By Erik Lenhart
Last month, James Carroll wrote a piece for the New York Times, entitled “Jesus and Modern Man.” In the article, Carroll praised Pope Francis for understanding that “the church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real.” Carroll correctly asserts that forgetting or neglecting Jesus’ Jewish context creates “grotesque distortions of who Jesus was.” Thankfully, recovery of the Judaism of Jesus has been a fundamental point for New Testament scholarship for the last several decades. In the past few years, Gerhard Lohfink and John P. Meier have produced great books for understanding Jesus in his context. Everything has a context, and context is what makes people and words intelligible and applicable. Without context, things become confused and disconnected from their origins. Context also allows for continuity with the past and present.
This continuity has a broader scope than just history. To make Jesus’ presence real, we at (at least) two additional contexts: the whole corpus of Scripture and the community of faith. We read the Gospels within all of Scripture, which we read together as a church. Thus a recovery of Jesus’ Judaism is necessary, but only one piece for interpreting Scripture and Jesus.
It would be a mistake to read the message of Jesus separated from his time and culture, just as it would be to separate Jesus from the whole of Scripture. In the second century, a man named Marcion attempted to jettison the Hebrew Scriptures to focus solely on teachings of Jesus. Marcion’s idea never caught, because the Gospels depend and develop out of the Old Testament. This is especially apparent in the season of Advent, when we hear the Gospels’ numerous echoes of the Torah and Prophets.
A few years back, a video entitled, “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus,” went viral with millions of hits on Youtube. The poetic words of the video are compelling in light of the church’s recent public and painful sins. Yet, fundamentally, the video makes a mistake similar to Marcion by separating Jesus from his context: the church. The reason we have Gospels is because the community of faith wrote them down and passed them on to the next generation. The reason people have heard of Jesus and his teaching is because the church has been at work preaching in every country in the world for two millennia. While Jesus is divine and the church human, Jesus and the church co-exist in a timeless covenant, and to separate one from the other is to harm both.
Recent public interest in Pope Francis has given the Catholic Church a great emotional and spiritual spark. It’s a good time to remember that Pope Francis is a product of Catholicism, just as Jesus was a product of Judaism. Both Francis and Jesus are born from imperfect institutions, yet both Jesus and Francis are powerful examples of the ability of a stable (although flawed) religious institution to transmit God’s commitment of love to humanity in all contexts.
Br. Erik Lenhart, OFM Cap. (@el_ofmcap) is a Capuchin Franciscan Friar and a deacon. He is a member of the Province of St. Mary (@StMaryOFM_Cap) and a student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry