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Christian attitudes, gospel and commandments


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Ramiro Pellitero

Professor of the School of Theology at the University of Navarre

Regarding the Pope's catechesis on the Letter to the Galatians

Seen in context, the Pope's teaching at the Wednesday audiences on St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians is a good explanation of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his Gospel, the law and the commandments.

Humility, gentleness and obedience; faith in the Holy Spirit

At the General Audience of June 23, 2011, the Pope introduced his catechesis on the Letter to the Galatians. A first feature that stands out in that letter is the evangelizing work that St. Paul carried out with those people located in what is now Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Paul stopped there partly because of some illness (cf. Gal 4:13) and also led by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 16:6). He began by establishing small communities, moved by the fire of his pastoral fervor.

There came some Christians from Judaism, who began by belittling his work and then went on to try to take away his authority. "It is a question," the Pope affirmed, "of an ancient internship , to present themselves on some occasions as the sole possessors of the truth - the pure ones - and to seek to belittle the work done by others, even with calumnies. Even now some "strongly affirm that the authentic Christianity is theirs, often identified with certain forms of the past, and that the solution to the present crises is to go back in order not to lose the genuineness of the faith". It is the temptation, today as then, to "close oneself up in certain certainties acquired in past traditions", linked to a certain rigidity.

How does St. Paul react? He proposes the liberating and ever new way of the crucified and risen Christ. "It is the way of advertisement ," says Francis, "which is realized through humility and fraternity: the new preachers do not know what humility is, what fraternity is; it is the way of meek and obedient trust: the new preachers do not know meekness and obedience. This path of humility, meekness and obedience is based on "the certainty that the Holy Spirit is at work in every epoch of the Church". This is the conclusion of the first catechesis; for "faith in the Holy Spirit present in the Church carries us forward and will save us".

God's initiative, primacy of grace, call for responsibility

In his second catechesis (cf. General Audience, 30-VI-2021), the Pope presents the figure of Paul, a true apostle . As such, he does not allow himself to be involved in the arguments of the Judaizers regarding circumcision and the fulfillment of the Old Law. He does not remain on the surface of the problems or conflicts, as we are sometimes tempted to do in order to reach agreement. Paul underlines, we could say, the rectitude of his intention (cf. Gal 1:10).

First of all, the apostle reminds the Galatians that he is a true apostle not by his own merit, but by the call of God. He evokes the story of his vocation and conversion (cf. Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:6; Gal 1:22-23).

"Paul - Francis points out - sample thus the truth of his vocation through the striking contrast that had been created in his life: from persecutor of Christians because they did not observe the traditions and the law, he was called to become an apostle to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ". And now Paul is free. Free to proclaim the Gospel and free also to confess his sins. And precisely because he recognizes this change, he is filled with admiration and recognition.

It is," the Pope interprets, "as if he wanted to tell the Galatians that he could have been anything but an apostle. He was brought up from childhood to be an irreproachable observer of the Mosaic law, and circumstances led him to fight the disciples of Christ. However, something unexpected happened: God, in his grace, revealed to him his dead and risen Son, so that he could become a herald in the midst of the pagans (cf. Gal 1:15-6)".

And here comes the conclusion of his second catechesis: "The ways of the Lord are inscrutable! We touch him every day, but especially if we think of the times when the Lord called us".

For this reason, he proposes that we never forget the time and the way in which God entered our life: keep fixed in our hearts and minds that meeting with grace, when God changed our existence. May we continue to wonder and marvel at his mercy; for there is nothing accidental, but everything has been prepared by God's plan that has "woven" our history, while at the same time leaving us free to respond with trust.

Together with this, there is here a call to responsibility in the Christian and apostolic mission statement : "The call always involves a mission statement to which we are destined; for this reason we are asked to prepare ourselves seriously, knowing that it is God himself who sends us, God himself who sustains us with his grace".

The true and only message of the Gospel

On the third Wednesday (cf. General Audience, 4-VIII-2021) the Pope focused on the one and only "Gospel", that is, the kerygma or advertisement of the Christian faith according to St. Paul. We know that at that time none of the four Gospels had been written. The advertisement of faith consists in proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus as source of salvation (cf. 1 Cor 15:3-5).

Faced with the greatness of this gift, the apostle wonders why the Galatians are thinking of accepting another "gospel", perhaps more sophisticated, more intellectual... another "gospel".

"The apostle - Francis points out - knows that they are still in time not to make a false step, and he warns them strongly, very strongly".

And what is the apostle's argument? His first argument is directly that the preaching done by these new "missionaries" distorts the true gospel because it prevents the attainment of freedom - the word core topic- which is acquired through faith.

What is in the background," the Pope observes, "is the fact that the Galatians are still 'beginners' and their disorientation is understandable. They do not yet know the complexity of the Mosaic Law and the enthusiasm to embrace faith in Christ pushes them to listen to these new preachers, under the illusion that their message is complementary to that of Paul. This is not the case.

The apostle, far from negotiating, exhorts the Galatians to keep away from the community what threatens its foundations. And this is how Francis sums it up, also for us: "Either you receive the Gospel as it is, as it was proclaimed, or you receive something else. But you cannot negotiate with the Gospel. You cannot compromise: faith in Jesus is not merchandise to be negotiated: it is salvation, it is meeting, it is redemption. It is not sold cheaply".

Hence, Francis concludes, the importance of knowing how to discern, applying this criterion to subsequent situations: "Many times we have seen in history, and we also see it today, some movement that preaches the Gospel with its own modality , sometimes with true, proper charisms; but then it exaggerates and reduces the whole Gospel to the 'movement'". It is certainly a matter of underlining some aspect of the Gospel message, but, in order to bear fruit, it must not cut its roots with the fullness of Christ, who is the one who gives us light (revelation) and life.

In fact, St. Paul explains to the Galatians that it is not the Old Law that "justifies" (that which makes us just or holy before God), but only faith in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal 2:16). And it is up to the hierarchy of the Church to guide this discernment in such decisive matters as the authenticity of a charism or the orientation for its historical unfolding.

The meaning of the ancient Law

In his fourth catechesis (cf. General Audience, 11-VIII-2021), the Pope pauses to discern the meaning of the Old Law, that is, the Law of Moses, to answer the question posed by St. Paul: "What is the purpose of the law?

The Law, the Torah, was a gift of God to guarantee to the people the benefits of the Covenant and guaranteed the particular bond with God. Because at that time," Francis observes, "there was paganism everywhere, idolatry everywhere and the human behaviors that derive from idolatry, and that is why the great gift of God to his people is the Law to go forward. So that "the link between the Covenant and the Law was so close that the two realities were inseparable. The Law is the expression that a person, a people is in covenant with God".

But," the Pope points out, "the basis of the Covenant is not the Law but the promise made to Abraham. And it is not that St. Paul was opposed to the Mosaic Law. In fact, in his letters he defends its divine origin and its precise meaning. But this Law could not give life, so what is, or was, its precise meaning?

Francis explains: "The Law is a path that leads you forward to meeting. Paul uses a very important word, the Law is the 'pedagogue' towards Christ, the pedagogue towards faith in Christ, that is, the teacher who leads you by the hand to meeting. Whoever seeks life needs to look to the promise and its fulfillment in Christ".

In other words, the Law leads us to Jesus, but the Holy Spirit frees us from the Law, while leading us to its fulfillment according to the commandment of love.

Now, the Pope asks, does this mean that a Christian does not have to keep the commandments? No, he answers. The commandments still have the meaning of being "pedagogues" that lead us to meeting with Jesus. But one cannot leave the meeting with Jesus to go back and give more importance to the commandments. This was the problem of those "fundamentalist missionaries" who opposed Paul. And so the Pope concludes with a simple prayer: "May the Lord help us to walk along the path of the commandments, but looking at the love of Christ, at meeting with Christ, knowing that meeting with Jesus is more important than all the commandments".

And it is understandable that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while maintaining a broad explanation of the Ten Commandments (cf. Part Three, second section, nos. 2052-2557, precedes it with an explanation of the Beatitudes, which are like "the face" of Christ and, therefore, of the Christian, cf. nos. 1716-1727).

Jesus Christ and the commandments

Prolonging the previous one, Francis reaffirms, in his fifth catechesis (cf. General Audience, 18-VIII-2021), "the propaedeutic value of the Law" whose meaning is salvation in Christ.

Dealing with the status of before Christ (Old Testament), St. Paul uses the expression "to be under the Law". And the Pope explains it as follows: the underlying meaning involves the idea of a negative subjection, typical of slaves ("to be under"). This is why the apostle says that to be "under the Law" is equivalent to being "guarded" or "enclosed", like - in Francis' terms - a kind of preventive prison for a certain period of time.

Well, that time, according to St. Paul, has lasted a long time - from Moses to the coming of Jesus - and is perpetuated as long as one lives in sin.

  This relationship between the Law and sin will be more systematically explained by the apostle in his letter to the Romans, written a few years after the letter to the Galatians. The Pope now summarizes it as follows: the Law leads to the definition of transgression and makes people aware of their own sin: "You have done this, therefore, the Law - the Ten Commandments - says this: you are in sin".

And as a good connoisseur of human psychology, Francis adds: "Moreover, as common experience teaches, the precept ends up encouraging transgression". So writes the apostle in his letter to the Romans (cf. Rom 7:5-6). In this sense we have now been freed, through the justification that Christ has won for us, also from the "prison" aspect of the Old Law (cf. also 1 Cor. 15:56). Now that the time of preparation is over, the Law must give way to the maturity of the Christian and his choice of freedom in Christ.

The Pope insists that this does not mean that with Jesus Christ the commandments are abolished, but that they no longer justify us. "What justifies us is Jesus Christ. The commandments must be observed, but they do not give us righteousness; there is the gratuitousness of Jesus Christ, the meeting with Jesus Christ who justifies us gratuitously. The merit of faith is to receive Jesus. The only merit: to open the heart". "And what do we do with the commandments?" he asks again. And he answers: "We must observe them, but as financial aid at meeting with Jesus Christ".

As a conclusion internship, Francis proposes: "It would be good for us to ask ourselves if we still live in a time when we need the Law, or if we are aware of having received the grace of being children of God in order to live in love". For this reason, he encourages us to ask ourselves two questions. The first: "How do I live, with the fear that if I don't do this I will go to hell, or do I also live with that hope, with that joy of the gratuitousness of salvation in Jesus Christ? And the second: "Do I despise the commandments? No. I keep them, but not as absolutes, because I know that what justifies me is Jesus Christ".

In this regard, the thirty numbers that the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes to introducing the Ten Commandments (cf. nos. 2052-2082) are very instructive. There it is explained how Jesus reaffirms the way of the commandments and their perennial value, also for Christians, and presents himself as the fullness of the commandments. The commandments, which were already understood as a response to God's loving initiative and a preparation for the Incarnation (St. Irenaeus), are fully assumed in Christ, who "becomes, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the living and interior rule of our action" (n. 2074).

(On the relationship between Christ and the commandments, see also Francis' catechesis on the commandments, June 13-November 28, 2018.)