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Christianity from the inside out: more about Saint Paul

I use the expression "from the inside out" because St. Paul was a person who was considered to be an authority on Judaism in his time. He was a Pharisee, one of the people Jesus said many disparaging things about. Jesus' main complaint with them was that Pharisees seemed to be obsessed with the letter of the Law, and tended to disregard the spirit. Paul was not an exception to this generality--he described himself as "zealous for the Law," and seemed not to be sorry for that.

But because Paul lived in the heart of Jewish rules and regulations, he saw unerringly just exactly what the emerging teachings of the Rabbi from Nazareth were going to mean. Jesus' teaching must have struck at the heart of Paul's zealotry when he said this:

"Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.

"Then the disciples came to him and asked, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?' He replied, 'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch.'

"Peter said, 'Explain the parable to us.'

“'Do you still not understand?' Jesus asked them. 'Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.'” [Matthew 15:10-20]

I cannot imagine how Paul's short temper was kindled when that was repeated to him. Finding fault with those who devote themselves to adherence to their entire creed is likely to prove very dangerous. But the underlying point that Jesus was making was undoubtedly what got Paul angry: that doing all the scrupulous observance was not spiritually productive in itself.

What good indeed is acting out your faith's dictates, ostentatiously and publicly, if your heart is withered with hatred and black with rage? When Jesus told the story of the "unjustified" man who went to the Temple and thanked God that he was "not as other men," he touched again on that same point. As Christians say today, faith without works is dead. But it can actually be worse than dead: it can be toxic.

But on the other side, once Paul got this concept fixed in his mind, he wrote later that it was not only the way that we enter into the correct relationship to God, but it obliterates the difference between Jews and Gentiles. The passage is long, but it is perhaps the single most powerful thing Paul ever wrote:

"What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:

“'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
"'All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.
“'Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.
“'The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.'

"Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the Law; rather, through the Law we become conscious of our sin.

"But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

"God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. He did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

"Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The Law that requires works? No, because of the Law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the Law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law." [Romans 3:9-31]

Paul was explicating two very important ideas: first, that everyone has sinned, even those (or especially those) who are conscious of the Law; and that since no one is free of sin, there is nothing outside of God's grace that offers us hope. That is the original existential predicament of Judaism: they received their Law from the One God, who is perfectly good and righteous. But once the Law was given, it is obvious that fallible human beings fall short of it.

Well, where does that leave us? The situation compelled the early Jewish intellectuals to construe misfortune as God's punishment for falling short of the Law. That is why the Old Testament dwells endlessly on "sin" without actually specifying what, in particular, God is punishing them for this time.

That whole philosophy comes to a screeching halt with Jesus, who said that it is God's unconditional love that bridges the gap. We are not saved because we are so good that we have earned it; on the contrary, Christianity teaches that we can never deserve the Good News that Jesus gave us: God is not only perfectly good and righteous, but unconditionally loving and understanding.

Whenever you find a tiny trace of compassion for someone who has done something terrible, you are close to God. Christianity does not preach the need to forgive everything and let everyone do whatever they like, however; as St. Augustine said, first you love God, and then do as you please--implying that truly loving God will keep you from being cruel and exploitative. Or at least Augustine believed that; he thought the phrase was self-explanatory, but today's rapacious preachers have deliberately misconstrued the whole idea.

As I watched the program "Breaking the Faith," about the FLDS escapees, I have heard recorded snippets of the preaching of their founder, Warren Jeffs, who is a child rapist. His rationale was that even if a thing seems wrong to you, as in the case of the child molestation, it is all right if God commands it.

But it is not at all clear that God wills a man to rape a child. In fact, we can fall back on our common sense and see that if a child is too young to give informed consent, they ought to be left alone. That is what American civil law says, and there is such a thing as statutory rape. And that, in turn, explains why Jeffs is in prison.

Paul affirms that "righteousness" is God's gift to all who believe in Jesus. I am sure he had a hard time with that at first, but his intellect told him that God must be perfect or he is not God, and we must look for another entity to worship. Can God hate anyone? Faith forbids it. Can God be cruel, using his power to castigate helpless humans with disease and misfortune? We cannot accept that. Can God desire us to commit crimes like genocide? Not if he is the One God who is perfectly lawful, righteous and good. Likewise, as Jesus revealed, not if he is unconditionally loving and understanding.

What is this Pauline Christian teaching going to do for us? In the long run, it looks like if Paul ever comes back into style theologically, we are going to have to rethink our theology. The Old Testament is all very well, if you like to tell children stories that God killed everybody in the world except Noah's family--plus all the innocent animals and unborn babies. If you have trouble with that, you are thinking like a Christian.

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