Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 12/10 Post

I agree with your take on this passage, Mike, but I am troubled by Jesus’ linking of piety (I think a better translation from the Greek would be ‘righteousness’), charity, and prayer to heavenly reward.

While the rabbis of Jesus’ day did speak of heavenly rewards, they argued that the highest good was doing good for its own sake. The term they used (and which we continue to use) is lishmah, doing something for its own sake, simply because it is right. I don’t understand why Jesus would opt for a lesser standard than his contemporaries, especially when, as we have seen, he is not averse to demanding a higher standard than his rabbinic colleagues when he feels it necessary to do so.

I don’t want to make more of this than we should, but I have often been surprised in discussions with devout Christians when the issue of lishmah is raised (by me) and dismissed (by them). I have been told on numerous occasions that it is the purpose of faith to insure that the faithful escape eternal damnation in hell. “If there were no hell,” I have been told on numerous occasions, “there would be no reason to be a Christian.”

If these were the random thoughts of a few uninformed lay people, I would simply chalk it up to ignorance. Unfortunately I hear this kind of thing over and over from supposedly educated clergy. It is hard to dismiss as misinformation. The notion of doing good in order to earn a reward seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ message here, and hence at the heart of contemporary Christianity as well (or at least a certain kind of contemporary Christianity).

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that Judaism is free of such thinking. It isn’t. The essence of the Jewish relationship with God is covenantal, contractual: we will do “x” and God will do “y.” But the rabbis of Jesus’ day did try to lift the people beyond this quid pro quo level of theology with the idea of lishmah, doing right for its own sake.

So here are a couple of questions to which I would ask you to respond: 1) Do you think the need of many Christians to link piety to reward stems from this teaching of Jesus? and 2) Why do you think Jesus didn’t push for the higher rabbinic standard of lishmah?

On a separate matter, I am quite taken with Jesus’ advice regarding prayer: that we shut ourselves in our room and pray to our Father “who is in secret”. As you noted, it isn’t hard to see how those who challenge the value of community worship would hold up this teaching to argue against such prayer, and, as I am sure you agree, it isn’t a matter or either/or. There is a place for public worship as well as for private prayer and meditation.

But what intrigues me is the phrase “your Father who is in secret”. I have no idea what this means. I would love some insight into this and would very much like to hear how you understand it.

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