Saturday, August 16, 2008

Following The Spirit Rather Than The Law

The following is an excerpt from an article by Dr. Ian Elmer on the mission of St. Paul. The full article can be accessed here:

Paul's Christian-Jewish opponents at Galatia and Corinth seem to have made much of Paul's former legalistic zeal, pointing out how he once preached circumcision (Gal 5:11) and persecuted Christians as apostates (Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 15:9). Paul is hard-pressed to defend his conversion to Law-free Christianity; it was, after all, a remarkable redirection in his faith journey, a complete change of mind (metanoia). Just to demonstrate how far Paul had travelled since his early Law-observant days is evident in his comment to the Philippians (3:8) that he now considered his former legalism as "skubalon", a Greek vulgarity that is best translated as "dung", or better, "crap" (as it is translated in the recent Scholars Version of the New Testament).
Live by "the Spirit" not "the letter of the Law"…

Calvin Roetzel (1999: 45) argues that "Paul's allusion to his considerable achievements in law observance as 'dung' (Phil 3:8) was less a repudiation of Jewish observance than a revelation of it in the light of Christ".

It is not that Paul ceased to be proud of his Judean heritage and his former zealous Law-observance, but that his conversion rendered such legalism null-and-void. In Galatians (3:24) he speaks of the purpose of the Law as a "disciplinarian" or "child-minder" that guides our first faltering steps in living a life of faith; but "now that faith [in Christ] has come we are no longer subject to the disciplinarian" (3:25). If we truly want to embrace the Christ life, Paul argues, we must live by the "Spirit" and not the letter of the Law, for legalism and the mature spiritual life are incompatible (Gal 5:18). ("But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law.")

Legalism has always been the greatest temptation in the history of Christianity. The Pauline letters in particular testify to Paul's problems with such legalists. By the standards of his fellow Judeans, Paul's conversion to Law-free Christianity meant that he became apostate. He placed himself beyond the boundary fence marking "good" Jew from "bad" Jew; or, more accurately in Paul's case, the boundary between "ethnic" Jew and "uncircumcised" Gentile. In a very real sense the whole of the New Testament grew out of this struggle to justify the "criminal" actions of those founders of Christianity, like Paul and the Hellenists, who chose to depart from the legalistic faith of their childhood.


I don't know how anyone can read the Epistles of Paul and not understand that one of his main points was that life in Christ transcended the law. He repeatedly speaks to the message that life in the Spirit leads to love and that love leads to leading a life which does not transgress on the rights of others, nor abuse of the self. Following the Spirit makes the law null and void.

Paul is talking about a metanoia or a complete reordering of one's life. This reordering involves leaving the rules and regulations behind and integrating ones psyche around the Spirit and the law of love. It involves trust in the internal promptings from inside one's self, and it takes the ability to discern true promptings from those which are ego driven. Discernment first involves determining if a given prompt is towards love and life, or not. It's really pretty simple. It doesn't need a catechism or a book of canon law. While it helps to have a spiritual advisor, discernment doesn't need a magically ordained priest. Living in the Life of Christ takes self honesty and trust in the process. It's not rocket science, but it is counter cultural and therefor very difficult.

It didn't take very long for the institutional church to revert back to the law mentality. Following Paul's concept of Church didn't call for a full blown hierarchy and a magical clerical caste and this ran counter to the law observant Jerusalem branch of the church. Paul may be accorded equal status with Peter, but no question the Petrine branch suppressed the best of the Pauline branch.

Losing this battle was probably inevitable, but it was a big loss for the concept of a mature Christian spirituality. Obedience trumps trust and love.

I suspect this is one of the reasons my own spiritual path has involved a great deal of Native American experience. Native spirituality isn't about laws or obedience as much as it's about a spiritual quest for personal meaning and spiritual connection. The inner dimensional aspects of spirituality are given far more importance. In some respects it's a different spiritual universe. Catholics talk about the communion of saints and angels, while Natives communicate with their version. And Native American spirituality tests your connections.

One of the tests is to actually find given ceremonial sites. Natives say that if your meant to be at a given ceremony you will find the way. When my friend Julie and I went to our first Sundance we had terrible directions compounded by being completely unfamiliar with the Pine Ridge reservation. Once we hit the rez we had very little idea of where we were going, but having driven 650 miles to get there, we weren't about to give up. So we trusted to intuition and turned down one of a multitude of gravel roads. Eventually we wound up at a small trading post where we decided to ask directions of the proprietor. After buying a couple of wool ponchos which subsequently turned out to be an absolutely necessary purchase, we found out that on that given weekend there were about a dozen Sundances. However, knowing the name of the Sundance leader made all the difference and we were given precise directions on how to find the Sundance. We had turned on the right gravel road and overshot out target by 3.3 miles. Since the Sundance camp was in a river bottom, it was not visible from the main road. We were meant to be there.

This year a group coming from Seattle was 'inadvertently' given really bad directions from one of the dancers. This dancer asked me to use my cell phone to give her friends the correct directions which I did via voice mail. Her friends showed up six hours late with an incredible story of getting hopelessly lost. They had put 220 miles on their car and found three other sundances before one of the travelers in a fit of frustration asked the dancer's brother if he wouldn't use some of his native juju to find the damn thing. So the brother did and they then found the correct turn. Just as they got through the gate his cell phone went off with my voice mail message. Apparently the message had been 'lost' in cyber space for two full days. Like all of us, this group had to find the place on their own abilities.

There are stories from Navajo country in which would be celebrants were at the right time and place to meet up with the leaders in order to follow them into a ceremonial area only to never see the ceremonial leaders, who were also there at the right time and right place. The problem is they weren't in the same dimension and the would be celebrants weren't meant to be at the ceremony.

Since a number of us are going to this particular Navajo ceremony this fall, we're hoping we'll all be in the same dimension. It's a long drive for us and it would be something of a bummer to find out we weren't meant to be there. But that's the nature of a spiritual quest, the only you thing you can do is start out in a good way, trusting you will wind up in the right place. It's never solely a matter of self selection, it's also a matter of 'other' selection. It's definitely not Catholicism.

I've often wondered if Paul's original communities didn't have the same sort of protective dynamic where if you weren't meant to be at a Christian celebration you didn't find it. I suspect any community that lives that closely under the Spirit would be heavily protected, just as an individual is when they are truly on the path. Paul called obedience to ritual and dogmatic laws 'dung'. He was right in many many ways. This kind of obedience traps one in future think and undercuts the magic of the moment.

In the Spirit, the moment is everything, and if you keep that your focus you not only find the way, you find things you didn't know you needed---like wool ponchos when the weather turns out to be far more like winter than summer and you didn't bring a jacket.


  1. "Following the Spirit makes the law null and void."

    The law becomes or is made "null and void" because if in Christ's protection of truth and love, the letter of the law is no longer a valid faith of rituals and obedience to its rituals, but now is a spirit of love that transcends the laws. Paul does make it clear, Colleen, and there is no getting around the truth in what Paul actually means.

    I can testify to deriving this same meaning and understanding from Paul that one who is changed or enlightened by the Spirit finds the law null and void. This is one of the reasons I believe that cradle Catholics in particular who have not followed the letter of the law find themselves set apart in today's Church and under that law, yet the law is something a lot of us now understand is truly "null and void" and can be seen as Pharisaic, just as the laws of the Pharisees and scribes was seen by Jesus.

    If one's faith is the letter of the law, which we find so many traditional fundamentalist Catholics espousing as the "one true Catholic faith" - one's faith in the law has become the law. They are obliged and obligated by the law and while so doing have denied the law of love that transcends the obligations under the law. Christ said to those who followed the law of Moses that if they had known Moses they would have also known Him and His Father. But their law prevented them from making that spiritual connection to Christ.

    I can distinctly recall reading and re-reading Paul and finally getting what he truly meant about the law and being under the law and by transcending the law in faith with Christ we are free in the spirit to live under the law of love which leads us to living and believing and seeing and hearing like Christ. It was truly a healing experience to understand this in my spirit and soul and it has enabled me to live more in the moment than be caught up in fear of my future (the concerns of the ego) or in fear of the law of the Pharisees.

  2. Colleen, this is not necessarily about being in the right place at the right time. However, this morning, the scriptures really spoke to me (the right word at the right time?) we only need to open our hearts and minds and what we desire to know we WILL know. Jesus rebuffs the canaanite woman because he believes he is not meant to minister to those outside the jewish faith. However, the insistence of the woman that 'even the dogs get the scraps from the table' open his heart and mind to see that perhaps God wants him to reach out to more than a narrowly defined race of people. And guess what? JESUS CHANGES HIM MIND about something and in the process sees the bigger picture that God had in mind. Since the institutional church is so intent on doing what they believe Jesus did (ordaining only men), maybe they should also see that Jesus was capable of change when the need arose and he most certainly was open to God's spirit, acknowledging that God may have wanted him to grow as a human being. Perhaps the church needs to see that the women stepping forward calling for 'ordination' deserve the scraps from the table, too.........Perhaps the church needs to say "Women, your faith is great!" Perhaps the church needs to change ITS mind, too, emulating Jesus in the most profound way of all.

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  5. Margie - your interpretation of the reading today was very inspiring, to say the least. Thanks!
    Gospel Mt 15:21-28
    "At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
    “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
    My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
    But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. "

    "Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,
    “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
    He said in reply,
    “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (SEEMS JESUS IS SAYING HERE THAT HE WAS ONLY SENT FOR THE JEWISH.)
    "But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
    He said in reply,
    “It is not right to take the food of the children
    and throw it to the dogs.” (SOUNDS LIKE JESUS IS TOWING THE CULTURAL LINE THAT GENTILES ARE DOGS. There is a footnote on this in the New American Bible).

    She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
    Then Jesus said to her in reply,
    “O woman, great is your faith!
    Let it be done for you as you wish.”
    And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour. "

    As you have said Margie, "Jesus has changed his mind" and his ministry goes on to include Gentiles. This implies a lot - he listened to women when he easily could have ignored them or just treated Gentiles, men and women alike, like dogs. The disciples certainly behaved as if they could have cared less about this woman and her plight. It also strongly suggests that it was because of a woman that Gentiles were included in Jesus' ministry, because of her persistence and "great faith".

    Did Jesus perhaps see her as "sent" by His Father to give him this message so He could make the connection to include all? Was she at the right place at the right time or what? Seems that a woman Gentile can be given credit for our inclusion as God's people, and without her "great faith" would we have great faith?

  6. This really does give one food for thought. Great insight Margie, and great follow up Butterfly.

    On another website there was a discussion of whether or not Jesus knew from the get go that He was the Son of God. Opinions were mixed. After this comment of Margie's I tend to think He knew on some level of His intrinsic divinity, but still needed to mature in His understanding of His Father's will.

    So does the Church and so do we.

  7. Colleen, I don't believe that Jesus was 'perfect' in the sense that he knew everything (divinity). Our belief that he was truly human would require that he had to grow and mature as any human being does. The scriptures say he grew in knowledge and wisdom, implying that he needed to build on learned skills, the same as any of us. One sign of wisdom is the ability to integrate varying viewpoints and adapt as necessary in order to 'move up' (so to speak). Also, scripture uses Isaiah to explain that Jesus set aside his divinity to become fully human. He could not have possibly 'known' he was God's son and still been fully human, though I am sure he had tremendous spiritual insight and knew he was certainly a specialy human being that was meant to do good and great things. Otherwise the sacrifices he made in his life for the sake of his ministry would be empty (if he 'knew' in advance how things would turn out).

  8. I was re-thinking this Gospel last night and thought it just did not seem right that Jesus would tow any such line as derogatory as a dog toward anyone. I am sure he was aware of the term used toward Gentiles. I am thinking now that he used this situation as an example for the disciples to learn from.

    I believe it was his intent to always include the Gentiles, but all through his early ministry, including the first miracle of water into wine at Canna, he showed some reluctance or resistance at first, I guess wondering if it was "his time."? Timing was very important to him throughout his ministry.

  9. Margie, you've pretty much described my notion of how Jesus saw Himself. He matured and developed his understanding of God and man and His place with in the scheme of things. I also don't think He saw Himself as seperate from the mass of humanity and that what He saw in Himself He also saw in us.

    I also think He got a lot of knowledge from the Otherside. I don't think all the references to angels and prophets around Him were necessarily metaphor. He seemed to have a demonstrable understanding of how this reality actually works which is far more in line with quantum physics than it is the dualistic judaism and aristotelian logic of His time.

  10. Butterfly's comment about dogs stirred my curiosity. I went to an aramaic translation to see what it said. The version I use renders these verses as:

    "Be merciful to me, my Lord, son of David.
    My daughter is terribly bewitched."
    However, he did not pay her attention.*
    (Did not consider for her an argument)
    And his disciples came asking him, saying,
    "She will begin yelling after us."
    He replied and told them, (the disciples)
    "I have not sent forth, except for the sheep that
    have been lost from the house of Israel ."
    However, the woman worshipped him and said,
    "My Lord, be merciful to me." Jesus told her,
    "It is not well to degrade the bread of the children
    and throw it to the dogs." However, she said,
    "Yes, my Lord, but even dogs eat of the crumbs that
    fall from the table of their masters and live."
    Then Jesus told her, "O, woman, great is your faith!
    May it be as you wish." And her daughter was healed from that hour.

    As I was studying the verses, I was reminded that aramaic has multiple layers of meaning, meanings within meanings.

    First, the lost sheep refers to the 10 tribes of Israelites that had been scattered. Judea at the time of Christ was considered to be only the tribes of Judah and Aaron. (Armstrong) This woman was obviously not from any Hebrew lineage, and would have been considered by the Jews to be unclean, impure and untouchable. Having any contact with her at all would have defiled a devout Jew. By Jewish custom of the time, she would have been considered to be a "dog" or lower.

    Obviously, Jesus was using this to teach the disciples that He was ending the Jewish custom of exclusionism toward others and was laying the groundwork for the "all are children of God" concept.

    Another meaning was a teaching example for the disciples, teaching them that the power of faith, the power of Jesus's message is universal, for everyone, not restrictive to a specific group, not limited by a set of laws or customs.

    Did Jesus make a mistake? Change His mind? Perhaps this was like so much of His ministry, a carefully planned and carefully executed lesson to teach the disciples and to teach us the Truth of his message.

  11. Carl, we are on the same page. I think he used the situation as a teaching example for the disciples to learn from. He broke from tradition, which as you stated was that the woman was "unclean."

    Then, as now, the Church needs to learn to break from traditions about women being "inferior" or "subservient" to men. In my view the Catholic Church is still saying that women are "unclean." Jesus teaches that this is wrong and sets an example plain as day.

    Thanks for the feedback Carl!

  12. ....I find this to be a breath of fresh air...I converted to Catholicism ...and was ready...well may still be ready to pack it in...but I sense some real peace and truth in your observations...someone important to me has turned from a path with similarities to your own, a feminist, a sincere more and more a Mary Kay of FOCUS it seems('one true catholic faith' and trhe great law of the catechism...which they seem to sample somewhat randomly...) anyway breaks my heart because they had so much to give...and to see it channelled in such a way by a group that ...well gee, I think I'll be a Sun Dancer, but I won't fast for four days and hang in the lodge...if you follow me..