This is the 4th and final blog in a series which began with “Through the Law, I died to the Law: St. Paul and Torah.” The immediate preceeding blog was Keeping Torah: Examples of Faith. In these blogs I have been reflecting on St. Paul’s comment, “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God” (Galatians 2:19). 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.
Once St. Paul recognized that Jesus was in fact God’s promised Messiah, he realized the Law had served its purpose – it had kept him faithful to God so that he could recognize what God was now doing for the salvation of the world. He realized the Law was God’s gift to help him and all Israel be faithful to God, but with the coming of the Christ, the purpose of the Law was fulfilled. The Law was meant to keep Israel faithful to God’s promises. The Messiah was the fulfillment of God’s promises, thus the very thing the Law was preparing them to recognize. For Paul adherence to the law came to an end because now faith was demanding that Israel recognize its Messiah. The object of his faith was not the Law, but the Messiah – what God was doing for the world. The Law it turns out was a temporary custodian to help keep Israel focused on and faithful to God. The Law like the Scriptures were not the end in themselves but point to the Christ (John 5:39-40). Now being faithful to God meant following Christ; the Law with its demands was shown to be a temporary tool for keeping faith in God.
In Galatians 2:20 and Philippians 3:9, St. Paul uses a phrase in talking about Christ referring to the faith of Christ. He says he lives by the faith of the Son of God. Modern Protestant translators often changed the phrase to read that Paul lives by faith in the son of God. But a number of current scholars (Morna Hooker or James Dunn for examples) have come to think that Paul intended to say Christ’s faith as the passages literally state. St. Paul does think we all must live by faith, and Jesus is the greatest example of this. Jesus is the incarnate Word of God but as a human he must live by faith to be the Savior of the human race. As Christian we actually do live by His faith, not just our faith in Him! Christ models faithfulness to us as we can see in Luke 22:41-44 where Jesus is praying on the Mount of Olives just before His crucifixion. Ritualized religion cannot help Jesus at this point – he now places His full trust in God His Father for He has submitted Himself to the Father’s will in becoming incarnate and setting aside His divine prerogatives. Keeping Torah cannot save Him from what He must endure to save humankind. St. Paul’s criticism of the ritualism of the Jews is that they have replaced faith with religion. Jesus keeps faith despite what religious conviction and authority imposes on Him on the cross. Jesus does in fact model the faith which St. Paul so brilliantly explicates. It is the faith of the man Jesus which keeps Him humanly oriented to the Divine Will.
Even in the Gospel Lesson of the woman with the flow of blood (Luke 8:41-56), we see this same message being offered. The woman’s being faithfully observant to Torah cannot heal her. Only when she reaches out beyond keeping Torah to touch Christ is she healed. The Law declared her unclean for her hemorrhage and says she is unfit to be in public or to touch anyone – to touch Christ is to reach beyond what the Torah allowed. Christ Himself emphasizes the theme of the limit and failure of the Law. The woman had been healed surreptitiously and nobody knows she is unclean, but Christ calls attention to this fact, and the woman publicly confesses her uncleanness and having touched Christ against the Torah prohibition. It is at that very moment that Christ proclaims it is her faith which has healed her. Keeping the Law would not have healed her and in fact keeping Torah would have prevented her from touching Christ and being healed. It is faith to which the Law was meant to bring us, not to keep us away from God! The woman showed her faith by keeping Torah but her faith led her to Christ. The sign of her keeping Torah is her desire to secretly touch Christ without letting anyone know she is actually unclean and thus violating Torah. She kept Torah in order to be faithful to God and then was able to recognize God at work in Jesus Christ. Through the Law she died to the law so that she might live to God.
As a further means to understand St. Paul’s point about faith and law, I will offer this non-biblical example: Say you become ill and the doctor prescribes a regiment of taking medicine to help you recover. You begin taking the medicines, but aren’t getting better, so you decide you need to more strictly follow the doctor’s rules. You become obsessed with keeping the details of the doctor’s rules, yet your condition worsens. The direction say take a full glass of water with your medicine, and so you decide a cup 7/8 full is not full enough. If your focus on rigidly obeying the doctor’s order causes you to fail to notice that your health continues to decline, you have made the mistake that St. Paul ascribes to the Jews – you made following strictly the details of the doctor’s regiment more important than your improving health. Something got lost in the process. The doctor was not ultimately as interested in you rigidly following the regiment as he or she was in your getting healthy. Slavishly following the directions regarding the medication has caused you to lose sight of the fact that the doctor was not concerned about you taking the medicine but rather about you getting better.
Leo Tolstoy wrote the story “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” in which Ivan has a terminal illness. Ivan fanatically tries to keep the doctor’s rules to the minutest detail, yet no amount of following the rules can change the fact that his condition is terminal. He loses sight of the big picture until the disease progresses to such a point that he has to come to grip with death itself. Then he realizes that the rigid following of such rules is a distraction to the ultimate and important issues of life.
When St. Paul accepted that Jesus was the Messiah, he realized the Law had served its good purpose and so through the Law he died to the Law for the Law could not do for him what faith alone could – keep Him oriented to God’s current plan of salvation. Keeping the Law was never the goal, rather it was always meant to help us keep faith with God. Rigid keeping of the law could be done without the heart being brought closer to God, while faith opens the heart to being a through for God Himself.
Lest we falsely imagine St. Paul’s criticism of Torah-keeping replacing true faith is only directed at Jews, we must remember as Orthodox it is easy for us to replace faith in God with the religion of Tradition. Orthodox Tradition serves the same role for us as the Torah did for the Jews. We can follow all the details of liturgical ritualism or ascetic rigorism and still be lacking that faith in God which St. Paul taught. Consider St. Paul’s words:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 RSV).
Through the Law St. Paul died to the Law because his faith causes him to be crucified with Christ. He embraces the faith of Christ and understands that it is His faith which saves us. We must never imagine that obedience to a tradition is equivalent to faith in the Son of God. We could be like Zechariah so faithful to tradition that even God sees our righteousness and yet incapable of believing what God is doing in our lives. We can also be like the crucified Christ – stripped of the religious tradition and yet faithful to God even to the point of death on the cross.