This is a very wordy passage needs some explanation. In order to understand this passage we need to go back to the exodus story. After the Israelites had left Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness, God gave the 10 commandments to help the people live well with God and with each other. When Moses came down the mountain with the commandments, he returned to find chaos among the people and most of the commandments already broken. He was so angry he threw down the tablets and they broke. The story goes that after a period of time, God was prepared to renew the covenant and so Moses went back up Mount Sinai and God remade the tablets. When Moses returned from talking with God his face shone and everyone was afraid him and so he had to cover his face.
Paul is writing about this story from scripture which his readers will already know and be familiar with. The exodus story suggests the reason for the veil is because Moses was glowing and the people were afraid. What Paul suggests here is the covenant that God made with the people in the exodus story was fading and along with it the glow that showed in Moses. The people didn’t want to know that the covenant was fading and so Moses covered his face to keep the knowledge from them. The need for a second set of commandments so soon after the first bears out Paul’s assertion.
This original covenant was based on law and on the idea that there are particular rules to follow. And rules are helpful in giving structure to a culture and setting expectations for behavior. But Paul writes in Galatians that “the problem with the law is that it cannot provide life. The law serves to point out sin” (Carla Works) but it doesn’t have the ability to transform sin into something positive. And that’s where the gospel comes in.
Carla Works writes that in order “for Paul’s argument to make sense, one must imagine the argument backwards. With Christ, Paul sees God’s glory as he has never seen it before.” As a Jew, Paul would have known the law, known the stories and lore of its history, and understood its role in the life of individuals and community. Works goes on to suggest that the law is like a flashlight but Jesus is like the sun. They are both light and they both point to God.
For Paul the law is valuable but not as valuable as what Christ has to offer. The law allows us to live correctly but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to live abundantly. Paul’s letter is trying to help the people understand the distinction.
Paul suggests that the gospel is hidden and isn’t clear to the Jewish people who have lived with the law all their lives. Paul sees the gospel, not as something that replaces the law but, as something that continues it and makes it richer. The law by itself cannot give life but when it is enhanced by the message of Jesus it provides a richness of opportunities for new life.
Paul is always clear—as was Jesus—that the gospel is not about the messenger. The messenger always points to God. Jesus didn’t preach about himself. He taught about God and God’s message. Paul is continuing that message by pointing to Jesus who points to God. And we continue the message by pointing to Jesus who points towards God.
Paul describes humans as clay jars—something very ordinary, very practical and yet very fragile in the ancient world. It was also apparently common for people to hoard coins in clay jars and there have been many archeological discoveries of clay jars with coins. (Mark Wilson). Humans store their treasure in clay jars. God’s stores treasure in humans. The amazing things that we can do and accomplish as people of faith are not from us, the ordinary clay jars but from the treasure of God working in us. One of the passages that I have been carrying around in my head over the last few months comes from Ephesians 3: “My power and my spirit working in you can do more than you can ask or imagine.”
If we rely only on ourselves, our skills, what we think we are capable of, the results reflect our limited imagination. If we tie ourselves to the letter of the law we become limited to a rule based code of behavior which doesn’t necessarily bring life. Throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged many of the Jewish laws that had become entrenched in a way that harmed people. We see Jesus healing on a Sabbath and challenging the sacrificial system of the temple. We also have been handed rules—whether they come from the 10 commandments, or perceived cultural norms. We need to ask ourselves the intent of a particular rule.
Our image of marriage as heterosexual came from the Hebrew scriptures where women were considered property to be passed from one man to another. It was important to have many children for survival and love didn’t enter the equation. The intent of the Hebrew laws about marriage were to regulate the sale of property and to ensure the continuation of the Jewish people. We live in a different context. Women are no longer considered the property of men and survival is no longer at stake. Many of us are disturbed when we hear stories about arranged marriages because it is grounded in the idea of women as property. We recognize that the original intent of the law no longer applies.
Now we find ourselves in a place where love and marriage are deeply intertwined. Even within the early church there was a recognition that the original intent of marriage had changed and we know from historians that same sex marriages have been celebrated throughout the history of the church.
The gospel that Jesus proclaims and that we continue to proclaim is a gospel of love. It is a gospel that welcomes all of us. It is gospel that breaks down the walls that separate people. The legalization of same sex marriage continues to point towards this God that welcomes and loves all of us.
The passage that we heard speaks of a god of the world that “blinds the unbelievers.” We might think of the god of the world as greed, wealth that is hoarded or power that is abused. Sometimes the laws and rules blind us to the gospel. The gospel is love. The gospel of love is more powerful than hate. It is more powerful than money and more powerful than abusive power. When we strive to keep people living by ‘our’ rules, we are living only by law and not by the gospel of love.
The gospel of love intentionally draws us into the path of Jesus. The path of Jesus leads us to welcome, to open our hearts and our minds. The path of Jesus also leads us to places of discomfort and death. The passage that we hard this morning closes by reminding us that “we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake.” We are given to death for the sake of the gospel. Sometimes following the gospel is scary because it upsets the law. Sometimes following the gospel is scary because it might put us in the way of physical or emotional harm.
Paul is quite clear that the potential for death is part of the risk of the gospel and of being faithful to it. We are people of the death and resurrection. We do not reach new life without having death in our lives. The death of rules that harm brings new life to individuals and communities. The death of hatred and violence brings love and peace.
In all our interactions with others, we need to be mindful of the intent of the rules and ask ourselves whether the rule harms someone or brings life. If we allow rules to overpower love then we have missed the point of the gospel and we need to relearn the meaning of love in our own lives.
. Bruce J. Malina. Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. Kindle location 2346-2348