The Law is like a “teacher that leads you by the hand toward the encounter” with Jesus, the Holy Father said at the General Audience on Wednesday morning, 11 August, as he continued his series of catecheses dedicated to the Letter to the Galatians and reflected on the relationship between Mosaic Law and God’s Covenant with Abraham. The following is a translation of the Pope’s words which he shared in Italian with the faithful gathered in the Paul VI Hall.
Brothers and Sisters,
“Why then the law?” (Gal 3:19). This is the question that, following Saint Paul, we want to broaden today, in order to recognize the newness of the Christian life enlivened by the Holy Spirit. But if the Holy Spirit exists, if Jesus who redeemed us exists, why the law? This is what we must reflect on today. The Apostle writes: “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). Instead, Paul’s detractors sustained that the Galatians had to follow the Law in order to be saved. They were going backward. They were nostalgic for times gone by, for the times before Jesus Christ. The Apostle is not at all in agreement. These were not the terms he had agreed upon with the other Apostles in Jerusalem. He remembers very well Peter’s words when he said: “Why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). The instructions that emerged from that ‘first council’ — the first ecumenical council was the one that took place in Jerusalem, and the instructions that emerged were very clear, and they said: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity” (Acts 15:28-29); some things that pertained to the worship of God and idolatry, and that also pertained to the way of understanding life at that time.
When Paul speaks about the Law, he is normally referring to Mosaic Law, the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments. It was related to the Covenant that God had established with his people, a journey to prepare this Covenant. According to various Old Testament texts, the Torah — which is the Hebrew term used to indicate the Law — is the collection of all those prescriptions and norms the Israelites have to observe by virtue of the Covenant with God. An effective synthesis of what the Torah is can be found in this text of Deu-ter-on-omy, that says this: “The Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law, if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (30:9-10). The observance of the Law guaranteed to the people the benefits of the Covenant and guaranteed a particular bond with God. This people, this population, these persons, are connected with God and they make this union with God seen, in the fulfilment, in the observance of the Law. In making the Covenant with Israel, God offered them the Torah, the Law, so they could understand his will and live in justice. We have to think that at that time, a Law like this was necessary, it was a tremendous gift that God gave his people. Why? Because at that time paganism was everywhere, idolatry was everywhere as well as the human behaviour that derived from idolatry. Because of this, the great gift God gave his people is the Law, so they could persevere. Several times, especially in the prophetic books, it is noted that not observing the precepts of the Law constituted a real betrayal of the Covenant, provoking God’s wrath as a consequence. The connection between the Covenant and the Law was so close that the two realities were inseparable. The Law is the way a person, a people express that they are in covenant with God.
In light of all this, it is easy to understand how those missionaries who had infiltrated the Galatians had an easy time in sustaining that adhering to the Covenant also included observing Mosaic Law as it was at that time. Nevertheless, precisely in regard to this point, we can discover Saint Paul’s spiritual intelligence and the great insights he expressed, sustained by the grace he received for his evangelizing mission.
The Apostle explains to the Galatians that, in reality, the Covenant with God and Mosaic Law are not indissolubly linked. The first element he relies on is that the Covenant established by God with Abraham was based on faith in the fulfilment of the promise and not on the observance of the Law that did not yet exist. Abraham began his journey centuries before the Law. The Apostle writes: “This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward [with Moses], does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God [with Abraham], so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (Gal 3:17-18)”. The promise came before the Law and the promise to Abraham. Then came the law 430 years later. The word “promise” is very important. The people of God, we Christians, journey through life looking toward a promise; the promise is precisely what attracts us. It attracts us to move forward toward the encounter with the Lord.
With this reasoning, Paul reached his first objective: the Law is not the basis of the Covenant because it came later; it was necessary and just, but prior to that there had been the promise, the Cov-e-nant.
Such an argument rules out those who sustain that Mosaic Law was a constitutive part of the Covenant. No, the Cov-e-nant comes first. It is the call to Abraham. The Torah, the Law, in fact, was not included in the promise made to Abraham. Having said this, one should not think, however, that Saint Paul was opposed to Mosaic Law. No, he observed it. Several times in his Letters, he defends its divine origin and says that it possesses a well-defined role in the history of salvation. The Law, however, does not give life; it does not offer the fulfilment of the promise because it is not in the position to be able to fulfil it. The Law is a journey that leads toward an encounter. Paul uses a very important word: the law is the “pedagogue” toward Christ, the pedagogue toward faith in Christ, that is, the teacher that leads you by the hand toward the encounter. Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfilment in Christ.
Dear brothers and sisters, this first presentation of the Apostle to the Galatians offers the radical newness of the Christian life: all those who have faith in Jesus Christ are called to live in the Holy Spirit, who liberates from the Law and, at the same time, brings it to fulfilment according to the Commandment of love. This is very important. The Law leads us to Jesus. But some of you might say to me: “But, Father, just one thing: does this mean that if I pray the Creed, I do not need to observe the Commandments?” No, the Commandments are valid in the sense that they are “pedagogues” that lead you toward the encounter with Jesus. But if you set aside the encounter with Jesus and want to go back to giving greater importance to the Commandments, this is not good. This was precisely the problem of these fundamentalist missionaries who had infiltrated the Galatians to confuse them. May the Lord help us to journey along the path of the Commandments but looking at Christ's love, toward the encounter with Christ, knowing that the encounter with Jesus is more important than all of the Commandments.
I cordially greet the English-speaking faithful. As we prepare to celebrate the So-lem--ni-ty of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I entrust you and your families to her maternal intercession, that she may guide us on our pilgrim way to the fullness of Christ’s promises. May God bless you!
Lastly, as usual, my thoughts turn to the elderly, to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. Today we celebrate the Feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi, a bright example of one who knew how to live her bond to Christ with courage and generosity. Imitate her example so that you may respond with faith to the Lord’s call. My blessing to all of you.