his posthumous suffering.

Anyone truly following the ethic in Jesus’ practice of religion would never really stay wealthy, but would give away a great deal of his possessions for humanitarian relief. The common good of the larger community overrides personal wealth. As he denounces social injustice and greed, therefore, Jesus calls on the wealthy and the powerful to use their privilege to benefit others.

In all this, what Jesus clearly wants is for us to know that God’s blessings and eternal judgment are not contingent upon adherence to things like Sabbath laws, or dietary laws, or even sexual norms, or any superficial faith-claims. Our final destiny, he intimates, shall depend on how well we attend to our fellow human beings, especially the Poor and needy in different aspects and circumstances of human life (Matthew 25).

We see in Pope Francis, a clear and consistent attempt to abide by Jesus’ wishes. Do we see any resemblance to Jesus in those leaders who rail against Pope Francis by speaking loudly about strict church doctrines and harsh church laws, but would not lift a finger to lessen the burden on people caught in difficult circumstances or so-called “irregular” relationships? To those who have emailed us or spoken to us about their concerns over some seemingly reputable church leaders taking Pope Francis to task on his pastoral approach, even accusing him of doctrinal heresy, we assure them that closely following Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels, Pope Francis’ pastoral approach is love-based and not rule-based.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, 16 September 2018. All rights reserved.

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