During the time of St. Paul the practice was that observance of the Law made one “justified” before the Lord God. One was “ok” in the eyes of God if one followed the prescriptions of the Law—the Torah. St. Paul was provoked to disagree with this by the Pharisaic tradition. Let us explain.
During his time the Pharisees were so adamant in following the prescriptions of the Law that society became marked by “separation” between those who follow well and those who cannot follow well. To put it in terms we are familiar with, the Pharisaic tradition cracked the “fraternal” relationship in society. Some can claim to have successfully observed the Law and they marginalized others. Unfortunate still was the fact that most of the emphasis was given to the ritual purification observances.
This also meant a separation of the Jews from the other nations. The other nations were “impure”; they did not have the Law; they were not part of the Covenant with God. So even the possibility of “fraternal” relationship with them was denied. But a close reading of Scriptures, like the prophetic texts, will show that God precisely wanted the people of Israel to be “light of the nations” and enter into fraternity with the nations. The obsession to observe strictly the Law, for St. Paul, was counter to the original intuition of the Lord God. St. Paul then did not reject the Law, he rejected the way the Law was observed. The core intuition of the Law was missed. So people started to live under that “miss”.
St. Paul’s problem was thus this: on what basis is one “ok” in God’s eyes? Is the observance of the prescriptions of the Law enough? One merits God’s approval by the mere legal-traditional observance? But if we look at ourselves, said St. Paul, we are bound to sin…we cannot quite overcome this. So even with fidelity to the Law we sin…and that’s “not ok”. See Rom7/7-25. The deeper problem is this. The mere observance of the Law inverts relationship with God. We stand on our head, so to speak, in front of God. Why? We lose the free giving of God, we lose the initiative of God to love us. Our “justification” in God is a result of the things we do and not of the love of God for us. We “buy the stairway to heaven”, as the Led Zeppelin band would say. By doing the traditional practices we think we are already “ok”.
For St. Paul God welcomes all independent of what people do; independent of performance. So we read about the famous passage in which, for God, there is no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no freeman, no man, no woman (see Gal3/28 and Rom10/12)…let us add: no religious, no lay, no rich, no poor, no highly educated, no illiterate, no handsome, no ugly, no pretty, no unappealing etc. Just think of the ways we separate from each other in our cultures.
God loves all, God is concerned with all and this relationship God makes with us is a “grace”…a gift. We thus enter into the gift and not “buy” our way in. We do not need to have “credentials” to enjoy the love of God. So no matter how well we follow the purification rituals prescribed by the Pharisees, for example, we are “ok” in God. No matter how we fail in those rituals, we are “ok” in God.
Notice then what the emphasis is, for St. Paul. St. Paul gave it a word: faith. St. Paul swings to the side of faith. No, it is not a matter of what we do but of our adherence to Christ. We have already been gifted with God’s love in Christ so from hereon it is not “works” but “faith” that matters most in our way of living.
Apply this to morality. Our moral life is to be based on our faith in Christ—our conformity to Christ—and not on “works” we do. A person might want to walk on knees from the door of a Church to the altar…that is not what God really wants. A person might want to go on a three day fasting, wear coarse clothing with thorns inside…well, that is not what God really wants. A person might go on vows and beat his chest for the rest of his life…well, that is not what God really wants.
Now a question can arise. Does faith mean that we can do anything we want? Since we are “ok” in the eyes of God, he has gifted us with Christ, can we also do “bad things”? St. Paul himself asked this question. “What then”, he wrote, “shall we sin because we are not under the Law but under grace?” St. Paul gave the reply, “Of course not” (Rom6/15).
For St. Paul when we accept to enter into the gift of God we do not anymore live according to our performances. We are under grace and not under the Law. We are in a new life. This life is characterized by the service of love and openness to others. Our new life in faith expresses itself in justice, in work for peace, in self restraint against sinful actions, etc. This new life in faith leads us away from a “separatist” identity to a “fraternal” identity. Moral life is a life that is new. We “die” from sin and we “rise again” with Christ. We move away from servicing sin and we live in the service of justice. We present ourselves to God as raised from the dead to life and we become “weapons” for justice (see Rom6/13). See also Gal5/20-23.
Thanks to Christ we are free from the burden of “performances” and “merits”. We can live according to the core intuition of the Law which is love. We can love. See Gal5/1 and 5/13-14.
St. Paul shows us how we can take an attitude towards the Law…and we can add our own laws in our countries. The Law is placed in the perspective of love. The Law is designed for making us live in fraternity, service to one another. We are not very far from what we have said at the start of this semester about the Decalogue. The Decalogue, we said, is a fruit of God’s liberating act and it was given to the people of Israel so that they do not repeat the life of slavery. To miss that point is fatal—it will entail creating a system of separation, elitism, the absence of fraternal relationship.
Again for moral theology we see in St. Paul a sense of maturity in moral behavior. Morality is conformity with Christ who taught us to love one another, serve each other, be fraternal to each other, to “go down” so that others, like the poor, may “go up”. It is very matured because it is no longer about “performances” and “gaining ‘handsome’ points”.
Application to mission
Pope Paul VI gave a strong emphasis on inculturation. Culture, he said, needed integration. He meant this for all human cultures, everywhere. All humanity, he said, needs transformation (see Evangelii nuntiandi 18). This transformation must happen interiorly. Here is where the Gospel comes in. The Gospel should “upset” cultures whenever cultural lives are in contrast to the Gospel (EN 19). The Gospel, if introduced in cultures, is to counter deviation from our true humanity.
Think about this well. Our “true humanity” is that of fraternity, service, justice, peace. Cultures are in search for that. A psychologist named Paul Diel said that culture is really designed to organize people so that people will not be caught in “multiple desires” scattering without control. Just imagine a society marked by a wide inequality in access to wealth, prestige and security. Imagine a society marked by hideous injustice due to “separation” among social members. Paul Diel would say that in such a situation people are stuck in their exalted imaginations about themselves and others; people are caught in the web of vanity and culpability. In principle culture should help. But note how, in all parts of the globe, cultures struggle.
Pope Paul VI will be quick to say that there is really need for transforming. So “evangelize cultures” (EN20). The Gospel is a message of humanization. It is a message that tells us, humanity, about ourselves. It tells us about the truths Christ gave about ourselves and the program of life we can lead within culture so as to live more authentically.
Let us return to St. Paul. His message—his “moral theology”—is itself rooted in the Gospel; in Christ. Note what St. Paul emphasizes: NOT PERFORMANCE BUT JUSTICE AND SERVICE. Culture, as we experience it, is so marked by “performance”. In cultural studies we note that with the domination of price market system and finances everything is now characterized with “how much”. It is all about money and survival and competing for a place. Hence in culture today we need to “perform” and perform well. This is global.
How then is morality gauged today? Is it about how “good” and “just” we are? Is it about “service”? Is it about being “fraternal”? Today we need to be Jew, Greek, freeman, rich, fast, sexy, “on the top”. Fraternal relationships will be evaluated according to how much we profit from each other.
We understand then the call to “evangelize” culture. We understand then the value of the morality proposed by St. Paul. This Paulinian morality is, in principle, underneath the yearning of all cultures. Paul Diel would say that ingrained in the human conscience is the “essential desire” to bring peace and harmony in our lives. The Gospel is precisely that message brought by Christ. Mission is to present that. And we, Christians, having experienced the liberty brought by the Gospel message, want to share it in all cultures. What’s wrong with that?
A misunderstanding takes place when we say that Gospel intrudes in and violates culture. Hopefully it is clear that this is not true.