WAS JESUS RELIGIOUS? A sequel to “Is Religion Dead?”
This query may sound sacrilegious to the pious, religious Christian. It maybe a valid question for those who claim that Jesus did not found any religion. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic that has seen a shutdown of organised religion, the naysayers would have us believe that religion is dead! This is now the brave new world of Spirituality, minus Religion. Various opinions and quotes are proffered to boost either side of the divide.
I do not intend to take sides, but would prefer to study the attitude and actions of Jesus himself, as recorded for posterity in the gospels. While writing this my thoughts went to the rock musical and movie of the 1970s “Jesus Christ Superstar”. I was working in Bombay, as it was then called, at the time, when Alyque Padamsee produced it in India with Sharon Prabhakar (whom he later married) starring as Mary Magdalene.
Some of the lyrics composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber are interesting. They are asking questions, but not waiting for the answers. An odd question was, “Why did you come in 4 BC in a remote place where there was no mass communication to convey your message?” But the theme song was:
“Jesus Christ Superstar, who are you, what have you sacrificed? Who do you think you are? Are you what they say you are? Only wanna know, don’t get me wrong?”
These queries are valid in themselves. Modern man seeks answers, and it is our duty to provide them. A friend sent me a video of empty churches in the wake of Covid-19. I was not alarmed. I have seen such things before.
In 1980 I was in Jerusalem for Holy Week. That year the Eastern Churches’ dates were the same as that of the Western Churches, and coincided with the Jewish Passover. So Jerusalem was bursting at the seams. On Good Friday I participated in the official Way of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, the actual path that Jesus trod. There were just a few hundreds in the procession, with thousands of onlookers taking photographs. In 1994, I attended an international Catholic meeting in Austria. We were taken for a tour of some of the grandiose churches. They were all empty, barring a handful of the elderly. In 2017 my wife and I were in Assisi on Ash Wednesday, as planned. Besides us the lady selling mementoes outside the Basilica were the only lay people at the Mass celebrated at the tomb of St. Francis. That emptiness was by choice or circumstance. The present emptiness in churches is by compulsion, hence cannot be used as a realistic yardstick to measure the relevance of religion.
Back to Jesus then. Was he the non-conformist, path breaking, social reformer? Was he the Superstar? His life has the answers.
His parents taught him the first lessons in following the rules of both Jewish society and the Roman occupation. They followed the Governor’s diktat for the census (cf Lk 2:1-4). On the 7th day he was circumcised (cf Lk 2:21). On the 40th day he was presented in the Temple (cf Lk 2:22-24). At the age of 12 he stayed back in the Temple to comprehend his mission (cf Lk 2:41-50). He usually visited the synagogue on the Sabbath day (cf Lk 4:16). His familiarity with the Jewish scriptures was evident, from the temptation in the desert to his death on the cross (cf Lk 4:1-12, 18-19, Mt 27:46).
He was clear in his mind that he had not come to destroy the past laws, but to fulfil them (cf Mt 5:17-19). I see this as a key phrase. He was not jettisoning the past with all its rituals, rules and regulations. He was going beyond it, transcending it. This is a critical point that his disciples need to bear in mind.
Even in his public life, when he was at the height of his popularity, he chose a path of equanimity. Had he called for a revolt; thousands would have followed him. He didn’t. Instead he chose to pay the temple tax, with the caveat that as a son he did not need to (cf Mt 17:4-27). In like manner he laid the foundations of secularism when he said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (cf Mt 22: 20-21). He was acknowledging the role of civil society. He was not living in an ethereal vacuum.
Finally, despite his scathing criticism of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees he said to his disciples, “You must therefore do and observe what they tell you; but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they preach” (Mt 23:3). This again is a defining moment and refining approach to organised religion.
It in no way means that he blindly submitted to religious practices. His criticism was against the hypocrisy or the superficial nature, ritualistic form of these practices. His best-known act is of using the whip against the traders in the Temple, accusing them of converting God’s house into a den of thieves (cf Mt 21:12-15). He compared the Pharisees to whitened sepulchres (cf Mt 23:1-12). In his very first Sermon on the Mount too he had condemned the merely external forms of prayer, alms giving or fasting (cf Mt 6:1-18).
In contrast, he set new standards (cf Mt 5:20). He said that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around (cf Mk 2:27-28). In his last discourse he gave his final commandment, to love as he had loved (cf Jn 15:12). One could give several more such instances, but this should suffice to make my point.
But there could still be some diehard proponents of spirituality as against religion. To dispel this abstract binary notion, I will give some illustrations. Does the possession of a driving licence mean that I should not abide by traffic rules? Because we obtained freedom from the British, did we not still require the Indian Penal Code and Civil Procedure Code prepared by them? Did we not require a Constitution to determine and balance out our rights and duties? What about the response to Covid-19? Imagine the chaos and anarchy that would prevail if there were no governments or regulatory mechanisms?
Finally, did not Jesus himself say to Peter, that he would build his community on that rock (cf Mt 16:18)? There is also St. Paul’s well-known analogy of the Body of Christ, with different organs having different functions (cf 1Cor 12:12-27).
This does not mean that there is no need for spirituality in the Church. I do not believe in a black or white binary, the either/ or. We need both, just as a body needs both eyes and ears. We need organised religion, but it should not be an end in itself, or merely ritualistic. We also need the freedom of those born of the Spirit (cf Jn 3:5-8). Spirituality is a vast expanse that would merit a separate reflection.
I would conclude with some lessons from history. They are expressed in the 5 R’s – Reject, Revolt, Reform. Repair and Renew. We need to Reject all that is superficial in religion, without rejecting religion itself, as Jesus did. We need to Revolt or rebel against what is blatantly wrong. Marxism and the French both revolted against religion. We can take the good lessons from them. Martin Luther found so many things going wrong in the Catholic Church that he moved away through the Reformation. St. Francis of Assisi was especially commissioned to Repair the tottering church of the Dark Ages. Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II for the wished-for Renewal of the Catholic Church. We can take these 5 R’s to heart if we truly love Jesus and the community of believers that he founded.
Remember the adages – Don’t cut your nose to spite your face, or throw the baby out with the bath water. We need both Religion and Spirituality, for Jesus was both a religious and a spirit filled person.