First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Christmas 1

William Loader

Christmas 1: 27 December Galatians 4:4-7

There is a clear bias against slavery - and why not! Yet slavery remains part of our world under different guises. Israel's foundational story is about liberation from slavery. It is part of the divine script: God is the redeemer, liberator. We should not be surprised that good news takes this form. The obverse is that the goal is freedom; not a free wheeling looseness without purpose and direction, but the kind of freedom where people are able to be what they were created to be, where they can reach the goals from whose glory they have fallen short (Rom 3:23). It is interesting how our text describes this in the language of intimacy: the Spirit has us addressing God as our own caring parent and knowing God as the one who is going to be generous (alluded to in the language of inheritance - but as an image, because God is not about to die!).

The script is carefully laid across new contours of history. Paul sets it out in relation to the Galatians and their past, which he sees as serving other gods. We find this most clearly in the verses which follow. The 'elements' appear here as dangerous or at least 'weak and destitute' (4:9). Paul speaks in the same breath of gods who are no gods. We have to imagine how Paul saw that leading people into slavery and what kind of slavery that was. He would probably respond in terms of the attitudes and behaviours he later lists as 'works of the flesh' (5:19-21). But his focus is not on the former lives of the hearers but on their present prospects, particularly if they succumb, as some had, to the influence of those Christians who sought to impose biblical law on them.

This then creates an interesting situation: for the script of liberation from pagan gods becomes the script also for liberation from biblical law and the elements which were weak and destitute gods in paganism become elements now associated with adherence to biblical law. This switch is most evident where Paul in 4:3 includes himself as a Jew in saying: 'we'. Paul is treading a fine line. At best he is saying we were infants needing the biblical law; at worst he is saying the biblical law is no better than the weak and destitute elements which enslaved pagans. The paradox seems to find its resolution to some degree in the notion that the biblical law had a legitimate role once but has none now, so that what once served us well as children becomes the opposite when we have reached maturity.

Some of the statements are potentially ambiguous and doubtless landed Paul in even greater trouble among those who read him unsympathetically. Paul is not tip toeing through the fine points of an intellectual argument, but giving voice to a passionate concern. We need to see where he is coming from. His opponents, or at least those who went to Galatia in part to 'correct' his influence, are probably taking a consistent stance which says that the Law is given by God and not to be tinkered with. What the Bible says is true and it is not for people like Paul to water it down or pick and choose among its demands.

It was a kind of primitive fundamentalism. So the Galatians needed to be fully obedient and that meant circumcision (so Gen 17) and the rest, including observing holy days and feasts (so 4:10). Paul has become convinced that the implications of God's action in Christ is that such requirements are set aside and that now what matters is faith in Christ and living out that faith and only that. He will argue that the Spirit will in fact more than fulfil any legitimate demands contained in the law ( mainly ethical ones). He makes that clear in 5:13-24 (see also Romans 8:1-4).

Paul assumes that when people enter into a relationship such as he describes, that of a grown up son to a father, then there is a oneness which generates continuity between what the father wants and what the son wants. It is a first century ideal of family life. Applied as an image to Christian living, Paul is arguing that the Spirit generates God's life in and through the believer and it will show. By contrast, to perpetuate submission to the Law, even though it was given by God and is in the Bible, is to perpetuate a form of slavery which - and here he is quite daring - is not much better than serving other gods!

We need to bring Paul into conversation with today's fundamentalists. We need to recognise that Christianity (along with other religions) is capable of stunting people's growth, of enslaving them, and using the Bible as its main instrument to do so. In that sense Paul would argue that the good news and the real message of the scriptures is that we can be freed from the oppressive forces of religion and ideology, including those which harness the Bible in all sincerity to their cause. Paul's opponents had not misunderstood the Bible. It was a question of seeing the wood for the trees. Even that is a little unfair. Paul and others like him made a deliberate choice to make the relationship with Christ and through Christ with God the sole criterion for what mattered and to read the scriptures in that light.

Gospel: Christmas 1: 27 December Luke 2:21-40

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