There is an interesting interplay between the Gospel and the first reading today. St. Luke continues to describe the Lord’s condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes, part of which we heard yesterday. They had essentially come to believe that holiness was an exclusive club to which they controlled the membership. They taught that anyone who wanted to be righteous had to follow the letter of the law as they interpreted it, and they made it very complicated and esoteric, feeding their own sense of superiority and self-importance. They felt threatened by people like John the Baptist and Jesus, who taught that holiness is for everyone, and who brought people back to the real essence of the law: to love God above all things and one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus even went so far as to praise the faith of Roman centurions and women of pagan origin. The Pharisees and scribes, as we know, did not accept John the Baptist and planned the death of Jesus.
St. Paul was a Pharisee of this ilk, but by God’s grace, he had a profound conversion. The first reading today shows just how much he had changed. He no longer teaches that salvation depends on being descended from Abraham and on one’s own efforts to observe every exaggerated scrupulous detail of ritual and dietary precepts, and hence is open only to a small elite group of people. On the contrary, he emphasizes that all of us are imperfect, but salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, by God’s grace, and thus is open to all.
This is not to say that we don’t have to follow any rules at all, as we can see from the Gospels and the letter of St. James. It means that salvation is not the fruit of our own unaided efforts, but rather of accepting and living the gift of faith that comes from God. Works without faith are useless, just as faith without works is dead. If we truly believe in Jesus Christ, we will do our best to live by the rule of love, which is the principle underlying all the other precepts. Salvation does not depend on our success; it depends on our sincere efforts to do good, motivated by our love for our God, in whom we believe. Salvation was won for us by Christ and is given to us as a gift of love; we have but to believe and let that faith inform our life.
Let us thank the Father today for the gift of the Son, Whose loving self-sacrifice has given us the gift of faith, “mercy, and fullness of redemption”.