Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh,in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Paul’s Letter to the Roman Church ch 8 vv 1-4
Early civilisations in the
Middle East invented strict law as a means of dealing with social difficulties and disputes. It was often quite crude – ‘an eye for an eye’ and all that –, rarely showed much respect for women, and sometimes conflated ritual law with secular law. It was about order, not justice; actions, not motives; rules, not human fulfilment. In due course, most of the societies that created these law codes, like Hammurabi’s , sank beneath the tide of history; the descendants of the people who had created and lived under these strict codes learnt new and better ways of dealing with issues, and the old codes were forgotten. One society in particular resisted this trend: the Jews did not sink beneath the tide of history, and in surviving retained and even enhanced their reverence for the old law, which came to play a major role preserving Jewish identity when political independence had been lost. In the first century of the Common Era, the Pharisees were a notable group among those Jews whose reverence for the law only increased. At the same time though, some Jews were becoming aware of the obsolescence of the old reliance on strict law. They saw that, in the first place, the old approach did not serve human happiness, and in the second, it was humanly impossible to fully obey all the detailed provisions of the old law. Babylon
So it is not wholly surprising that, although neither knew anything about the other’s teaching, Jesus and Paul agree on the central issue: there has to be a better way of living than trying to obey the ancient Law. Paul had been brought up as a Pharisee and was only too aware of the difficulty of keeping the law in every detail. While he remained a Pharisee, he could never relax, was always worried that he might be breaking some rule or other, and always felt guilty for the infractions he could hardly help committing. Jesus seems not to have had such an over-strict upbringing, and a large part of his ministry involved challenging the Pharisees and their backward-looking legalism. He made a habit of associating with people whose lifestyles implied that they had simply given up on trying to observe the old law, and he was aware that in many cases this had, if anything, made their lives more straightforward and happier. No doubt this difference in experience between Jesus and Paul helps to account for the contrasting ways they deal with law in their teaching.
Paul’s key idea is ‘justification by faith’. This is his answer to what was for him the burning question: ‘How are we sinners to regain our good standing before God?’ That of course is very much the question of an ex-Pharisee. It assumes that nothing is more important than to be in good standing with God-out-there, that God’s ancient law really applies to us, that we haven’t kept the law (because, being human, we couldn’t), that we are consequently not in good standing with God, and that there is nothing we can do about that by ourselves. What however we can do is to have faith in Jesus, whose resurrection has revealed him to be God’s anointed, the ‘Christ’; we simply have to accept that Jesus’s death can somehow expunge our bad record and restore us to the good standing before God that we crave. Now we might demythologise this as Paul saying that it does no good feeling bad about ourselves because of our constant failings; we have to put them behind us and get on with life. But that would not accurately represent Paul’s view: for him, this was not a myth but a literal description of the situation.
Jesus does not have a tagline like ‘justification by faith’, but perhaps we can compose one for him: how about ‘happiness through love’? This seems to be a reasonable distillation of a good deal of his teaching, from the beatitudes to his summary of the law. ‘Happiness’ here has to be understood as something much richer, deeper and longer-lasting, than what is often meant by the word; ‘happy’ in this rich sense is sometimes used instead of ‘blessed’ for the Greek word makarios in the Beatitudes. Maybe ‘joyful’ would be better: ‘joyful through love’. For Jesus, the difficulty is not so much that we can’t keep the old law, but more that trying to do so, quite as much as allowing primitive instincts free rein in our lives, gets in the way of our finding happiness, or joy. What he suggests we focus on is how we manage and improve our relationships with each other. This teaching needs no demythologisation, and it does not address itself only to those who are slaves to the old law or who believe literally in stories about the unseen world. It is just a statement of fact: look around you and you will see that the people who are truly happy are those who prioritise their loving relationships with other people, and who find the strength and the faith to do this by nurturing their spiritual – not necessarily their religious – life.
Truly, this is gospel – good news. Maybe it shouldn’t be news, because it has been repeated often enough down the centuries. But we find it all-too-easy to prioritise other, less emotionally demanding if also ultimately less rewarding things in our lives, or alternatively to try to manage our lives by living by acting according to conventions and rules, the modern versions of ancient Law: That’s why we need the good news.