The Gospel Embodied

(This is Neil.) My posting will be scarce for the next couple of weeks (but, then again, I suppose that it always is.) I’ve been reading through the Cambridge Companion to the Gospels (2006), which includes a fourth section on the impact of the Gospels on church and society. I would like to share a small part of David Matzlo McCarthy’s contribution on the embodiment of the Gospels in the lives of saints and martyrs. Professor McCarthy writes, “Certainly, literary, historical and other critical tools ought to bear on how the Bible is understood, but, at its fundamental level, the truth of scripture is most fully grasped when lived out.”

Let us take two controversial Gospel verses that have to do with kinship. Jesus says, “For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt 12:50). He has already said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37). How might the meanings of these verses be “conveyed through human life”?

Professor McCarthy begins with St Augustine’s development of the theme of a spiritual kinship in Christ placed above more physical ties. Augustine does not denigrate marriage or sexuality or procreation. But he claims that virginity is decidedly superior, because it takes the sense of relationship we feel based on shared blood and reorders it to Christ. As Augustine asks about Christ’s questions in Matthew 12:48 about the identity of his real relatives, “What was he teaching us other than to value spiritual family more highly than relationship by birth, and that what makes people blessed is not being close to upright and holy persons by blood relationship, but being united with them by obeying and imitating their doctrine and way of life?” And so Augustine would dedicate himself to such a “spiritual family” – the community of the clergy of Hippo and the unity of his church.

Likewise, the female virgin saints in antiquity and the medieval period replace physical relationships with an alternative social order based on spirituality. During the fourth century, St Agnes, Professor McCarthy tells us, refused the hand of the son of a Roman prefect and eventually suffered martyrdom, but her alienation from conventional Roman society led to others coming to her shrine and calling her mother, sister, and wife. Likewise, St Catherine of Siena’s virginity was a vehicle for her efforts to seek social, civic, and ecclesiastical unity.

But what do these “performances” of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of St Matthew mean for us today? Can they mean anything for those of us who are married or at least feel called to marriage?

Professor McCarthy gives us one more “embodiment.” It is from the past century and actually concerns a man with flesh and blood children: 

Mother, wife and three daughters are at the front of Franz Jägerstatter’s mind as he awaits trial and then execution during the summer of 1943. Shortly before he is beheaded as an enemy of the state, Jägerstatter defends his refusal to co-operate with the Nazi war effort, not in order to petition the military court, but to justify his impending death to neighbors and countrymen in his Austrian town of St Radegund. Franz is accused by fellow Austrians of being selfish and irresponsible. Some men of his town share his animosity for the National Socialists, but they will fight for Austria. Many share his conviction that Nazi aggression throughout Europe is unjust. Franz, however, refuses to co-operate with what he sees as an evil regime. He believes that being a Nazi and being a Catholic are absolutely incompatible and that joining with the cause of the Third Reich is an offense against God. Jägerstatter is accused by his neighbors in St Radegund of being self-centered, of shaming his family and his country for the sake of “a troubled mind.” His family will suffer for his scruples. After he is gone, they will receive harsh treatment from Nazis and scorn from fellow Austrians.

 In response to accusations of irresponsibility toward family and country, Franz makes reference to Matt 10:37 and 10:28. He takes issue with the implication that his obligations to his wife and children might supersede his obligations to God. A father and husband who supports a family is not “free to offend God by lying (not to mention all the other things he would be called upon to do).” Franz, of course, feels the weight of separation from his loved ones, and he worries for their future. Nonetheless, “did not Christ Himself say: ‘He who loves father, mother, or children more than Me is not deserving of My love’? Or, ‘Fear not those who can kill the body but not the soul; rather fear much more those who seek to destroy body and soul in hell?’” Jägerstatter interprets both passages in terms of the kingship of Christ. “Christ, too, demands a public confession of our faith, just as the Führer, Adolf Hitler, does from his followers.” Franz will not swear an oath to the Führer in so far as Hitler’s purposes are an offense to God. One either believes in Hitler and follows him, or plays a “crooked game” of dishonest rationalizations and flight from our responsibilities to God, truth and justice.

Franz Jägerstatter’s embodiment of Matt 10:28 and 10:37 illuminates the themes of Augustine’s interpretation of Matt 12:50, the martyrdom of Agnes, and Catherine’s struggles and peacemaking in the family and the world. Our inheritable bonds of family are secondary to relationships founded in Christ; true kinship is founded on following God’s will and way in the world. In Matt 10, Jesus sends the twelve disciples out to announce the coming of God’s kingdom – without gold or silver, extra tunic, or sandals or staff – “like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt 10:5-16). Jesus tells the disciples that he will set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother (Matt 10:35). In this regard, the virgin performs an act of dispossession and distinction from dominant social structures like the household. Renunciation of ancestral and inheritable ties is the beginning of God’s reconstitution of family. “For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matt 12:50).  

What do you think?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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