Gleanings: Gospel Paradox

Richard Rohr offers this thought-provoking meditation on the difference between some conventional religion and the Gospel…

The clarification here is fundamental and central. A historian of religion once said (I cannot remember where I read it) that all religion begins by the making of a false distinction between the holy and the seemingly unholy. Soon a clerical caste, moral distinctions, purity codes, and temple systems emerge to keep these two worlds defined and apart, and to keep us separate from the unholy. This makes the ego feel safe and superior, so it usually works if you stay at the early level (of religion), where not much self-knowledge has yet been acquired. This becomes the very “business” of religion, and you can understand business here on several true levels: It keeps us busy, it keeps the customers coming back, and it is often a very subtle process of the “buying and selling” of God. It does give us clergy a good job, and most of us run to the occasion—because the crowds like it for some reason, and we get to feel important as “protectors of the sacred” (scriptures, rituals, and moralities). No one has told them any differently, for the most part—except Jesus.

Try, for example, his absolutely upside-down story of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14)—although there are many others, too. The “Pharisee” by definition is fully orthodox and seemingly law abiding inside the Jewish “Law of Holiness,” which is largely about separation from unholy things (see Leviticus 17-27). He “prided himself on being virtuous and despised everyone else,” the text states. He prays secretly, proudly, and rather unkindly “to himself” because he is trapped inside of himself; there is no real contact with the Mystery beyond himself.

This Pharisee is compared to the tax collector or “publican,” who was an officially-defined “sinner,” dealing in unholy and unjust taxes for the Roman occupiers and in daily commerce with the Gentiles, but his prayer at least is honest and humble. Without denying his objective “unholy” status, Jesus says “this man went home at rights with God, the other did not” (Luke 18:14). Once you get this pattern in Jesus, you will see that it is everywhere and constant in his ministry. He refuses and rejects his own religion’s distinction between objectively holy and unholy things and moves morality to the interior level of motivation and intention (what Jeremiah predicted as the “circumcised heart” instead of the circumcised physical member). This is basically what gets Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities (see Mark 7:5). He refuses most “purity codes” and “debt codes” that keep people codependent on the public ministrations of paid clergy, and says “you clean the outside of the dish, and leave the inside full of extortion and intemperance” (Matthew 23:25). Much of Matthew 23 and Mark 7 make this same point in a dozen different ways.

There are only unholy hearts and minds for Jesus, but not inherently holy or unholy places, actions, or people.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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