Sunday, January 01, 2006

Party of Christ or Church of Jesus Christ? – Part Two: The Kingdom of God

In the last post, we talked about the three methods of exegesis that the Holy Father feels have contributed most to the modern understanding of what it means to be Church. Two of these methods, the liberal and the neo-liberal/Marxist, have been used to destroy the authentic understanding of Catholic ecclesiology. As promised earlier, I now want to dive into the Holy Father’s exegesis of specific biblical texts in order to help clear up some of the confusion that has been created by the liberal interpretations we mentioned in the last post.

One of these interpretations, the liberal/Marxist, has tended to paint the seemingly contradictory contrast between clergy and laity as a “class struggle.” The Kingdom of God, according to this understanding, is not made up of any institutions but is instead a society that is meant to tear them down. Jesus, rather than being the liberator from sin, becomes instead the liberator from institutions and the seeming oppression that these institutions create. In this viewpoint, the Gospel is no longer a message of redemption and salvation from the power of sin, but is instead is a message of redemption and salvation from the power of unwanted authority.

One might wonder, “But, this is the message of Jesus, is it not? Does not the Lord spend a great deal of time in the Gospels chastising the authority of His day?” The answer is, of course, “yes.” But what gets missed in this question is this: Christ, in His rebuke of the religious leaders of His day, is not abolishing the concept of authority or structure within His Kingdom, but is instead rebuking an authority that has abused its power. This is obvious from at least two New Testament texts that come to mind.

The first is the classic Petrine texts of Matthew 16:18-19. Just, before this encounter at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had warned the disciples regarding the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Sadducees; a leaven which the disciples discerned to be the “teaching” of the Pharisees and Sadducees. However, a mere seven passages later, Jesus solemnly declares to Peter (as He will later to the rest of the apostles) that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This precept, which is given to Peter and the apostles only, shows that the rabbinical authority of “binding and loosing” was to be given to a select few of his disciples, therefore denoting a special place of authority within His new Kingdom.

The second passage is the passage regarding ‘Moses’ Seat’ in Matthew 23:2-3. Despite His rejection of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus still reminds his disciples and the crowds that, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; …” One can safely infer from this passage that even when the authority that has been placed above you becomes morally corrupt, that authority is still God-given and does not lose force as legitimate authority.

In light of these passages, how do we demonstrate what is peculiar to Jesus’ message about the establishment of the Kingdom of God? Does Jesus intend to set up a Church that is devoid of a hierarchy - an authority of the masses? The Holy Father tackles this question in an honest (and somewhat humorous) manner.

First, the Holy Father emphasizes:

“To begin with, we must take note of the fact that community of Jesus’ disciples is not an amorphous mob. At its center are the Twelve, who form a compactly knit core. This core, according to Luke (10:1-20), is then flanked by the group of seventy, or, as the case may be, seventy-two."

(Called to Communion, pg. 24)

What is the implication of this grouping of disciples numerically? The Holy Father continues:

“The symbolic value of the Twelve is consequently of decisive significance: twelve is the number of Jacob’s sons, the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. In constituting the circle of the Twelve, Jesus presents himself as the patriarch of the new Israel and institutes these twelve men as its origin and foundation …. The group of seventy, or seventy-two, of which Luke speaks supplements this symbolism; seventy (seventy-two) was, according to Jewish tradition (Gen 10; Ex 1:5, Dt 32:8), the number of the non-Jewish peoples of the world.”

(Called to Communion, pg. 25)

Jesus, rather than abolishing the old, has come, of course, to fulfill it. In selecting twelve apostles, Jesus is saying something very specific, namely, that He is building a “foundation.” Any Israelite would understand this significance of the number twelve. The very nation of Israel itself was “founded” on, and comprised of, twelve tribes. What we as church need to re-capture is this understanding of “foundation.” Twelve just isn’t a nice number, it is rather a very symbolic expression emphasizing that this Kingdom He has come to establish has a structure, a foundation, that is meant, ultimately, to embrace all the nations (i.e. the “seventy” or “seventy-two”).

The “mob rules” mentality that parades itself as authentic Christianity is exactly what needs to be rooted out of our parishes if there is to be progress towards unity in the Church. It’s almost as if we’ve developed an understanding in the modern Church that unity will only come about by democracy. As can be seen from our own two-party system here in the US, however, that idea is nothing more than a dream.

Does this mean that there is no room for disagreement or expression? Of course not. What it does mean is that there is a structure within the Church that has authority to render judgment on these matters of disagreement and expression; an authority that comes not from the Church herself, but instead from her very Founder – again, from outside, not from within.

In the next post we will cover the Holy Father’s thoughts the institution of the Eucharist, its parallels with Old Testament Israel, and how these affect our understanding of what it means to be Church.

God Bless,
Patrick Morris