This is the 3rd blog in a series in which I am reflecting on St. Paul’s comment, “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God” (Galatians 2:19). The first blog is entitled, “Through the Law, I died to the Law: St. Paul and Torah.” and the 2nd blog is Keeping Torah: The Means to the End. For St. Paul the failure of the Torah was that the Jews made keeping the Torah the center of their spiritual life, rather than keeping faith in God. They should have done both, but became focused on the minutiae of rules.
Keeping Torah (Law) according to St. Paul was not the end result of Jewish faithfulness but rather the sign of that faithfulness. Keeping Torah thus served to to help Israel faithfully watch what God was doing in the world. The tragedy as St. Paul presents it is that while the Jews kept the Law, even fanatically, they couldn’t recognize God’s plan and activity when He sent His Messiah to them. The Law became for them the way to show how perfect they were in terms of obedience, whereas it was intended to keep them faithfully focused on God in order to recognize what God was doing and how they were to follow Him.
Paul’s argument is that Moses and Abraham were all about keeping faith in God not simply obeying God’s rules. They paid attention to what God was doing and they followed God; they did not simply follow old rules. The Law wasn’t wrong, but when God acted in a new way the faithful were expected to keep faith in Him and follow what He was doing. They were to respond in faith to the new activity by God. Unfortunately, the Law became more important than what God was presently doing. The Law became incarnate for the Jews but in hardened rock, whereas faith was meant to be kept in the human heart. The Law became external to their very being, whereas faith was meant to work internally in the people to keep alive their relationship with God. Keeping Torah was supposed to keep their hearts attuned to God.
As an example of what St. Paul is talking about consider Luke 1:5-23, the story of the priest Zechariah who was to become the father of John the Baptist. First Zechariah is a priest – a man whose very position in Jewish society was to intercede before God on behalf of Israel. He is to be a man of prayer involved in asking God’s forgiveness and blessing for His people. Thus he is a man focused on God, a man of faith. Zechariah in the Gospel lesson is described in verse 6
as being “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.” Zechariah keeps all the commandments religiously, and should thus be an example of the man of faith. In this pericope Zechariah is chosen this day to go before the Lord to burn incense in the Temple while the people are praying. The Temple itself is the sign of God’s presence in Israel, the very place where the Jews believed God dwelt with His people. It should have been the very place where the faithful would expect God to speak to His people. The scene is one of the man of faith standing before God in prayer awaiting God’s action and/or direction. But then a very troubling thing happens to Zechariah. God sends an angel to speak to him and Zechariah is totally unprepared for this! Zechariah is disturbed and fearful – this is not what is supposed to be happening! The Angel of the Lord tells Zechariah that in fact God has heard his prayer and will grant his petition. Zechariah is literally struck dumb with disbelief. We can only wonder, what in the world did he think he was going into the temple for? Was it not to invoke God to continue to speak with Israel? Who did he think he was offering incense to and to whom was he praying? In fact, even for the righteous man Zechariah, walking in the commandments of the Lord had become routine and keeping ritualized. The Scriptures proclaimed him as righteous for his perfect keeping of the Law. Yes, he was being obedient and observant. Yes, he faithfully kept the ordinances. But, no, this did not translate into faith in God – looking to what God is currently doing, trusting God to act and fulfill His promises, and expecting to see their fulfillment. Zechariah went literally to burn incense – to follow the ritual – but he was not prepared for nor expecting God to speak to him. He was not at all prepared for God to answer his prayers. He prayed in obedience to the law but this was not the same as having faith. Zechariah is a prime example of what Paul describes as keeping the form of religion but denying its power. Zechariah was keeping Torah, but his faith was not alive, he was keeping the ritual without any thought about keeping a relationship with God. So standing in the temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, praying to God with the people, has become a ritual to perform, but is no longer a faith experience – Zechariah is totally unprepared to hear from God. Keeping Torah had replaced having faith as he thought absolute obedience to the Law was all God wanted from Israel.
When Zechariah’s son is born, Zechariah is given his voice back and he sings a hymn of praise to God who fulfills His promises (Luke 1:67-80). He doesn’t mention the Law in his hymn for He has learned that it is faith in God which God wants from His people not just obedience. Obedience to the Law is not wrong and will earn one the title of being righteous, but it is no substitute for faith in God and a living relationship with Him.
Next blog: Keeping Faith with God