Today St Paul makes a dramatic statement that he is “dead to the law” and that he has been “crucified with Christ”! But what on earth does he mean by these two startling declarations? (Gal 2:16-21) I think we should start by working out what he means by “the law”. The law for us is the law of the land wherever we happen to live, but clearly St Paul does not mean that he is dead to that kind of law. Indeed he says elsewhere that Christians must respect those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-3). No, as many of you probably know, the Law, when spoken of in the Bible means the Law of God – the things that God expects of those who are truly good human beings.
Well we know what that means from the passage where Jesus sums up the law as two things – to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbour as our self. (Matt 22:36-39)
Now this is certainly hard stuff isn’t it? We may well try to love God, but to love God completely, as Jesus suggests, is much more difficult for we have so many other competing interests! I may love God when I say my prayers, or am desperate for help, or very thankful when something good has happened, but a lot of the time my love for God has to compete with lots of other things happening in my life. The idea of loving God completely is therefore something I aim for, not something I actually achieve.
This is even more the case with loving our neighbour, especially when Jesus adds elsewhere that this includes loving our enemies. What would you feel like if someone in your family was killed, maybe by some careless driver in a road accident? I even get angry with people who damage trees, so what I would feel for a fool driver I cannot imagine! I am always impressed by the quiet dignity of someone who says that they will forgive the person who has killed their loved one. But I am not sure whether I would be that good, even though I must admit to being disgusted with people who still rage with hate in such circumstances.
So there it is. The Law of God is a wonderful thing to aim for, but it is actually impossible to follow completely, and it is because of this that St Paul says that he is “dead to the law”. He had thought, along with many other people both in his time and today, that getting to heaven, being accepted by God, was achieved by keeping the law. Taught by Jesus, he had now to die to this old way of thinking – so that is what he means by being dead to the law and crucified with Christ – and, as he says “to live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.”
We see now why our other two readings are all about the way God forgives us. (2 Sam 12:7-10.13 and Luke 7:36- 8:3) We have to rely on that forgiveness of God, given us through Jesus, because we cannot, however hard we try, keep God’s law completely. Now some of you may well have heard me go on about this before, and the reason is simple. However many times we hear this message, most of us easily revert to the old way of thinking. I know of many students who come from good Catholic families who really think of themselves as quite good people. They’ve never committed any really big sin, and so deep down they do not think of themselves as sinners. Then suddenly they face at University new and far bigger temptations, and they find themselves doing things that they know, according to what they have been taught, are really big sins. Faced with this, some just give up on the Church, and some even give up on God. They think that such sin cuts them off from the Church. Somehow they have missed out on the heart of the message of Jesus.
Look at it in practice in the Gospel. This woman with a bad name comes into the house and begins to weep and to kiss the feet of Jesus. The Pharisee who is the host is horrified that Jesus is allowing this. How can such a person be accepted by Jesus?
But it is the Pharisee that is wrong. He thinks being close to God is all about being a good person, but Jesus turns the whole thing upside down. He says that the more we realise how much God forgives us, the closer we are to God’s love. He says cuttingly to the Pharisee, and to us, “It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love.” Ouch! That’s really hard!
I wonder too if this is also a man/woman thing? I hate to stereotype, but perhaps we men tend to like things to be absolute. We like solutions. Either this person is bad and need punishing or he is good. Women, maybe, are more like God. They prefer to talk things through, to accept that things are less than perfect and get on with life. It was the male apostles who failed Jesus, and needed to learn to be forgiven. The women got the new message and lived it much more easily, and maybe it is still the same today