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Sunday, June 08, 2008

I desire mercy, not sacrifice

When I saw the gospel reading for today - Jesus telling the Pharisees Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' (Mt 9:9-13) - I was reminded of an article by James Alison. Here's just a bit of it (I left out the middle so you should read the whole thing, of course, to get the benefit of the article) in which he gives context to Jesus' words noted above ......

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“But the Bible says...”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1

A talk for Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women, Baltimore, 12 January 2004.

This evening's talk has a very odd title. One of the reasons it is odd is that few Catholics are likely to interrupt a theological discussion with the phrase: “But the Bible says...” And this is not so much the result of the famed stereotype concerning Catholic ignorance of the Scriptures but because in a Catholic discussion, it is unlikely that an appeal to authority would take the form of an appeal to the Bible. It is more probable that an appeal to authority would take the form “But the Holy Father says...” or “But it's in the Catechism”. So why bother people by attempting a Catholic reading of Romans 1?

What has pushed me in the direction of offering this reading is really two things: in the first place, I was brought up Evangelical Protestant, and this text, Romans 1, was really a text of terror for me, a text in some way associated with a deep emotional and spiritual annihilation, something inflicting paralysis. So, finding myself ever freer of that terror, it seems proper to try and offer a road map to others who, whatever their ecclesial belonging, may suffer from the same binding of conscience that a certain received reading of this text has seemed to impose. But there is a second reason, no less important to my mind: owing to arguments surrounding Episcopal appointments in the Anglican Church on both sides of the Atlantic, a huge amount of press has been generated in which it has been repeated ad nauseam that “The Bible is quite clear...” about this or that. Furthermore we are told time and again that those who think either that gay people should be allowed to marry, or that being gay should be no bar to Episcopal consecration, are in some way repudiating an obvious written sacred injunction. The impression that “the Bible is quite clear” has passed largely unchallenged in the media, which has found it easiest to present the argument as being between conservative people who take the Bible seriously (and are thus against gay people) and liberal people who don't (and thus aren't against gay people).

Well, what is being treated to public travesty here is the Bible. Indeed it seems to me that if anything, the truth is closer to being exactly the other way round: you need a very modern liberal reading of the Bible in order to make it a weapon against gay people, and those who refuse to do this are, by and large, much more traditional in their Biblical reading habits ......

.... (very big snip).....

It is my view that Romans 1 has quite simply nothing at all to do with what we call homosexuality. I hope I have shown that it is perfectly possible to read it in such a way as to respect the integrity of the text, to show appreciation for, and agreement with, St Paul, and to show how Paul's argument is an important step towards formulating a major doctrine of the Church, without saying or implying anything at all for or against so-called “homosexuality”. It is not my claim that this reading which I have given you is the real reading of St Paul, that exactly this and no more and no less, is precisely what he meant. I don't think there is such a thing as the real reading of this text. I think that there are better and worse readings of the text, and more importantly, that there are more Catholic and less Catholic ways of reading the text, because reading the text within the Church is an infinitely creative exercise in giving glory to God and creating merciful meaning for our sisters and brothers as we come to be possessed by the Spirit breathed into us by the Crucified and Risen Lord.

And this leads into my last point this evening, which is really why I think it worthwhile to attempt this exercise of an attempt at a Catholic reading in your midst at this time. We have for too long been beguiled by what I would like to call a Koranic reading of scripture. It is at least coherent for a Muslim to claim that the Koran was dictated by God to Mohammed, and therefore that the Koran itself must be read as so dictated by an authority from above. The text becomes a sort of intermediary body between God and reader, such that the faithful are imprisoned under the fixed words of the text, which are imagined to be “just there”, inspired by God, and which thus absolve the reader from taking responsibility for the reading which he or she supplies. But it is not coherent for a Catholic to read Scripture in this way. The Catholic Church, heir to an extraordinarily rich tradition of creative Jewish textual reading, reads scripture Eucharistically, because for us the prime source of authority is not the text itself, but the crucified and living victim, alive in our midst, who is the living interpretative presence teaching us how to undo our violent and evil ways of relating to each other, and how together to enter into the way of penitence and peace. For us “The Word of God” refers in the first place to a living person, and only by analogy to the texts which bear witness to him. The living hermeneutical presence is more important than that which it is hermeneuting. This is what is meant by Jesus telling the Pharisees in Matthew's Gospel (Mt 9:13; 12:7):

Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

And:

... If you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless.

Now there is an instruction regarding the Catholic reading of Scripture from an authority even more important than the Pontifical Biblical Commission. And I'm glad to say that the Commission's passage which I read to you at the beginning of my talk is in complete accord with it.

It is time we learnt to read the words of our brother Paul, someone who wrote to us not from above, but on the same, fraternal, level as us, in a Eucharistic manner. Let us imagine him as with us at the Eucharistic gathering, bearing witness to the effect of the Crucified and Risen one on all our lives. And let us learn to have his words interpreted to us through the eyes of the Lord in the centre of our gathering, the eyes of One who so much liked us and wanted to be with us that he gave himself up for us so that we might became able to create, with him, and in great freedom, a world full of mercy where there are no “they”; A world where we can look at each other with hearts unchecked by niggles of the sort “But the Bible says...”, and with eyes undimmed by sacralised fatality.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous paul maurice martin said...

Also, I always related that line to Jesus doing good on the Sabbath - placing an emphasis on love and mercy instead of being a stickler for the outer rituals and legalisms as divorced from a spirit that demands more of people than minimal perfunctory adherence to the letter of the religious law.

(Also consistent with his repeated "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees...")

7:53 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

Yeah, it seems like the same sentiment. It's one of my favorite things he said.

8:58 PM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

Crystal, this is one of my favorite sayings too.

9:31 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi SusieQ :)

1:09 AM  
Blogger Liam said...

That's a great post. I'm not sure if what he says about the Koran is right, but he certainly is about Paul.

Too many people (especially Protestants) tend to quote and talk about Paul as if everything he wrote came straight out of God's mouth, or as if at any time he was trying to create either a systematic theology or a fixed set of laws.

9:38 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Liam,

I wish I could have posted the whole article, but it was pretty long. When I think of Paul, I always imagine him like his character in the movie The Last Temptation of Christ (Harry Dean Stanton) .... a kind of snake-oil salesman ..... unfair though that may be :)

11:02 AM  

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