Paul and the Law

I feel like I am procrastinating on the schedule I set for myself here. By now I had planned on reading and writing about lst and 2nd Corinthians. As I read over these two letters at, I must say there is reason to procrastinate. For those who view Paul as a chauvinist, Corinthians provides their proof text. Perhaps.

But I do want to discuss one last and important theme running through Galatians and into Paul’s later letters. It is that of the law. In all of Paul’s letters we hear him warning the people about their behavior. In a word, it should exemplify behavior which does credit to Jesus, to be an example to others as bearers of the Christ they have received, faithful witness in their lives to the faith Paul has preached and that is now theirs. They can imitate the behavior of Jesus Christ in Paul himself. On the one hand Paul hears about their misbehaving warning them to shape up and they have asked him what in fact it does mean to be a follower of The Way, of Jesus.  I live now not I but Christ lives in me.

This is where Paul will launch into his diatribe on the Law. As I said earlier, it is something Paul wrestles with and within himself; at one point in his life he was a faithful Jew and kept to the Mosaic Law. His Gentile followers want to know if in order to follow Jesus do they too, like Paul and Jesus before them, follow the Mosaic Law, become Jewish as an entree into their life in Christ. Paul begins his schema citing the promise made to Abraham and follows it through to finding fulfillment in Christ. This is something the law, Paul says, could not do. Then he talks about the law bringing sin. I always had a hard time understanding this, if the Mosaic Law was good?  If it brought sin why would Yahweh go to all the trouble, and he did, of giving it to the people and telling them that observing the law was requisite Yahweh being their God and them being his people? Abraham was not justified, or made righteous, by the Law. Only by faith in God.  Part of what Paul is getting at is the laws only tells you when you are misbehaving. The key here is in Deuteronomy. In Chapter 4 of Deuteronomy Yahweh tells the people that as they go into the land he had given them, that they are to keep the laws and customs he enjoins on them. This is how they will demonstrate their fidelity to him. In Deuteronomy 6:4-13, begins with the Hebrew prayer called the Shema, that beings Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone…This prayer is still prayed by the Hebrew community today.

Yahweh gave the law to the people to take with them as they went into the Promised Land. The law was given them so that they would have something that governed their relationships with the other people they would be neighbor to, to each other and to God. In other words the law was given to set out the parameters of their relationships with others and with Yahweh.  You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. Let these laws I urge on you be written on your heart. There it is. The Mosaic Law and its purpose. This is not a law written on stone.  It is the law to be carried in one’s heart. It is the law to carry with you in your heart, repeat to their children, take with you walking or at home, rising up or lying down. In other words, make it the very part of your being. In this was right living. To be righteoused–which means to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

So what is Paul talking about? There is the Law and then there is the law. Sometimes Paul is referring to the Mosaic Law and at other times he is referring to the minutia that the law had evolved into; prescriptions for every little thing, like you could be stoned by pulling your ox out of hole on the Sabbath.

The story of Israel will break your heart. It is the story of repeated captivity, oppression, wandering and waiting for a savior to come to end the exiles and oppressions. But it wasn’t happening. So along the way some decided that they needed to do better, to be better. Of course, the Hebrew Scriptures has a lengthy accounting of the Prophets also railing at the people to get back on track. Repent. But by the time of Jesus and Paul it was primarily the Pharisees who set out these laws; really superstitions they believed would cause the messiah to come and save them. The monks at Qumran were thus motivated as well.

In Galatians Paul finally comes back to the spirit of Deuteronomy and concludes that the sum total of the law resides in what we now call The Golden Rule. Love your neighbor as yourself.

I suggest you read Deuteronomy. It is significant in the story of Israel. It is the story of Israel. And it is wonderful, beautiful. In it is the heart of a loving God. The God in Christ that Paul brings to us.


My God-rock

What is your God-bearing image? Stone or thimble…or…?
Tonight as we left the first of the Lent’s Sacred Conversations at my church we were given a small stone. On the stone it said I Am God. I put it in my pocket and was glad to have something to touch now and again, just to make sure God was there. And this reminded of something Rilke said in Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke is encouraging the young poet to the writer’s life, a life focused on his work and status and vocation. A kind of single-mindedness and simplicity of childhood. And the poet must have wondered if he had somehow lost God. And Rilke asks Do you believe anyone who really has him could lose him like a little stone…?
I put the stone in my pocket recalling another place in Rilke’s Stories of God entitled How the Thimble Came To Be God. In the story a little boy named Hans has said his evening prayers. He feels something in his folded hands soft and warm, like a little bird. And he hurries to finish his prayers so he can open his hands, but when he does there is nothing there. The children he was telling this to were silent, perplexed. But then Hans said “How stupid. Anything can be God.” So the children searched for something to be God. Then little Resi finds a thimble which is bright, as if made of silver, and for its beauty’s sake it become God. And the children each took their turns carrying God around in their pockets. After a few days the children were playing and one asked Who has God now? And little Maria, who had had God last, searched in her pockets and realized he must have fallen out while they were playing. She was very distressed and after all the other children had gone home, she kept search everywhere for the little thimble. Some tried to help her; but no one could find it. As it grew dark and she was about to give up, a stranger came along and asked her what she was looking for. Almost in tears, little Maria says, I am looking for God. The stranger smiles down at her, taking her by the hand, she lets herself be led as if all were well now. Along the way the stranger says Look! What a beautiful thimble I have found today.

So I’ve taken my little God-rock that the stranger gave me and put it on my desk where I have a day job. Sometimes I pick it up and take it with me to get coffee or on a break. Each morning as I leave Canaan and drive across the seemingly endless concrete highways snaking my way to Egypt to toil in Pharaoh’s glass pyramid, I know that God is there waiting for me, my God-rock greeting me, my strength throughout the day, pocket companion, never far from reach. A rock and a reminder.

The Call

I left off yesterday talking about identity. Paul’s identity, how he sees himself in God’s plan. And Jesus’ identity, both with their roots in Judaism. The quote from Ephesians on my Home Page, I believe, is my favorite passage from Paul, and I go to it often as a reminder of my identity and my call. It represents, I believe, the sum total of everything Paul lived, preached and wished and prayed for us. The hidden self to grow strong so that Christ may live in our hearts…..

The forty days of Lent are meant to remind us of the forty years the people Israel journeyed through the wilderness to the land of the promise. That journey was one of identity. Becoming Israel, the people of God. Through that wilderness experience they came to know who they were, what it means to be in covenant with Yahweh, whose they were. It was not an easy journey. The Exodus has been called the formative journey of the Hebrew people. It was transformative for a nation.

When the gospel writers began to chronicle Jesus’ life, they wrote about Jesus also going off for forty days in the wilderness. He had just come out of the Jordan, the same river the Hebrew people would cross as they went into Canaan, into the Promised Land. Jesus too had temptations during those forty days. But I suspect that those three temptations, came under one heading: praying and pondering the work that was before him. The work he certainly must have believed he was sent by his Father to do. What some would call his vocation. Not vacation. Vocation. What we believe to be our call or calling from God.

Paul is asking his infant churches to live according to the call they have received. The call to have faith in Christ Jesus who died and rose again. And this call is to all. There are no distinctions for those baptized in Christ. In that famous passage in Galatians that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female for now in baptism we are clothed in Christ. And it’s available to all.

By now you have probably discerned that I am a lay person. But I hesitate to use that term, for it implies a hierarchy, one I do not see Paul advancing and certainly that Jesus did not. Without going into a long treaties on what the various roles we each play in building the Body of Christ, which Paul too will address in his next letter, it is simply (!) this: We are all called. We are called into a life in Christ; we are called to be in a relationship with God. We are all called to search out the identity of our hidden selves so that Christ may live in our hearts through faith…so that we are filled with the utter fullness of God.

The theme of my earliest writing explores what it means to be human. Following closely the Joseph narrative we discover we are God’s design, and by God’s design we are both sacred and meant. Just as Paul will make the case to the new initiates who have faith in Christ, we are heirs to the promise made to Abraham, the promise kept in Jesus. Eventually the ongoing promise of creation extends to all, all the world as it was by God’s design from the beginning and that we are all called, with whatever talents and abilities, with whatever desires and interests, via whatever career/life choices we make to discover our identities, our hidden selves, and chart the course through the wilderness, however we see it, in Christ.

Why Paul?

Why Paul?
At the outset of Galatians Paul issues a warning to the infant community who has apparently strayed from the Good News, going off on a different path, perhaps adapting what Paul taught them when he was there. As the various communities that Paul preached to would have to live out the message Paul gave to them, they would also have to contend with challenges from without and most likely from within their own ranks, to the Christ he preached to them.
Paul is so adamant that they not listen to anyone about faith he preached to them. He would not tolerate anyone leading his converts astray. And he really doesn’t care what anyone says or thinks about him. You can hear his uncompromising determination to warn the community at Galatia to listen only to him. Why? Because he is a servant of Christ.
This is a very important letter. In it Paul begins to shape his theology. It is not systematized nor will it coalesce into full bloom until later. You might say Paul is a process theologian, adapting ways to convey the one faith he is determined to keep to and spread in his mission to the Gentiles. In this letter we come to the crux of the problem that will tie Paul in knots trying to work through. The problems that assail him and the early communities who would have faith in Jesus Christ. What actually to the non-Jewish Gentiles have to conform to in order to actually become a member of this new faith?
Those issues were: did they, like Jesus and Paul, have to become Jewish first before they could become christians? Did they have to adhere to the Mosaic Law and did they have to be circumcised; submit to the ritual of initiation into the Jewish faith.
At the heart of this issue is who Paul is himself. And who Jesus was. Paul and Jesus were very different men. Although we can no longer depict Jesus as meek and mild, from the gospels we see a person who did not travel very far from where he was born, had a great number of people following him about, traveled with at least twelve others, probably more, and taught by sitting on a hill side telling stories. He went among the people and ate with all kinds of people, including sinners. As we will see this became a bone of contention among the first apostles of Jesus after his death. Purity, keeping oneself apart from those unclean (‘sinners’) and the wicked was requisite to being a good Jew.
Paul, on the other hand, as we have seen from his letters so far, was dynamic in a different way. He traveled widely, could be fierce and fiery, would brook no dissention in the ranks, and traveled with only a few companions, sometimes only one assistant who would transcribe the letters he dictated. He was urbane, educated as a Pharisee, and this is the real clincher – he began his life persecuting those who followed Jesus.
So why would God chose Paul to spread faith in Jesus Christ far and wide when there were surely men who were more qualified, who had gone around with Jesus, who may have known him better and could attest to his life and teachings? Surely Paul was an unlikely candidate for this calling. And yet, true to who Paul was, he was absolutely convinced that he had been chosen by God, had an experience of the risen Lord and by God’s grace he was called to promote, teach and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Because who better to convince you of something than someone who was against it in the first place. Who would be more credible? And at the outset of Paul’s career, it was still believed that this was another form, a truer form of the faith of Israel, and he was called by the God of Israel. And that the risen Lord was born, lived and died a Jewish man. Before his followers would be called Christian they were called the People of the Way. Because Jesus had said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. And I believe that we cannot understand Christianity until we understand Judaism. We cannot really understand story of Jesus until we understand the story of Israel.
Tomorrow as we proceed through Galatians, we will come to the intersection, the crossroads and the beginning of the parting of Judaism from itself.