On the weekend before Advent’s onset, CNN ran a special called The Fight Over Faith. At one point in the coverage of the conflict between Bible-believing Christians and secularists, someone, expressing what seems to be a conviction of many of her fellow belivers, professed a strict interpretation of the Bible. I found this a bit puzzling, especially since there was so little discussion about the text of the Gospels themselves or the words and deeds of Jesus. Even when people appeal these days to a literal or strict interpretation of the Gospel, there seems to be some other reality at work in their minds. There are bestsellers about praying yourself into wealth, preparing for the end times and avoiding the doom of being left behind, but you do not see much written or discussed about the actual content of the Gospel. The given reality is more often a set of assumptionslike affluence, personal and international power, privileged attachments and moral superiority.
Although I teach at Saint Louis University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution, my ethics course is in the philosophy department, not theology, so the arguments and evidence concerning intrinsic human dignity and the inviolability of human life are limited to rational argument and scientific data available to anyone open to inquiry. But I have to admitand I usually do at the end of my coursesthat my ultimate reality principle is the revelation of Jesus Christ. That has not always been the case for me.
While doing theological studies over 30 years ago, after having studied and taught philosophy for several years, I decided to sit down and read the Gospels as if they really were true. Sure, I was a believing and faithful Catholic, in the notional sense of faith, but I thought I had better really believe the Gospels if I was going to preach about them. By the time I reached the end of Matthew, I was undergoing a life-forming experience.
I submitted to a strict and literal reading. I read, assenting in faith to everything in it. And the news was good. But the Gospel was terribly challenging as well. The Most High miraculously became human flesh, was born like the rest of us, was honored by wise men and hunted by Herod. What did this mean about God? About us? And what about those temptations to make something other than God one’s food, to compromise with evil, to lust for power and empire at the cost of true worship? These quandaries were just the beginning.
Jesus called ordinary people to follow him. He was a healing presence wherever he went. The only people with whom he would later have conflicts were Temple money-changers and self-righteous political and religious authorities.
The revolutionary Sermon on the Mount, starting with the Beatitudes in Matthew’s fifth chapter, is so stunning, most Christians act as if it couldn’t be true. The Lord’s Prayer in Chapter 6 reveals a nourishing, forgiving God, and requires us, as forgiven sinners, to be forgiving as well (even if, as we later see, this means forgiving 70 times seven times).
Do not hold on to your anger. Do not even lust after another. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Do not store up treasures for yourself. You cannot be a slave of both God and money. I am telling you not to worry about your life. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Is all this true?
Jesus’ kingdom was as much about miracles as it was about disarming fears and eating with sinners. His instructions to his 12 apostles promised them rejection from people high and near, requiring fearless witness and even laying down one’s life. And yet the kingdom narrative is centered on: Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. Do I believe this?
Parables, prophecies and indictments in this first Gospel can be challenging or confusing. But the overwhelming reality is this: the desire of God in Christ to be one with us, to transform us, to save us. Moreover, Jesus was willing to face down any force, even death itself, that blocked his mission. It all becomes so clear in his parable of the last judgment, repeated three times in Matthew 25, before the great narrative of the Passion: Whatsoever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.
If you have not tried it recently, take up the Gospel of Matthew and read right through it in one or two sittings. Don’t meditate on it, but read it carefully and slowly, not as a teacher or a priest or a theologian or a Republican or a Democrat or a feminist or hyphenated American. Read it as a human being, and see if you believe it. Or just read it as if you did believe it, as if you truly think it is all real, all true: how Jesus was born; how he lived; what he taught; how and why he died.
Just as Christmas ultimately makes no sense without Jesus Christ, neither do Christians. True, the church and all believing Christians before us have given us the Gospels and passed on the truth of Christ. But if Jesus is not the way and the truth and the life, if indeed he has not saved us by the mystery of his life, death and resurrection, all popes and bishops, sacraments and canon law, stately hymns and simple rituals are mere foolishness.
When we seriously believe in what Jesus said and did, it is indeed a challenge, one we too often fail to meet. But even in failure rests consolation. For it is Jesus Christ, not our moral achievement or bright success, that saves us. As Zachary sings in Luke (and I take it strictly): In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the way of peace.