The Perfect Jew

In the Gospel, Christ is careful to ensure that we notice the theme of “fulfillment.” For example, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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.” (Mt. 5:17-20)

In the Passion narrative (Palm Sunday and Good Friday), fulfillment crops up again: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for, I tell you, I shall not eat it again until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

Unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy imbedded in Psalm 22, the soldiers at the foot of the Cross decide to cast lots for Jesus’ garment:  “‘Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be,’ in order that the passage of Scripture might be fulfilled that says: They divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots.” (Mt. 27:35)

When Christ “fulfills” the Scriptures, He discloses the unity of God’s revelation. The Old Testament is foundational to the New Testament. The Epistle to the Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various [fragmented] ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

The message is clear and consoling to the Jews, the recipients of the epistle. Christianity is not altogether “new” requiring a denial of all that came before Christ. It is “new” to the extent that Christ sums up in His Person and perfectly completes all that God has revealed of old. In this sense, Christ is the “perfect Jew.”

That all things are fulfilled and renewed in Christ includes a demanding and very encouraging truth.  The Church hands down the truths of Christ and presents them anew to every generation. The infallibility of the Church and the pope does not allow “inventing” new doctrines in matters of faith and morals, but presenting, promoting, and clarifying the truths of Christ.

To borrow from the caricature of some Protestants, the pope has no authority, for example, to pronounce a change in the dogma of the Blessed Trinity by introducing Mary as the fourth person.  (Although some overly zealous Catholics came dangerously close to that.)  The same goes for a myriad of teachings involving the Ten Commandments and the moral norms traditionally derived from the Decalogue.

White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938 [Art Institute of Chicago]
White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938 [Art Institute of Chicago]

Radical change in doctrine is not part of the Catholic lexicon – and if it is, regardless of the source, it is outside the Faith.  The firm doctrine of “fulfillment in Christ” ensures that a fundamental rule of logic applies to the Faith:  the principle of non-contradiction. The truths of the Faith, as handed down over the ages, never contradict each other.

There is great beauty and hope in the notion of “fulfillment” in Christ.  There is no “radical change” unless there is a necessity for us to get with the program – the program of Christ as well as the program of the Jewish faith (the Law and Prophets) before Him.  Certainly, the “works of the [Mosaic] law” (such as circumcision, the price of being identified with “the Chosen People”) are no longer necessary because in Christ, the law has been interiorized by grace in Christian discipleship.

And Jewish worship – the worship of synagogue and the Temple sacrifices – has been replaced with the single Sacrifice of Christ.  But all the elements are there for proper assembly in the Mass – the synagogue gives way to the Liturgy of the Word, and the Temple sacrifices give way to bloodless sacrificial Liturgy of the Eucharist.  (See Pope Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.)

But if Christ is the “perfect Jew” because He fulfills all that came before Him, Mary herself might also be referred to as a “perfect Jew,” even before Christ entered history as man. Mary participated in the Redemption before it took place in time by her Immaculate Conception. But Mary needed to be taught the Jewish faith and upon receiving the faith she remained sinless.

This means that Mary lived the Jewish faith with perfection and the Jewish faith was holy, beautiful, and good.  Saint Paul warns that the Judaic law – necessary because of sin – has been superseded by the Law of Christ. But Mary “cracked the code” of the true spiritual meaning of old law before Christ, and lived, without a violation, according to the law of God, a law that reinforced the law written on her immaculate heart.  Mary was hence formed as a good Jew.

This means that her parents Joachim and Ann, certainly – and countless other Jews like Joseph, Zechariah, and Elizabeth – were similarly “near-perfect Jews.”  Contrary to the example of the scribes and Pharisees, they were living and teaching the Jewish faith with a very clear understanding or appreciation of – or just plain intuitively in love with – the traditions of Jewish faith.

In obedience, they correctly and in a truly “unfragmented” way lived the faith before the definitive fulfillment in Christ. And provide those of us still quite imperfect with assurances that such fulfillment is also possible for us.

The holy doctrine of continuity and fulfillment consolidates and hands down the entire truth of Christ throughout the generations.  Linking the life and teaching of Christ to the past ultimately reveals the prospect of the gradual perfectibility of man’s nature, wounded as it is by sin, beginning with the kindly tutor of Old Testament law.

As Alban Goodier, S.J. once observed:  Mary in her great, sinless sorrow at the Crucifixion did not despair. Her pure, unshakable faith became the lone, unbreakable thread linking the old covenant with the new at the foot of the Cross.

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    A truly beautiful essay, Father. Thank you for this fine start to Holy Week. I love the last two sentences. I have often pondered how Mary could stand at the foot of that Cross and bear watching her only Child’s dreadful death. I could not have borne it. But, then, I’m not Mary. I can only honor her by worshiping her own dear Child, God’s only Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This essay is a great help as I begin to focus my mind and heart for this most sublime of liturgical times in our Church year.

    • Marv Stasak

      Not to pick a nit, but I think “only child” is wrong.

      • Richard A

        Mary is the spiritual mother of all the faithful, but physically the mother of only one (divine) human being. You’re picking a nit that doesn’t exist.

  • Charles Adams

    Bishop Sheen “We may not sit in the same pew but we can pray together.
    This is Easter let us pray together all the time. As Christians we must. It Took over three years just to have a complete bible.

  • olhg1

    All year long, but especially during Lent, and most especially during Holy Week, if THE MAN, and His work and words are not frequently mentioned by His followers: Pope, bishops, priests in their homilies, and in their daily give and take-and by vowed religious and people with a dedicated mission; and if His Name-JESUS, God Almighty-is not frequently, read “always” mentioned, one will understand one of the main reasons why the Roman Catholic Church is “going down,” and having a lessened effect on the world. People in love talk about their Beloved and mention their names. Passionately, as in the New Testament.

  • Charles Adams

    Bishop Sheen “We may not sit in the same pew but we can pray together. With Easter we must pray together and all the time. Abraham maybe the Father of three religions but Easter makes us Christians.

  • Michael Dowd

    Thanks Father. We need to pray that Pope Francis promotes “the holy doctrine of continuity and fulfillment (which) consolidates and hands down the entire truth of Christ throughout the
    generations.” Some of his actions tend to belie this statement.

  • Stanley Anderson

    In a reply to another TCT column a while back I had mentioned the idea of seeing evil (perhaps not exclusively, but as an aid to understanding certain aspects of it) as “emptiness” or “incompleteness,” and the Fall of Man as a kind of “flattening” of the “solidity” of an unfallen state. And that this flattening was perhaps not so much a “punishment” as much as a kind of “protection” for us by God from total destruction until that point “in the fullness of time” that His Salvation was to be effected by Christ’s Sacrifice.

    I had noted that such an image of evil and the Fall neatly sidesteps the danger of a kind of dualistic view of good and evil as agents pitted against each other like the old “Spy vs Spy” comics in Mad Magazine. (For me, even CS Lewis’ image — I think it was, but not sure without looking it up at the moment — of evil as spoiled goodness still carries a hint of potential for dualistic thinking, since a glass of sour milk is still a “thing” sitting next to a glass of fresh milk. But an empty or even the proverbial half-empty-or-half-full glass could be filled up to the brim again, in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over (ok, ok, Stan, back off already…)

    Anyway this column today rounds that idea out wonderfully for me with its theme of “fulfillment” rather than “denial” of what came before.

  • rick

    Twenty first century secularists say we’re purely a product of our material environment. Martin Luther, in the 16th century, ( w/ a faint echo, I fear, in certain catholic circles today) says the evil in us is total and inveterate, that any good we do is divine mercy only. Dante’s Comedy attributes the sad state of 14th century Italy to the denial of free will, to the belief that all is controlled by the “stars.” As Father Pokorsky so timely points out, our Blessed Mother, and her family, example the opposite of all that determinism. We can, and must, make ourselves pleasing in His sight.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      “[A]ny good we do is divine mercy only”

      This is what St Paul teaches, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor.15:10).

      As the Council of Orange explains, “If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5)”

      • rick

        Thank you for the Council of Orange reference. It was new to me. And for the Corinthians quotations. But James 2:24 says righteousness isn’t just faith but works too. They kept that in the Bible. To me that means we start w/ divine mercy but can’t stop there. Matthew 25 / the parable of the talents comes to mind too.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          But St Paul says, “”For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). as the Apostle says of himself, “I have obtained mercy to be faithful” (1 Cor. 7:25, cf. 1 Tim. 1:13). He did not say, “because I was faithful,” but “to be faithful.” This does not in the least contradict St James, who also says, “, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17).

          As the Council of Orange (the great anti-Pelagian council) explains in the 222nd canon, “No man has anything of his own but untruth and sin.” and in the 23rd “Concerning the will of God and of man. Men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases Him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is His will by which what their will is both prepared and instructed.”

          • rick

            I think your James 1:17 quote is consistent w/ what I’m trying, perhaps unartfully, to say. If I implied that we can do good w/o gifts from the Father, I misspoke. But the unspoken side of Jas 1:17, if you combine it w/ 2:24, is that we have the responsibility to use those gifts. First Corinthians 12 talks of the various gifts given to people. Doesn’t this presupose discernment and, yes, freedom, in the choice of what to do w/ the gifts we’re given? My original point was that Luther regarded human agency to be less than Catholic teaching regarding human agency. I believe this is true but admittedly not from primary readings. I spoke a lot on this subject during my conversion years with a Priest I was honored to know, Stanly Jaki. His books are the main source of my understanding. Wish I could offer a specific citation but I’m in the middle of moving and my library is in disarray.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Good luck rick. I pray your move works out beautifully. Save that library, it sounds like a good one.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            In second causes, the First Cause operates and the Creator and the Creature both enact the creature’s existence. Scripture makes this clear in many places, as

            Turn to the Lord (Hos 14:2)
            Turn us, O God of our salvation (Ps 85:4)

            Turn back, turn back from your evil ways (Ez 33:11)
            Turn thou me, and I shall be turned (Jer 31:18)
            Turn you us to you, O LORD, and we shall be turned (Lam 5:21)

            Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! (Ez 18:31)
            A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put
            within you; (Ez 36:26)

            Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is producing in you both the desire and the ability to do[τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν lit to will and to work] what pleases him (Phil 2:12-13)

          • rick

            Galatians 5:13 says we’re called to be free. Romans 8:2 says Christ set us free from the law of sin and death. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Obviously this freedom means freedom to do God’s will, but there must be agency to do so. Mary was excercizing freedom in her choice to accept the immaculate conception. There’s an adumbration of Paul’s freedom in Jeremiah 31:33, where God says he’ll write his law on the hearts of the people of Israel ( implicitly promising to free them precisely from what Paul calls the law of sin and death.) Ezekial 33 … have to think more about that one.

  • ThirstforTruth

    How beautifully expressed: Mary’s unshakable faith became the unbroken thread linking
    the old covenant with the new, at the foot of Christ’s cross! Her faith and her good works
    expressed in her fiat, are our holy inspiration during these difficult times.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Perhaps the Apostle Paul was the perfect Jew after Christ. God will in the end redeem the remnant of the Jewish people according to scripture and Church tradition. God will not go back on his promise to his chosen people. The Holocaust for many Jews is an enigma, many have abandoned faith in a chosen people. Conservative Judaism is a misnomer. The movement is secular oriented. The Rabbis I’ve known, good men open to all, unprejudiced, tend to be focused on social justice. Sephardic Judaism much smaller is actually conservative. Saint Paul in his missions in establishing churches throughout the Med region always went to the local Jewish communities first, although he is considered the Apostle of the gentiles. The significance in that I believe was Paul’s intimate knowledge of Jesus and the will of God. It was Paul who predicted the return in the end of Jews to God in Christ. Events in Israel, the recovery of the Temple precincts for Evangelicals spells the return there of the Messiah and the restoration of the chosen people. For others including myself it is foreboding, of either an Antichrist movement or the Antichrist himself. St Cyril of Jerusalem prophesied that the Antichrist would, at first, gain the Jews and world’s favor by a show of great benevolence. His daemonic intent would be revealed after a time of power. The Jewish people, at least many would then turn to faith in Christ, to Fr Podorsky’s and history’s Perfect Jew.

    • Sheila

      Interesting and good food for thought. Esp the later portion of your reply. “For others including myself it is foreboding, of either an Antichrist movement or the Antichrist himself”. And “Antichrist would, at first, gain the Jews and world’s favor by a show of great benevolence. His daemonic intent would be revealed after a time of power.”

      I have been watching for these traits since our current president took office. It is evident to me that his utter failure and attempt to influence the world (esp Islam) and America was quickly known to most, as well as his disdain for Israel. I believe he was and is a total failure at influencing anyone. So although I feel he has been an evil influence, I feel he is not the evil one. As his true self became and continues to become more exposed, all can see he is a weak man in many ways. His attempts to influence others can be used as a tool for the “evil that awaits” to try and get a stronger foothold in our and other countries. Esp. with young adults who are so easily swayed by the “things and the world”. Look at the followers of Mr Trump and Mr Sanders. What are they doing? I don’t think either fits the description of the evil that is to come. And the Republican Party now trying to take over and push Mr Cruz aside. The devil is watching. We are a nation of power and influence and may or may not be where the antichrist rises up. It is foreboding as you said. Signs of the time to come maybe

      • Richard A

        It’s obvious Obama is not the Antichrist. The Antichrist would be a whole lot smarter.

  • Alexandra_kirschmitt

    Great article, thanks. Some Jewish converts to Catholicism say very aptly that they are accomplished Jews. Catholicism is the accomplishment of Judaism. Jesus said that He didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. The great French School of Spirituality saw in Jesus “le Parfait religieux de Dieu”, we can agree that indeed He was the perfect Jew in his human nature.The Blessed Mother was the perfect Jew and the perfect Christian for she was full of grace. What a wonderful meditation, Fr. Pokorsky!

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    My brothers, my fathers, listen! I am a Jew. I studied under Gamaliel and was taught the exact observance of the Law. In fact I was full of duty towards God. I even persecuted the Way to the death, and sent women as well as men to prison in chains (Acts 22:3). None of the Apostles was as knowledgeable of the Law or practiced it as intently as Paul. After his conversion he became known as The Apostle. Pontiff’s have said no one knew or understood the mind of Jesus, or emulated his divine master as well and intently as Paul. Much of our understanding of salvation, the doctrine of faith in Rm and Gal comes from this Apostle. He was a Jews’ Jew and as a perfect disciple of the Perfect Jew, who fulfilled the Law. Paul was His greatest advocate and truest emulator. It took me years as a priest realize how important it is to understand and emulate Paul in order to better understand and emulate Christ. Paul set the example for all priests saying he considered the world so much dung in comparison to the knowledge of Christ. Today Trump will speak to the AM Israel Pub Aff Comm. If anyone who claims to represent Christianity, who is absolutely unfit, a walking travesty of arrogance, a self indulgent advocate of violence, it is this man who wishes to address Am Jews. What causes me immense concern is that many including Catholics, some on this site- who will I suppose attack me- let them, because my appeal as a priest is to their sanity and sense of justice not to irrational personality worship and the hope that this vain pied piper will lead our Nation to a good future rather than disaster. Look to Jesus Christ and hold fast to His truth in season and out of season.

  • mrteachersir

    “Contrary to the example of the scribes and Pharisees, they were living and teaching the Jewish faith with a very clear understanding or appreciation of – or just plain intuitively in love with – the traditions of Jewish faith.”

    How often do we neglect the interpretation of the Gospels and the “rules” of the Church that are lived out each and every day, and try to explain some of them away. We are surrounded by “near perfect” Christians, and we ignore their very clear understanding of Tradition, like chapel veils, Friday abstinence, weekly penance, kneeling for Communion, etc and either ridicule them or come up with innovations that ignore the real meaning that is lived out in their lives.

    I was reminded of this in yesterday’s Gospel: being good Jew’s the women didn’t anoint Jesus after His death, because it was the Sabbath. Despite their grief, they held God in much higher esteem than custom. Would that we all held that thought…