Torah, Assisted Dying and The Synod

I thought the readings last Sunday were particularly pertinent and spoke clearly to me regarding several issues. The Readings were:

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Psalm: 14:2-5; Response: v. 1
Second Reading: James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It has taken me a few evenings to write this up, largely because I was working out what I wanted to understand about the Scripture in my own head. This was a reaction to the teaching of the Scriptures regarding Law, revelation and fidelity. These issues are worth discussing here because a proper understanding of the Scriptures, especially in a proper Old Testament context, can only deepen one's understanding of the important societal battle being waged in which we are the troops, whether we like it or not. As I opined earlier this week, we need to stand up and fight! I think this Sunday's readings really show off an apparent contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament: at least that is the conventional reading of the text, which demonstrates a failure to properly understand what is being taught here. So, does the Deuteronomic text advocate a rigourism which Jesus admonishes in the Gospel reading? When you stop and think for a minute, that simply could not be so, because Jesus is the perfection of the Old Testament; the fulfilment of it (Matthew 5:17-18). Maybe these readings stirred up thoughts of the forthcoming Marris Bill for assisted suicide for you, or maybe thoughts of the forthcoming Synod. They did for me. This is how:

The Old Testament reading really gripped me. To provide some background; Deuteronomy is basically three long speeches by Moses (1:1-4:43; 4:44-26:19; & 27-34) which serve to prepare Israel for the conquest and inhabitance of the promised land. The speeches address the people in an "I—You" language of person-to-person discourse. It is existential; it puts us on the spot by challenging us to enter into covenant with the LORD now.

Deuteronomy is the last will and testament of Moses. His speeches in the first four sections follow the outline of a covenant renewal programme, beginning with a historical prologue recounting God's faithfulness to the Israelites throughout their wilderness journey (1:1-4:43) followed by a presentation of the general laws of the covenant (4:44-26:19), and the specific precepts deriving from the laws (12:1-26:19), concluding the speeches with the rites of the covenant renewal at Moab. The final section of the book brings to a conclusion the Pentateuch as a whole by communication Moses' last words and account of his death (31:1-34:12).

The Law, in OT terms, is not stricture, not deprivation of freedom, quite the opposite. It is donation of freedom, and we see that in the reading today. It is because of The Law of God revealed to the Israelites, that they are free; they are unique; they are recognisably more civilised in their conduct than their contemporaries. For the people of the Old Testament, The Law was a privilege:
He makes known His word to Jacob,
to Israel His laws and decrees
He has not dealt thus with other nations;
He has not taught them His decrees (Ps 147)
Hamel calls the Decalogue the Ten Words of Freedom. The implications of the covenant and of the Decalogue are that we have been freed and are to respect also the freedom of others liberated by God. This means that The Law and the Decalogue for part of a theological foundation of basic human rights. The Decalogue touches all the major areas of life, all necessary for society to function, enjoining responsibility for other people in each aspect of human existence.
The Law embodies God's voice. It is not some remote or ethereal wisdom but rather an accessible personal word (30:11-14). The Lord who speaks from the fire is, above all else, the God of love. God's love alone accounts for His election of Israel to be His people. His love is infinitely more than a warm sentiment; He has expressed it in the concrete acts of delivering His people from bondage in Egypt, blessing them in the words of the foreigner Balaam, and promising to remain faithful to them in the future (4:32-40; 7:7-15; 10:15; 23:6).

In The Covenant, God demands that His people make a decision and take personal responsibility for remaining faithful to Him (11:26-32; 30:15-20).

Deuteronomy echoes through the words of Jesus as He implants God's word on the hearts of all who believe in Him. It is the concern for the believer's heart apparent in Deuteronomy that prepares us for Jesus' correction of the Pharisees' preoccupation with externals as we hear in today's Gospel (see Dt 6:4-6; 10:12-22).

God becoming known to Moses through His revelation "YHWH" (I am he that is) provides a radical break in a time where the Hebrews were surrounded by a confusing tangle of different gods. The God revealed to us in the Torah is the God of men, the "God of our fathers", powerful wherever man is and not just some numen locale. This characteristic of God remains the one sustaining element throat the history of Israel and the New Testament faith: the emanation of God's personality, the understanding of God on the plane defined by the I—You relationship/ language.

The intrinsic quality of belief consists of the reception what cannot be thought out. Faith comes from outside; its word cannot be treated and exchanged as one sees fit; it is always foreordained and always ahead of one’s thinking. God is the ‘beyond’ that we all seek. He has sought us out. The Church teaches that God has planned a destiny for man which man could not claim as a right: to share God’s own life.

When I heard:
"You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you."
My mind ran immediately to the synod.
this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!”
I thought: this is what makes us wise; that we do not capitulate to what is going on in the world around us, but stand as a beacon to all the nations.

What did the psalm tell us?

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?

There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.

It does feel like this an awful lot at the moment. When you try to listen to the Lord and do what He reveals through Scripture, through His Church's constant teaching, you are often ridiculed and looked at as somewhat of an extremist these days. Meanwhile, you feel as if everyone is abandoning the clear teaching of the Lord. That said, it is important to remember that despite everything, Cardinal Kasper is a respected and accomplished theologian who is clearly motivated by wanting to put Christ and His mercy at the centre. He believes that current practice does not sufficiently express the mercy and grace of God, which is evident in the Gospels and throughout Scripture. Despite this, I fundamentally disagree with his analysis of this situation, which I feel will cause huge pain for those who have to bear this cross already, and great confusion amongst the faithful. Fidelity in this regard is essential, for many arguable reasons, but perhaps most pertinently because to compromise the very words of Scripture itself leaves us in a kind of intellectual no-man's land.

In the Second reading, St. James implores us:
Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
To me here he seems to be teaching how we reject the sin but not the sinner. We must recognise that we are all sinners in need of God's mercy. If you can do this; if you can recognise your own broken before God, your need for redemption, for grace, you will always seek Jesus with a contrite heart and resist any hateful urge to laud yourself over anyone else. Being Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ—means to seek to purge yourself of all wickedness (Matthew 5:48) and always seek the higher path. Yes, we all fall down, but anyone who knows you are a Christian, should also know that this means you are seeking to be the best you can be, and not be satisfied with accepting your broken, selfish, wicked side.

Then we have own Saviour speaking to us. It might be useful to read Mark 7:1-23 through, as this week's Gospel does miss out some interesting bits, notably the evangelist's editorial comment in 7:19 that all foods are clean. For a bit more on this and the conflict between ritualism and the law, you might like to read this earlier post of mine.

There might seem a fundamental contradiction to you if you read the preceding readings and then see Jesus as some sort of radical who breaks through the ossified human ritualism of the Pharisees and replaced their narrow-minded, legalistic practice with a more generous, liberal view, opening the door for acting more rationally in accord with the circumstances.

But if this is what you see you have misread. The ancient Law is a life-giving text, freeing the people from idolatry, superstition, and with new insight and a new wisdom that changes our perception of the world, and gives us the motivation to act (cf. James 1:22). The 'traditions of the elders' (Mk 7:3) refer to religious customs manufactured by the Pharisees and added to the Mosaic Law. Sometimes called the oral Law, this body of rituals was designed to supplement God's written Law and intensify its requirements of ritual purity. These traditions were passed on orally until recorded in the Jewish Mishnah about 200 A.D. In the Gospel this week, the controversy is sparked off by the "unwashed" hands of the disciples (Mk 7:2). The Pharisees charge them, not with poor hygiene, but with religious laxity. Jesus responds with a vigorous attack on these Pharisaic customs because they distract practitioners from the more important principles of the Mosaic Law (7:8-9). That is, they emphasise the dangers of ritual impurity (on the hands) to the neglect of moral defilement (in the heart) defined by the commandments (7:20-23).

In the end, these traditions promoted by the elders are examples of merely human tradition that the Pharisees have wrongly elevated to an equal level with the revealed Law of God (CCC 581). Jesus and His Disciples may do on the Sabbath what they do because they stand in the place of the priests in the Temple; the holy place has shifted, now being formed by the circle made up of the master and His disciples.

St. James tells us how to express our faith in a dynamic outreach that contradicts the expectations of the world "My brothers, try not to combine faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified LORD, with the making of distinctions between classes of people." We must testify to God's inclusive love, and so proclaim the Kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.

Jesus challenged many aspects of the Old Law of the Old Testament in that He rejected the ritual of not healing on the Sabbath, being concerned with the outer cleanliness of pots, etc. How did He handle the moral law? The answer is that He interiorises and radicalises the moral demand of the Law: i.e. the commandments are to be observed according to the spirit, not just the letter, and they are to be observed at the roots, not just the surface. Take a look at Matthew 5:21-26 as an example. Most people do not violate the precept: ‘Do not kill’ (strictly ‘do not murder’) and, were we to adopt a legalistic and minimalist approach, we could easily convince ourselves that all was well. Jesus rejects this: ‘But I say to you…’ The interior attitudes we have to other people, the root causes of our external actions are challenged. The anger provoking people to violence and to murder, the contempt for others (calling a brother ‘fool’ not as a joke, but in violation of his dignity), are condemned.

My Parish Priest did a wonderful job of expounding these teachings on Sunday. He presented us with this homily, which you can hear him preach himself by downloading his podcast here. It seems for Fr. Kevin, the Scripture was particularly pertinent to the Assisted Dying Bill and is able to make the connection between the Torah and the Natural Law, that is, the the objective reality of our being and what is best in terms of our existential, created reality.

This is the text:

We Brits are famous throughout the world for our love and respect for law.  Our Parliament is often referred to as the Mother of all Parliaments.  But we also have a rather ambiguous relationship to the Law.  On the one hand we are a freedom loving nation and we want our personal rights to be respected; and on the other hand we are a very litigious society; we are only too well aware of the mentality of where there’s blame there’s a claim!  Precisely because are preoccupied with our rights, lawyers will never be in short supply.  We hate the law and we love the law; we balk at the law and we need the law; and this makes us like most people up and down the ages.  

What does the Bible say about Law. In the first reading Moses speaks to the people: Now Israel take notice of the laws and customs that I teach you, and observe them, that you may have life and enter the land that God is giving you. Whenever we reverence something, we surround it with laws, so as to protect it. Think of the number of rules that define some of our sports like soccer or golf. No one who really loves those sports ever be content with an “anything goes” approach? No one would say: just go out on the field and play the way you want. If you love those games or sports, you are very interested in the rules that define it, because they preserve it’s integrity, which is just a fancy way of saying they preserve the fun of those sports. And for those who love certain sports, they love the rules and carry the rule books with them, and insist that the rules be followed and get rather annoyed of you start playing fast-and-loose with the rules. The laws protect the integrity of the game.

So God gives laws; why? To protect the integrity of the moral and spiritual life. Because we recognise life as something good, beautiful and full of integrity we want to protect it. In the Second Reading the Apostles James says: Accept the submit to the word that has been planted in you and can save your souls. The Word of God is a law, a way of ordering your life; it’s purpose is to protect this great good of moral excellence. So as to make life more joyful, more perfect, more compelling and beautiful. Just as you wouldn’t tell a child to go out on the pitch and just fool around; you teach them, and form them according to the rules and harmony of the game.  So in the spiritual and moral life we love the laws that God has given us because they protect and enhance the integrity of that life.

St James say that the Law of God has been planted in you.  So it is something from the inside.  Saints have the law of God planted in them.  It’s not an imposition, since the law of God comes up from the very roots of their being, written on their hearts as the Bible says so that it doesn’t need to be imposed from the outside.  The logic of the world nowadays is that we should be free to do as we please:  if it feels right and makes you happy, do it.  If you accept that logic in any other area of life that we take seriously, whether it’s soccer or golf or playing a musical instrument, it would be anarchy and we’d never accept that silly logic.  Rather, we accept the logic of the law and the Bible sings it praises.

But then we read the Gospel, and Jesus witnessing to the dark side of the law: its corruption, the negativity that law seems to carry with it, namely a fussiness or legalism, confusing what is essential with what is peripheral.  Jesus, as He often does, rails against the Pharisees and their preoccupation with the Jewish Law.  So he calls them hypocrites because their hearts are far from God, they are not sincere.

The most fundamental laws of God are those which deal with the absolute rights that come with human life.  It should go without saying, because we know it only too well, that these rights are under attack in our country.  I think especially at this time of the present Bill on Assisted Dying which comes before Parliament on 11th September. What this Bill means in practice, and what it says is:
- Doctors will be able to help us commit suicide legally; although GPs have said they don’t want assisted dying to be made legal because people would become afraid of their doctors.
- to the sick, elderly and disabled it says: You’re better off dead. I wouldn’t want to live if my life was like yours.
  • it pressurises vulnerable to end their lives if they feel a burden to their family or carers and that suicide is a sensible and reasonable thing to do if you feel like that
  • assisted dying will become a cash-saving measure for NHS managers who face pressure to cut costs and to meet the needs of an ageing population in England.
  • so called ‘safeguards’ will be violated as they have been everywhere this law is in place and numbers of assisted killings will rise and rise. 
What can we do in the face of a culture that is becoming increasingly anti-life, a culture of death as St John Paul II called it?  We pray; we take up the weapons that are most potent and call on the Lord.  We take action, by writing and lobbying our local Member of Parliament.  We know that our Member here will not vote for this Bill but there are many others who will and these need to be reminded that we cannot ever presume to be the arbiters of life and death.  But we can also work to help those who do not believe these truths, those who do not have the Laws of God written and planted in they hearts.  By charitable and patient explanation, we have the duty to bring others to this knowledge of God’s law.  And this isn’t just a Catholic thing, it is a truth addressed to every single person of good will, since everyone has the capacity to discover the imprint of God’s law within them.  We often call this the Natural Law: seeing the light of God within us, avoiding harm, and never doing evil that good may come of it.   Everyone one of us is called upon to bring about the greatest good during our life on earth.

Jesus always asks us to differentiate between what is the essence of Law and what is on the periphery.  When Jesus is asked what is the heart of the Law quotes the great Shema of Deuteronomy:  Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God and you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart…..  That is the essence of the Law which forms and protects all the great moral laws we have: Love of God and love of neighbour with all our might.  This is the all embracing, all protecting law that ensures that all we do is, Godly.  It’s necessary to pause and stare at that Law often, to measure ourselves by it, and measure what we do and promote in society so that it is always Godly.

May Mary, who is a source of life herself, intercede for us to help us in these difficult problems we face that we may obey God’s word and law and so be pleasing to Him.

How strange is life that we look to the law to protect life, yet when it becomes to legalistic, when it contradicts the fundamental law; the natural law, we must reject it? The relationship between the body politic and human freedom is complex and fickle, as the Church has long taught. Too much control and our lives become drab servitude, too little and we become at risk of falling prey to our own recklessness. What a world where it is conceivably merciful to kill the most fragile members of our society? And so, I have written to my MP, Sir David Amess, and I am very proud to share with you here his excellent response. I think you will agree, it vindicates voting for him!


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