After we attended Easter service, my husband was speculating about what it might have been like for Mary Magdalene to go out and try to tell the rest of the world what she had discovered at the grave of Jesus. I told him about my copy of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which might shed a little more insight. He read it aloud as we drove to my aunt and uncle’s for Easter brunch, adding his own commentary along the way. At one point, Jesus is quoted as saying:
“Impose no law other than that which I have witnessed. Do not add more laws to those given in the Torah, lest you become bound by them.”
Ivan paused and said, “It’s no wonder this book was banned from the Bible!”
That’s had me thinking a lot about Jesus and laws. It’s true that Jesus’ aim seemed to be to simplify, not add to, a religious legal system. He condensed the hundreds of rules of the Torah into just two: Love your God above all others; and Love your neighbor as yourself. Yet, it’s not just Catholics who insist on adding hundreds of rules on top of those initially given by Jesus (The Catechism alone has almost 3,000 entries, all which can be interpreted as “rules” for the Catholic faith.) Plain Truth Ministries is dedicated to getting “back to basics,” separating legalism from Christianity, mostly from a Protestant tradition. Indeed, one could argue that the reason Christianity has splintered into so many denominations at all is not because of disagreement over Jesus, but disagreement over the rules that should be attached to following Him.
I’m not totally opposed to rules and refining interpretation, and I’m certainly not opposed to the Catechism. On the contrary, one of the things I love about Catholicism is its long history of thinking deeply about what defines our faith, its (historical) welcoming of intellect to the Scriptural table. Yet, whenever a supposed “rule” of Christianity feels at odds with my own conscience, I go back to Jesus as my litmus test: What does He say about it? On many issues considered central to Christianity (condemnation of same-sex love, abstinence before marriage, men’s “leadership” role in the Church and in life), Jesus is strangely silent. What Jesus is loud about is love, service, and humility.
The thing is, those are some very broad directives, with room for thousands of interpretations. But perhaps if we trusted people to discern Jesus’ call as it pertained to their own lives, we wouldn’t need so many rules. One could argue that “loving your God above all others” is justification for a celibate priesthood. But why not let each priest decide for himself (and God willing, herself!) whether that’s the way Jesus is calling him to live out the two commandments that must be central to everything we do?
When Pope Francis was first appointed, I was telling my husband what I’d learned about him, and what I knew about the Jesuits. Ivan asked, “Jesuits — does that have anything to do with following Jesus?”
I said, “Yes — it stands for ‘the Society of Jesus’.”
Have we arrived at a point in the life of Christianity where one must ask, whether a certain order is concerned primarily with following Jesus? Why isn’t this the default assumption?
Even so, we’ve all seen religious leaders, both Catholic and protestant, more concerned with upholding their version of Christianity than following Jesus, who make their traditions and their history their idolatrous God. So we might all do well to ask, every time a new piece of news comes out about a bishop’s directive or the Pope’s latest action: “Does that have anything to do with following Jesus?”
My prayer is that the answer will be yes.