Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :- These readings remind me how easy it is to think that faith in Jesus is all about following sets of rules which make one alright with God and how very easy it is for those of us who go to Church regularly to be critical of others who do not appear to live as we think they ought to do. Believing in God and following His will is never simply about any rather arid adherence to rules; for surely they are merely there as guides to a deeper love and appreciation of God himself, rather than the means by which we come to know and love him more deeply.
This is surely David’s problem in 2 Samuel (12:7-10.13). As king and conqueror in God’s name, he had the right in the eyes of his supporters, to take Saul’s wives and concubines, for they believed he was blessed by the God of Israel. But when, out of lust and self-interest, and not the interests of the state, he abducted Bathsheba and tried to cover up his adultery, and then, when that failed, arranged the death of Uriah, that was too much for the God-fearing, like Nathan the Prophet. There was no doubt that David had the power to do precisely what he wanted, the point was, as the Prophet saw, that he had set aside the spirit of his rule and with it the interests of the state and social harmony and good and just government that he was there to defend. He had to be challenged and forced to recant his evil ways.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus has two dinners at the houses of Pharisees. This is the first, (Luke 7:36-8:3) and both end up with him slating the Pharisees and the way they lived. Here the issue is over love versus law and the fact that the sinner woman was able to recognise her many faults, and ask forgiveness of one who she could see personified the love and grace of God in real life. Quite clearly, the Pharisee had invited Jesus out of wrong motives, for we are told in the unravelling of the story, that he had committed a number of serious errors, even possibly errors against the Judaic law. First he did not offer Jesus water to wash his feet, or offer him the traditional kiss of welcome, or anoint him with oil. Certainly all three of these actions would have signified genuine warmth and hospitality, and their studied omission suggests that the host had deliberately invited Jesus to set him up or contradict him in some way. As they were all reclining, Roman style on couches after a synagogue Sabbath, and in a wealthy home where the public could easily look in and even venture in, we may suppose the scene to have been quite deliberately contrived. When the woman of dubious reputation turned up this was even better! The Pharisee couldn’t have asked for more. What a gift to show Jesus up in a bad light! As we see however, the tables are turned by the actions of the penitent woman, and they precipitate Jesus’ response to her in pronouncing her sins forgiven, the action of God himself, or on rare occasions, the work of his prophets. Jesus uses this opportunity to proclaim his identity to the world, and in so doing draws attention to the right way of responding to the grace and love of God – which makes one a penitent in the first place. He recognises that the Father’s love for fallen humanity knows no boundaries, and has no truck with the law or the self-righteous legalism of the Pharisee host. The woman, who hadn’t literally a leg to stand on in her relationship with God, knows the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness, whereas the Pharisee, forced to admit the logic of the two-debtor comparison, is left with his grudging admission of defeat ,but seems to have learned little from the encounter.
For St Paul (Galatians 2:16.19-21) this distinction is absolutely fundamental. Following the Judaic law, no matter how perfectly, cannot take one into the heart of God. It may make you a very upright and careful human being, but in terms of the passionate and deep knowing of God and of being known by him, it is of no avail. This is why Paul is so scathing about the wish of some of the Christians of Galatia to espouse Judaism, and his fury at those who would persuade them that that was the right path. Paul had himself been a devout Pharisee and understood that adherence to the law could not win him any relationship with Christ. This is precisely why he uses the language of his being crucified with Christ. Through the law (which condemned Jesus to death) he has died to the law and, as he puts it, “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.” In other words, his life and the manner of it, is now formed and shaped on the way that Jesus lived his life, and even the most meagre acquaintance with the Gospels will make clear that Jesus seemed to have contradicted the law on numerous occasions. He healed on the Sabbath; he mixed with the sick and the outcast ‘sinners’; he fasted on different days if at all; he raised the dead; he mixed with foreigners and, horror of horrors, even foreign women! The list is endless, pointing to a Jesus who just did not have time for rules and regulations, but sought out the needy and took God’s love and care to them, healing, feeding, forgiving and incorporating them into a new community, founded in his vision of the Father’s love and grace, which seems to have been quite blind to the law. Ultimately, of course, it was the law which killed Jesus; and the redeemed, forgiven and restored St Paul can have no truck with it. It is a salutary reminder to the righteous Christian that we too need to work out precisely where we stand.