In the movie Prometheus, one of the main characters directs the captain to land the ship near geographic features on the surface of the planet that appear to be lines because he reasons that the straight lines were created by some form of life because “God doesn’t work in straight lines.” Of course, neither do the aliens they discover on the planet’s surface. Sorry for the spoilers but the only straight lines in the entire movie are those in that scene. The Prometheus itself could fly through the plot holes in this movie.
The truth of that one line is interesting. God doesn’t seem to work in straight lines. This history of salvation isn’t a straight line at all yet it isn’t a game of tennis where God acts, humans react, God reacts, humans react again ad infinitum ad nauseam. There is a plan afoot and it takes millennia sometimes to see it.
In Galatians 2 15:21, Paul aludes to the big plan that has been in the works since the beginning. Paul is negotiating between some folks that hold that Christians have to be Jews that also believe in Jesus and another group that not only rejects the jewish law but any law, code of conduct or morality it seems. These libertines seem to be living a Bourbon Street existence all the time. Galatians is Paul’s attempt to get everyone to work together more or less by telling all sides that they are wrong.
In this last quarter of chapter 2, Paul reaches out to judaizers in a speech that starts familiar to passages from Ephesians and Romans (and others): faith in Chris alone is what gets the job done (15,16). He kisses up to the judaizers by reminding them of their Jewish roots even while pointing out that the most important marker of their roots–the law–is infinitely inferior to the work of Jesus Christ.
Theologians debate how the 1st century Jews viewed the law. Some have said that there was no concept of justification by the law making the work of Jesus an answer to a question that was never asked. Rather, it is speculated that there is a sense of covenantal nomism where the law served as a sign that one was part of the nation of God’s chosen people. Thus, keeping the law did little in God’s eyes according to this concept.
However, if a jew decided not to keep the law, that person would be excluded from the community–the community of God’s chosen–which would be effectively the same at least temporally to being shunned by God. In other words, one keeps the law to stay in the community identified as being God’s people and being excluded from that community was equivalent to shunning by God.
As an aside, the covenantal nomism perspective may be an overstatement of the 1st century jewish theology based on rabbinical Judaism especially as it has matured over the past two millennia.
Back to the passage, Paul takes a break from his typical justification theology to toss out an interesting hypothetical statement in verse 17 but he gets back to the theology in verses 18-21. The 15-21 passage is actually an off-flavor Oreo cookie cookie like, say, banana. The good cookie theology is separated by a question that asks if Christians find themselves sinners or among sinners, does that mean that Christ approves of sin? The answer is a strong ‘no’ worded in what is apparently the colloquial “definitely not” of the time. Literally it means “let it not be so” but seems to have the weight of “hell no” or stronger.
Whenever the Bible seems to be repeating itself, one needs to take note because that means it is probably important enough to repeat. However, it is also important to notice the parts that are different. In this case, verse 17 stands out (though there are parallels to it as well). The interesting part is the “we find ourselves” verb and either the preposition phrase “among sinners” or “sinners” indirect object. The Greek doesn’t support “among sinners” to me and the stronger “we find ourselves sinners” though a more difficult reading is not impossible to interpret by any means.
The verb eureka–to find–is in the first person plural passive form giving a sense of unplanned surprise. It may be like finding oneself in the bad part of town; one didn’t go out looking to end up there but somehow it happened. The verse has the implication that Paul et al are not out looking to be ‘sinners’ but that in the process of doing what they do, they got a little dirt on them. Was it God’s intent that this should happen? No, but notice Paul complete failure to freak out by the prospect that it could happen.
What is confusing here is that Paul’s use of “sinners” could mean those that don’t keep the jewish law or those that are missing the mark of a perfectly righteous life. It is possible that Paul is intending this ambiguity but since he is directly this discourse at the judaizers, the full 613 laws of the Torah and their interpretation according to the religious leaders of the time is likely his intended antecedent.
The reason is outlined in verses 18-21 where Paul declares in no uncertain terms that the law must die. He seems to attack it even from the perspective of the definition of the law. He won’t build it back up again because all the law did for him was show him what a poor keeper of the law he was. He says that he had to crucify that part of him that found the law attractive.
Humans like laws. We make lots of them and seem to really relish the idea of living in a society of laws. As a software developer, I have made a good living writing software because of laws. In fact, laws become an infrastructure and economy unto themselves. Tax law requires the IRS, piles of accountants, and insane amounts of computer hardware and software to maintain. Traffic laws require signs and cops and traffic court and lawyers and radar detectors et cetera. In fact, erasing a law off the books is always more difficult than putting it on the books because eliminating laws means eliminating all the enforcement jobs that it created.
The Mosaic law of the Torah had the same effect. Ten little commandments exploded to 613 laws which under rabbinical Judaism became huge books where rabbis attempted to interpret the laws. As the historical background and motivation for the law was lost, rather than eliminate it, huge efforts were made to find an interpretation for each new age and generation. Keeping the laws became more important than why the laws were kept. It became a sign that one was a practicing jew and part of the covenant community. Keeping the laws–no matter how nonsensical in the 1st century not to mention modern age–was important because it showed one’s submission to God even when it was a pain in the neck, counter productive, nonsensical, or even dangerous.
Unfortunately, the law had to exist. Humans love laws too much and without watching the law completely fail as it did, we would always try to create it. In the end, religion is just a set of laws about working with the Divine but it is always inferior to being in relationship with God.
Law gives us the minimum requirements to stay out of trouble and relieves us of the necessity of thinking. We only need look at the side of the road to see the speed limit sign and know that if the number on the speedometer is within single digits of the number on that sign, then most likely an encounter with law enforcement will be avoided. It is simple and avoids having to think about what a safe speed should be.
In relationships, laws are fatal. Doing the minimum in a marriage is a good start but won’t create a good and lasting relationship. Parenting according to the rules without thinking is ridiculous. There are rules that we have to acknowledge but the minimum will just prolong the pain of a dead relationship.
The writer of Ecclesiastes tapped into this when he (it was probably a ‘he’, sorry) dives into following the jewish religion of the day completely. In doing so, he failed to find meaning. The writer found no meaning in anything he chased and leaves us in despair. The poor scribe that writes the epilogue tries to put a positive spin on the book but utterly fails. The scribe advocates keeping the laws as the best anyone can do but it rings not just hallow but sad and pathetic.
The end of the matter is that life is meaningless if we live loving the law and not people and life is ultimately meaningless if we miss out on the loving God’s law and not God. We wouldn’t have figured this out without the total failure of the law and the overwhelmingly superior message and work of Jesus. In fact, the truly awesome nature of Christ needed humanity to take a winding path. Had we never sinned, we would never have known Jesus. If it wasn’t for the law, we would not have appreciated how necessary it is to reject it entirely in favor of the love, grace, and justification of Jesus Christ. The path couldn’t be a straight line; it had to meander like all of God’s creation only appears to meander but when inspected actually shows a deeper beauty and genius.
For the past two millennia, Christians have tried to recreate the law around the teachings of Jesus. We need to stop doing this the day before yesterday. The law has a purpose for the young and immature in that it teaches them what is good and what is the ideal. After we mature, we have to let it go because it only gets in the way. We need to put to death that part of us that desires to do only the minimum or doesn’t want to think or wants to be told what to do or needs everything to be black and white or doesn’t want to risk getting a little dirty for the sake of knowing and loving our brothers and sisters.
People are dirty, hard to work with, and difficult to love sometimes. From before the creation of the universe, God planned for Jesus to do this for us. It is time for us to accept this love from God and it is time we started doing this for each other. It is what Jesus wants us to do.