The Readings for the 21st Thursday, Tempus per Annum (C2)
Memorial of Saint Louis, King of France
Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Matthew 24:42 (AV)
RUNNING HISTORY through filters of modern politics always leads us into trouble, but today’s Saint, King Louis IX of France, has been on my mind since the 12th when Salmon Rushdie was stabbed at the Chautauqua Institute last week. I have to admit I’m of mixed emotions: I’m opposed to violence at all. Yet I think the anger may be justified. So I’m not sure how I feel. Our Lord’s command to keep watch or “stay awake” as the NABRE has it (poorly) rendered must include all things that are legitimately in one’s sphere: I must watch myself, a parent must not watch only their self, but also their children and their children’s educators. To what extent should a Catholic in a position of civil power “keep watch”?
Blasphemy is a hard thing in a “modern” society. Hate speech against someone’s deity or prophet is not something we conceive of. Think of the number of pieces of “art” or “cinema” that have been actual blasphemy against Jesus. So, like I said, I’m opposed to violence and opposed to the “fatwah” against the person of Salmon Rushdie, but I totally understand the anger caused by the book. And I think about King St Louis. (I’ve been thinking about him for over a year, actually.)
One perception common among Christians today is that we need only explain to a random Jewish person the way to read the Bible rightly and they will totally understand why they should “accept Jesus”. In certain Evangelical circles this is often focused on the Prophets or even, specifically, the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah. If only someone understood how to read that properly then they would understand Jesus. Of course this tactic denies that there is an authentically Jewish way to read the scriptures. It also denies that today is 2,000 years after the fact. It’s this second point that seems important to me just now: a Jewish person today is not reading the Bible the same way Jews did in the time of Jesus. It’s impossible for them (or us) to do so without training and even unlearning. There are 2,000 years of conversation intervening. Jewish and Christian conversations diverged between 30 AD and 135 AD. And then those conversations have progressed (most often without any positive connection with each other) since.
I like to think of the Jewish and Christian conversations as two rabbinical councils. This is very simplified! I just want to paint a picture. In 50 AD, there was one sort of conversation going on – there were many differing sects within Judaism. Of these, the followers of the Jesus guy were one. We hear of others (but not all) in the Gospels: Sadducees, Pharisees, Priests, Samaritans, Zealots, Herodians. From extra-biblical sources we know of others as well, like the Hasids, the Hasmoneans, and the Essenes. Each Jewish sect had adherents and there were also people who leaned one way or the other. These may overlap more or less. (Some folks think the Essenes may have included John the Baptist and/or Jesus, for example.) By the time we get to 135 or so, though, there’s really only a few of those sects left and by 200 there’s really only two: what we think of as “Christian” and what we think of as “Jewish”. That said, it probably takes another 200 years or so to iron things out. But there are two “groups of rabbis” then. One are the fathers of the Church Councils and one are the fathers of what we call Rabbinic Judaism. They are not talking officially, although as late as St John Chrysostom (late 4th Century) it’s clear that the laity are doing more than just talking: St John’s sermons telling Christians not to do Jewish things would be unneeded if they were not doing them.
St Louis pops into this story in 1200. 800 years earlier than now, but still 1000 years after the bifurcation between the Jewish and Christian conversations. His experience is 1000 years removed from St Paul preaching in synagogues around the Roman Empire. Oddly though, St Louis seems to think a lot like our modern Christian brain: he thinks we need only explain the “right way” to read the scriptures and any Jew would convert. Louis was, therefore, shocked to learn that Jews have their own on-going unfolding of tradition. There were 1000 years of conversation not only “minding their own business” but rejecting Jesus. And, surprisingly to Louis (and the other folks in France), that conversation carries the weight of scripture – just like Christian tradition does for us. The authority of our faith is not “in the book” but in the conversation. For Jews the unfolding of revelation is part of the conversation within the Rabbinic Councils and within the on-going prophetic understanding of the text. Christians believe the Holy Spirit is guiding our conversation – that God is engaged in the unfolding of his own meaning within the Church.
Unsurprisingly, these two different conversations arrive (continually) at different conclusions. It’s not just Jesus: it’s the meaning of the entire text, the whole kit and kaboodle now. What does the Fall of Adam or Original Sin mean to a Jew? What is Shekhinah, Merkabah, or Kabbalah to a Christian?
Moderns don’t like burning books. But, that said, we don’t actually believe in the free marketplace of ideas: some ideas are considered – even now – to be dangerous. We were officially burning books in the USA as recently as 1956. We’re not above silencing folks even now – cancelling social mediae, etc. St Louis enters this story at a point where the official Rabbinic rejection of Jesus had been pretty much codified. The King opens Jewish texts (in Translation) and sees – essentially – blasphemy. How should he react? Mindful that he is a King and that some part (if not the larger part) of his Job is to protect Christians and Christianity in his realm. How should he treat dangerous ideas?
Can we (who would report someone’s Twitter account for just about anything) feel good about “how far we’ve come” since St Louis? Who is more right? I do not legitimately know. Should anyone be allowed to say anything they want about anyone they want (including God)? What is the function of a secular state when accusations of blasphemy arise? Again, I do not legitimately know.
I do not adventure an answer to the questions raised at the top of the post. We must deliver up each man and woman to their inner court of conscience. I will say we should yield likewise for St Louis. He is a man who acted – as a King – as his conscience guided him. By way of confession, my own internal answers kept me out of my mother’s chosen career paths for me: military, law, and politics. In my youth, I was afraid I would not be strong enough to hold to the faith in the face of pressure. Now I think I would have been cancelled long ago. Thus, I will only close where I began.
Our Lord’s command to keep watch must include all things that are legitimately in one’s sphere. To what extent should a Catholic in a position of civil power “keep watch”?