11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
The Righteousness that Comes through Faith
Readings: 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 7, 11; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36—8:3 or 7:36-50
What makes a person righteous is not obedience to the Law but faith in Jesus Christ… So says Paul to us in today’s second reading from the letter to the Galatians. It’s quite a shocking statement, isn’t it? Especially because, being Singaporeans, we can all appreciate how important the law is. We know that we must not be too quick to dismiss the law, whether it be civil or religious. Consider what happens when there is an utter lack of respect for the law. Consider, for example, the shocking report in yesterday’s Straits Times of the so-called slave scandal in China’s Shanxi province. According to the report, most of the victims – many of whom were teenagers and even children – had been kidnapped and then forced to work in brick kilns without pay and under horrific conditions. They were awakened at five in the morning and then made to work till midnight. They were forced to carry hot bricks with their bare hands. One worker was even allegedly beaten to death for not working hard enough. The extent of the scandal points to the likelihood of official corruption. Whether this is true or not, the case does serve as a stark reminder to us of the importance of the law.
Even so, important as the law is, Paul is right to remind us that, on its own, the law is not enough. Consider yet another report from yesterday’s Straits Times. The Special Report on En Bloc Blues took up the whole Saturday section of yesterday’s paper. If the first report serves to highlight the importance of the law, this second one underlines for us its insufficiency. It is not against the law, for example, for a savvy speculator in real estate to purchase a condominium unit and then to start agitating for an en bloc sale. It is not against the law to push through such a sale, not if at least eighty percent of the homeowners decide to sign on the dotted line. Never mind if among those who refuse to sign are many elderly residents whose lives will be severely disrupted as a result of the sale: who will face considerable difficulties not only in finding new homes in a rising property market, but also in adapting to new surroundings and new neighbours. And never mind too that hidden among those who do vote for the sale are not a few voiceless tenants who will be forced to move out and to face the shark invested waters of the property market. All this doesn’t really matter. There are millions of dollars to be made. And no laws have been broken.
Still, even if everything is legal and aboveboard, might a Christian not be drawn to question the righteousness or otherwise of this whole en bloc craze? Does the mere fact that something is legal make it all right?
But we Christians must also be careful even as we might find ourselves moved to point our fingers at others. I know I myself must be careful. Don’t be mistaken. The danger I have in mind doesn’t come from the Internal Security Department. It springs instead from an awareness that we Christians also often operate purely at the level of the law. What do I mean? What is it like to be concerned only with the law? Isn’t it something like when parishioners ask questions such as: how late can we be for Mass in order to satisfy our Sunday obligation? Is it okay to arrive just before the gospel is read? Or do we have to be there even for the first reading? And can we not leave just after communion? Or must we wait till the final blessing? And, as I said, I myself am not spared either. I know there are times when I too seek refuge in the law, times when I ask what is the minimum number of times a priest should visit a sick person in the hospital or be present at a wake. That’s what a legal mindset is like, isn’t it? It tends to focus on the minimum that needs to be done, on what is valid and what is not, on the keeping of obligations.
And then Paul comes along in our second reading today and shocks us out of our complacency. No one can be justified by the law. In other words, we don’t get to heaven simply by fulfilling our obligations, important as they are. Are we surprised yet? If so, it may shock us further to find that the other two readings support Paul’s assertion.
In the first reading, the prophet Nathan confronts King David for his crimes. And his crimes are indeed serious. He has slept with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. And then he has had Uriah killed in order to cover up his adultery. Yet, Nathan’s accusation is not really a legal one. That would have taken all of two sentences: you are guilty of adultery and murder. I sentence you to… Isn’t that how the law often deals with those who infringe it? It convicts and it condemns. Instead, through Nathan, God tries to win David back by reminding him of all that God had done for him in the past, and of the dire consequences for him and his household if he were to persist in his folly. And the strategy works, David repents and God forgives him. The relationship is restored. Unlike the law, God’s concern is not so much to convict and to condemn as much as it is to rescue and to reconcile.
The gospel brings our meditation even further. Here we see a stark contrast between how two people relate to Jesus. Simon the Pharisee remains on the level of the law. He watches Jesus carefully to see if he keeps the law. And, as Jesus points out, in welcoming Jesus to his home, Simon only does the bare minimum. In contrast, the woman who had a bad name in the town is extravagant in her hospitality because she relates to Jesus not on the level of the law but of the heart. She realizes what Nathan helps David to realize in the first reading: that the Lord has done great things for her. She realizes that her own unworthiness is more than matched by God’s graciousness towards her. She knows she has been forgiven much and so she loves much. She doesn’t question whether it is an obligation to do what she does. In fact, according to the customs of the time, what she does is even quite scandalous. But such is her generosity born as it is of gratitude that she is oblivious to what others might say. And, in response, Jesus confirms the truth of what Paul says in the second reading: faith in Christ rather than fidelity to the Law is what justifies us. Your faith has saved you, he tells her, go in peace.
Sisters and brothers, quite obviously, we live in a world that needs constant reminders both that the law is important and that it is also insufficient. But we can only bear witness to this truth to the extent that our own lives are grounded not on the law but on faith in Christ. We need continually to allow all that we think and say and do to spring from a loving relationship with the Crucified and Risen Lord, in whom we have been reconciled and restored to right relationship with God.
Indeed, Paul goes so far as to say that he lives not with his own life, but with the life of Christ who lives in him. Even if we may not yet be able to say the same, how might we take a step in that direction today?