Thursday, 26 March 2015

The inner pharisee and the new liturgical translation

Many religious people have an “inner Pharisee” which needs to be kept under control. There is a part of most human beings that, like the Pharisees, tries to make life into a competition. That could be the result of a belief that love and affection has to be earned somehow: that in order to be loveable I must be better, try harder, and earn more brownie points from God. In following the path of such beliefs we slip away from the freedom of the gospel and slip into the grip of an inner Pharisee. In that deadly inner embrace fear grows, confidence evaporates and people are pushed into an unholy competition for God’s love.

To see the truth of this inner fault line we need look no further than an average family. There, in the rivalry between brothers and sisters, the same battle is being fought for the attention of parents and for the reassurance of being loved. There is a desperate hunger in many of us, young and old, to know that we are loved and that need can drive us into competitive, jealous and hard hearted living. This attitude is not good news and above all it is not the Gospel. The Gospel is a proclamation of the unconditional love of God consistently offered as a gift to every human being. It cannot be earned, controlled or dispensed as a commodity. The good news is that each of us is a child of God and that we are loved, as we are right now, by our creator.

Time and time again Jesus is seen in the Gospel reassuring people of The Father’s love: that we are worth more than many sparrows, that we should not be afraid, that we may all be one. The expression of the lavishness of God’s love scandalised the Pharisees. The good news was seen as a threat to the importance of rules for purification, the treatment of sinners and the use of punishments. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that there were prostitutes that were closer to God than many of them they found it impossible to accept. The Pharisees were on a collision course with the Gospel because they did not believe in the unconditional love of a Father God.

It is within this background that I believe we can understand how the new translation of the liturgy has emerged and the reaction it has received. It seems that in the process of translation that mercy has been eclipsed by merit and the implication that God’s love has to be somehow earned is stressed far more than the utter goodness and lavishness of God’s love and grace. Somehow the Pharisee that lies beneath the surface of many of us has emerged and asserted its grip. The result is that the prayers in particular do not express a warmth and a trusting relationship such as Jesus encouraged by his use of the name “Abba” daddy. Instead God is portrayed as someone who is disappointed with us and our imperfections leading to a sense of fear rather than trust in God.

It is not surprising that the Pharisaic part of us has taken the opportunity to reassert itself in the new translation. The shape of the Catholic Church, its sureness of identity and its authority, have all been challenged in the last few decades. The pressures for change in sacramental discipline, the impact of child abuse allegations and the ongoing erosion of attendance in some parts of the world have all contributed to an insecurity in traditional leadership. In this struggling situation we are told that the final instinct of a struggling institution is to rewrite the rule book and return to old certainties. The new translation with its return to a more controlling language is an example of that tendency to want to turn the clock back to old certainties. It tries to return to a situation where the church is seen as a dispenser of grace rather than as a revealer of God’s grace. 

To be in control and to be coherent is of course important and the pharisaic part of us wants to have things managed and accounted for. Pharisees can be forgiven for letting rules dominate the spirit because, like all people, they are dominated by fear and judgement. However, these are not times for clarity but for exploration, times for new searching and not for old answers. That is why the Pharisee aspect of each of us must be forgiven readily but not allowed too loud a voice about the future. As a church we need to let the Pharisee be eclipsed by a searching and creative laity. That sleeping giant in our church needs space to grow, learn from experience and re-negotiate its relationship to a clerical church. Later we will need the pharisaic mode of thinking when a more creative period has opened up new reasons for living and hoping.

So, for now, let us quietly put aside the new translation, and with great respect, consign it to the fire of God’s love. Then, instead of letting mercy be eclipsed by merit we might instead allow the merit of God’s unconditional love speak for itself.