Letter to Fidel Labrador continued…
So, Paul makes the point that God wants to adopt us as His sons and daughters. This is huge. Paul is saying that God is the perfect family. Father, Son and Holy Spirit and His purpose is to make you part of that family. This will not be accomplished by ritual law. If the law won’t get us adopted by God, what’s it for? First Timothy 8 and following helps clear it up:
Now we know that the Law is good, if one uses it legitimately. We realize that law is not enacted for the righteous, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for killers of father or mother, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for homosexuals, for slave traders and liars and perjurers, and for anyone else who is averse to sound teaching…
(Note to the squeamish and the politically correct: If you think the above is judgmental inappropriate, bullying, etc., it’s the Bible. When a Catholic priest can’t quote the Bible, then we might all as well move to Canada.) If we are saved by faith and justified by faith what is the point of the law? St. Paul is very clear about this. He says that the law exists to make us aware of right and wrong. We can kid ourselves about our spiritual condition, but if we are slave trading mother killers we need to make some changes. St Paul is as clear as can be. The law won’t save you, but it will sure let you know you need saving, that is if you pay attention to it.
The moral law which enjoins self-restraint and charity is the mirror of the divine face. If we look into it clearly, we will see our own deformity and God’s perfect beauty. But what about the ritual laws? In the five books of Moses that the Jews call the Torah, there are 613 laws. We Christians only follow 10. What’s up with that? Ten laws reflect the very nature of God. For instance, “Thou shalt not kill” Why? God is the Giver and Lord of life. “Thou shalt not steal.” Why? God is generosity. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Why? God is faithful and so on. Some of the 613 laws are liturgical laws, in effect applications of the first three commandments. Some are moral precepts extending the remaining 7 of the Ten Commandments.
Then there are the Khukim, a whole lot of the commandments that seem to make no sense at all, such as Leviticus 26:1, “Thou shalt not bow down on a smooth stone.” Numbers 15: 28 “You must have tassels on four cornered garments” Why? Everyone’s got a theory, but no one quite knows. I might as well add my hair brained theory to the rest. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Forrest Gump. When Forrest, not the sharpest quill on the porcupine, goes off to the army, he meets a fellow called Bubba, who is also not a rocket scientist. The drill sergeant singles the pair out for special attention and makes them clean the barracks floor with a tooth brush. They happily comply and end up being the two best soldiers in the outfit.
I think the Almighty was doing the same thing with Israel. Religion as a moral code was something of an anomaly in the ancient world, especially monotheistic religious morality. The ancients worshipped some randy gods who really didn’t care a fig about humanity. If you gave them the occasional goat or chicken you might get them not to smite you for no good reason at all other than divine irritability and you might get them to do what you wanted, like cause your neighbors crops to wither and to make his wife develop the vapors, but the idea that a supremely holy god might demand holiness and moral integrity was absurd. To this sort of practical voodoo that was ancient religion, and for that matter the religion of a whole lot of people today, the Egyptians added gods that looked like swamp creatures. There was Bashtet, a cat and Hathor, half cow and half woman and then there was Anubis, half man and half jackal. My absolute favorite Egyptian deity is Tawaret, the goddess of childbirth and fertility who has the front of a hippopotamus, the back of a crocodile and the attributes of a cat. If that doesn’t say “Worship me!”, what does? I remember hearing the story of a Hindu who was perplexed that Jews and Christians worship only one god. He said that he couldn’t possibly manage without a few hundred of them. If you think you must convince the gods to do your bidding, then a lot of gods are useful. Strike out with one and move on the the next. If you think that God is to be served and loved, then one will do quite nicely.
This whole idea that the gods existed to be placated and. if possible taken advantage of, is paganism and is still with us. After a few centuries in Egypt, the descendants of Israel were pagans. God did not make Israel wander in the desert to get Israel out of Egypt so much as to get Egypt out of Israel. The Law of Moses set religion on its head by making religion about a right relationship between God and humanity and not about the manipulation of powerful forces for one’s own benefit.
The quote from the first letter to Timothy mentioned above says that “the Law is good, if one uses it legitimately” Notice “law” and “legitimately”. This is exactly what the text says. The word for law is “nomos” and the word for legitimately is “nomimos.” The law is just that: law. It doesn’t save you. It instructs you. It reins you in. People quibble about whether the covenant with the Jews is still in effect or do we Christians believe that we have replaced the Jews. Nonsense. There is no covenant with the Jews. The covenant of Sinai was made with the house of Israel. Remember Israel, whose name used to be Jacob, who had twelve sons who, in their turn, were the founders of twelve tribes? The tribe of Judah, who most people call Jews, was one tribe. There were 11 others. I maintain that the Jews are still Israel. It’s just that they are not the whole Israelite enchilada, or should I say blintz. It is interesting to note that there is no new Israel mentioned in the New Testament. There is a new covenant and a New Jerusalem but no new Israel. There is just Israel. And I would maintain that we Christians are part of the House of Israel.
Is the old covenant still in effect? I suppose as far as it goes it still is. It never promises resurrection or life after death or the forgiveness of willful sin. The covenant with the house of Israel can be summed up very simply: “I will be your God and you will be My people.” That’s the purpose of the Law of Moses. Israel belongs to the Lord just as surely as Forrest Gump and his friend Bubba belonged to the drill sergeant.
Next week: I am not really any closer to wrapping this up than I was weeks ago. The bait and switch about the salacious ancient Roman gossip must be getting tiresome, but I promise it’s coming.