The word of the day is “faith.” Today in our reading of Galatians 2:16-20, St. Paul charges that some believers in Galatia are abandoning their faith in Christ. These turncoats have fallen under the spell of “Judaizers” from Jerusalem who teach that being Christian means doing all the works of the Mosaic Law. Paul thought the leaders in Jerusalem had agreed that faith was sufficient for membership in the Church. But now, even Peter had refused to associate with Gentiles who “did not live as Jews” (vs. 14).
Paul reacted vehemently. The Gospel was at stake. The Apostle’s message was that the works of the Mosaic Law did not and could not justify sinners in God’s sight. God’s approval of sinners as righteous before Him could only be attained by faith in Christ. St. John Chrysostom comments on Paul’s argument that the Law was not evil but weak. Thus, he said, “If the Law cannot confer righteousness, it follows that circumcision is superfluous” (NfPf1:13, 20). It also means that our attempts to obey the Law are worthless.
Not only that, but Chrysostom says it is spiritually dangerous (NfPf1:3, 20). Paul argues, “But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ; therefore, a minister of sin? Certainly not!” (vs. 17). The logic is complicated, but it depends on the role of faith in Christ for our justification. The Gospel would have us put our trust in Christ for our salvation. But if that faith is not enough, if we also must obey the Mosaic Law to earn our salvation, then Christ and the Gospel have misled us into sin (NfPf1:13, 20-21). Chrysostom declares that this reasoning is absurd. Likewise, Paul calls it building again what I once destroyed (vs. 19).
In fact, Paul puts himself in the place of all believers: “For I through the Law have died to the Law that I might live to God” (vs. 20). He goes on, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (vs. 20). As far as believers are concerned, the Law of Moses and the works of the Law that attempt to earn righteousness are null and void. If we would return to them, then Christ died to no purpose (vs. 21).
Generations of human persons throughout the ages have asked the question, “What must I do to find God and earn His approval? The prophet Micah expresses the extreme urgency of the search, “ With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 5:6-7).
The fundamental problem is the notion of “works.” It’s the belief that pleasing God is a matter of human effort. The harder one toils, and the more one exerts oneself, the greater the chance that God will look with favor on them.
But what God our Creator wants from us is far greater than works. It is our faith and love. These are matters of a relationship, and a relationship is a state of being. So when St. Paul says, “ I have died to the law that I might live to God” (vs. 19), he is not speaking of doing. To live is to be alive. What lives is lively, quick, and animated (Strong’s #2198, 108). To live “to God” means that we dedicate our whole being to the Lord, not just certain acts. What then establishes this state of our relationship to the Source of Life? His grace in Christ invites us into that state of being. And faithfulness is the state of our response to His mercy. This condition goes far beyond any acts, however impressive we might think they are. Yet living in faith also produces works of mercy and devotion as its necessary and natural result.
I like what you said about the struggle but is Micha really saying what we are saying or is he, within Judaism’s context, asking his question?
Dear Dan: thanks for your comment and question. in my reading Micah is asking a rhetorical question. Trying to appease God by our “works” is useless, even if we could fulfill demands of the Law. The Lord does not want appeasement. He desires our loving relationship with Him. Am I approaching the answer to your question? God bless, Fr. Basil