THe readings are from the catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headlines are chosen to keep my thinking realistic.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON WRITES NEW NOVEL ABOUT FAITH
Are you people in Galatia mad? Has someone put a spell on you, in spite of the plain explanation you have had of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? Let me ask you one question: was it because you practised the Law that you received the Spirit, or because you believed what was preached to you? Are you foolish enough to end in outward observances what you began in the Spirit? Have all the favours you received been wasted? And if this were so, they would most certainly have been wasted. Does God give you the Spirit so freely and work miracles among you because you practise Law, or because you believed what was preached to you?
This is a good tranlsation because it puts a capital letter at Law, which prevents people from seeing it as referring to law in general, as so many proptestant theologians have done, but it would have been even better if it had used the Hebrew word for their religious law, namely Torah, which also can mean the Books of Moses or even the whole Jewish Bible. Paul is not discussing law in general, but the Jewish Torah in which as a Pharisee he had been expert in theory and in practice. He is not denigrating it. Probably Psalm 19 which characterises Torah as “perfect, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb” would express Paul’s attitude to it. It is a mixture of stories, commandments, and bits of wisdom, which constitute the covenant between Israel and her God. It provides a way bywhich Israel willfind God’s blessing and in turn become a blessing to the whole world. It lays down moral and ritual commands which must be obeyed.
Paul however is sure that it has been superseded. God has given the world his pledge of love in the crucified Messiah Jesus, and has placed his spirit in the hearts of those who trust Jesus, so that even the best religion of Torah is not needed any more. God has come to his people, who have rejected him, opening the way for a new people of God, gathered from all nations, to enter a new covenant through trust in Jesus, and openness to God’s spirit.
The Galatians began their life of faith through Paul’s preaching of the good news of Jesus; they have received God’s spirit. So why would they want to go backwards and take up Torah? There had been some Jewish-Christian teachers advocating this step. It’s easy to see its appeal. Paul’s faith is nothing like a religion; it’s a personal and communal practice of God’s love. But it rests precisely on trusting the love of God. A set of commandments for moral and ritual holiness gives a much greater sense of security and provides something solid as a basis for living. In comparison a community of the Spirit may seem a little nebulous. When Paul was amongst them, the Galatians were able to trust his gospel, but once he had gone, they may have felt unsupported. Attachment to ancient religious practice like Torah may have seemed an attractive additon to thir new faith.
Paul’s theology of faith in the faithfulness of God was and is a radical option. It may help today’s churches to extricate themselves from the trappings of religion and practice the ministry of Jesus and his apostles.
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend and goes to him in the middle of the night to say, “My friend, lend me three loaves, because a friend of mine on his travels has just arrived at my house and I have nothing to offer him”; and the man answers from inside the house, “Do not bother me. The door is bolted now, and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up to give it you.” I tell you, if the man does not get up and give it him for friendship’s sake, persistence will be enough to make him get up and give his friend all he wants.
‘So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him. What father among you would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or hand him a snake instead of a fish? Or hand him a scorpion if he asked for an egg? If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
God is more than willing to give, unike the friend who is in bed. But he will not simply dump his gifts on people who may or may not want them. God responds to the genuine desire of his children. Those who “hunger and thirst after justice” will be filled. Faith is not purely receptive; it glimpses the goodness of God and wants to see it in the land of the living. It asks, seeks and knocks; it wil not take “no” for an answer. This robust relationship with the father is recommended by Jesus. God’s response is never less than the gift of himself in the Holy Spirit, which can be frustrating. Here we are praying for one of his priests not to die from Ebola and instead he gives the Holy Spirit to his dying servant and to us. What use is that? Well, carry on knocking, Jesus might say.