Catholic Preaching on "the Law"

Law and Grace for Jews and Christians

[A comment, published in L'Osservatore Romano, by the archbishop of La Plata, Víctor Manuel Fernández, on the fulfillment of the Law according to Jewish and Christian traditions.]


When St. Paul speaks of justification by faith, he is actually taking up deep convictions in some Jewish traditions. Because if one were to affirm that one's justification is obtained through the fulfillment of the Law with one's own strength, without divine help, one would be falling into the worst of idolatries, which consists in worshiping oneself, one's strengths and one's works, instead of worshiping the one God.

It is essential to remember that some texts of the Old Testament and many extra-biblical Hebrew texts already showed a religiosity of trust in the love of God and invited a fulfillment of the law activated in the depths of the heart by divine action (cf. Jer 31, 3.33- 34; Ez 11, 19-20; 36, 25-27; Hos 11, 1-9, etc.) (1). The " emuna", an attitude of profound trust in Yahweh, which activates the authentic fulfillment of the Law, "is at the very center of the requirement of the whole Torah" (2).

A recent echo of this ancient Jewish belief, which renounces self-reliance before God, can be found in the following sentence from Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (early 19th century): “I fear much more my good deeds that give me pleasure than the bad ones that horrify me "(3).

Jewish traditions also recognize that to fully fulfill the Law requires a change that begins in the heart. Christians and Jews do not say that the external fulfillment of certain customs is valid without the internal impulse of God. Jewish theology actually coincides with Christian doctrine on this point, especially if we start from the reading of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where the need for purification and transformation of the heart appears. How not to see in Rom 2, 28-29 a continuation and deepening of Jer 4, 4; 9, 24-25)? Jews and Christians recognize that the external law alone cannot change us without the purifying and transforming work of God ( Ez36, 25-27), who for us has already begun to make himself present in his Messiah ( Gal 2, 20-21).

On the other hand, let us remember that according to the very profound interpretation of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas on the Pauline theology of the new law, the sterility of an external law without divine help is not only an aspect of the Jewish law, but also of the precepts that Jesus himself left us: "even the letter of the Gospel would kill if it did not have the interior grace of faith, which heals" (4).


(1) The text of Ab 2, 4, which expresses this fundamental attitude, is in fact cited by St. Paul when he speaks of justification for faith in Gal 3, 11 and in Rom 1, 17.

(2) Cf. C. Kessler, Le plus grand commandement de la Loi (cit) 97. It must be said here that Paul's affirmations on a "transience" of the Law should be inserted in the context of the "rabbinical doctrine of the aeons", according to which at the end of time the instinct of evil will be eradicated from human hearts and the external law will no longer be needed. Paul actually believed he was living in the last times and was waiting for an imminent return of the Messiah: “Paul was a Pharisee convinced that he was living in a messianic time”: HJ Schoeps, Pau1. The theology of the Apostle in the light of Jewish religious story, Philadelphia, 1961, p. 113. For this reason, in 1 Timothy, when the expectation of an imminent coming was much mitigated, the law acquired greater importance (cf. 8-9).

(3) Quoted by E. Wiesel, Celebración jasídica, Salamanca, 2003, p. 58; Hassidic celebration, Milan, 1987.

(4) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, question 106, article 2.