I intended to speak today about the hyperbolic language Jesus used in order to get a point across. The point in today’s gospel is that life is more than rigid responsibilities and that our following him should be unencumbered. He is also reported as saying that “if your eye offend you, pluck it out; if your hand offend you, cut if off.” We are not meant to take these statements literally. [more]
A 2nd century theologian, Origen, with more fervour than prudence, was led by a literal interpretation of the text in Matthew’s gospel about making ourselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom, to an act of self-mutilation. Literalism or fundamentalism is very dangerous.
But even fundamentalists are selective. Few would take literally Matthew’s injunction to turn the other cheek or also give one’s cloak to the poor when asked for a tunic (Matt 5: 38-42) Fundamentalists do not recognise literary forms. Thus, for fundamentalists, in the Book of Genesis, we have six actual days of creation, Jonah was really in the belly for three days and three nights and so on. To the fundamentalist, the biblical author is simply a scribe taking down a kind of divine dictation. The human struggles of the author or his lack of scientific knowledge due to the era in which he wrote, are simply ignored. The appeal of fundamentalism is that it is easy; simplicity of belief in an often complex world is non-threatening. Fundamentalism is particularly strong in some forms of Protestantism. You might now guess where I am heading. I have an interest but no academic qualifications in biblical scholarship and the following views are my own.
The Israel Folau affair is presently the subject of much discussion. Is he representing the only orthodox Christian point of view as many claim? To recapitulate what you might already know, Israel, a man of Polynesian background and of some means, a superb rugby player, belongs to a church called the Church of the Truth of Jesus Christ consisting of some 19 members. It is probably one-off of a conglomeration of Pentecostal churches and part of the Assemblies of God. I mention Israel’s wealth because it is germane to the discussion. He has made many millions across several football codes, allegedly owns a property portfolio of seven million dollars and is said to have recently sold his $500,000 Lamborghini. What started this furore was his paraphrasing St Paul about the kinds of people who would never enter the Kingdom of God or, as he says, hell awaits them unless they repent. But the same St Paul also wrote in 1 Timothy: 9. “People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all kinds of foolish and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all evil.”
Israel published an earlier statement on social media about certain categories of people who are to be consigned to hell unless they repent – fornicators, atheists, liars drunks, thieves, adulterers and so on – a fairly comprehensive list from which few escape. But the category which has aroused the most controversy was that of homosexuals. No doubt, conscious of the reaction of some sponsors, Rugby Australia included in his new contract that he must not repeat such condemnatory language on social media. He did not comply, breached his contract which was then reluctantly terminated. He now claims that his freedom of speech is being curtailed and his freedom to express his religious beliefs suppressed. Some here tonight might agree. He has sued Rugby Australia for ten million dollars, a solution was not able to be reached at the Fair Works Commission and the matter will now be adjudicated in the courts.
Folau is being backed by certain people such as Alan Jones, Mark Latham, Peta Credlin, Eric Abetz, and latterly, the Australian Christian Lobby. His opponents, one notable spokesperson being writer, former wallaby and sports journalist, Peter Fitzsimons, assert that such attitudes expressed so publicly and with such intensity could alarm, harm and even lead to the suicide of those young people, still struggling with their sexuality. Being a sports star of such eminence, there is no doubt that Folau cannot be indifferent to the impact he has among his youthful followers.
But from precisely where does all this emanate?
Folau has probably taken his list from St Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 6: v 9-11. The first thing that should be said is that St Paul was a man of his times. Living on a flat earth in a three-storied universe, he would have had no idea of the modern understanding that the great majority of gay people are born that way, a genetic variant, a given, not a choice. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church, though it controversially calls homosexuality “disordered”, admits that it is not necessarily chosen, and “for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
Incidentally, St Paul also believed that men should wear their hair short, that women should wear it long but cover it in church, that women should be silent in church, that they should always give way to their husbands, that slaves should be obedient to their masters. To complicate matters, there is consensus among scholars that not all the letters of St Paul were written by him but some by his followers in his name and after his death.
The bible though divinely inspired was written by real men and women with all their flaws, their cultural conditioning and their prejudices. They would have had very little if any scientific knowledge. For instance, the generally accepted theory of evolution – though not accepted by fundamentalists – even the late conservative Pope John Paul II described it as now more than a theory. It is a fact. Conduits of divine wisdom these writers may be but they remain human beings.
The 2nd Vatican Council’s document on Divine Revelation points to the importance of considering history, culture, literary forms and the intentions of the sacred author when interpreting scripture. What was the original context? What was the meaning in the original language? To quote St Paul as the final arbiter on this most contentious matter of homosexuality cannot be sustained, it cannot be the last word.
Jesus, it seems, spoke little or not at all about these issues. He was more concerned with matters such as love, forgiveness, justice and the establishment of God’s reign on earth. He did speak of divorce, even going further than the then current teaching but only to protect women who would otherwise be abandoned without any means of support.
I do not doubt Folau’s sincerity in matters of religious belief but I believe that he is here out of his depth just as I would be if I tried to offer him football advice. He is entitled to believe and preach whatever he wishes but also bearing in mind his responsibilities to the sensibilities of others especially when on social media. Would I be allowed to declare on social media that the Holocaust never happened, that people of colour are inferior to whites, that all Muslims are either terrorists or potential terrorists? I don’t think so but I know very little about the Twittersphere. I therefore do not agree with former attorney general, George Brandis, that we are free to be bigots. No freedom is absolute. With all freedoms come responsibilities.
This homily is too brief to cover such a complex area and many things must be left unsaid. When interpreting the scriptures, written over thousands of years, if we include the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures), there are many different genres – narratives, poems, parables, legends, letters, history – one major question to ask ourselves is how does this particular piece of scripture conform to the over-riding theme, the over-riding message of the New Testament, that I must love God and love my neighbour?
Our role as Christians is to preach the gospel – principally by our example – and recall that Jesus said that it is easy for us to point to the splinter in someone else’s eye while discounting the log in our own. (Even in today’s second reading from St Paul, (Gal.5: 1, 13-18) is written: “The whole law is summarised in a single command. Love your neighbour as yourself.”) In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus adds that it is not our task to condemn others. “Do not judge and you will not be judged yourselves. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned yourselves.” (Luke 6: 37) From what I have said regarding interpreting scripture and from what we know of the person and teaching of Jesus, those comments sound very authentic to me and totally in accord with the Master’s overall message.
Bernard Moylan is a retired priest from the Wagga Wagga Diocese who now lives in Sydney.