Friday of week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Gal 3:7-14

Paul continues today explaining the concept of justification by faith.

Tellingly he goes right back to Abraham, who was understood to be the physical and spiritual father of the Jewish race. Everyone whose life is based on faith in God’s word is a child of Abraham. [It is significant that Matthew, writing for Jews, traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham, while Luke, writing for Gentiles, traces it back to Adam.]

Abraham was understood as the physical and spiritual father of the Jewish race (see, for example, John 8:31,33,39,53). Hence, Jews are also referred to as the “seed” or “descendants” of Abraham.

But now, Paul says that all believers – both Jews and Gentiles – are his spiritual children. The offspring of Abraham are all those whose lives are based on faith rather than external observance of the Law. And so Jesus can say that Zacchaeus the sinful tax collector, after his change of heart following his meeting with Jesus, is truly a “son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Paul sees this already foretold in the book of Genesis when God told Abram to leave his country and become a great nation. At that time God had said: “In you all nations will be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

Abraham is constantly presented as the archetype of the man of total faith in God. Several times, against all logic and reason, he trusted in God’s promises and was not disappointed. Now Paul says that all those who have a similar faith in God will receive the same blessings as Abraham. And it is faith and not observance of external laws which brings this about.

On the contrary, Paul sees the keeping of the Law as a kind of curse. Some think that God can be won around, that they can “earn” salvation, by their scrupulous keeping of rules. But the book of Deuteronomy (quoted here by Paul) says that all are cursed who do not persevere in observing everything prescribed in the Law. Paul is clearly arguing that, as no one can possibly do that without failing in some degree, this curse cannot be avoided. The letter of James tells us that “whoever keeps the whole of the Law but fails in one has become accountable for all of it” (Jas 2:10). (As Catholics, we also taught that committing just one ‘mortal sin’ against just one commandment – e.g. deliberately missing Mass on Sunday – would earn eternal punishment.)

Further, observance of the Law is not the means by which we are put right by God, because (and again Paul quotes from the Old Testament) “the righteous man lives by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). In fact, the original text said by “faithfulness”. Paul is following the Greek Septuagint where the Hebrew ‘faithfulness’ is rendered by ‘faith’. Of course faithfulness is derived from faith.

Paul’s argument here and, at greater length in Romans, can be summarised as follows:

The Law gives information – it does not give spiritual strength. No law, whether Mosaic or otherwise, not even the primordial command given to Adam, can prevent sin, in fact law makes it worse:

  1. because, though law is not the source of sin, it becomes the instrument of sin by arousing concupiscence;
  2. because by informing the mind it increases the fault, which becomes a conscious ‘transgression’
  3. because the only remedy the law can offer is punishment, curse, condemnation, death; hence it can be called the ‘law of sin and death. (Jerusalem Bible, commenting on Rom 7:7ff).

Paul then, in his usual dramatic way, turns the tables. Those who had become cursed by their constant failure to keep the Law can be rescued and liberated by Christ who himself became an object of curse by dying for us on the tree of the cross. Paul clarifies this by quoting from Deuteronomy, “Cursed be everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Deut 21:23).

In this way, the blessing of Abraham, promised to “all nations” in Genesis, is realised for all, Jew and Gentile alike. By bypassing the mere observance of the Law, we are all filled with the Spirit through faith, our unconditional throwing of ourselves into the loving arms of our God. What Paul tells the Galatians is true for us, too.

Of course, we Christians do not now follow the Jewish law – or do we? When asked what is specific to their religion, many Catholics will say “the 10 commandments”. And a “good” Catholic is one who keeps the Ten Commandments and the “commandments of the Church” (though they are often rather vague as to what these are). But Paul would strenuously deny that.

The Ten Commandments belong primarily to the Old Testament and to observe them, however faithfully, does not make one a Christian at all. We remember the rich man who was called to follow Jesus. He said he had kept the Commandments perfectly all his life. It was not enough. He had to reach out in love to those in need by sharing his wealth. This he could not do and went away (Mark 10:22).

As Paul emphasises, the essence of our Christianity is our faith in the Way of Christ; it is the only source of life. Keeping the commandments is not the condition for our being saved. In fact, it is only when we are under the saving power of the Spirit of Jesus that we can begin to keep the Commandments. For the true Christian the Commandments are almost irrelevant. The Christian is measured by one law only and that is the law of love (agape, ‘agaph). When one keeps that commandment – to love other as Jesus has loved us – all other obligations are taken care of. “Love and do what you like,” St Augustine is supposed to have said.

The power of love comes from faith in Jesus and the exercise of that love is the measure of our closeness to him. “As often as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to Me” (Matt 25:40). So, as Christians, we are to be measured not by how well we keep commandments and rules but by the strength of the love that binds us to God and our brothers and sisters.

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