"We are not children of a slave girl, but of the free
Very often, people who have become familiar with the Bible will remark that the God of the Old Testament seems to be rather harsh in comparison with the God who manifests Himself in the New Testament. By way of illustration, in yesterday's Mass we read the story of Susanna from the book of Daniel, in which we learned that in the Old Testament God required the death penalty for those who committed adultery.2 Yet, in the same Mass, the Gospel has Jesus Christ -- the very same God, made man -- saving a woman caught in adultery from the crowd that was supposed to stone her according to His very own law: "Let he who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her."3 Obviously, there is a different outlook in the New Testament.
Most folks are pleased that Jesus Christ will not have us struck down for our sins, and that our Lord wants us to have the chance to repent and to do good. Most of us need that chance. But the apparent difference between God in the Old Testament and in the New does give rise to a philosophical problem -- It prompts us to ask the question: "Is it possible that God has changed." Clearly it is not possible, for God has always been perfect, and any change could only be a loss of perfection. To say that God can change is to place limits upon Him, who is not subject to limitation. As Saint James tells us, God is the "Father of Lights, without change or shadow of alteration."4 It is an important question today, for there are many who claim to be Catholics who foolishly claim that God is not only changeable, but has always been changing, is changing now, and always will change. For such people, apparent change from Testament to Testament didn't stop two thousand years ago -- and some of them will even try to make the case that God now approves of adultery ... or at least He doesn't care.
And not only do these folks claim a change in God's outlook on adultery, but they claim that the same sort of changes are taking place in every aspect of doctrine and morality. What was true or good a few thousand years ago is no longer true or good, these modernists will say, because God is changing constantly. Now, the self serving nature of this modernism becomes immediately apparent when we realize that the modernists are claiming that God is changing in accordance with what modern man thinks (or, rather, feels) about God -- and that what is true or good today is true or good only because it is what the consensus of modern men agrees to be truth or goodness. To modernist man, God who is imperfect is perfecting Himself by becoming like man!!
Today's epistle is just a "taste" of Saint Paul's explanation of this apparent change in God from one Testament to the next. Like so many of the little sections of the Scriptures that we read on Sunday morning, this is one that ought to be read in context and in its entirety -- so, if you might take a half an hour sometime this week to sit down and read his brief Epistle to the Galatians.
The essence of what Saint Paul writes in this epistle is that the favor of God's grace is something that God promised to the human race, and particularly to Abraham -- that the graces lost by Adam and Eve for the entire human race, would one day be restored in one of Abraham's numerous descendents. Paul describes this promise of God as an "inheritance" -- an inheritance destined for a very special descendant of Abraham. The people of the Old Testament, even though they were also children of Abraham, were just not in line to receive the inheritance. In Paul's analogy, they were the children of the slave girl, Agar, whom God commanded Abraham to banish together with her son Ishmaël to the fastness of Arabia. It was through Abraham's legitimate wife Sara, and son, Isaac, that the inheritance would be passed on to Jesus Christ. But, even at that, until the inheritor was born and came of age, even the sons of Isaac were no more than trustees of the inheritance -- it was not for them to enjoy, but for One yet to come.
The distinction, then, between the Old Testament and the New, is not an example of God changing -- far from it, it is the distinction between the treatment accorded to hired servants as opposed to family members. God was stern with the people of the Old Testament because they were, so to speak, the hired help who were just minding things until the Inheritor came of age.
The good news of all of this is that the Inheritor has in fact come into His inheritance, and has presented us to His Father as His adopted brothers and sisters, allowing us to share in that same inheritance. Through Jesus Christ, we too can live the life of God's grace, not as a servant living under the restrictions of an employer, but as an adopted son or daughter enjoying the hospitality of our common Father.
Has God changed? - No. Has God's law changed? -- again No -- at least not in terms of truth or morality. We may not be bound by the myriad ceremonial restrictions of the old "hired help," but truth remains truth and goodness remains goodness. If there is a change, it is a change in God's people, not in God -- for now God's people respond to Him not in servile fear, but in response to the invitation of His grace, in Faith and in Love.
"That Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother." The descendents of Ishmaël were banished to Arabia, but in their Koran, Mohammed inverts the story, making them the children of the promise, and the sons of Isaac the servants. The reality of it is that it matters not. It is not the earthly Jerusalem that is free -- the earthly Jerusalem is to this day being fought over in bloody conflict by descendents of Isaac and Ishmaël -- it is the heavenly Jerusalem of those who accept Jesus Christ that is the inheritance.
If we are to share in that inheritance, it is essential to understand that we must reject any and all of the foolish notions that suggest that our Father in heaven is being perfected by becoming more like us -- to recognize that it is we who can become perfect only by becoming more like Him, like our Brother and Sister who adopted us, Jesus and Mary. And while we are at it, let us remember to pray for the descendents of Abraham; for the houses of Isaac and Ishmaël; that they too may become adopted sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of Jesus and Mary, by responding to God's grace in the Faith and in Love.