WHAT MAKES A PERSON RIGHTEOUS before God? It is a question that religious people continually ask of themselves and their spiritual leaders. Sometimes the answers they receive seem to come from “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Thus over-zealous people of all backgrounds have come to believe at one time or another that they fulfill “God’s will” by destroying the religious monuments of others. But what do the Scriptures tell us bring us closer to God?
Jews consider the Torah (the Law) as the cornerstone of their experience of God. Just as Christians see the Gospels as the heart of the New Testament, Jews see the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, as the core of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Torah contains the Commandments which God gave through Moses; observing them is what makes someone an “observant” Jew, obedient to the expressed will of God. “You shall observe My judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord
your God. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18: 4, 5).
When we think of the precepts of the Law which Moses received from God we think of the Ten Commandments. In fact, there are many other precepts in the five Old Testament books of Moses which Jews call the Torah and Christians call the Pentateuch. Later Jews came to see 613 commandments as prescribed in the Torah, including ritual and other precepts in addition to the moral laws. Various Jewish traditions number these precepts differently but all see the observance of the Law of Moses as the way to righteousness before God.
Christ and the Law
In the Gospels Christ is not depicted as critical of the Law but as endorsing it. He was critical of people who abused the precepts of the Law, using it to look down on others or control them. Thus, in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee Christ says that the Pharisee, who observed the precepts of the Law, did not attain righteousness through his actions because he made of them a way to look down upon his neighbor, the Publican.
Observing the precepts of the Law was good, but not enough to make a person godly. The same is true today. As the twentieth-century Greek elder St Porphyrios observed, some people “… make prostrations and cross themselves in church and they say, ‘we are unworthy sinners’, then as soon as they come out they start to blaspheme everything holy whenever someone upsets them a little.”
Jesus taught that the ceremonial precepts of the Torah were good, but that there was something most important. He confronted the Pharisees for insisting on these precepts while neglecting its more humane counsels: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).
Christ also pointed towards more than mere observance of the various precepts of the Torah. He directed people to see that the Law was to be fulfilled through Him. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). He did not explain how this was to happen; it was the apostolic Church, directed by the Holy Spirit which came to see that there was a way for people of all kinds to be righteous before God. It was not by assiduously observing the precepts of the Torah but by living in Christ, who perfectly fulfilled the Father’s will for Him on earth.
St Paul on Christ and the Law
St Paul was convinced that Christ had fulfilled the Law as He had promised, teaching that “Christ is the end [i.e. completion] of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes”(Romans 10:4) and that therefore “…by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
Obeying the precepts of the Law because they are the will of God is the heart of a righteous observance of the Torah. And so, by submitting Himself completely to the Father’s will, Christ totally fulfilled the moral precepts of the Law. In the Garden before His arrest Christ prayed, “O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). He accepted even “this cup” (His approaching passion) if it were His Father’s will.
Christ is also the fulfillment of the ritual precepts of the Law in that He replaces the temple and its cult as the authentic worship of God. When Jesus entered the temple, He drove out those selling the animals needed for sacrifice. People often see this as an attack on commercialism in religion, but this was not Jesus’ point. Asked for a sign to explain His actions, He replied: “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body.
Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said” (John 2:19-22). The Temple would be “rebuilt” as the risen body of Christ. Its offerings would be fulfilled in Christ’s offering of Himself, the eternal sacrifice, in which we share at the Divine Liturgy.
Not an Easy Out
St Paul’s insistence that a person is not made righteous by observing the Law led some people to conclude that they could do whatever they wanted. St Paul never taught that. The point of his teaching is that a person does not earn righteousness by observing the Law. He saw that observing the Commandments or following the lead of the Church was a way of sacrificing our own will in union with Christ who did the same. Thus the believer can say with St Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Uniting ourselves with Christ is the way to attain righteousness according to the New Covenant. We do so in the sacrifice of praise which is the Liturgy and in the crucifying of our own will by keeping His precepts and those of His Church.
To Be Crucified with Christ
“The True Life of a Monk” is an icon often found in Greek and Slavic monasteries, not for veneration but for reflection on what it means to be crucified with Christ.
The monk on the cross is not a recognized saint, not even a particular individual. He personifies the person (monk) who seeks to live in Christ. This is why the schema he wears on his chest is inscribed with the concluding phrase of today’s epistle reading, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
Instead of Roman soldiers it is demons we see assaulting the monk with the passions of our fallen humanity, which our ego pushes us to gratify: vanity, lust, gluttony and the like. The monk repels their assaults by surrendering his ego to the will of God expressed in the precepts of the Gospel and his monastic rule.