I feel great compassion for the Sadducees and Pharisees. They were not, after all, bad people. They were the religious authorities of their day. Being human, no doubt some became obsessed with or corrupted by power. Yet for the most part, these leaders believed they were safeguarding the truth, speaking for Yahweh, and enforcing the rules of the faith in ways they needed to be enforced. They honestly believed they were right and were offering valuable service.
Then this stranger comes and starts preaching about Yahweh in a completely different fashion. Rather than judgment, awe, and power, he speaks of love, forgiveness, humility, justice, and service. He touches people that the scriptures explicitly command no one should touch. He violates the rules of the Sabbath laid down in Yahweh’s law. He dishonors himself by eating with known sinners. He comes very close, or sometimes seems to cross the line, to blatant blasphemy. He challenges the religious authorities and leadership, and their interpretation of laws they’d studied from the time they were young boys.
Yes, this stranger also had incredible charisma and drawing power. From all reports, he healed people, walked on water, and performed miracles. Indeed, many Jews were following him, supporting him, and going out to preach the message themselves. But how could Jesus be doing these things in concert with Yahweh given such egregious violations of Yahweh’s laws combined with his refusal to submit to the divinely sanctioned authorities of the church? How were they to respond to this threat to the established system, their religion, and the way of life ordained in scripture? This man seemed too contrary to what they’d been taught and the principles on which they based their lives, faith, and ministries. He seemed dangerous – to them, to the faith, and to God’s chosen people.
The same dynamics are still in play two thousand years later. There is a lengthy list of contentious issues in our society and in the Catholic Church. It is incredibly difficult to discern whether different or even radical perspectives on these issues are dangers requiring condemnation and suppression, or whether they are strong movements of the Spirit trying to open us to God’s ever-surprising call.
We believe that God will never abandon the Church, and in the long run the Spirit will guide us on the right path. In the present moment, though, we are all human beings capable of mistakes, just as the faithful Pharisees and Sadducees were. Even those with knowledge, authority, and right intent can become whitewashed sepulchers who miss what God is trying so hard to do in our midst. Today, as then, there are principles and doctrines we need to retain, and there are ways we need change or outright reform. I pray constantly for our Church leaders, that they may have the wisdom, insight, and openness to see the changes Christ desires in order to move us closer to the Reign of God.
The light has come into our world. Especially as we move forward with our new pope, may we not prefer the darkness, but open ourselves more fully to the dangerous, radical ideas of Jesus Christ.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.