Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Following the Rules Won't Get You to Heaven

I like rules. They make me feel safe, give me a proven roadmap for success, and instill me with purpose. So when Pope Francis takes potshots at little rules and by extension those who follow them, he unsettles me. Another direct hit to the center of my comfort zone. Here's exactly what the Pope said in the now famous America magazine interview:
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. ...
The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. ...
The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. 

In other words, sanctity does not consist in following the rules, and successful evangelization doesn't depend on convincing others to do likewise.

The Pope's comments angered a lot of people. But they don't stray far from Biblical precedent. Jesus constantly battled against Pharisaical rules. For example, in Jesus' time, the command to keep the Sabbath holy had been interpreted to forbid thirty-nine distinct types of work on the Sabbath. But Jesus ignored these prohibitions and healed a man on the Sabbath anyway, saying "It is lawful to do good on the sabbath" (Mt 12:12).

St. Paul stresses over and over again that Christianity is superior to the law, by which he means the old Jewish laws. He proclaims to the new Church, "now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the written code but in the new life of the Spirit" (Rom 7:6). But being free from the law doesn't mean being free to do evil or to do whatever we want without constraints. It means being freed to do good, a greater good than before. Following the law and the commandments isn't bad. On the contrary, it's the bare minimum of decent Christian behavior. Following the rules won't get you to heaven because following the rules just isn't good enough.

This lesson shines forth crystal clear in the story of the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus, a story so important that it is recounted almost word for word in all three synoptic gospels. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" the young man asked Our Lord. "Keep the commandments," Jesus responded. The young man eagerly affirmed that he had followed the commandments since his youth. But then Jesus asked for one more thing. "Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, ... and come, follow me." And the young man walked away sad, for he had many possessions (Mt 19:16-22; Mk 10:17-22; Lk 18:18-23). He went away sad, when he thought he would go away justified. Jesus is not satisfied when we dot the i's and cross the t's. Our God, our jealous God, wants all that we have to give.  He wants more than obedient slaves or rule-following automatons. He wants adoring, grateful heirs to his glorious Kingdom.

To all those who cherish the rules, I understand your shock at Pope Francis' comments. I feel it, too. But as Scripture says, to whom much is given, much is expected (Lk 12:48). We have been given our faith, our docility to the rules. Is this more than a lot of self-identified Catholics or ex-Catholics have? You bet. So, much more is expected of us. More charity, more mercy, more understanding. Go, descend into the dark night without being lost, fascinate people, attract people, set their hearts on fire for Jesus. Don't be the one to walk away sad.

Photo Credit: Vicki & Chuck Rogers via Compfight cc

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