by Father Mike Stubbs
Does the law have anything to do with the pursuit of justice? Or, is the law simply the set of rules by which society operates, comparable to the rules of a board game like Monopoly?
Life is not fair. Why would anyone expect that the rules governing the game of life should be fair either? Is the law morally neutral, so that a person can manipulate it to his or her own advantage? Or, can a virtuous person use the law as a vehicle to promote justice?
These are important questions, receiving different responses, depending upon one’s philosophy. And they bear upon Sunday’s second reading. St. Paul draws upon the language of the law court to discuss God’s relationship to the human race.
That is why words such as “righteousness,” “testified,” “justified” appear in the text. The word which our reading translates as “righteousness” can also be translated as “justice.” It is a variation of the word translated as “justified.”
St. Paul envisions God as the judge in the law court. In this particular case, God, since he is just (or righteous), has acted outside the limits of the law. God has decided that the law by itself will not bring justice about. That is why St. Paul writes: “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.”
The Scriptures appear as witnesses in this case, to support this claim. That is why St. Paul adds, “though testified to by the law and the prophets.” The phrase “the law and the prophets” means the Old Testament. (See Mt 5:17 for another example of this phrase).“Law” in this phrase refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, not to a set of rules as in the earlier sentence. St. Paul maintains that the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, supplies evidence which proves how God would act to bring justice to the situation.
As a just judge, God is impartial and knows no favorites: “For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.” God recognizes the frailties of the human race. To overcome these deficiencies, God has provided a remedy in Jesus Christ, a remedy that goes beyond the requirements of the law, a remedy which is pure gift: “They are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood.”
Since we arrive at that gift of redemption through faith, the works of the law, that is to say, the particular rules of the law of Moses, are not required: “A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” “Justified” means “found not guilty.” We know that sometimes our legal system will find a person not guilty, even though the person actually committed the crime, for a variety of reasons: lack of evidence, a bungled prosecution, a skillful defense attorney.
In our case, we are found “not guilty,” even though we have sinned, because of God’s mercy. And because of God’s love, the verdict of “not guilty” means much more than simply escaping jail. It is a ringing endorsement of how deeply God values us. It leads into how God claims us as his sons and daughters in Christ.