So, what are rules for, then? Rules were made up because people were walking all over each other. Until the arrival of the designated heir, it was given by messengers, via a middleman.
A middleman implies that more than one person was involved, but God is one person. So the question is, do the rules contradict God? Of course, they don’t.
If rules could bring someone to life, then you could be right by just following the rules. But writing down all those rules only ended up trapping everything in a rat race of wrong. So it ends up that embracing the practice of Jesus is the way out of this mess.
In an ideal world, you wouldn’t need rules. In an ideal world, people would treat each other with dignity and respect and love without having to legislate people’s behavior. But it’s not an ideal world.
Paul’s saying that the law cannot give life is like saying you can’t legislate the heart. You can’t always change someone’s mind, but you can (most of the time) limit someone’s bad behavior.
The trouble with legislation, though, is that it quite often has unintended consequences. People who are bent on doing wrong will find a way to use the letter of the law to their advantage, and even use the law to aid and abet them in their wrongdoing. Remember, just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.
On the positive side, though, if your heart is in the right place, chances are you don’t need many rules to do the right thing. In fact, you may find that to do the right thing you’ll have to break a few. At least, that’s what Jesus found.
People who rely on following rules are living a stunted life. The ancient writings say, “Anyone who doesn’t keep these rules in their entirety is cursed.” And, since nobody can keep up with all those rules, it’s clear that the only way to live right is by commitment. The rules don’t care whether you’re committed or not, only if you’re following them to the letter. Jesus, who hung on a tree, contrary to the rule that says people who do that are damned, rescued us from having to follow those kinds of rules. He rescued us so that Abraham’s reward could be for everyone – everyone can see in Jesus that it’s not the rules, but the commitment to the right spirit that counts.
Paul is onto something. You can’t be perfect. If perfection is the standard, there’s no way anybody can make it. It doesn’t matter whose set of rules you’re playing by. You can’t be perfectly consistent with them all the time. And keeping up with all the rules laid out in the Law of Moses, along with all the laws and rules that had been piled on top of those over years of interpretation made it all the more impossible. There has to be a better way.
Paul’s assertion is that Jesus is that way. His logic is flawed, of course. Just because one person runs afoul of the rules doesn’t make any difference whether anybody else does or not. “Rules is rules.” If we follow the rules of Paul’s transactional theology, we’re still sunk. We substitute one set of impossibilities for another.
Or, we can observe that Jesus’ spirit of action on behalf of others was exactly what led to his being on the wrong side of the rules and “hung on a tree.” In which case, it really does become clear that, given the choice between following the rules and doing the right thing, doing the right thing is the right thing. It doesn’t matter whether the rules you have to break to get there are Moses’, or the traditions Mosaic Law collected over the years. It doesn’t matter if the rules are Paul’s, or the traditions Christians have collected over the years.
Rules is rules. And doing the right thing is still doing the right thing.
You stupid Galatians! Who’s bewitched you? You are witnesses to the public crucifixion of Jesus. So you tell me now, did you get God’s idea by following rules, or by making a commitment to what you’d heard? Are you such idiots that you start with God’s idea but then end up trying to do it on your own? Doesn’t all your experience teach you anything? Apparently not! What does your experience tell you – that God’s work and amazing things happen when you’re following rules, or when you’re true to your commitment?
Paul isn’t going to get any points for making nice here. Calling people stupid idiots is not the way to win friends and influence people.
After you strip away Paul’s scathing tirade, though, the question he’s asking really is worth thinking about. Do amazing things happen when you’re following rules, or do they happen when you’re true to your commitment?
I’d venture to guess that it’s some of both. Sometimes, when you’re starting out with something, you need a few rules. You learn how things work. You find your bearings. Once you know the rules, when you’ve put in the time and become a virtuoso at your art, then, maybe, you can leave the rulebook behind – sometimes.
But, what Paul is furious about is that the Galatians have the capacity to be virtuosos. They have the experience – or Paul thinks they do – to make life following Jesus artful. But in spite of their ability, they’re playing it safe. They’re allowing their fear to rule them, rather than living into the freedom that is theirs for the taking.
So, what about you? Are you fearfully following rules, or are you living into the best of your potential? Is your life an assembly line product, or is at an art?
We who, unlike the benighted pagans, were born into Judaism – we know that obeying the letter of the law isn’t what makes you right. It’s embracing the way of Jesus. We’ve embraced Jesus to get past legalism. Nobody is right just because he or she follows the letter of the law. Even so, if in our striving to be right by embracing Jesus we still screw up, that doesn’t make Jesus a screw-up! Hell no! In the contrary, if I’ve started putting things back together after I’ve screwed them up, it means I recognize that I was wrong.
Being a legalist killed me – and so I started living for God instead. Jesus’ crucifixion was my own. So now that I’m dead, Jesus can live on in me. My earthly existence is an emulation of Jesus dedication, who loved me enough to trade his life for the sake of mine. I’ll never take that for granted. If obeying the law makes you right, then Jesus’ death really was futile.
Religion comes from the Latin meaning rule. But Jesus isn’t about rules. Even Paul, in his best moments, recognizes that it’s not about rules. It’s about commitment to something greater than yourself.
Sure, following rules is easier. It’s much easier just to do what someone tells you to do. Or to look for instructions in a book.
Cooking is easier when you follow a recipe. But the best chefs know how to put the right ingredients together in the right amounts without needing a recipe. They write it down later so the rest of us can imitate their genius, but to them it’s not following rules, it’s engaging the creative juices present in the ingredients.
What the Galatians seem to want is another cook-book faith. Follow this code. Obey this law. First do this. Then say that. But Paul wants them to leave the cookbook behind and start living creatively into the calling of Jesus.
If you’re looking for a cookbook for religion, there are no shortages of religious options out there. But if you want to follow Jesus, there is no recipe. You have to become a chef.