10 October 2008

Continuing in Galatians, Lections for Friday 27th Week of Ordinary Time

Today and yesterday the readings from Galatians provide the real heart of Paul's arguments. Yesterday Paul called the Galatians idiots (foolish, stupid, blind and deaf) and asked if they had been bewitched. This is no mean accusation in a world populated by demons and, as Paul sees the matter, either under the power of the Gospel (which means graced and free), OR under the power of that which is anti-God. Paul's questions are incredibly shocking, and calculated for just that purpose. As Jesus' parables are meant to disorient and reorient at fundamental levels Paul's use of really harsh characterizations and either/or thinking is meant to do the same. So many times we forget that with regard to the Gospel it really IS a matter of grace OR sin, commitment to God OR commitment to that which is contrary to God, Faith OR Faithlessness, and both Paul and Jesus remind us that fundamentally our lives can ONLY be oriented one way OR the other. As I have said before, there is no neutral stance from which we can live our lives, no safe dispassionate place from which we can approach reality. We are committed to God in Christ with all that means, OR WE ARE NOT. As today's Gospel tells us, "those who are not with me are against me, those who do not gather with me scatter."

In today's reading from Galatians Paul lays out his most fundamental insight: Christ was condemned (cursed or adjudged Godless) by the LAW. And yet, as Paul's experience of the Risen Christ clearly signified, this "Godless blasphemer" was vindicated by God and raised from the dead (from Godlessness and non-being). Either the Jews (including Paul himself) were correct and Jesus was rightly condemned and crucified under the Law (which was correctly applied!), OR they had to reevaluate the place of Law and look again at what God had done in this man Jesus. Paul's theology is clear that God is working in the ultimately weak and "godless" to reveal himself exhaustively. He KNOWS the Law was correctly, that is legally, applied, and that all that Jesus did and stood for cried out for this application. He does NOT doubt that the Law was correctly applied, nor does he think that people simply made a mistake in applying it. Rather, he sees clearly that LAW is unable to cope with what God was doing in Christ; Law falls short here (hamartia, central NT term for sin = to fall short, remember) and, in conjunction with human sinfulness, becomes the very curse it accused Jesus of being.

This is the essential reason Paul does not allow for a Gospel buttressed by Law. The good news he proclaims is the gospel where God's love goes beyond anything the Law can either bring about or legislate; it goes beyond anything human beings could imagine, much less codify. It is an imperfect and transitional form of Divine wisdom which is pedagogical or instructive (and excellent for the immature!), but which is transcended by what God is doing in his Christ, for what God is doing there is remaking human beings into a new creation, a creation where Law actually holds us back from genuinely ethical behavior. (Remember the Gospel reading on the good Samaritan!) So when Paul points out that the Gospel saves, he really means the Gospel proclaimed to us transforms our very being when it is heard, and that transformation results in a higher ethic (way of being human) than Law itself could ever legislate or even express. To combine Law and Gosepl is to compromise the very truth of the Gospel which is the good news of ultimately responsible freedom --- that is the outworking of God's empowered new creation. Either there IS a new creation in the CRUCIFIED Christ or there is NOT. Either the Law is still the way we are truly human, or it is not. To straddle the line here and build on a Gospel buttressed by Law is to deny what God was doing in Christ. Paul sees that clearly, as does the Church. That is especially clear in her choice of Gospel passages today with Luke's reference to the returning demons who come to reoccupy the once cleaned out home.

As noted above, both lections today are about the notion that with regard to the Gospel there is no room for compromise. We either build our lives on it OR on some other (and antithetical) reality. (Even Law becomes antithetical here.) Luke is especially clear here, but the remoteness of the image may puzzle us rather than make this point clear. What is all this stuff about demons being cast out and then returning with others to make the original dwelling even more unfit than originally? It all has to do with neutral stances and their impossibility when God and his Gospel are at issue. What Luke knows is that the human heart can be cleansed of that which defiles it (and these things are ALWAYS matters of our own commitment), but that if one does not replace these commitments with a genuine commitment to God and his Christ, then they will be replaced by something far worse than the original defilement.

With regard to Paul and the issue of the Law, this is probably pretty clear. Before Christ it was possible to rightly understand the Law as the ultimate wisdom and gift of God. It was not perfect (though some Jews clearly forgot this!) but it was absolutely the most exhaustive way available to give oneself to God and one's neighbor despite its limitations. But after Christ, a new wisdom (power perfected in weakness) and a better way, a more perfect and exhaustively and authentically human way existed to return oneself to God and give oneself to one's neighbors was established. It was a different wisdom and way too because it did not allow one to define neighbors in terms of those who kept the law vs those who did not, nor did it allow one to put matters of legal responsibility first (like avoiding defilement in order to serve in the Temple rather than ministering to a person fallen to bandits). It demanded a new way of seeing reality and a new heart as well. One either committed to this new way of being human, this quite literal new creation, or one did not. If one did not, and, say, one recommited oneself to the Law, then one not only adopted the more imperfect ethic, but has rejected the new person one had been remade into and all that implied with regard to Christ and God.

Moreover, since one had been remade and then failed to make the necessary commitment to this new way of being, Luke knew that one would commit oneself to something far less worthy. The human heart abhors a vacuum, so once it is freed FOR this new humanity, a commitment to something will follow. IF it is to the Law instead of God's new gift -- a new creation and the freedom of the Christian, then Law becomes an idol and a heart that was newly configured witnesses against its very self. I suppose it is a lot like a drug house being cleaned up in order to be a sign to the whole neighborhood of commitment to a new way of existence, new possibilities, new hope, new life. If the house is allowed to remain vacant after being cleansed and renewed then squatters will reoccupy it and what it becomes is a worse defilement than what originally existed. If we allow God to remake our hearts, to open them and ready them for the relatedness and commitment which is part of being truly human and then fail to commit fully to him IN HIS Gospel (and his Christ), SOMETHING and someone ELSE will SURELY take their place.

For Paul, this is the story of Law vs Gospel. There is still more to say about all this (I have not even begun to talk about conditonal vs unconditioned love and salvation by grace, for instance), and more to read in Galatians, but this was the focus of today's readings especially.