When we read dense theology like Paul’s letter to the Galatians we become acutely aware that we are reading someone else’s mail and have no idea who he was responding to and why they were at odds with Paul.
But from reading Paul’s arguments we have normally understood, in crude terms, that Paul believed that he was made right with God through his faith in Christ. And this was in a natural opposition to the Jews (by which we understand the term to refer to the Pharisees or a pharisaic frame of mind) who thought that they were made right with God by observing the law. So Paul champions Grace and the Jews champion works.
But actually that simplistic view is rather undermined by the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus who wrote this interesting phrase in his book “The antiquities of the Jews”;
“It is not possible for men to return thanks to God by means of works, for the Deity stands in need of nothing and is above any such recompense”
If we take Josephus’ statement as the standard mainstream Jewish viewpoint, it means that they didn’t observe the law because they thought they would gain anything from it – they observed the law out of gratitude to a God who loved them. Following the law was something that indicated grateful acceptance of what God had done for them.
If that is so then the sharp dichotomy between a Jewish and Christian understanding of law versus grace becomes very blurred indeed.
You could in fact say that what Jesus did is simply clarify what that law really meant and took the written word and its’ laws and myriad constraints and duties and made them an affair of the heart. Jesus in fact clarifies and simplifies the law by cutting straight to the heart of the matter. Jesus sums up the law in the Golden rule “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. He takes an external set of codes and internalises them. In the last days the law will be written on their hearts said the Old Testament prophets.
I think it serves us well to remember this when we read parables where the fall guys are always the scribes and the Pharisees, and sometimes the Sadducees.
Rather than an example of a split between Judaism and Christianity, the differing attitudes employed by Jesus and the Pharisees, might better be seen as examples of different dispositions that we all possess.
Heart and mind don’t always work in tandem and often the Pharisee in all of us gets the upper hand over the Jesus way within us.
These two dispositions are on display in the parable in Luke. The central character is a woman who we are told up front is a “sinner” but who hears that Jesus is in the house of Simon the Pharisee as his lunch guest and goes to see him herself. Her gratitude at being forgiven is evident in her lavish treatment of Jesus, anointing his feet with oil and drying them with her hair.
All the Pharisee sees is a sinner, but Jesus sees a person who is wholeheartedly sorry for whatever she has done and the gratitude in her for knowing that she is forgiven is enormous. The line attributed to Jesus is those who are forgiven little love little. At first sight a bit harsh, because it implies that only people who go seriously off the rails can love God a lot, and those of us who never do anything very seriously wrong, well our love is always going to be a bit tepid.
But on reflection perhaps he is right. I don’t think he is making a judgement – he is simply being straightforwardly honest.
Taking St. Paul as an example. In Romans 8 Paul makes a huge thing of no longer being condemned by God for all his transgressions because he has discovered Grace and forgiveness.
But what if like me, it never entered your head for a minute that I was ever condemned by God in the first place? What was a blessed relief to Paul and a cornerstone of his theology to me is just incomprehensible words.
I think it is apt here to discuss this word “Sin” as well. Our normal understanding of the word is that it is tantamount to evil, or wrongdoing. But in the Christian scheme of things “sins” i.e. wrongdoing is simply a consequence of “Sin” capital “s” which is more properly means “separation from God”.
The answer to separation is being together which we call atonement. Our sins, our transgressions or trespasses if you prefer, are a natural consequence of being separate from God. Our sins are products of our self centredness, our egos run riot. Only “I” matter. I am the centre of all things.
The antidote to that is God-centredness. When we realise that it is not just “me”, it is “us”. When what is separate is brought back together and made whole. We are all a part of a deeper and all encompassing reality. It is what Paul meant when he wrote, in that Galatians piece “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me”
It is then that we learn to love more and be more compassionate. Then that we learn to be a bit less judgemental, a bit more expansive. But we have to keep at it. Metanoia, repentance is not a once for all thing, it is a daily decision.
The Pharisee is still there within us, and will assert himself at any and every opportunity. To welcome or not to welcome, to love or not to love, to include or not to include. Daily decisions made easier if you know you are already an intrinsic part of the whole and have gratitiude for that greatest gift of all – your own life..