This is a very popular YouTube video by Jefferson Bethke. He is a 22-year-old whose video, entitled “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus,” has been viewed by over 18 million viewers. In the video, he raps of his great love for and faith in Jesus, and his detest for organized religion and the Church.
One of his main arguments is that Jesus came to abolish religion. However, as the Gospel of Matthew reminds us Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill it. Jesus states: “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” In fact, Jesus came to uphold and fulfill the very best of the Mosaic law, which was intended to draw people closer in relationship to God – a God full of mercy, love, and great compassion especially for the weak, the poor, and the sick. It was this great love and compassion with which Jesus, the Son of God, acts in healing the leper in today’s Gospel.
We can also look to Scared Scripture to find that Jesus preached a religious doctrine, prescribed rituals for his disciples, worshipped in the Temple, AND knew and followed the Mosaic law – as we see from today’s readings. Today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus states the law and the Gospel reports of Jesus’ command to the leper to adhere to the law by “[showing himself] to the priest and offer for [his] cleansing what Moses prescribed.”
Bethke also claims that Jesus hated religion. It is true that Jesus was very critical of the religious leaders of his day – the scribes and Pharisees, who too often followed only the letter but not spirit of the law. Scholars will even point to today’s Gospel as evidence of Jesus’ distain for such religious leaders who victimized its weakest members and may have e even denied Jesus’ healing of the leper. In the Greek rendering of this passage, there is a sense of angry emotion by Jesus in his instruction to the leper to return “again” to the priests for their purification.
If religion is so great, Bethke argues, then why does it build huge Churches while so many go hungry and homeless. We build churches to honor and praise our God – and our recent improvements here are a testament to this. And we, the Church, are also the largest provider in the world of food, shelter and clothing to those in need. Including the work here at Our Lady of Peace - our parish is very generous in giving to the poor – even just last Thursday we served our monthly meal to the homeless downtown.
Bethke also argues that religion is man-made, not God-made. Just the opposite is true: at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus states: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to Peter: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus not only instituted the Church, but remains with her. Father Robert Barron, who is an wonderful and articulate defender of our faith and author and producer of an excellent DVD series entitled Catholicism, reminds us, too, that we can’t separate Jesus from the mystical body of Christ, the Church – that the Word became Flesh, in person Jesus Christ, and who now remains in the Church in the liturgy, Sacraments, and acts of charity. In fact, we can even find in Scripture Jesus instituting the Mass we celebrate now and each of the Seven Sacraments.
It is not my intention to demonize Jefferson Bethke because it is said that when he was presented with these counter-arguments he was humble, earnest and gracious and ultimately reversed his position. I also would not want to be too hard on him because it is his sincere and strong love for and faith in Jesus, like the leper in today’s Gospel, that is the source of his passionate and joy-filled proclamation of the Good News. In fact, we too, having experienced Christ in Sacred Scripture, in the Eucharist, and in this faith community, should leave this Mass on fire to share God’s great love, mercy and peace with others. This is what the final words of this Mass command.
Not all of us feel competent or comfortable to evangelize, as we are called to do – and I would include myself, at times, in this group. So, I invite you to join me in following the direction of our bishops, who urge prayer, fasting, and study when faced with a challenge. I urge you to make time to pray every day, throughout the day to bring us closer in relationship with God. Fasting too offers us self-discipline and clarity when we can resist instant gratification that too often food provides and in turn makes it easier for us to justify other sins. And I encourage you to take time to learn what our Church teaches us, so that you can share and defend our faith.
As we approach Lent, make this season a time of greater prayer, commit to one day of the week for fasting and abstinence, and choose one issue and learn what the Church teaches and why. Set as a goal at the end of Lent, to be more in love with our God, to have a stronger faith in him, and to be empowered by a deeper understanding of God’s truths to share and defend our faith with others.