Saturday, January 2, 2016

The “Moral Theology” of St. Paul and St. John (plus a Conclusion)

St. Paul
1.    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.
2.    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.
3.    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”.
4.    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”.
5.    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.
6.    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.
7.    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.
8.    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.
9.    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).  
10.           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.
11.           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.
12.           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.
13.           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”.

St. John

14.           For St. John we follow Christ, yes, and we remain in him. Jesus is the vine. In John (Jn15) we see this clearly.  The Father is the vine dresser. (It may be difficult for us to imagine this because we do not have such vines in our countries…but you know what it means. Imagine other plants similar to the grape vines.)
15.                       The Father removes the dead branches. This is called “pruning”. Pruning is done to make vines bear more fruit. Jesus is the true vine sent by the Father and he accomplishes fully the fidelity expected from the people of Israel before.
16.                       Jesus says that we, his followers, are his branches. We cannot see ourselves separated from this vine. We have been “pruned” by the liberating Word of God. “You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you” (15/3). We are already a living community grafted in Christ.
17.                       In the prologue of the 4th gospel we read: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1/14). In other words the Word “remained” among us. The Word took the initiative to remain in us…long before we remained in him. He did the first step. To “remain” means to “choose living with”…be in “domicile with”. Hence the Word “pitched his tent” among us. The Word had his feet on the ground with us.
18.                       “To remain” therefore is to relate with us, to enter into friendship and intimacy with us. It is a way of entering in communion with us. Just think about this beautiful word of St. John’s account. Being with us, among us, dwelling in our midst, the Word tells clear the message: we are accepted and not matter who we are, “warts and all”, the Word is with us. The Word became flesh. Hence the Word has revealed the splendor of our humanity. The term “to remain” is an affectionate term. And it is deep.
19.                       Now, we are asked to remain in him. We might want to stay far from him. We might want to quit. We might want to reject the project of God for us. Jesus insists that we remain in him as he remains in us. Keep the fire burning. We are invited to receive the gift of the presence and message of Jesus…in patience, perseverance, in union with the Father and with each other fraternally.
20.                       Note that in this dwelling together (or as the Jesuit poet Gerald Manly Hopkins…if I am not mistaken…terms it, “indwelling”). By dwelling together, remaining together, “ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you” (15/7). Of course we will not ask to be allowed doing “bad things”; not even “silly things”. In the theology of St. John we ask that we be allowed to love and serve in truth each other all the more especially since we have been given the Spirit (see 1Jn3/18-24). In other words, we ask for a deeper fraternal life because this is so important for our Christian living. See the application to morality then?
21.                       Keep in mind that it is Christ who took the initial step to remain in and dwell with us. We need to recognize that so that we do not rely simply on our own performances of love and service (which sounds Paulinian, right?) We, branches, do not “fertilize” ourselves. We graft ourselves to the true vine. Branches do not make the vine more “juicy”. Branches do not enrich the vine. Instead, branches receive from the vine. We receive from the vine the “living sap”. Hence we appreciate the importance of being permanently in Christ. 
22.                       No matter how small or big our gestures and actions are, they can always give joy and hope whenever we see them grafted in Christ. Following the insight of Maurice Zundel, there is the hidden and “humble presence” to whom we are grafted so that even in our own “humble presence” we can bring seeds of joy and peace around us. Isn’t this wonderful?
23.           Note the consequence of this reciprocal in-dwelling. When we love, our love is not just any kind of love. It is a love that is the love of Christ. The sap of the branch is from the vine itself. Love as Christ has loved us (see Jn13/34 and 15/12). We imitate Christ just as Christ imitated his Father. As the Father has loved him, he has loved us (Jn15/9) and we love each other. This is a very fascinating chain of love.
24.           This love is interior to us because we are “in” Christ, united with him, “in-dwelling” with him. We do not just consider him a model, we are grafted in him. Think and meditate about this…it is so deep and liberating. It clarifies so much the nature of our Christian moral living.


25.           We end our Biblical discussion on moral theology here. Take note of how the Bible can impact our moral discernment.
26.           The Bible offers us a vision about life and about the human person. We are gifted with existence—Creation. We are also gifted with Redemption—Covenant. The human therefore is both Created and Redeemed. This is Biblical. How can this be a basis for moral discernment? Check out the Decalogue and the New Testament theology. One thing we can keep reminding us of is this: God’s initiative—to Create us and Redeem us—is the starting point. He loved us so we respond. Morality is this response.
27.           Biblically morality is not a way of “buying the stairway to heaven”. We do not do moral good to win God’s love. God’s love precedes us. He has always considered us his beloved children. So we graft ourselves to God. We respond with faith and thanksgiving. We extend this response to our relationships with others.
28.           In the Biblical world, such as in the miracles of Jesus and his treatment of the “little ones” we can see how Christian morality is alive. It is not a dry and infertile morality that is obsessed with keeping people from happiness. The criticism against Christian morality as “anti-sex” and “anti-pleasure”, anti this or that, is a cliché criticism. Just look into the Scriptures and we will see how invalid the criticism is.
29.           Bible tells us to orient our lives—our moral lives—to the love and liberation of God. We live to be truly free.
30.           Of course there are “technical” approaches to the Bible and we need a good dose of this technique. We cannot take all the precepts literally. What is important, and this the Church has emphasized over and over again, is that we see the underlying core theology…the “wisdom” behind the texts we read. If this sounds abstract, look at Jesus and St. Paul. Jesus questioned some scriptural-traditional practices but he pointed out the underlying motivation of God in them. St. Paul, as we have just seen above, questioned the Law and its precepts. But in the end he also endorsed the Law by pointing out the underlying wisdom there.
31.           For us then, we need a bit of “technique” to discern the underlying wisdom of Scriptural passages. This is why we have Bible studies too.
32.           In computer anti-virus applications we are offered “quick scans”. Let us try a “quick scan” of the Bible as it can be applied to our moral discernment. Here are two helpful “scans”.
33.           What is God’s primary plan in Creating us? (How does the Bible reveal our created nature? This is the “creation” part of Scriptures.)
34.           What is God’s plan to keep us free from “slavery” and sin? (This is the Redemption-Covenant part of Scriptures.)
35.           Of course the summit of Biblical revelation is Christ. He has shown to us who we really are as designed by God in creating us and he has set us free—redeemed us—from the darkness we often fall into. Both go together. For example, we are created to live in communion with God and be truly happy and live as God’s children. This has always been in the created order. Redemption is Christ’s way of bring us back to that created order. His message with his Passion-Resurrection contains the Beatitudes, the call for justice and love, the call for service. We are meant to be happy, to be just and loving.

36.           Think of lust. The Church considers it as a “moral issue”. Maybe modern thinking will see it otherwise, given the advancement of modern science and secular ethics. But let us give ear to the argument of the Church. See the Biblical intuition she has in questioning lust. Notice how the Church views lust in terms of how we were created and how we try to set free from the “slavery” accompanying lust. Notice how the CCC picks up from Christ and how Christ reveals our created nature and how Christ leads us away from the negative impact of lust. The CCC may look “conservative” but give it a chance and discover the Biblical wisdom it is trying to teach us. The CCC has “loopholes”, but it is a work of people who do their best to be faithful to Christ. Seek the wisdom in that effort.  

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