Heartless Paganism

I follow up here on a previous posting with a challenging quotation that caught my eye — or should I say it caught me between the eyes?  Yes, it’s the Rosenzweig connection again, but it has to do with the struggle of the believer, certainly of Christian and Jew, and perhaps others.  The quotation is from the Koren Sacks Siddur 4th edition (citation below):

The prophets were critical of the sacrificial system. They reserved for it some of their most lacerating prose. Yet none proposed its abolition, because what they opposed was not the sacrificial act, but the ma’aseh without the kiyum, the outer act without the inner acknowledgement that gives the act its meaning and significance. The idea that God can be worshiped through externalities alone is pagan, and there is nothing worse than the intrusion of paganism into the domain of holiness itself. Then as now, the sign of paganism is the coexistence of religious worship with injustice and a lack of compassion in the dealings between the worshiper and the world.

O Dear Reader, check THAT out against the teaching of Jesus, and you will know why I have that pain between my eyes! “. . . the sign of paganism is the coexistence of religious worship with injustice and a lack of compassion . . . .” What did Jesus say? (Let us remember that the Christ was of the Jews and emphatically of the Father.) Let me make a blanket statement here in saying the “Sermon on the Mount” is a full-blown commentary on the believer’s tendency to paganism (but then, so is the Bible entire). For example, after providing examples of exterior religion and profession versus interior purity of response to God, Jesus exclaims that not all who claim him as Lord will enter his Kingdom, but only those who do the will of the heavenly Father. (Matthew 7:21) His simile of the wise man’s house built on the solid rock and comparison to the fool’s house built on sand sums up the difference between true belief and paganism. (Matt. 7:24-27) And then, to conclude the sermon section, Matthew’s Gospel reads, “When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law.” (Matt. 7:28-29, NET Bible)

The Gospel accounts of Jesus illustrate and validate his identity as Son of God and Son of Man, and in him no hint of the divided mind, the selfish heart, the deceptive intention, the hidden agenda, the need to manipulate. He stands apart from all other human persons for he is holy, uniquely God’s Son, yet fully and honestly human, and so, human in the best way.

The old Christian hater, Saul of Tarsus cum Paul the Apostle, having met the glorified Christ en route to Damascus, certainly speaks from experience when he challenges the Jews, “. . . you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself?” He questions whether, though they “rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, . . . ” and despite teaching these things to others, they actually put them into practice.  Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:5, for immediate effect, I think, but also with a much deeper allusion or implication in mind.  “The name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” or, “my name is being constantly slandered.”  (See Romans 2:17-24) In Romans he moves immediately to discuss circumcision as a primary evidence of adherence to the Law.  In Isaiah 52, captive Zion (Judah, Jerusalem) is in exile at the hands of Cyrus of Persia, but the special servant of the Lord (call him Israel who can be understood as fully representing the Lord God) will complete the Lord’s will as redeemer and deliverer.  His activities fully match the presence, power, and glory of the LORD who is king, who consoles, who displays his power to all the earth, who goes before the people, just as he did when he led Israel from Egypt and through the wilderness. (Isaiah 52:7-12; compare Isaiah 42:1-7; and see 43:14-21)

These are only parts, but important parts, of the vision of Isaiah. But they proceed to the astonishing vision of Isaiah 53 (actually beginning with 52:13). We can hardly read that one without immediately projecting forward to the suffering servant, Messiah, Jesus Christ, so that we leave the immediate historical context behind. Yet that context is important because it suggests hope that the “ideal servant” sacrifices every desire, every prerogative and honor in order to be a healer and redeemer for the people and to serve the will of the Lord God completely.

Paul writes in the context of his example of circumcision, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh, but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code. This person’s praise is not from people but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29, NET Bible. Compare Leviticus 26:41, Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4, Ezekiel 44:9.)  The Romans letter takes us beyond the teachings of Jesus, yet only by illustrations suitable to the demands of the day and situation Paul addressed, not only to the Roman church, but to all of the churches of Christ. Jesus’ instruction holds firm as revealed truth. Elsewhere, in James and the Petrine letters for example, that instruction holds firm in its application in the earliest church. Paul writes out of a background that includes the prophets, Isaiah included here, who looked not to the sacrificial system or the outward trappings of religion, but to the heart of his people in Zion in response to the redemptive work of the sovereign king, through his servant Israel, but only that servant whose heart and intention was completely obedient to his will and intention; with that his name could be praised.

There is no praise in paganism, whether in superficial Jewish life and practice, or in skin-deep Christian life and practice, for there is in that superficial religion and worship no turning of the human heart, the core of God-given personhood, to the creator who alone is to be worshiped–as Jesus said, “in spirit and in truth.”

I think this connects with the Koren Sacks quotation in this way. If someone hurts, or needs, or suffers to the point of hopelessness, he or she does not want to hear from anyone who does not have a firm hold on a true source of hope. The hungry do not want to hear “bless you” while they are left with an empty bowl. The impoverished do not want to hear “Oh, you’ll work this out eventually,” because if they could have done so, then they would have already. Victims of injustice here and elsewhere cannot get the liberation and hope they need from others’ apathy and claims “there is nothing to be done.” Rarely is a person’s problem simply “a problem” but a complex of problems.  That is why the connection of life and worship is so important. It is why discussions about changing communities has been so important. It is also a good reason not to lose faith in our churches–that is, to lose our resolve to make, or keep, our churches significant in the right ways.

Citation: Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (UK), “Understanding Jewish Prayer,” The Koren Siddur, 1st Hebrew/English ed., Jerusalem: Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 2009), xxxviii.