Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Obeying the Law: Galatians chapters 1 and 2

My friend Martin Gore and I were swapping stories. Martin has a fund of very funny Jewish jokes and of course on an evening like that you get competitive, so I began one of my own. "There was this Jewish princess who lived with her parents in Manhattan. One day, after picking up two-year old Lorrie, the doctor, from Kindergarten and six year old Solly, the lawyer from...." "Yes," says Martin, "what about the rest?" "Oh no," I reply, "you have to be Jewish to tell Jewish jokes. I am only one sixteenth Jewish, so that was one sixteenth of the joke."

On a less mathematical way of accounting I am fully Jewish since my mother's mother's mother was wholly Jew and ethnicity is guaranteed down the female line, so I'll risk another story. It happened that Moshe went up Mount Horeb and came back with two stone tablets. He had been negotiating with God like a Union leader. He addresses the Israelites, "Sorry, Izzy, He wouldn't budge on bacon sandwiches, but I managed to get us one whole day off every week."

Many people run their Christian lives according to the Ten Commandments. What's wrong with that? I am sometimes amused that people major on the Ten Commandments yet take a 'modern' view on evolution and, if they are Creationists, tend still to believe in an earth that's billions of years old, when the Fourth Commandment says, "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11)

The trouble with law is the lawyers. Fiction paints lawyers either as heroes or villains. On the one side you have heroic figures like Ironside or Rumpole of the Bailey, or any one of the John Grisham characters, who seem to be seeking justice, often for the poor or oppressed; on the other hand there are the sleazy lawyers that Dirty Harry encounters, whose main task seems to be to abuse the police and engineer the escape of wicked men. There is a British lawyer whom the tabloids have named, Mr Loophole. He specialises in finding ways to get celebrities off driving bans. You might say he is a menace to society, but he makes a lot of money at it.

The truth is that it is the job of the lawyer to get the best result for his client. A good lawyer finds a way round the law just as a good accountant tries to find a way for his client to avoid paying so much tax.

That joke I told sounds as though Moses was a lawyer negotiating with God, trying to see how little the Israelites could get away with. Why just one Holy Day a week, for instance? Would a Christian not say that every day should be a Holy Day? In fact, the Ten Commandments are just a brief synopsis of the whole Law. I shall have more to say about the whole Law in another blog.

In the first two chapters of Galatians Paul rails against circumcision; but it is important to recognize that he is using circumcision as a metonym. 'Metonymy' is a technical word of English grammar which means to use an attribute of something to represent the whole thing. For example, we talk about the 'crown' when we really mean the Queen, or we might talk about having someone's 'ear' when we mean we have their attention. Paul uses 'circumcision party' to refer to those who retain subjection to Old Testament Law.

As proof of this we could turn to 1 Corinthians chapter 5. Paul has discovered that a man has his father's wife. He is sleeping with his step-mother! All Paul had to do about this was to point out that it was against the Seventh Commandment; but he doesn't. Instead, he appeals to the fact that Christ, the Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. It is an offence, not against the Law, but against Christ.

In the first two chapters of his letter to the Galatians Paul insists that his gospel came directly from Christ in his road to Damascus encounter. He has already told us that he didn't get it second-hand. Now, fourteen years later he takes Barnabas and Titus up to Jerusalem on a private visit to meet Peter and James, the Lord's brother. Titus was a Gentile Christian, so note: Peter and James did not insist that he be circumcised. In fact when Paul explained the gospel he was preaching that he had received from his encounter with the risen Lord, he found that it was no different from the gospel Peter had received from Jesus as a 3-year apprentice, and no different from what James had gathered from his elder brother. Indeed, these two agreed that Paul had been appointed as an apostle to the Gentiles just as Peter had been to the Jews, and that God was at work in both of them. The only injunction that they gave Paul was to remember the poor - presumably with regard to the famine in Jerusalem, and Paul was very eager to do this.

Let's open this up a little more. How did Jesus relate the gospel to the law? We have it recorded in the Sermon on the Mount. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18)

But the Law, as interpreted by Jesus, is much more stringent than anything the teachers of the Law (the lawyers) were spelling out. Jesus goes on "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." (Matthew 5:21-22)

You may be law-abiding, but who has avoided that flash of anger?

Then again "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)

Isn't the whole structure of modern advertising designed to induce those feelings in men by showing scantily clad women?

No-one is that law-abiding.

Jesus goes on to demonstrate that the Law is a lot more than keeping rules. He is scathing about the Pharisaic approach. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)

Like lawyers everywhere, the Pharisees twisted and turned the statutes to make themselves look good by obeying the pettifogging letter while neglecting the Spirit.

Jesus preaching to the crowd on the Mount tells them "I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20)

No wonder Paul writes to the Roman church that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. For the final thing about the Law is that we cannot keep it. Only one perfect man ever could and we rely on his excellence and his merit for our salvation. Our puny efforts which would only besmirch the picture are covered by his blood.


Burke said...


This is off topic but deals with a subject you have written about before. I think your readers here would be interested in your take on it:

Terry Hamblin said...

Yes, I saw it on Iain Dale's blog yesterday. Pretty devestating.