Monday, September 6, 2010

Lead Me In Your Justice, LORD.

Monday of the Twenty-third Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Corinthians 5:1-8
Brothers and sisters:
It is widely reported
that there is immorality among you,
and immorality of a kind
not found even among pagans–
a man living with his father's wife.
And you are inflated with pride.
Should you not rather have been sorrowful?
The one who did this deed
should be expelled from your midst.
I, for my part, although absent in body
but present in spirit, have already,
as if present, pronounced judgment
on the one who has committed this deed,
in the name of our Lord Jesus:
when you have gathered together
and I am with you in spirit
with the power of the Lord Jesus,
you are to deliver this man to Satan
for the destruction of his flesh,
so that his spirit may be saved
on the day of the Lord.

Your boasting is not appropriate.
Do you not know that a little yeast
leavens all the dough?
Clear out the old yeast,
so that you may become
a fresh batch of dough,
inasmuch as you are unleavened.
For our Paschal Lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
Therefore, let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast,
the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread
of sincerity and truth.
Expel the immoral brother!

We now enter a part of the letter where Paul speaks of various moral disorders prevalent in the Christian community of Corinth. Here Paul justifies his criticism of the “unspirituality” and moral immaturity of the Christians in Corinth.

First, he tackles a problem of incest. He has been told that one of the Christians is cohabiting with his own mother-in-law, his father’s wife. Such a relationship is explicitly forbidden in the Mosaic law (cf. Leviticus 18:8) and indeed in nearly every society.

Even pagans hardly stoop to such levels, says Paul. We know, for instance, that the famous Roman writer and orator Cicero said that incest was practically unheard of in Roman society although it is not certain whether that applied to Corinth, a city notorious for its sexual liberties.

With examples like this, Paul asks how the Corinthian Christians can have such a high opinion of themselves. Did they really think that such behaviour was a boastful expression of freedom? On the contrary, they should be in deep mourning for their sins.

Such a person should not be tolerated in the community and should be expelled from it. Paul, in fact, urges the church (with which he is spiritually united though physically absent) to do so in the name of the Lord Jesus. As we are told in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 18), whenever the community gathers together in the name of Jesus, he is with them and they have authority to speak and make decisions in his name.

Not only that, the man is to be “handed over to Satan”. This may mean that he is to be left unprotected to the power of Satan, which will follow from his being left to fend for himself, without the support of his community, in a pagan and highly immoral society. In Matthew 18:17 Jesus says: “If he [an offending member] refuses to listen to the church [the gathered community], treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector.” In effect, the person is to be excommunicated.

The purpose of this punishment is twofold: it is hoped that the afflictions he will experience from his being ostracised will destroy his misguided sensuality and bring him back into the saving arms of Christ on the day of judgement. The purpose is to heal both the community and the sinner. For Jesus came to save and not to condemn.

With examples like this, Paul tells the Corinthians there is not much for them to boast or be proud about. Although he has been speaking of only one person, he says they should realise that even a tiny amount of yeast can leaven a large batch of dough. Generally in the bible, yeast is taken as a symbol of corruption and sin. The example is something like our saying that one bad apple can spoil a whole barrelful. The community here is being called on to get rid of the yeast of sin, represented by this wrongdoer, because they are called to be an unleavened batch of dough - new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Paul then links the image with Jesus as “our Passover”. Jesus is now the paschal Lamb of God sacrificed and his blood poured out on the cross by which the new covenant was sealed, replacing the old Pasch in which a lamb was sacrificed and eaten. Christ, the Lamb of God, was crucified on Passover day, a celebration that began the evening before the Passover meal was eaten (cf. Exodus 12:8). By his death on the cross, Christ fulfilled the true meaning of the Jewish sacrifice of the Passover lamb (Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29) and introduced an unending Passover.

“Let us celebrate the feast”, says Paul. He is referring to the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which followed the Passover. In the Jewish calendar, Passover was followed immediately by the festival of Unleavened Bread. In preparation for this feast all traces of old leavened bread were removed from the house and, during the festival, only unleavened bread was eaten. The sequence of these two feasts provides Paul with an image of Christian living: Christ’s death (the true Passover celebration) is followed by the life of the Christian community, marked by newness, purity and integrity (a never-ending feast of unleavened bread). It meant living their life in total dedication to God, removing from their lives all corrupting behaviour, wickedness and incestuous relationships.

Paul may actually have been writing around Passover time so his words can be taken as a small Easter homily, the earliest in Christian literature.

Expelling someone from our community is something that rarely happens, except where the Church officially excommunicates some person according to the norms of Church Law. This can happen by formal declaration or automatically, depending on the offence committed.

We may have some difficulties with the idea of excommunication although there are clear precedents in the Old and New Testaments. We may feel it contradicts Jesus’ command to forgive 70 times 7 times. However, we must not confuse two issues.

It is true that we must always be ready to forgive and be reconciled with the truly repentant person no matter how many times he or she falls. On the other hand, a Christian community, e.g. a parish, is called on to give witness to the Gospel message and to be an agent in the building up of the Kingdom of God. It is difficult for a community to do this if there is a member or a number of members who are acting in ways which are diametrically opposed to the way of life that the Gospel represents and who, after this has been pointed out to them, still refuse to change.

The community lives by certain standards with which it cannot in conscience compromise. It would seem that, in certain (hopefully rare) cases, the only option the community has is to ask these people to separate themselves from the community as long as they continue doing what they are doing. Of course, if they change and sincerely ask for reconciliation, they will be welcomed back with open arms.

We do see a form of semi-excommunication in our churches when we see people, known to be baptised Catholics, staying away from the Communion table or who openly go to confession before joining in the celebration of the Eucharist.

It is probably true to say that in many places we Catholics (and other Christians too) have a poor awareness of the importance of corporate witness to the Gospel. We tend to think that being a “good Catholic” is a purely personal affair and that the “Church” is the place where we get the help we need.

As a result, we may at times be too tolerant of “bad apples” among us and thus greatly weaken the witness we are called to give.*
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Psalm 5
Lead me in your justice, Lord.
For you, O God, delight not in wickedness;
no evil man remains with you;
the arrogant may not stand in your sight.
You hate all evildoers.
Lead me in your justice, Lord.
You destroy all who speak falsehood;
The bloodthirsty and the deceitful
the LORD abhors.
Lead me in your justice, Lord.
But let all who take refuge in you
be glad and exult forever.
Protect them, that you may be the joy
of those who love your name.
Lead me in your justice, Lord.
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Luke 6:6-11
On a certain sabbath Jesus went into the synagogue and taught,
and there was a man there whose right hand was withered.
The scribes and the Pharisees watched him closely
to see if he would cure on the sabbath
so that they might discover a reason to accuse him.
But he realized their intentions
and said to the man with the withered hand,
"Come up and stand before us."
And he rose and stood there.
Then Jesus said to them,
"I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath
rather than to do evil,
to save life rather than to destroy it?"
Looking around at them all, he then said to him,
"Stretch out your hand."
He did so and his hand was restored.
But they became enraged
and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.
Immediately following the incident of plucking the grains in the cornfield, we have another confrontation with religious leaders also on a Sabbath day. This one is even nastier as it involves what is called in American police movies a “set up” or “entrapment”.

Jesus had gone into the local synagogue, as was his practice on the sabbath, and began to teach. Right in front of him was a man with a withered hand, no doubt something he was born with.

There were scribes and Pharisees in the congregation and, we are told, they “were watching him” to see whether he would heal the man on a Sabbath day so that they could accuse him of breaking the Law.

Medical work was forbidden on the Sabbath because it normally took time. Jesus, of course, healed with just a word but even if he did not, could one say that healing was against the spirit of the Sabbath? At the same time, it is also worth noting that the man was suffering from a chronic and probably non-painful disability. There was no need for him to be cured on the spot; it could easily have waited until the next day.

That gives further point to Jesus’ argument. The poor man had clearly been “planted”. He was being used as bait for their sinister ends. For the Pharisees and their co-conspirators the man and his plight were secondary. They had to prove their point and he was seen as a useful tool.

Jesus, of course, is fully aware of what is going on. He speaks directly to the disabled man: “Rise up and stand out in the middle!” The command to “rise up” is already an indication of what is going to take place; the man is going to be given new life. Nor is there any secrecy. What Jesus is going to do is to be seen by all.

But first he puts a question to the whole congregation, scribes and Pharisees included: “Is it lawful on the sabbath day to do good, or to do evil? to save life or to destroy it?”

It is really an unanswerable question because the answer is so obvious. But it was not the way these Pharisees were thinking. Their question would be very different: “Is it right to obey the Law or to violate it?” For them the Law, even the letter of the Law, was paramount. There is an irony in Jesus’ question because Jesus is planning to bring healing into a man’s life while they were preparing to bring about his destruction. Who was really breaking the Sabbath?

Not so with Jesus. For him the Law was relative to the true and the good. No implementation of a law can offend the true and the good. And sometimes the following of the true and the good may have to go against the letter of the law. What is legal is not always moral. It can be immoral, that is, evil, to obey a law in certain circumstances. What is moral sometimes transcends the law and may even contradict the law.

Hearing no dissenting answer, Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so. His arm was fully restored to normal.

The scribes and Pharisees were furious and began to plot against Jesus. Their plans had been brought to nought. They showed no pleasure that a crippled man had been made whole. Their interpretation of the law had been shown to be wanting and they had to get back at Jesus.

Such situations are by no means unknown in our Christian life and in our Church. We will run into situations where doing good may be in conflict with traditional regulations and legal formulae.

We will find ourselves in situations where contemporary Pharisees will try to put the Church into a straitjacket of narrow-mindedness and fundamentalism whether it involves our understanding of the Scripture or the liturgy or morality or something else. These are people who put the letter of the laws, regulations and rubrics before love. For them it is more important to observe the externals of rules than to be a loving person.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'immorality of a kind not found even among pagans – a man living with his father's wife'

This letter was written when Nero was Emperor. The regime was deeply immoral and notoriously incestuous. Perhaps Paul has in mind the ordinary, devout pagan. Ordinary Romans were often disgusted by the behaviour of their ruling class, but around this time every new Emperor seemed worse than his predecessor. The fact that upright pagans disapproved of incest is borne out by the malicious accusation that Christian 'brotherly love' was evidence of incest.

Ruling classes have often been incestuous - the Egyptian pharaohs and later European 'blue-bloods'. Perhaps it is a sign of a deep love of power and a sense of being above the law of the common folk.

The man and his stepmother may have been a lovely young couple, perhaps with children. But maybe the example of Nero made people aware of where flouting this aspect of the law might lead.