Fr. Tom Bartolomeo
Becoming Jesus rebuilding the church
By Fr. Tom Bartolomeo
February 23, 2014

Following Jesus in the beginning was so promising. For a while the people could forget their hardships under the rule of Rome's soldiers and tax collectors. Admittedly, they found some consolation in their faith and heritage, their stories of the great King David when he ruled the entire coastal region of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Sons and daughters of Abraham, the Israeles lived for awhile in the abiding presence of God in his temple and in their reverence of the law of Moses. No other nation was as stable and revered as the kingdom of Israel. In time, however, prosperity and the influence of other people corrupted the people despite the warnings their prophets foretold in each succeeding generation.

They had, however, their sacred Scriptures and memories of glorious times past, the oracles of the great prophets before they were overrun by the empires of Babylon, Assyria and Rome. Although the visible kingdom of David was gone they remembered the promises of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the other prophets whom they revered over the centuries. Some of them held onto the promise that a Messiah would eventually come from the house of David whom they recognized in Jesus – blind men "crying aloud, Have mercy on us, Son of David" (Matthew 20:30), an alien Canaanite woman, "crying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David (Matthew 15:22) and the crowds at the annual Passover celebration who greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem shouted, "Hosanna to the Son David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." (Matthew 21:9).

Eventually the recognition of Christ became Jesus' undoing and an obstacle to his teaching. His favor with the people and his opposition from the rulers in Jerusalem threatened his gospel. Jesus could have been less forthright in his teaching. He was merciful to the lowly and humble but not to the proud and the powerful. Jesus dealt with sinners in the actual condition of their lives, mercy for a defenseless woman caught in adultery and harshness towards the corrupt and powerful scribes and Pharisees who, compliant under Roman rule, made the temple in Jerusalem, "a place of business" where Jesus had forcibly "overturned the tables of the moneychangers" (John 2: 13 ff). One of these rulers, Nichodemus, visited Jesus at night and in secrecy acknowledged, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." (John 3: 1-2). Jesus' chastisement of the rulers of Jerusalem yielded at least some good effect. Nicodemus later defended Jesus at his indictment by the other rulers ( John 7: 45-52) and with another ruler of the people, Joseph of Arimathia, they both received the dead body of Jesus for his burial. (John 19: 38-14). Those close to Jesus who could bear his brotherly chastisement Jesus reprimanded sometimes harshly as with Peter who rebuked Jesus's prophesy of his death, telling Peter, "Get behind me Satan." (Matthew 16: 23). His Apostle Thomas who had refused to accept that Jesus had died and risen from the dead Jesus mildly reprimanded and "said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.' Thomas answered him, 'My Lord and my God!' Jesus said to him, 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.' Thomas answered him, 'My Lord and my God!' (John 20: 27-28). I presume Thomas wept as did Peter after he realized he had betrayed Jesus days before when he was arrested and crucified. I don't think the Apostles ever forgot Jesus' reprimands. The tenor of Jesus' teaching was the same whomever he met or observed. On one hand, he acknowledge the contrition of the "tax collector" praying in the temple and decried the vanity of the Pharisee praying alongside the tax collector, "I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get."

The difficulty Jesus faced dealing with his followers continues today.

From the beginning what matters in our relationship with God are not our usual protocols but our genuine relationship with God as his children and disciples. It was not the "dust of the earth" from which we were made which distinguished us at creation but the life God breathed into our flesh. (Genesis 2: 7-8). When we break our relationship with God we sever our natural relationship with God our Father just as Jesus told his adversaries who accused him of blasphemy, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I said, you are gods'? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came – and Scripture cannot be broken – do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'?" (John 10: 34-36). Do we bear so little personal dignity?

Jesus reminded all who asked about God's commandments, "You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 19: 18-19). Or they would bear the threat and punishment of Mosaic law recorded in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Leviticus. For some God's commandments were a blessing and for others a curse as the Apostle Paul explained:
    For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.' Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith.' But the law is not of faith, rather 'The one who does them shall live by them.' Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree . . . .' (Galatians 3: 10-13).
Becoming Jesus, Christ had to meet humanity in its actual sinful state as the Apostle Paul explained in order to rebuild humanity from the ground up by repairing the broken law of Moses on which God would establish a new and eternal covenant with, in and through Jesus. Jesus came, he said, not "to abolish the Law or the Prophets . . . but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Matthew 5: 17-18). Jesus devoted the balance of his journey with men repairing the commandments of God broken by us – anger, lust, adultery, perjury, revenge and hatred. (cf. Matthew 5: 21-48).

The commandments God worked out with Moses were at best half measures, precepts for the time for weak former slaves many if not most who had lost their relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their professional scribes and Pharisees in the time of Jesus had contrived their own misguided precepts of the law and had lost their relationship with God the Lawgiver. When questioned about the greatest of the commandments Jesus did not speak of the letter of the law but to the spirit of the law found only in God, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [Jesus said]. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22: 37-40). Many in Jesus' time and many today manipulate God's commandments by interpreting divine law and the law of nature for their personal advantage. When God's law is reformulated for selfish reasons it loses its lawful meaning and standing as Jesus had accused the rulers of the people, saying, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God . . . 'Honor your father and your mother' . . . . But you say, 'If a man tells his father or his mother, "Whatever you may expect from me is offered to God – you allow him to neglect his father or mother, thus negating the word of God . . '. ." (Mark 7: 9-12).

After Jesus' sermon of the mount the lines of opposition were drawn for Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees. "To test him they asked [Jesus] to show them a sign from heaven." Their intent was not genuine and Jesus knew it. "He answered them, "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red . . . . You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah." So he left them and departed. (Matthew 16: 1-4). Jonah, we know, was swallowed and spit up on the shore after three days in the sea just as Jesus would be three days in the tomb and then rise from the dead. The world would later receive the sign they did not ask for, a cross of wood on which Jesus hung, died and saved mankind. From this moment of confrontation those who oppose Jesus then and today will challenge Jesus at every turn in his and our journey and seek to take his and our lives as Jesus foretold. To his disciples who first followed Jesus and heard him preach the Beatitudes they must have been astounded hearing for the first time: "Blessed are the poor . . . the sorrowful . . . the meek . . . those who hunger for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peace makers . . .

[and, yes, even] the persecuted – theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven . . . . (Matthew 5: 1-12). It would take the Apostles their entire journey with Jesus to realize that there is nothing here in the world to hold onto to be truly free. Free as a lark.

© Fr. Tom Bartolomeo


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Fr. Tom Bartolomeo

I am the founder and director of the Families For Families Retreat House, a refuge for anyone who wants to rethink his or her life in a quiet non-demanding environment in an historic house c.1709 when life was less complicated. I am also and primarily a Catholic priest having been a college and university teacher, business-owner and executive among other things. I received my Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English literature from Saint John's University, Jamaica, New York and completed post-graduate studies at Kansas State University. Contact me at (Fr. Bartolomeo passed away on September 18, 2018. His obituary can be found here.)


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