Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jesus of Nazareth, vol 2: a look inside

Pope Benedict's second volume of reflections on the life of Christ (“Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection”) was released today, in time to provide substantial Lenten reading for thousands of Christians. Rabbi Jacob Nuesner, author of “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus” (a book which Benedict read and engaged in the first volume of “Jesus of Nazareth”) met with Benedict last year and was saddened to hear (from the Holy Father himself) that this was the “last book” that we can expect from the professorial Pope. The Holy Father has made it clear that in this book, as in the preceding volume, he is writing in his own name, not offering official papal teaching. This is Joseph Ratzinger the biblical scholar addressing us, not the Successor of St. Peter writing authoritatively ex cathedra. Still, given the writer's prominence, his thought is sure to have more impact than that of other equally eminent academics.

In one of the three portions of the book made public ahead of the release date, Benedict dealt with the issue of responsibility for Jesus' death. Of course he restated the clear teaching of Vatican II: “what happened...cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” (Nostra aetate, 4). He also reinterprets the “blood libel” of Matthew 27:25, a passage often invoked as justifying every sort of malice against the Jewish people (how Christian is that?). Not only, Benedict notes, was this cry (“His blood be upon us...”) attributed to an unspecified “mob” (who certainly could not represent a whole people), the words themselves have to be read in the light of Christian teaching: The blood of Jesus “is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. … these words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.”

This is lovely, but it's not exactly new.

The part we haven't heard before, at least not from a Pope (it's been in official Church documents since 1965), came earlier in the book. The Pope seemed to be mirroring comments made a few years ago by Cardinal Walter Kasper (comments that got him pilloried in a certain wing of Catholic blogdom). It was so unexpected that I got on the phone and called a few theologians to make sure I was getting it right. The context was the missionary dimension of Christian life in these “times of the Gentiles.” Clearly a critical issue for the Jewish people, whose collective memory includes “forced conversions” and a diabolical “final solution.”

What did the Pope have to say in this regard? “...[T]he question of Israel’s mission has always been present in the background. We realize today with horror how many misunderstandings with grave consequences have weighed down our history. Yet a new reflection can acknowledge that the beginnings of a correct understanding have always been there, waiting to be rediscovered, however deep the shadows” (page 44).

As an indication of what that “correct understanding” might be, he cites the current (Cistercian) Abbess of Mariastern-Gwiggen (Austria), Mother Hildegard Brem in her commentary on St. Bernard's letter to his former student, the Trappist Pope Eugene III: “...the Church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews, since she must wait for the time fixed for this by God, ‘until the full number of the Gentiles come in’ (Rom 11:25). . .” (quoted by Benedict XVI from Brem's Sämtliche Werke, ed. Winkler, I, p. 834; that's Mother Hildegard in the photo).

The Pope did not elaborate on Mother Brem's interpretation, giving us to understand that it echoed his own thought. Without at all downplaying the role of Jesus as universal savior and fulfillment of the Scriptures of Israel, or the need for Christian integrity in witnessing to him, Joseph Ratzinger seems to be affirming what his predecessors since “Good Pope John” have said: for Catholics, the Jews are and remain truly “elder brothers” with a vocation, a mission, all their own during this "time of the Gentiles." I hope that the people who objected so strenuously to Cardinal Kasper's remarks don't try to downplay the Pope's by dismissing them with the excuse that he is writing not as Vicar of Christ but as a private theologian, true as that may be. If anything, they should try to understand all the more why they disagree with this particularly eminent private theologian.

The Pope is not telling us to discourage Jewish inquirers who, following their conscience, seek to learn more about their most famous brother, but it does tell us that we should be directing our missionary efforts not to the people "whom God foreknew" but to people who don't know the God of revelation. Lord knows, there seem to be plenty of them in our neighborhoods and places of work.

An earlier version of this post was prepared for the Chicago Tribune; I'll link it if it appears.

11 comments:

wheat4paradise said...

Sr. Anne,

Does each Jewish person, like every other human person on this earth, need Jesus Christ in order to be saved? Yes or no? If any person dies while rejecting Jesus Christ, how can he be saved? How do you feel about the souls of all the Jews who will die this very night without the saving grace of Jesus Christ, who will indeed die in a state of explicit denial of Jesus Christ?

I look forward to your response.

Sr Anne said...

St. Paul assures us: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved," St Paul said. That "Lord" is Father, Son and Spirit. There is only one Lord, and it is clear that the Jews call upon him by the name revealed to Moses. Are they not, then, to be saved? That would mean the Scriptures are deceiving us!

But why do they not call upon the name of Jesus, the Lord? The #1 reason the Jewish people today do not accept Jesus as the Messiah is because there is so much injustice and oppression on the earth.
Despite there being over 1 billion Christians, human society has not been transformed by the Gospel.

So maybe we haven't actually proclaimed Jesus Christ in an effective manner yet. And Paul says, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!"

What the Pope (like St. Paul) seems to be saying is that in the matter of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, God is deliberately holding his Chosen People back, like a shepherd at the gates of the corral, until all the Gentiles come in. The first flock is still in the shepherd's care while he is taking care of the newcomers. God is faithful to his covenants!

So it is up to us to proclaim Jesus Christ above all and primarily to "the nations"; that is, in biblical language, to the non-Jews.

wheat4paradise said...

Sr. Anne,

With all due respect, you have not answered my question. How can a person who dies in a state of explicit denial of Our Lord Jesus Christ be saved? Moreover, I find it to be an insult to Our Lord Jesus Christ to say that people who reject and despise Him can be saved by calling on "the Lord" -- when their invocation to "the Lord" most certainly does NOT refer to Jesus Christ, and even involves at least an implicit rejection of Christ.

As Catholics, we are bound to give our assent to the dogmatic teachings of the Catholic Church. Here is one such teaching:

[The Catholic Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock ... (Council of Florence, Cantate Domino)

In light of this teaching (which we are bound to accept), how can we in conscience pursue a pastoral strategy that leaves the immortal souls of individual Jewish persons -- here and now -- in danger of eternal damnation?

How is this a loving and Christian approach to our neighbor who stands in need of a personal relationship with Jesus? How is it a devoted response to Our Lord Jesus Christ?

wheat4paradise said...

So maybe we haven't actually proclaimed Jesus Christ in an effective manner yet. And Paul says, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!"

Yet the Pope is telling us not to preach the Gospel to the Jews!

Sr Anne said...

Gosh, if that's the way you express love, I'd rather not be on the receiving end!
Isn't it gravely presumptuous to assume that any person "dies in a state of explict denial of Our Lord Jesus Christ"? We do not have any window into the soul at the moment of death, and we do not know how the Holy Spirit is at work in each person. You seem to assume the very worst for each soul, rather than assume that God is at work mightily in the most crucial moments to complete the work of salvation, as the Council of Florence also allows for: "...unless before the end of life..."
St Ignatius of Loyola said that we were obliged in charity (under pain of sin!) to assume the best of people, even when they say things that to us seem unorthodox. We are charged, he said, with giving the most orthodox possible interpretation to what they say, and to assume that our inability to do so is precisely that: our own inability, and not any sign of unorthodoxy on the part of the other, because to judge them would be, Ignatius said, sinful.
If that is the case for something that seems pretty open-and-shut (is a statement orthodox or not?), all the more does it stand in the matter of a person's conscience. If the Jews remain faithful to their covenant with God, and refuse to give the Gospel a hearing, we are to assume that they are acting according to their conscience, and will be judged only according to their conscience. Ditto for Moslems, Buddhists and what-have-you. St. Paul was also clear about Gentiles, who had no divinely inspired Law, acting in accordance with a Law written in their hearts: "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Romans 2). Replace "Gentiles" with "Jews" and "law" for Jesus (for Jesus as the Word made flesh is the Torah in person), and you will have St. Paul's answer to your question.
And again, we must ask ourselves in all seriousness if our missionary efforts are compromised by our own lack of genuine charity and justice. That was what happened in Mexico before Our Lady stepped in herself: the Spaniards were so cruel that no matter how the missionaries preached, their spoken Gospel was contradicted by the lives of the "Christians" themselves. The failure of the missions (until the apparitions of O.L. of Guadalupe) caused theologians in Europe great dismay: why were these people "rejecting" the Gospel? And it was Francisco Suarez who realized that the Gospel was not being preached if it was being contradicted by Christians living unjust lives. In which case it is not the preached-to who are under God's judgment.

wheat4paradise said...

Sr. Anne,

Points well taken about assuming the best of people and not presuming to know the state of a person's soul at death. I also agree that we have a responsibility to ensure the success of our missionary efforts by acting with love. But at issue here is the Pope's argument that we have no missionary responsibility toward the Jews. Let me present a scenario and ask your reaction. Let's say that you have a Jewish friend. He is on his deathbed. You are with him. This person has blasphemed the Name of Jesus in your presence many times. Now he is dying and he gives no outward sign of repentance. Knowing his past blasphemies and his apparent denial of Jesus Christ (which you reasonably infer based on those past actions), do you not have a serious responsibility to help him to save his immortal soul? Are you not bound in conscience to entreat your friend with tears of love and compassion to repent and covert, and to come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? Or will you excuse yourself from mentioning the Name of Jesus, reasoning, "I shall not seek to convert him, because the fullness of the Gentiles has not yet entered the Church"? This person's immortal soul hangs in the balance, and it's just you and him in the room.

Sr Anne said...

Just a quick response...I am having a hard time imagining a scenario like that; it is so far~fetched. The person you describe is so vicious, how could he ever be a friend? Who would maintain a relationship with someone so disrespectful of the other's faith?
At any rate, the issue is that the Catholic Church doesn't have a formal missionary program with regard to the Jewish people, Nthe first to hear the Word of God" (as the Liturgy puts it). The Pope seems to think that this is appropriate, in the light of God's eternal faithfulness to his covenants, and in the later light of what St Bernard wrote (quoted in the book). It is true that the Holy Father is writing in his own name, but frankly, in a head~to~head with Joseph Ratzinger, basic humility suggests accepting his conclusions, even if they do not match our own. I assume he has vastly more knowledge, understanding and wisdom than I do.

wheat4paradise said...

Sr. Anne,

Let me try one last time. If you were at the bedside of a dying Jewish friend (let us say that he was respectful of your faith but said that he could never accept it), would you not try with all the love in your heart to bring him to Jesus Christ? Or would you defer to the Pope's private theological opinion?

wheat4paradise said...

Sr. Anne,

Even if you don't want to answer my question, I hope that you might consider the points raised in my blog post here:

http://wheat4paradise.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/are-the-jews-excluded-from-the-missionary-activity-of-the-church/

Cameron said...

“There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic.

We believe our work should be our example to people. We have among us 475 souls – 30 families are Catholics and the rest are all Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs—all different religions. But they all come to our prayers.”

“There are so many religions and each one has its different ways of following God. I follow Christ: (Mother Teresa)

I use this quote alot in my work as a nurse. Everybody loves God and we are all Gods people.. I believe God has a place in his heart for everybody and purpose for everything... Each religion worships God in a different way. Until we are on our knees with the Lord and he tells us what is correct. I believe we should love and respect all religions and not bash them or claim they are going to burn in hell :(

Cameron

wheat4paradise said...

So, Jesus is just one way among many? "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." We don't have to wait for Jesus to whisper in our ear, Cameron. He has already told us THE ONE AND ONLY WAY to God. It is Him.

Do you even believe that there is a Hell, Cameron? Or maybe you think that Hell is reserved for mean people like me who adhere to the eternal doctrine of the Church that there is One True Faith.