Saturday, March 01, 2008

Fr. Howard Gray SJ, on Choosing out of Compassion

A Lenten Retreat based on Mt. 9:36 and Mt 11:29

My parish recently hosted a mini-retreat which was led by the Rev. Howard J. Gray, SJ.

Fr. Gray is currently the Assistant to the President for Special Projects at Georgetown University. He has also served as the Rector of the Jesuit community at John Carroll University, as Associate professor of Spiritual Theology and Rector of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and the Jesuit Provincial for the Detroit Province. He has also taught and lectured at Boston College and Fordham University.

Since I've become sensitized to the issue, I've become increasingly uncomfortable and impatient with interpretations of Christianity which need to characterize Judaism as a legalistic, burdensome religion. I don't feel a need to denigrate another religion in order to lift up my own, particularly the religion of Jesus himself. I'm not saying that Fr. Gray was doing this, but I think he's hanging onto some interpretations that are becoming increasingly outdated. Nevertheless, I think there was a lot that was valuable to be taken out of his presentation. My notes:

The theme is compassion. The first approach is to look at how the Lord shows compassion, and then at how we show compassion.

Passion is a peculiar word. There is sexual passion, and emotional passion, emotions stirred by words or ideas. The Church speaks of passion as in the case of the Passion narrative, but also in the words of our Lord. Christ gathered in his heart the experiences of those around him, and we speak of passion in the sense of how this moved him. It speaks of the very human way in which he received all the data about his people from his Father, and translated it for the rest of his life. People wanted to lead a better life, but were trapped. He knew that there were people on the borders, broken-hearted, who wanted to be invited in. This was the data that God was giving him through the people among who he lived. In his own community, he was so mingled among the human that he lost himself in the human.

In the Gospel of Matthew we see summary statements of what the people around him were like. They were sheep without shepherds. To Israel, God is like a shepherd (23rd Psalm). That is what Israel thought God should be to it. The shepherd metaphor had immediate and practical, familiar meaning to them. Jesus sees them wandering, getting lost, and perishing. They were not doing bad things. They were good people, many who could not read or write, who did not know all the laws, worked hard during the day, even to the point of not having a place to wash their hands (with the result of not being able to follow all of the laws completely). On the one hand, they felt no release from Roman oppression. On the other, they had no time for education to follow the laws perfectly. They had love for temple worship, but yearned for it more deeply. Much of the message of Jesus is the bringing of the fullness of life to people in his own tradition. Jesus learned it himself by watching them, listening to them, and hearing their hearts. Not only in listening to them and being formed by them, but their hunger was in some way his hunger. He was searching and questioning too. He was with them. “Who do people say that I am?” The question was real, and came from his own heart. “What do you see?” We don’t claim that “Jesus was like us in all things but questions.” He understands us as he understood them. Com-passion. He knew their hunger, as an itinerant preacher. He was in the fields, the villages, and the towns. He was where the people were. He fed their hunger, thirst, and tiredness.

In Luke, we see a description of this activity. He eats a lot (the Ministry of Hospitality – “Table Ministry”). Eating a meal is a chance for exchange. When you ate a meal with someone, it rubbed off on you. You became one of their family. Examples are see in the parables of:

- The Lost Coin and the Widow
- The Lost Sheep and the Shepherd
- The Prodigal Son

In all, we can see Jesus realizing “They need me.” They need to know that no matter what they’ve done, they will be loved. He deepened his understanding of family life, and of friendship, and of caring. These are people too poor to pay the Temple Tax. The Romans were taking almost all from them with taxes of their own, and the inability to pay the Temple Tax was making them feel like 3rd class or 4th class religious citizens.

As for the rich, there were two kinds. Those showing off, and those who realized how poor they really were. In the story of Simon and the woman with the alabaster jar, where Jesus is invited to eat at the home of a rich man, we see an example of the rich “slumming.” On the other hand, we have the story of Zaccheus. A shrimp whom no one had ever bothered to treat seriously, before Jesus did.

Jesus did his ministry while walking. It was not formalized. He meets worlds that he never met before, such as the gentile world, the Samaritan world, and the sinful world. For example, Joseph and Mary’s world was not a bad world, but it was a careful world. Mary would not have met with prostitutes, and we see evidence that the family of Jesus was somewhat confused and worried about his actions. Jesus was reaching out to people who were being too quickly written off as being beyond the reach of God.

Jesus was speaking with authority. It came from inside, from someone who felt the impact of his own words. He spoke of God as “Abba”, a beloved father. He was talking from his heart.

The mark of humanity is being born into restriction (Rahner?). We are limited, but his disciples recognized him, and even crucifixion and death could not change that. At the age of 77, we are not like we were at the age of 27. We change. We learn as we walk through life. Through weaknesses and mistakes, we become wiser. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God being at hand. From him there was a renewed sense of urgency and availability. Part of the reason why he was killed was because he made religion too available. The people of his time considered God to be transcendent. To be transcendent, however, does not mean being remote or distant. It means that he is more than what we think he is. More loving, more forgiving, more compassionate.

Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God had begun. It is in your hands. The Kingdom is both within your grasp and still yet to be fulfilled. Both notions are held up to skepticism in the world in which we live. Religion is now being held up as the prime cause of fanaticism and wars. Religion, of course, can be misused just like money, property, and learning can. That is the nature of free will. Our freedom also gives us the ability to love. Love cannot be forced. Our Lord understood freedom. Sometimes he was angry, sometimes he mourned, but mostly his inclination as to invite. In John: “What are you looking for?” “Master, where do you live?” “Come and see.”

In Luke, the same truths are there. “What is the greatest commandment if one is to inherit the Kingdom of God.” “Love your neighbor.” “Who is my neighbor?”

The Good Samaritan (After Delacroix),
by Vincent van Gogh (1890)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan. The traveler was alone, which would have been immediately recognizable to listeners as stupidity. He had no common sense. In the parable, the traveler is an intrusion. He doesn’t speak a word. A Man of the Law, such as a Levite, will know just what to do in a case like this. He crosses over to the other side, to avoid pollution. He’s not a cruel man; he just takes no notice. The same with the priest. Then comes the Samaritan. Samaritans were seen as renegades, both religiously and socially (but Jesus had learned universality). They were Semitic people, but not “our” Semitic people. There are four things the Samaritan does. He sees, draws closer, and allows his heart to be touched (with compassion). He felt pity for him. He was moved. If we stopped right there, it would be an aesthetic experience, but he pours on wine of disinfectant, oil of balms and bandaged his wounds. Where did the bandages come from? From his own clothing. He lifted him, put him on his beast, and detoured his journey. He moved beyond seeing and allowing his heart to be touched. He gave up his time, his money, his priorities. He became caretaker, going as far as to say to the innkeeper, you take care of him. I will pay you when I come back (in other words, I will check up on you). When asked who did the right thing, the lawyer answers, “I suppose the one who did good to him” He can’t even bring himself to say “The Samaritan.”

All of our ethics can be summed up in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is to see the way the Samaritan saw. To take the time to let the other enter into our consciousness. Apprehension and appropriation. Letting the reality of the other enter your life.

An anecdote shared by Fr. Gray:

A gay high school student told me of how he had been jumped and beaten up in gym class. They had broken his ribs, beating up a fag for Christ. "What gets me father, is that I know all of these guys had gone up to receive communion on Sunday. That's why I don't want to be a Catholic anymore. Father, I'm a virgin, but I don't want to be celibate for my whole life either. I want a partner someday..." We need to really see, to let the reality of the other enter our lives, and to see the other person as a person.
We pray that we might see, that our hearts may be touched, to do what we can, to pass it on, with our time and resources. It’s not something that the hierarchy does while we watch, even if they are at times tempted to think it is.


Meg said...

I think I know how you feel about the Christian view of Judaism, Jeff.

I have a couple of thoughts that make it easier for me to listen to those interpretations, though.

I wonder if Jewish practice at the time of Christ's ministry HAD gone a bit overboard. Caiaphas had been high priest (de facto ruler of all Jews) for 18 years. When appointed, he'd been the 5th high priest in 4 years -- he took power and brought stability. Stability for the Jewish faith is probably a good thing in occupied Judea. He was a hard-ass, but he was trying to maintain control so that the Romans would stay out of Jewish life.

There were at least 3 religious factions, and then there were political groups or terrorists or guerillas, or whatever, trying to destabilise Rome. Crucifixion was not an uncommon thing, remember. Maybe any given interpretation is thinking of one particular faction.

I wonder too, whether religious practice up north in Galilee was really the same as it was in J'lem. Do you think your Sunday mass is the same as the one in St. Peter's in Rome? Up north they had no temple -- just synagogue for reading scripture and prayer and debate. Did they ever see the Temple? Maybe once or twice in their lives? The faith of Jesus in the north would have been far less Temple oriented, in fact, less legalistic and more practical.

I also remind myself that the Judaism of the 2nd Temple era was not the same as the Rabbinic Judaism of today. And that even today, those who observe the religious laws strictly and literally make up a very tiny portion of Judaism, for the very reason that it IS quite burdensome and legalistic. (or at least I assume that's the reason)

I'd rather hear that Jesus was great because he was great, not because he was better than Judaism, but the NT writers sometimes make it hard to do that without the Jewish context.

I don't blame "the Jews" for Jesus death, but I do blame (so to speak) the Jewish authorities of his day. They have no more to do with the Jews of today than the Pope of today has to do with the Inquisition. But we cannot deny history, either. In our laudable desire to wipe out anti-semitism, we can't rewrite Jesus life. He was a Jew, his own people turned on him. No matter WHAT nation he was born into, it would have turned against him.

You take great notes, by the way -it sounds like a very good retreat.


crystal said...

That sounds like a good retreat. The idea of compassion as suffering with another, feeling their pain, and then acting to help, is very Ignatian, I think. Good note taking! :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Meg!

How've you been? You make a good point about Caiaphas and the factions hanging around at the time. As a matter of fact, when you look at what happened later, when the high priest Ananus had St. James the Lesser (the "brother of the Lord"), Bishop of the Jerusalem Church, killed at the Temple, it looks very much like a blood feud between the family of Caiaphas and Jesus & his relatives.

It's important to remember, as you point out, how diverse Judaism was in the time of the Second Temple period. Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes...

The Roman quislings in the Temple Priesthood and among the Saduccees were one thing. Sometimes I wonder though, if the Pharisees, who were the forebears of what we know today as Rabbinical Judaism, wound up getting a bad rap in certain respects. I don't know if the facts of history have them as powerful in the Sanhedrin as the Sadducees were. Furthermore, there seems to be a lot that the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus had in common. The Sadducees didn't believe in an afterlife, angels, or the resurrection of the body. The Pharisees, like the early Christians, believed in all of these things. A lot of the sayings of Jesus sound similar to what was being said by a rough contemporary of his, the rabbi Hillel (in fact, on certain things, like marriage, Jesus had a stricter interpretation of Torah than Hillel did). Furthermore, as far as what I've learned from things I've read (and I admit I'm no expert on these matters), it seems to me that there would have been no reason why a Pharisee would have necessarily wanted to see Jesus dead for saying that he was the "Son of Man" or because people were saying that he was a prophet. The Pharisees were messianic and in some cases apocalyptic too. Chances are, in reality, they probably would have found Jesus interesting and have wanted to take a "wait and see" attitude towards the claims of Jesus and his followers. This is hinted at by Luke in Acts, when the great Pharisee teacher Gamaliel says something along the lines of "If these men are not from God, this will all fall apart. If they are from God, you will not be able to stop it."

Do you ever wonder if some of these historical-critical scholars are right in claiming that the tension we see in the Gospels between the Jesus movement and the Pharisees are indicative of what happened in the years after Jesus was crucified, especially in the years after the destruction of the Temple? The Saducees were no longer around at that point, and the Pharisees might have become skeptical about the messianic claims of the Christians, if Jesus had not yet returned in glory as the Christians were claiming he would, and the world was not being transformed. Could the Gospels in some way reflect a frustration on the part of the Christians with the people who were not accepting their message?

Hi Crystal,

It was an interesting lecture, presented very much along Ignatian lines. My notes? :-D

If there was anything they taught me well at all at the Joseph E. Fiske Elementary School, it was how to take notes.

Meg said...

Jeff, I hadn't heard about the Pharisee/Jesus tension reflecting a later situation, but it might make sense. I know that a similar tension with the Jews is one of the interpretations of the apparent anti-Jewish sentiment in John.

I've read that Jesus might have been a Pharisee, and that so many questions from them indicates that they were trying to figure out what was teh difference between Jesus teaching and their own.

I really think you'd enjoy Neusner's A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.

Jeff said...


I think you're right about the Gospel of John. I have a hard time imagining Jesus calling his own people "children of the devil". I'm willing to consider that a later interpolation put into his mouth, reflecting the tensions at the time.

I just might give that book by Neusner a read. I recommend also, Jesus, the Misunderstood Jew, by Amy Jill-Levine.