Despite the planning and preparation I do prior to the Christmas holidays, I always find myself having to do some kind of last minute shopping or some other such distraction. True to form, this year I had to make a last minute trip to Home Depot on the morning of December 24 in order to get a few things for the church building.
Ahead of me in line was a young man (a twenty-something), who was trying to explain to the cashier that he had not been charged for the bags of mulch he had requested. He said, “I’m not the sort of person who takes what he hasn’t paid for.” The cashier seemed not to understand. After several more minutes of examining the young man’s sales receipt the cashier reluctantly charged him for the bags of mulch.
I’m still not certain whether the cashier was suffering the effects of a late night’s activities, or if he was merely stunned by the experience of someone who was not willing to take something for which he hadn’t paid. Either way, it was for me a tragic reminder of the necessity of laws for our society. There are laws that require customers to pay for the consumer products they take home. Those laws exist because there are too few people in the world like the young man who was ahead of me in the check-out line.
Today’s second reading says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption.” (Galatians 4:4-5) The Law of Moses is fundamentally different from our society’s civil law, but there are some similarities between the two. At the time that St. Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians, some of the prominent Pharisees had turned the Law of Moses into a rigid checklist of things to do and things to avoid. They had turned Hebrew religion into nothing more than an ethics.
When the word “ethics” is used in conversation, it is usually assumed to refer to an expression of a high degree of personal integrity, like the young man in the check-out line ahead of me. His very high degree of personal integrity prevented him from taking merchandise for which he had not paid. I’m not using the word “ethics” in that fashion, however. When I say that religion in St. Paul’s lifetime (and in the lifetime of Jesus – this was the point of contention between Jesus and the Jerusalem Pharisees), had been reduced to nothing more than an ethics, I am using the word in a more generic sense.
Not all ethics are ethics of high personal integrity. Each day’s news brings stories of corruption in government, business or industry. In each of those cases, there is an ethics at work (albeit a self-serving one). You have seen the reports about the big bank that opened fraudulent accounts in the names of its customers. The fraudulent accounts were an attempt to give shareholders a false impression about growth in the bank’s business activity. The fraud was the result of a corporate ethics that put appearances ahead of reality.
Religion can be practiced in the just the same way that the big bank practiced banking. Religion can be used solely for the purpose of appearance, and with no actual regard to God or neighbor. Such was the case when St. Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians. Religion had been reduced to nothing more than appearance. For this reason, Paul said that the Incarnation was God’s plan to rescue both those born under the Law of Moses and those born outside the Law.
It wasn’t the case that the Law of Moses lacked the capacity to bring people into a right relationship with God and a holy life. All of Jesus’ preaching was based on the Law of Moses. Rather, people’s understanding of the Law had degenerated to being nothing more than a self-serving ethics, a set of external practices intended to impress others.
St. Paul understood the Incarnation and death of Jesus to be the world’s ransom from religion that was nothing more than ethics. When he wrote that the baptized were ‘adopted’ by God (Galatians 4:5), he meant that a living relationship to Jesus leads to living relationship with God. This is the heart of authentic religion: a living and growing relationship that manifests itself in one’s actions.
The relationship offered to us in Baptism, the relationship that St. Paul described as being ‘adopted’ by God, can be understood as being like having a high degree of personal integrity: it is easily recognizable, and not merely done for the purpose of making a good impression.
Being God’s children by adoption is much more than claiming to have faith; it is demonstrating the presence of that faith by means of our daily actions. It means leading a life that is above reproach, a life that no law can condemn, the kind of life that makes us publicly recognizable as belonging to God.
What would our lives look like if we imitated God’s actions in the Incarnation and death of Jesus? If we led lives that made us publicly recognizable as belonging to God, we would give up our pretension and pride. We would gladly give our time and attention those in need. We would work for peace and reconciliation. We would avoid judgment and condemnation.
Faith in God is real only if it is as obvious as having a high degree of integrity. St. Paul wrote that Baptism has made us heirs to God’s faithfulness and compassion. (Galatians 4:7) Shouldn’t our words and actions make it obvious to all that we are inheritors of God’s goodness? Such a life is not an attempt to impress others; it is not a matter of appearance only. Such as life is a visible expression of an invisible reality. Such a life is a reflection of the Incarnation in which the eternal God took human flesh in order to make all flesh children of God.