He who steals someone else’s property by any means shall restore four times as much to him whom he has injured.
- The Penitential of Cummean, Irish, 7th century
Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
- Luke 19.8
Increasingly, it seems as if all the civilizing influences in our society are losing their potency. Religion, honored traditions, manners and social protocols – all are losing ground against a rising tide of incivility. Even the Constitution is being challenged in some quarters as too restraining.
William Butler Yeats described the world of his day, when Europe was ravaged by World War I, as unraveling, coming apart, and disintegrating, becase “The best lacked all conviction, while the worst/are filled with passionate intensity.” He might just as well have been writing about our day.
Historians tell us that the tendency for uncivil behavior to work for the destabilization of society is a feature of human experience in all ages. God has written His Law on the heart of every person (Rom. 2.14, 15); but those who deny the Lord, choosing to be their own god instead, will naturally work to throw off the restraints of His Word, so that they can do whatever their passionate intensity leads them to do (Rom. 1.18-32; Psalm 2.1-3).
King Jesus brought a new order of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit to earth, and He continues to increase that realm on earth, as it is in heaven, unto the ends of the earth, and until the end of time (Rom. 14.17, 18; Matt. 6.10; Is. 9.6, 7).
Christianity has always exerted a powerful civilizing influence on the world. One remarkable example of this is the effect of the coming of the faith on the wild Celtic tribes of Ireland and Scotland between the 5thand 9thcenturies, the period of the Celtic Revival. Only after those lands converted to faith did cities emerge and laws come into being to bring order and security to society.
The influence behind the civilizing of pagan Ireland and Scotland was Christian faith, and the source from which those civilizing laws came was the the Law of God and the spiritual discipline of penance, as prescribed in the various penitential handbooks in wide use during these years, such as that written by Cummean in the 7thcentury.
For Celtic Christians penance was a tool for restoring righteousness and justice to relationships and communities. It was a way for those who were convicted of sin to follow Christ and bring their lives into line with His teaching and example. Penance frequently drew from the Law of God, as in our example above (cf. Ex. 22.1). The basic idea behind penance was to correct behavior that was contrary to the Word of God. It was applied firmly but lovingly under the oversight of pastors and spiritual friends. (Jesus commended Zacchaeus for imposing a form of penance on himself, in line with the teaching of God’s Law.)
So effective were the priests and abbots of Celtic Ireland in leading others out of sinful behaviors into more civilized ways of living, that they were welcomed in the courts of kings and other rulers to aid in creating laws more in line with the Word and will of God. Having proved the transforming power of God’s Law in their own restricted communities, they were invited to participate in the establishment of just forms of government for the larger society.
Here is a lesson we need to learn, which, if we do, may position the Church to lead our nation back to civility.
When the Church embodies the teaching of God’s Law – unto holiness, righteousness, goodness, and love in all our communities (Rom. 7.12; Matt. 22.34-40) – we will find others more willing to listen to our recommendations concerning how the larger social order ought to be organized (cf. Mic. 4.1-8).
When our salvation, like that to which Zacchaeus came, issues in eager obedience to the Law of love, then people will say, as Jesus did, that truly the salvation of God is at work among us.
Let the best of us practice our convictions in obedience to God’s Law, and the worst will be constrained to follow suit, if only in a feigned orself-serving manner (cf. Ps. 81.15; Prov. 28.4).
How civilizing an influence is the Law of God in your life?
The Law does not save us. The Law marks out the path which those who are saved must walk, so that they might know the real purpose and power of living in the Kingdom of God (1 Jn. 2.1-6; Matt. 5.17-19).
The Law of God can civilize our souls as surely as it civilized pagan Irish society. And they whose souls are being civilized for the Kingdom of God can bring that powerful influence to bear on all of life and culture.
Questions for Reflection
1. Meditate on Psalm 1. How can you bring more meditation in God’s Law into your life?
2. We’re not saved by the Law, but we’re not saved without it. Explain.
Psalm 119.1-4 (Ode to Joy: God, All Nations Sing Thy Glory)
Blessed are they whose way is blameless, all who walk within God’s Law,
who, His testimonies keeping, seek Him, filled with joy and awe.
These are they who, no wrong doing, ever walk within God’s ways.
Lord, Your precepts You command us; we would keep them all our days.
Show me the grace in Your Law, O Lord, and help me to hide it in my heart, so that I will…
The Celtic Revival
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T. M. Moore, Principal
All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Davies, p. 235.