Our struggle against fundamentalism within our own churches and within our own families needs all the help we can get from Jesus. Let’s explore this.
Did Jesus Experience Fundamentalism?
When the Gospels are explored, it is clear that homosexuality and same-sex marriages do not show up as pressing issues in the world of Jesus of Nazareth. However, what one does discover is that Jesus did confront Jewish fundamentalists during the period when he moved through the towns of Galilee and preached in their synagogues. Here is the first instance:
2:23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.2:24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 2:25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 2:26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 2:27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath;2:28 so the Son of Man[i] is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28)
The setting here is that Jesus and his disciples are passing through grainfields as they go from one town to another (Mark 1:38-39). On the way, his disciples are hungry. They take the tassels of the wheat and rub them between their hands to remove the outer covering and eat the grains. I have done this myself from time to time. The grains are rather tasteless, but they do provide enough nourishment to at least take the edge off of my hunger. According to the traditions of the time, anyone was permitted to do this at the edge of a farmer’s field but they must not enter into the field (stomping down the stalks of grain as they go).
The Pharisees here are the Jewish fundamentalists that Jesus encountered. Notice that their complaint is directed toward Jesus and not toward the disciples themselves. They clearly regard Jesus as responsible for training his disciples; hence, the critique of the disciples is actually a complaint against Jesus that he has not trained them properly.
They probably expect that Jesus will rein them in. But he doesn’t. Rather, he turns his attention to the Pharisees and tries to win them over to his point of view. In brief, he engages them in dialogue. To do this, he cites the case of David and his companions who are fleeing the wrath of King Saul and take the liberty to raid the loaves in the temple reserved for the priests. This is an excellent teaching moment.
The Pharisees, in this instance, would hardly be inclined to support the claim of the priests; rather, Jesus would expect them to grant David the right (given the circumstances) to take (not to be given) the temple loaves to satisfy his hunger and the hunger of his companions. Jesus deliberately chooses this test case because David (who is not yet the king) here breaks the law to satisfy his hunger. But this is exactly what the disciples of Jesus are doing: they are breaking the law of the Sabbath in order to satisfy their hunger.
Fundamentalists don’t know how to make exceptions. They don’t make exceptions for themselves, and they are quick to bring others in line so that they don’t make exceptions either.[ii] They are sticklers for maintaining the letter of the law, which, for them appears black and white.
The Mosaic Law (Torah), by the way, specifically says that “harvesting” is not permitted on the Sabbath. Taking a dozen handfuls of grain can hardly be equated with harvesting. But Jesus doesn’t want to quibble with them as to how many handfuls a man can take and eat before it becomes “harvesting.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t want to get bogged down in the convoluted logic of the Pharisees. Rather, he wants to lift them out of their familiar mindset and to teach them that David took the liberty to break the law and that it follows, as night follows day, that every Jew has the right to break the law when their personal circumstances merit an exception. The Pharisees are surely not going to say that David committed a major crime worthy of death. Hence, Jesus has trapped them. The Pharisees cannot condemn David and, as night follows day, they cannot condemn Jesus’ disciples either.
How Jesus Took Measures to Resist the Jewish Taliban
I really admire this Jesus:
according to Jesus, not only his disciples, but every Jew living at any time and in any place was invited to free themselves from a wooden application of Sabbath regulations, especially when the welfare of suffering individuals was at stake;
according to Jesus, he does not return to the original notion that the Sabbath rest was fundamentally a blessing (rather than a burden) on the grounds that he was the Son of God or the Son of Man; hence, if this were true (and it surely is not), then he would have made exceptions for himself and for his disciples on the grounds of his spiritual rank that was superior to that of Moses. If this were the case (and it surely is not), then ONLY Jesus could have made any exceptions. Once he died, no one, not even Peter, would have been permitted to make exceptions. Needless to say, many Catholics (including the four cardinals who asked Pope Francis to resign) want the Catholic Church to be forever bound by iron-clad rules that do not brook any exceptions EVER;
according to Jesus, he was not pestering pestering the Pharisees to practice what he practices; rather, he is trying to stop them from imposing their narrow thinking on everyone else. This is what fundamentalist love to do. They persuade themselves that they have “God’s absolute point of view” and that their mission is to bring everyone else into line “with their God.” In so doing, they become the Catholic Taliban and justify their “moral terrorism” as somehow required by God himself. This is why, as shown above, Pope Francis calls them “godless.”
Do the Phaisees stop pestering Jesus and concede that the disciples of Jesus do have sufficient cause to override the Sabbath? We don’t know, but probably not. In any case, the Gospel writers do not tell us. But the Evangelists do go on to tell us that Jesus put forward a general norm: “The Sabbath was made for [the benefit of] humankind, not humankind [made] for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 and par.). Thus, Jesus takes the stand that “the day of rest” was designed by God as a blessing to relieve exhaustion from the six days of work.
In Gen 1, even God deliberately rests on the Sabbath follow the exertions of the six days of creation. Some clever theologians might think that such a proposition is preposterous. God is pure Spirit. He never knows fatigue nor exhaustion. Yet, in truth, the God of Israel apparently exhibits a full range of emotions. If so, then, it would not surprise me that the exertion of designing and creating an entire Universe might have been supremely exhausting even for God. Thus, according to this way of thinking, God learned from his own experience how a day of rest could be beneficial. And, this helps explain why God later mandated a day of rest and insured that even slaves and animals were included in this mandate.
These considerations have a bearing on the issue of homosexuality. How is it that Evangelical Fundamentalists are so quick to gather up biblical texts condemning homosexual sex that they apply with supreme rigidity while they so easily dispense themselves from the Law of Moses that clearly condemns anyone failing to keep the Sabbath rest with death by stoning (Exod 31:14, 35:3; Deut 5:13; Nehemiah 13:15-21)? Or, to take up again the argument of Matthew Vines: How can Evangelical Fundamentalists turn to those on their right hand and preach the good news of the Gospel to heterosexuals saying, “God solemnly promises you companionship and sexual intimacy when he says, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’”(Gen 2:18) and, then, these same Fundamentalists turn to their left and say to the homosexuals, “None of this applies to you. God blocks his ears to your cries of loneliness, and he makes no provision for any sexual intimacy to gladden your hearts. You will go into your twilight years utterly alone, and should you decide to enter into a civil marriage (which is worthless in God’s eyes) then, be assured, that God will forever condemn you to hell”? And if Jesus acted outside of the letter of the Mosaic Law when he was moved by compassion for the man with the withered arm and moved by compassion for his disciples stricken by hunger, would not this same Jesus rush to challenge the Fundamentalist Code of Ethics in order to bring a speedy relief to those homosexuals pleading to have Christians recognize the legitimacy of their love and their desire for marriage? And should not the churches be the first (rather than the last) to recognize that God created the blessings of marriage for both the heterosexual and the homosexual alike?
Then another case of Sabbath fundamentalism is introduced:
3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.3:2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.3:3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 3:4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.3:5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.3:6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.3:7 Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him. (Mark 3:1-7)
In the earlier case, Mark makes it clear that Jesus was not accused for violating the Sabbath. Only his disciples were accused. In this second case, Jesus stands alone as the healer and he alone is accused. This narrative presupposes that Jesus has already gained the reputation as a healer (Mark 1:39-2:12) and that his enemies acknowledged his power to heal but attributed it to Beelzebub (Mark 3:22). At one point, Jesus uses the metaphor of “the physician” to describe his work (Mark 2:17). It cannot be that “magic words” are used, since Jews distrusted magic and a magical healing would not constitute “work.” The presumption of Jesus’ accusers here must be that healing involved some manipulation of the arm or hand as a physician would do. Likewise, the term “withered” does not have to imply a congenital deformity because the term “restored” implies that the hand was useless and Jesus restored its use.[iii] St. Jerome, for instance, thought that the man was a mason who suffered an injury that put him out of work. Jesus restored his hand and restored his livelihood as well. It must also be noticed that if the restoration was very dramatic (bone and flesh being suddenly transformed), the sheer power of the transformation would have caused awe and fear in Jesus’ enemies because they would immediately recognize that he could easily afflict his enemies with agonizing suffering just as easily as he presently healed this man from his suffering. So the fact that the Pharisees do not back away in fear or shudder with amazement indicates that Mark does not think of this event as frightening. The issue, after all, is whether Jesus would heal on the Sabbath.
Notice also that the healing in this narrative is not endangering the life of the man. Everyone would recognize the legitimacy for life-saving remedies on the Sabbath. In this case, therefore, Jesus uses this as a teaching lesson for the Pharisees. The issue is not that of doing a “miracle,” since even a miracle would be presumed to be done with God’s power and God is surely the Lord of the Sabbath. The words of Jesus as well make this clear: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus is on target, here, when he gives them a black and white question. Do good or do evil? Save a life or destroy a life? If they say, the former, then Jesus has their approval and can go ahead without any fear that he and his adversaries are on the same page? If they choose the latter terms, then Jesus has them over the barrel because they will be unable to justify their choice from the Scriptures and will look silly in the minds of the people. So they are sullenly silent. Later, however, those Pharisees who are adamantly opposed to his teaching will run to collaborate with the friends of King Herod who are bent upon silencing him.
He looked around at them with anger (Mark 3:5). Most Christians only think of Jesus as flaring up in anger only when he drives the money-changers from the temple. But here, too, he is livid with anger. He turns on his critics by questioning them sternly: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do well or to do harm?” (Mark 3:4 and par.). He did the same earlier when he also challenged his critics saying, “Have you never read what David did when we was in need and was hungry?” (Mark 2:25 and par.). In the end, he entirely dismisses the notion of “true religion” held by these Jewish fundamentalists. They imagine that they are defending God’s honor by ramrodding Sabbath rules that tolerate no exceptions down the throats of the weak and the suffering. Jesus, in contrast, openly opposes them. At the same time, he gives those who agree with him potent arguments that they might easily use to justify their standing with Jesus. Surely there is a message here for Pope Francis and his supporters who are menaced by Cardinal Burke and his Taliban supporters.
What Does Pope Francis Think About Fundamentalists?
Pope Francis understands the corrosive effects of fundamentalism. He knows full well that it has infected the Catholic Church and that it subverts true religion and causes tremendous suffering[i] whenever it shows its ugly head. Let Pope Francis speaks for himself:
So some may ask, “Pope Francis is the pope. Why isn’t he fixing this?” If one of the reporters had asked this question, Francis would have probably replied:
I’m doing what I can. But I’m not a Superman that can see and hear the evil being done by fundamentalist in ever diocese in the world and then rush faster than a speeding bullet to provide a papal remedy. So that’s why I said a moment ago ‘We have to combat it.’ Be fearless!