Irony has always amused me. Yesterday C put up a quotation from Merton and the comment stream went on to illustrate what Merton was saying about conservatives. It was a caricature said my friend Servus – reading his and other comments I found myself wondering – and not whether it was a caricature.
The reaction to this latest Papal pronouncement, like that to the last one, and to anything he says, is a reminder, if one were needed, why some of us stand in wonder at the Catholic Church. Do we really need 264 pages on the joy of love which prompts outpourings of bile? I’m sure that if your mindset is one which goes to rule and regulations, it must be really irritating to have someone going on about love and making exceptions. I read a book daily in which a fellow called Jesus does this and a group of people who know every letter of the law keep condemning him. But it didn’t matter, the mind-set that it is the law and its letter that counts, and that, as I read somewhere, ‘Canon Law is not for the fainthearted’, won through. Across time, ‘repent and believe’ found itself needing huge compendia of documents and expert interpreters – more or less what had happened with Judaism by Jesus’ day, and, of course, exactly what he found most objectionable about it. How does this happen? It clearly speaks to a profound need in some people, and I can imagine that to such people, it must be profoundly frustrating when instead of getting a cut and dried, black and white answer from somewhere deep in the compendium, they get a leader who keeps talking about love and mercy without making it clear that the former involves sinners being called out on their sin, and the latter involves making sure that they are really sorry before forgiving them. For me, and for many, however, the problem is that Jesus did not do this. He was, from their point of view, rightly castigated by those who thought it a key part of their faith; but there is no sign Jesus thought they were correct.
Institutions have rules – which may be part of how Christianity came to be encumbered with so many pages of documentation. To query the need for all of this is not (though it will be seen as) tantamount to saying anything goes. Christ’s teaching does not amount to a free pass, but it is possible to overdo the terms and conditions – not least considering Grace and Faith are free at point of acceptance. Paul’s most profound letter, Romans, has fewer than 8000 words. I have no idea how many are in the Catechism, or various Protestant confessions of faith. My own faith is easily summed up. I believe Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, and that he died to save me from my sins. I find the New Testament a good guide for life and try to follow it. When I was a young man and keen to tell others what they should be doing, I could bang on for hours about the Westminster Confession and the rules. One day I stopped, and simply concentrated on trying to conform my behaviour to that of Jesus as often as I could, and when I failed (as I do every day) I apologised and tried to do better next time. I felt no urgent need to use a conduit to Jesus, as he kindly told me I could talk to the Father directly. If Mary and the saints want to pray for me, I never reject a prayer, but I don’t think they have some special influence on God. I don’t need a long exhortation to tell me to love my wife and be faithful to her, neither do I need convoluted reasoning to tell me that people have complicated private lives and that the best thing to do is to approach them as Jesus did. That adulterous woman was clearly guilty under the Law – the Pharisees wouldn’t have bothered bring her if there was a legal loophole – and in the Bible I use she never said ‘sorry’ and Jesus never said ‘I’m only not going to condemn you if you say sorry’. No. he said he did not condemn her and told her to go away and sin no more. It is much harder for me to try to follow that example than to wait for those who have sinned against me to apologise; so I try the harder route – it is good for me. I am ever mindful God loved me when I was dead through sin, and in my sin he found me and saved me; I feel a sense of obligation to at least try to imitate what I have experienced from him when I deal with those who have trespassed against me. That Lord’s Prayer stuff – simple, but hard for sinful men and women.
I do what I can to help the widows and the orphans, I do what I can to spread the Good News we are saved by faith in the Lord Jesus. Those who feel this last needs huge compendia and complex systems of laws which require experts to penetrate the arcana, will feel that way. But the older I get and the closer I come to meeting my maker, the less need I feel for that sort of thing – and the more conscious I am of the overriding summary that love of God and of neighbour are the fruits of faith. For the rest, well, if you subscribe to complex systems, you are always going to get lawyerly types on all sides arguing over the precise meaning of x, and how it fits in with precedent. I simply do not see the Lord Jesus saying that was how it would be for his people.
It may really be the case that Peter and the apostles really thought that what the Great Commission needed was great long lists of does and don’ts and great systems of rules and regulations, with terms and conditions over which clever men could argue endlessly – or it may be that across two thousand years the same set of instincts which led the Jews to over complicate and define and to know the letter but not the spirit of the law has prevailed – as it seems to in our fallen nature. Jesus has forgiven me – but his yoke is light, and he did not want heavy weights attached loaded on those who follow him. That’s all in those fours short gospels. The sabbath, after all, was made for man, man was not made for the Sabbath. Perhaps it is just that as one ages, what really matters becomes ever plainer?