“What is this? A new teaching—with authority!”
Is Christ new?
Jesus certainly comes across to many as “new” in the story we read from the gospels today.
I have long ceased to be surprised when someone, new to the faith, tells me they find Christianity, the teachings of Jesus, to be “new.” That is, they’ve never heard this stuff before.
Some of these folks come from non-Christian, or secular backgrounds, taught by family, teachers, their government, their celebrity idols, that Christianity is hypocritical, repressive (even downright evil), and so on. Yet as many or more are baptized and grew up surrounded by indifference to the faith, with vague recollections of Sunday school lessons received during a brief period of responsibility from their parents for some kind of religious formation. Many are cradle Catholics who left off any regular relationship with Christ either through the Church or through their own personal piety years ago; a break made shortly after receiving confirmation, or not long after they left home for college, university, a job, a marriage.
The gospel is “new” to them, it’s “news” to them; and of course, it’s “good news”.
It’s not unlike all of these Judeans and Galileans who meet Jesus and find what he’s saying is all so “new”.
And none of this, logically, makes a bit of sense.
There’s “nothing new under the sun” the scriptures tell us; and Christian teaching, in confessing Jesus as the Eternal Word of God made flesh, in no way gives any agreement to the idea that Christ is “new”.
What is beyond dispute is that He has true authority, which in a way contradicts the notion of novelty. To be seen as innovative would have been a red flag to an ancient person: the “authority” of a teaching derives from the sense that it is “authored” by the divine and so is fixed, permanent and everlasting from a realm beyond this world of time and space. Christ is eternal, timeless, unchanging. He is truth—the truth that reveals who we are, as uncomfortable as that might make us; but He also offers the truth as the remedy for what ails us.
Jesus elsewhere in the gospels says that he has not come to change the Law, “not one jot or tittle” (to quote an old, and charming translation). In a very real sense, Jesus is the Law made flesh as the Word of God encompasses the Law given to Moses, as well as the prophecy and wisdom we find in the scriptures. Indeed, it is integral to our faith that we understand that Christ speaks in both the Old Testament and the New Testament; that He is present throughout the history of Israel, He was there at the Rock of Horeb, upon Mount Sinai, was present and involved in the giving of the Law to Moses, in the instruction of that great prophet; and so, when incarnate as the person of Jesus, Christ is not saying anything new either by word or action. Rather, He is explaining and illustrating “the Law” to people whose minds have dulled to it; whose culture has drifted from it; whose teachers have ceased to understand it; whose community leaders have failed to uphold it.
There is nothing new under the Sun, and we find ourselves again in a time when most live their lives with the assumption they’ve heard the gospel and know who Jesus is. That assumption is present in our culture, among our political leadership and educational establishment–they all think they know Him; some feeling that where they depart from biblical teaching, it is a justified reform toward a more authentic gospel (presuming to act as they think Jesus did when he appeared to be “new” and innovative). Still others ditch the idea that He was in any way divine, but that His teaching was a good jumping off point toward realizing social justice in our day and age.
A fortunate few, in actually listening to His words, come to realize they know hardly anything about Him or the nature of the Gospel; and so, it really is new to them, and a lot more “revolutionary” and coherent than what today’s activists are pushing.
Popular sentiment today is that things are not good.
It’s not just the pandemic and the obvious disarray this has caused, especially amongst the political leadership who don’t really know what to do (but are determined to do something!).
The faithful are confused as to where there allegiances ought to be in working our way out of the hole we’ve dug. Rather inadvisably many Catholics place their confidence in Catholic politicians who are anything but faithful examples. Like their ancient counterparts, Herod and his sons, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, all those leaders of factions and movements within Judea at the time of Jesus’ ministry thought of themselves as both faithful, and the right people for the job of leading Israel. Today, I fear too many politicians of faith or other deeply held convictions believe that because they think themselves good by virtue of their religious or ideological pedigree, and their goals good because they bear some passing resemblance to Judeo-Christian values, that their governance will be equally good for the people. We also see exhibited a particular elitism in many of them: whatever sense of entitlement they might have, whatever exemption from personal moral accountability they might entertain, they are convinced that they are still the right people to be in charge.
This comes of forgetting that our civilization is only civilized by the active encouragement of virtue and the development of personal responsibility—and not the indulgence of vice and the inculcation of an attitude of entitlement. That a cultural foundation built on moral relativity is shifting sand, not the rock of truth.
Our economic life partakes of chaos, disorder and corruption. The recent GameStop controversy that saw the tables turned on predatory hedge funds was eye-opening as we saw the “investment community” turn on the everyday small investor to protect their interests, suspend trading to prevent their losses. This is something never afforded the little guys and gals who lose everything when the markets turn downward. It shows us that the “free” market is not free and open, but manipulated and rigged; and sadly, supported by national central banks, protected by finance ministers and treasury officials, and excused by our leadership who know where their campaign contributions come from.
This all comes from abandoning biblical principles and a faith perspective on the purposes of trade and investment. The particular practice of “selling short” is abhorrent from a scriptural point of view: it involves selling something you don’t own (albeit with a commitment to buy it later and a plan to do so at a price lower than what you sold it for). How is it possible to sell something you don’t own?
The purchase of stock, that is part ownership in a company, is to be a true investment in an enterprise from which all stockholders will jointly benefit through dividends. It is not to be treated like so many chips at a gambling table, for the stock certificate represents the working lives of people trying to create something of value and so increase the wealth of our society. Just so with trade: it’s not to be a tool of political domination or a means of economic exploitation, but rather an exchange that mutually benefits and builds up all the participants.
When it comes to individual accountability, to the moral code that Jesus both teaches and exemplifies, it isn’t a call to thoughtless do-gooding that excuses our personal sin.
It begins with self-control, which then allows a person to move out into the world in effective action for good by first, setting a good example, and secondly, having an understanding of what is truly for the good of others.
The obvious point of attack against our faith is that ethic of self-control, especially within the realm of sexuality, but extending out to the indulgence of all manner of hedonistic tendency. Yet the fallout of the sexual revolution has not led many to happiness. Family life has ceased to be central to our culture that encourages a solipsism rooted in sensual pleasure; and the few who might claim the joys of this liberation ultimately find the euphoria fleeting. In no small way has this led many young people to rediscover the faith of, well not their fathers, but more their grandfathers and grandmothers, and the more satisfying and lasting ecstasies of a life lived in the Holy Spirit and guided by Christ.
When St. Paul wrote of the distractions of married life that could lead someone to forget God and Christ as they wrestled with the practical problems of family life, I wonder if he could possibly have envisioned our current situation. One of the chief causes of distraction from ultimate things in the ancient world was the worry that arose from the precariousness of life. To be married was to only increase that burden, and the risk of being lost in the cares of the world as one strove to keep alive and intact one’s family. The single person would then find their personal surrender to God so much the easier in that context.
The miracle of the modern technological society largely relieved us of the fundamental concern for our bodily survival. Barring accident or catastrophic illness, we haven’t had to worry over famine, war, plague, lawlessness, etc. for decades… well, until now.
How interesting that the prophets of doom now make their appearance: the health experts, the economic experts, the legal and political experts, all insisting upon their authority and forecasting disaster if they are not heeded, leaning on politicians to lend them the power of the state to compel compliance.
As Moses warned, these are not prophets of God. The true prophet speaks God’s word, calls us to repentance, but above all recalls us to a relationship with God in truth and love—something that silences the inner demons, boosts our confidence and restores our joy. There is nothing new in any of this, it’s just true.