Paul: Week 2
The Law and Grace
Friday, March 18, 2016
Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians are a tour de force on the pure meaning of grace and the serious limitations of morality and religion to lead you to God. “Cursed be the law,” Paul even says (Galatians 3:13). No wonder he has been called a “moral anarchist” by people who are still seeking any well-disguised path of “self-realization.” But it seems Christianity has paid little heed to Paul’s revolutionary message, or even to Jesus who says six times in a row, “The law says, but I say!” (Matthew 5:21-45). Both Jesus and Paul knew that rules and requirements were just to get you seriously engaged with the need for grace and mercy; they were never an end in themselves (read Romans 7:7ff).
“If you keep the law, the law will keep you,” we students were told on the first day in the seminary. As earnest young men anxious to succeed, we replied, “Yes, Father!” We knew how to survive in any closed system. I’m afraid we spent so much time in that world that it became the whole agenda. Canon Law was quoted much more often to us than the Sermon on the Mount before the reforms of Vatican II, and now the young priests are being taught in much the same way as I was. A strong emphasis on law and order makes for a sane boarding school, or an organized anything, for that matter. I really get that. It probably made it much easier for the professors to get a good night’s sleep with one hundred twenty young men next door. But it isn’t anywhere close to the Gospel. The Gospel was not made to help organizations run smoothly. The full Gospel actually creates necessary dilemmas for the soul much more than resolving the organizational problems of institutions. Fortunately, the Gospel is also a profound remedy for any need to rebel or be an iconoclast.
We come to God not by doing it right but, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong. We are justified not by good works, but by faith in an Infinite Mercy that we call grace. It has nothing to do with past performance or future plans for an eternal nest egg. All it requires is a deep act of confidence in a loving God. It is so hard to believe that this imperfect, insignificant creature that I am could somehow bear the eternal mystery. God can only grow bigger as we grow smaller, as John the Baptist put it (John 3:30). If we try to grow bigger by any criteria except divine mercy itself we only grow in love with our own image in a self-created mirror. That is normally called narcissism.
How could God love me so unconditionally, we all ask? This was Paul’s struggle as well, and it led him to his cataclysmic conclusion. God loved Paul in his unworthiness, “while he was yet a sinner” as he puts it (Romans 5:8). Therefore he did not have to waste the rest of his life trying to become worthy or prove his worthiness, to himself or to others.
We seem to think God will love us if we change. Paul clearly knows that God loves us so we can change. The only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved. When you feel loved, when you feel safe, and when you know your dignity, you just keep growing! That’s what loving people do for one another—offer safe relationships in which we can change. This kind of love is far from sentimental; it has real power. In general, you need a judicious combination of safety and necessary conflict to keep moving forward in life.
Paul has fallen in love with a God who has loved him “for nothing.” For the rest of his life, Paul is happy to give God all the credit and he stops trying to validate himself by any means whatsoever. This creates a very different kind of person, someone who is utterly free. Paul knows that “the gift far outweighed the fall” (Romans 5:15) and he lives inside the gift all his remaining days. He never looks back to law or religion for his self-validation, but becomes the ultimate reformer of all self-serving religion, not just Judaism and Christianity. At least Judaism has been honest about its dislike of Paul. Christians have pretended we love him while overwhelmingly ignoring his revolutionary and life changing insights.
Gateway to Silence:
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. —1 Corinthians 13:7
Adapted from Richard Rohr, St. Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic (CAC: 2014), CD, MP3 download;
and Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation (Franciscan Media: 2002), disc 7 (CD).