I have made reference several times to the fact that St. Paul’s preaching was often contradicted by a group that we have come to know as the Judaizers. This group forwarded the idea that to be a Christian, one had to first be a Jew. Consequently, when Paul preached to the Gentiles and taught that the new covenant established by Jesus was open to them, this group would invariably argue the point. They made a habit of following Paul, visiting the places where he had formed Christian communities among the Gentiles, and insisting that these Gentile Christians formally join the Jewish faith.
Part of the reason for this kind of thinking has to do with the preeminence of place that the Jews placed on the Sinai Covenant and the Law or Torah that emanated from that covenant. A good Jew believed that observance of the Law was the means of salvation much the same way that some people of our own time believe that they can find their way into heaven by obeying the commandments. St. Paul uses Abraham as an example of a man who is justified by faith rather than by observance of the Law. The argument is so simple that it might escape us at first, for Abraham existed long before Moses. Consequently, there was no covenant and there was no Law while Abraham lived, yet he is considered the father of Judaism and the example of a truly just person. The Scriptures are replete with respect for him and his righteousness, his right relationship with the Lord. As a matter of fact, the Torah itself tells us that Abraham was saved by his faith in the Lord.
So does this mean that we can ignore the commandments? Certainly and definitely not. However, we must shift our attitude a little if we are to completely understand what St. Paul means when he tells us that we are justified by our faith. If we keep the commandments because we think that this will earn our way into heaven, then we fail to understand St. Paul’s thinking. Catholics were long taught that we stored up merits by obedience to the Law and by doing good works. Actually, we have placed the cart before the horse because our real motivation for observing the commandments is as a way to show our gratitude for the gift of faith which saves us. Faith comes first; it is followed by good works which are done out of love for God and neighbor and by obedience to the commandments. We obey because God has loved us.
Jesus has saved us through his obedience to God’s will. As we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember what he died for us. As the popular hymn puts it: We remember, we celebrate, we believe.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator