Saturday, October 17, 2015



Pope Benedict XVI’s marvelous 2007 book entitled Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, includes a 25-page section entitled “The Torah of the Messiah.”

“The Messiah was expected to bring a renewed Torah - his Torah. Paul may be alluding to this in the Letter to the Galatians when he speaks of the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). His great, passionate defense of freedom from the Law culminates in the following statement in Chapter 5: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). But when he goes on to repeat at 5:13 the claim that “you were called to freedom,” he adds, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Gal 5:13).  (100)

I’ve been fascinated by this concept of “The Torah of the Messiah” ever since I came across it. It seems to me to explain a lot of what we find in the gospels, especially the controversies between the Pharisees who were so dedicated to the preservation of Jewish law and practices,  and Jesus and his followers who were proclaiming His Torah.

A page or so later Pope Benedict continues:
“The intention is not to abolish, but to fulfill, and this fulfilment demands a surplus, not a deficit of righteousness, as Jesus immediately goes on to say: ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 5:20). Is the point, then, merely increased rigor in obeying the Law? What else is this greater righteousness if not that?” (102)

The greater righteousness proposed by Jesus is laid out by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount” (Mt Chapters 5-7), starting with the beatitudes. In Chapter 7 Jesus presents a series of antitheses between the Torah of Moses and the Torah of the Messiah: “It was said to them of old … but I say to you…” Pope Benedict points out: “Jesus’ ‘I’ is accorded a status that no teacher of the Law can legitimately allow himself. The crowd feels this -- Matthew tells us explicitly that the people ‘were alarmed’ at this way of teaching. He teaches not as the rabbis do , but as one who has ‘authority’” (Mt 7:28). (102)

Jesus’ “exalted claim that he is on the same level as the Lawgiver -- as God” causes the people “alarm.” In reference to this word “alarm” Benedict notes “The RSV translation unfortunately tones this down to “astonishment.”

The Torah of the Messiah, with Jesus as its center, alarmed people who were totally unprepared for such teaching.


Recently many people, including some bishops, have been “alarmed” by Pope Francis’s approach to many of the Church’s customary attitudes and frames of reference. He often does not start at the Canon Law end of things and the Church’s carefully laid out rules and regulations, but rather with the Messiah’s attitude shown in the Sermon on the Mount.

Surely during his recent visit to Washington and to the U.N. in New York there were lots of powerful people holding their breath, afraid that he might bring up some embarrassing application of the Torah of the Messiah to a hot political issue (capital punishment, say, or global corporate greed, or outdated immigration policies).

Pope Francis seems to be an alarming figure for some people. But I wonder if the cause of his immense popularity isn't precisely his practice of always starting with the “Torah of the Messiah.”

It’s my impression that many Catholics stopped practicing their faith because the Church no longer spoke to them of the Torah of the Messiah (centered on Christ) but rather of commandments and rules (centered on obedience and sin). These disaffected folks, I suspect, are not among those who are “alarmed” by Pope Francis’ approach to the Gospel.

One of the signs of the kingdom of God is humility. It’s built into the very idea of the Kingdom in so many ways: “Blessed are the meek,” “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart,” “Do not judge, lest you be judged.” So we shouldn’t be alarmed when the Pope apologizes for the sins of the Church or of certain of her priests, or when he keeps repeating “I am a sinner; pray for me.”

The Church has always experienced a tension between her external forms and structures and the inner dynamic spirit of the Mystical Body of Christ. It seems to me that Pope Francis has very deliberately gotten us to look at this tension again to make sure that we are not growing complacent and smug in our attitude toward God, toward the poor, and toward the ideals of Christian life as presented in the Torah of the Messiah. Our Holy Father is asking the Church to put into practice St. Paul’s admonition, “through love be servants of one another” (Gal 5:13)

If his approach “alarms” some of us, maybe that’s not all bad.

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