Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Daily Meditation: Mercy Is Front and Center

Jesus Christ came to this earth with a message of compassion, love and mercy.  Many say that the Gospel of Love does away with the law, but that is not what Our Lord said,  He told us he came to fulfill the law (Mt. 5:17).  How did our Lord accomplish this?  Today's readings give us a vivid illustration of this great message.

The first reading is from HEB 7:1-3, 15-17.  This is the kind of reading that, on first hearing, can put us right to sleep.  It speaks about an ancient priest with a really weird name - Melchizedek - in the time of Abraham, which was even before the nation of Israel.  What possible relevance could this have for us in the 21st Century?

The first verses tell us:
Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High,
met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings
and blessed him.
And Abraham apportioned to him a tenth of everything.
This verse would have tremendous meaning to a Jew in Jesus' time in the first century.  All legitimate priests of that time were descendants of the tribe of Levi, and then narrowed down even further to descendants of Aaron, the first high priest and the brother of Moses.  But here we are told about a priest who lived before Levi or Aaron were even born.  Yet, we are told that Melchizedek is a "priest of God Most High" and one to whom Abraham gave his offerings.  So this was  no average Joe on the street.

The next verse get even more mysterious:
His name first means righteous king,
and he was also "king of Salem," that is, king of peace.
Without father, mother, or ancestry,
without beginning of days or end of life,
thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.
"Melchizedek" actually means "righteous king" and he is king of peace.  We are told that Melchizedek has no father or mother - in fact no ancestry at all - no beginning and no end, and that he is a priest forever, "made to resemble the Son of God."  So Melchizedek is unlike the priests in the time of Jesus, who received their authority solely because of their circumstances of birth.

Jesus, according to the law, was not qualified to be a priest because he was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi, and not a descendant of Aaron.  But like Melchizedek, Jesus did not receive his authority through the law:
It is even more obvious if another priest is raised up
after the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become so,
not by a law expressed in a commandment concerning physical descent
but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed.
For it is testified:
You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
So the writer of the book of Hebrews is telling us that there is a greater authority than the law that governed the nation of Judah for so many centuries.  It is the same authority that made Melchizedek a priest before the time of the first high priest - Aaron - and this authority made Jesus Christ a high priest even though he was not qualified according to Jewish tradition.

The responsorial  psalm gives us the attributes of Melchizedek and in turn, Jesus Christ:
You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.The LORD said to my Lord: "Sit at my right handtill I make your enemies your footstool."
The scepter of your power the LORD will stretch forth from Zion:"Rule in the midst of your enemies."
"Yours is princely power in the day of your birth, in holy splendor;before the daystar, like the dew, I have begotten you."
The LORD has sworn, and he will not repent:"You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek."
The main responsibility of the priests in the time of Jesus was to enforce the law.  This was very important to them because without the law, they had no authority and no standing in the community.  But the Gospel reading tells us of an incident in which Jesus seems to once again flaunt the law, saying there was a higher law than the one enforced by the Levitical priesthood.  It is called the Law of Love.

MK 3:1-6

Jesus came into the synagogue on the Sabbath as was his custom.  Now the Pharisees were already upset with Jesus because in their thinking He had previously "broken" the Sabbath by allowing his disciples to pick and eat corn on this sacred day.  They knew Jesus' "weakness" for those in need, so they watched closely to see what He would do with the man with the withered hand.  Jesus knew they were watching, waiting to accuse him, but that did not dissuade him in any way.

Jesus' first action was to bring the man front and center in the synagogue, wanting all to see what he would do.
He said to the man with the withered hand,
"Come up here before us."
Before he healed the man, he asked the Pharisees a very telling question:
Then he said to the Pharisees,
"Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil,
to save life rather than to destroy it?"
So what are the Pharisees going say - you can't do good on the Sabbath because it is work?  If they admitted this, their authority, as they perceived it, would be undermined.  So "they remained silent."

And how did our Lord respond to them?
Looking around at them with anger
and grieved at their hardness of heart,
It must be remembered that the Pharisees were experts in the law, and they themselves obeyed the law perfectly. Yet, obeying the law did not produce love in their hearts. In fact, as stated here, their hearts were hard and cold and uncaring. The law, of and by itself, cannot change men. The law cannot make us like God, it cannot give us salvation. That is a lesson that far too many "religious" people have still not learned thousands of years later. Far too many of those who call themselves "Christian" are like the pharisees in Jesus' time, putting all their emphasis on "doing" the right thing, but without love for God or man,

The first reading told us that the true High Priest did not receive his authority from the law written on scrolls. And we do not receive our salvation from the law, either. We receive it through the love, mercy and forgiveness of God, and unless we allow that love and mercy to change our hearts and make us like Him, we will remain lost sinners, no matter how perfectly we obey the letter of the law.

Obedience to the law does not fill us with God's grace. It is God's grace that enables us to obey the law. Jesus always healed people first, and it was only after they were healed that Jesus told them to "sin no more." We want people to "sin no more" before receiving the grace of God, and that is an impossible task, putting heavy burdens on men that they cannot bear, just as Jesus Christ condemned the Pharisees of doing.

This is the message of our current Holy Father, Pope Francis. This is the message of Amoris Laetitia.

Do we accept this message, or are we like Pharisees who, after witnessing the healing of the man with the withered hand, "went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against [Jesus] to put him to death."

Whose side are you on?
James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees , 1886-1894.
Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper. Brooklyn Museum.

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