“Priests are no use at all,” jesus recognizes
RACHEL Today we have the mobile unit of Emisoras Latinas located near what was once the great Temple of Jerusalem. The most recent declarations of Jesus Christ concerning the Eucharist, as well as those he made in earlier programs about confession, have our telephone lines completely jammed. A listener from Asuncion, Paraguay, named Arturo Bregaglio, asks the following question
ARTURO If you say that priests cannot pardon sins or consecrate the host, then what purpose do priests serve?
RACHEL Did you catch that question, Jesus?
JESUS Yes, I heard it clearly.
RACHEL So, then, what purpose do priests serve?
JESUS I think that none at all.
RACHEL What do you mean, none at all?
JESUS None at all.
RACHEL With such a blunt statement, wouldn’t you be disqualifying even yourself?
JESUS Myself? Why?
RACHEL Well, because… aren’t you the High Priest of the New Covenant?
JESUS Among my people only those of the tribe of Levi, the Levites, were priests. I wasn’t one of them.
RACHEL So you are not a priest?
JESUS No I’m not, and I never was one. In fact, I had some tremendous quarrels with the priests of my time.
RACHEL What was the reason for those quarrels?
JESUS Their arrogance. They felt themselves superior. They thought they were masters of the truth, and they despised the simple people. They considered themselves mediators between heaven and earth, representatives of God! I still chuckle when I remember the expression on their faces when I made that remark I mentioned the other day. That was the time I told them “The whores will enter into the Kingdom of heaven before you do!”
RACHEL You said that, using that bad word?
JESUS What bad word?
RACHEL That one you just said…
JESUS Whores? Of course. Those women I always respected, but those guys I didn’t. They were stuck-up. Whitewashed tombs, full of dead bones.
RACHEL In any case, if you weren’t a priest, then your apostles were.
JESUS Why do you say that?
RACHEL During the Last Supper, even though you claim that you didn’t consecrate either bread or wine, you did consecrate your twelve apostles as priests.
JESUS Where did you get that idea, Rachel? I never consecrated anybody. In our movement there were no priests. Neither were there any in the first communities, from what they tell me. They were ordinary people, men and especially women, who were responsible for carrying on the work of the Kingdom of God. They didn’t even use the word “priest”.
RACHEL Priest doesn’t mean sacred?
JESUS Priest means distant, separated from the people. To work for the Kingdom, you have be in among the people.
RACHEL So where did the priests come from, the clergy who say they represent you?
JESUS Well, I don’t know what tribe they might have come from, because in our movement we didn’t accept that kind of hierarchy.
RACHEL Hold on a moment…. A text message is arriving … It’s from a lay theologian, José María Marín … This is what it says, let me read it “The ordination of priests has nothing to do with Jesus. It is a much later custom, coming from the Roman empire. That’s where the Catholic clergy arose, full of power and privileges. For Jesus the community needs no mediator before God.”
JESUS I like the way that fellow explains it.
RACHEL So what do we do with the priests?
JESUS Let them be born again, as I counseled old Nicodemus. If they join in the struggle, if they live among the people, if their words give joy to the hearts of the poor and are a two-edged sword against the unjust, then all will be well. But if they think they’re masters of a ladder that leads to God, like the one in Jacob’s dreams, then they’re useless, because God is not up above, nor is he far away. He is here, in the midst of us.
RACHEL And what do you say, listener friends of Emisoras Latinas? And especially, what do you think, those of you listening to us who are priests and reverends and pastors? For Emisoras Latinas, this Rachel Perez in Jerusalem.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
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Priest: sacred and separate
Priests exist in many cultures – western, eastern, African, or Amerindian – where they are thought to serve as intermediaries between humans and the divine: they placate or gratify the gods through certain rites, prayers or sacrifices. In the Hellenistic cultural setting, the priest was designated by the word “hiereus”, which means “holy,” “sacred,” and therefore “separate,” “segregated,” belonging to the realm of the divine. In all such cultures the priest is the one who “knows” about the things of God and has “power” over the divine. That knowledge and that power give him the right to many social, political, economic and cultural privileges.
A powerful caste
In the time of Jesus, the Jerusalem priests constituted the class with the greatest social influence; they served in the Temple, whose “sanctuary” was for Judaism the privileged site of “God’s presence”. Only the priests could enter into that sacred space, called the “Holy of Holies”. That is where the sacrifices were performed, with the burning of perfumes and the slaying of animals. Just as in all other religions, the Jewish priests were considered to be men chosen to have direct contact with the sacred; they were intermediaries before God, separated from and superior to all other men. They occupied the summit of a hierarchical society that kept the majority of its people subservient. In the time of Jesus the priests were divided into 24 classes or sections, each section having about 300 priests.
The gospel narratives show Jesus in frequent conflict with the priests, arguing with them, reproaching them, rejecting their religious arguments. The gospels also make clear how the priests accused Jesus of being possessed by demons and of having no authority to speak as he did; they rejected his message and his actions; and finally, they denounced him and condemned him to death.
Jesus was not a priest
Jesus was not a priest. He was a layman. In Jesus’ time, all the priests were Jews from the tribe of Levi, who were considered the heirs of Aaron, Moses’ brother. Jesus was not a priest, but rather fought against the priestly caste and was reviled by the priests of his time. Jesus was a lay person (from the Greek laikos, meaning “of the people”). Only in the Letter to the Hebrews, attributed to Paul but written by one of his disciples, is Jesus called a “priest of the new covenant”, a covenant that superceded the old covenant and abolished the levitical priesthood.
The legacy of the lay Jesus of Nazareth
When theologians make Jesus into a priest and use the symbolic language of Hebrews to promote the idea that priests are “other Christs”, they are betraying the true message of Jesus. Jesus never promoted any kind of priesthood in his movement. What is more, he called into question the very essence of priesthood, namely, the idea that some people should be consecrated as mediators between God and other humans, and that they exercised such mediation by performing sacred rites in sacred places at sacred times. Jesus undercut the institution of priesthood in various ways: a) by affirming that we do not need mediators, because God lives in us and not in some temple; b) by rejecting blood sacrifices and proposing relations with one’s neighbor as the only way to enter into relation with God: and c) by not blindly respecting the Sabbath as a sacred day. The fact that Jesus was a lay person who defied and contradicted the priests was a deciding factor in his murder. For that reason, being critical of priesthood is a way for Christians to continue the legacy of the lay Jesus of Nazareth.
As the Spanish theologian José Ignacio González Faus explains: The Church must have and has always had leaders, but those leaders have nothing to do with the “religious” fact of priesthood. Priests and bishops, such as we know them today, did not even figure in Jesus’ imagination. They arose in the course of Christianity’s historical evolution as one more expression of the installation of a male hierarchy at the head of the power structures of the nascent official church.
A polemical book
In his polemical book, Clerics: Psychograma of an Ideal (Editorial Trotta, Madrid, 1995), the German Catholic theologian Eugen Drewermann, using his psychoanalytic skills to analyze the characteristics of the “vocation” of priests and vowed religious, arrives at conclusions which lay bare the pathogenic roots of Catholic “functionaries” and, by extension, of those societies which have been dominated by Catholic morality for centuries.
The book is long, provocative, and packed with information and suggestive reflections. Its main aim is to free people, as he states in explaining his objectives: The simplest way to smudge that halo of divine predilection that clerics seem to wear is to show that their image of superiority, with its unearthly airs, is woven out of psychological repressions and transferences which are quite “earthly” indeed. We recommend this book for its clarity and its audacity.
Women with priestly tasks
All the patriarchal cultures have considered the prime priestly task – mediation between divinity and humanity – to be something that corresponds in a special way to men. Even so, many of the ancient religions, such as in Egypt, Greece and Rome, involved priestesses in their cultic worship, and in the present day, there are many religious cultures which include women as “shamans”. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), however, totally exclude women from the priesthood.
In the history of religions women priests were linked to fertility cults, to rites related to vegetable and animal life, to ceremonies centered on dance and music, and to feasts that celebrated sexuality. In contrast, the male priesthood appeared more often connected to religions which prized brutish, bloody sacrifices. Male priesthood stressed the expiation of sins and the imposition of norms, repressions and restrictions; it was wedded to authority, wars, violence and cruelty.
Widows, the original Christian priestesses
The first Christian communities spoke more of “presbyters” (elders) than of “priests” in the old Jewish or Greek sense. In a world where people did not live as long as they do now, old age arrived soon, and it was culturally associated with wisdom and leadership in the community.
Theologian José María Marín explains: The widowed woman was the equivalent of the male presbyter. The ministry exercised by widows probably constituted an autonomous form of a kind of female presbyterate, which lasted until the fourth century. The “widowhood” was recognized by the communities as an apostolic group, distinct from that of the deaconesses. These widows were called “elders” (or “presbyteresses”), the same title given to the male leaders of the earliest Christian communities. They performed a variety of functions, including domestic pastoral work among women, the charitable services proper to the diaconate, the ministry of prayer, and sacramental ministry like celebrating baptisms and the Eucharist. The widowhood was definitively suppressed in the western church at the Council of Laodicea in the year 343.
Marín adds: If Jesus had not placed women on the same level as men, in all the orders, then there is no explanation for why the first Christian communities gave women this prominent ministerial role. Even though Paul was hopelessly misogynist in forbidding “women to speak in the temple” and in prohibiting them from “praying with their heads uncovered”, he cannot help but mention in his letters women who were apostles and ministers, and he indicates that such was the precept of Jesus.
The priesthood of women
Until the fifth century the habitual practice in Christianity was to ordain women as deaconesses, a rank lower than that of priests. The deaconesses had some functions in the liturgy and the life of the church, although these functions were more limited than those assigned to male deacons. After the fifth century this practice disappeared.
Recently in several Protestant churches (Lutheran, Anglican, Moravian, Episcopalian, etc.) women have begun to be ordained to the priesthood. The Catholic Church is the denomination most opposed to this change.
The debate about women’s ordination in the Catholic Church gained strength in the latter part of the 20th century, when vocations to the priesthood declined. The Catholic Church in the U.S. has offered some pioneering reflections on the appropriateness of ordaining women. The first ordinations of women, which took place in the Anglican Church in England in March, 1994, added fuel to the debate. In an apostolic letter of May, 1994, Pope John Paul II sought to settle the matter by stating bluntly: I declare that the Church in no way has the ability to confer priestly ordination on women and that this affirmation shouldbe considered to be definitive by all the faithful.
In its Apostolic Letter “Ordenatio Sacerdotalis” of 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ratified this position in order to remove all doubt about a question of great importance, which pertains to the divine constitution of the Church itself. This document states that the exclusion of women from the priesthood should be observed always, everywhere and by all the faithful, since it belongs to the deposit of faith. This constitutes a definitive rejection of women’s ordination, since the term “deposit of faith” represents for the Church the highest degree of theological certainty apart from the official declaration of a dogma. In fact, it indicates that this doctrine is considered infallible and therefore something that cannot be annulled by any future Pope.
Given all these doctrinal pronouncements, we would be made to understand that women’s ordination is a “closed case” among Catholics. In the face of such a negative stance, the question remains: is it worthwhile to keep fighting for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church? If Catholic women were at the present time allowed to be ordained priests, as we currently understand priesthood, would they end up transforming the institution, or would they rather be transformed by it? Would women contribute to real change, or would they simply be helping, by injecting a new bit of energy, to sustain a model that is contrary to Jesus’ message since it separates the sacred and the profane and establishes a powerful hierarchy, one that was disallowed and abolished by the movement of Jesus? What is clear is that Jesus was against any priesthood, whether of men or of women.
José María Marín
José María Marín is a former Catholic priest, now a lay theologian, who participates in our program by virtue of the lucid ideas expressed in his book, “Christian Priesthood or Ministry of the Community?”. Marín demonstrates consistently that Jesus was not a priest and that the first Christian communities were faithful to Jesus in not having priests. The priesthood derived from a tradition that was alien to the gospel.
Marín explains: The so-called priestly or ministerial ordination is a custom taken over from the Roman empire, in which “ordo” [order] signified a person’s access to a determined social class. … For religious ministries the “order of clerics” was established, which is nothing but a “caste” to which one accedes by means of a “course”. This “ordo” made clerics powerful and distinguished; it situated them in a stable bureaucracy which began to be called “clergy” and was considered “sacred”. The clerics were expected to live separated and distant from rest of the people, the lay folk. Legal and ritual sanctity was required of them, and celibacy was imposed on them, to point of turning their wives into slaves. The celibate state was what most effectively separated them from the people of God.