First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 5

William Loader

Pentecost 5: 19 June  Galatians 3:23-29

Paul's explanations here need to be seen against the problem he is facing. He is very concerned that Christian missionaries have come into Galatia telling the people in the churches which he founded that they must keep all the biblical laws pertaining to Gentiles (and for instance, undergo circumcision). Paul finds this both an intrusion and a rejection of the essence of the gospel which he has been proclaiming. Paul had declared that all that matters was a response of faith to Jesus. The Gentiles did not have to become Jews first and then become Christians. Whether Gentiles or Jews Christians were now no longer needing to fulfil the requirements of the Law. They were not under the Law.

This may sound convincing enough until we transpose it into the key of current debates. Paul was declaring that you could leave large parts of the Bible aside and that you should see it as having its main meaning in what Jesus brought to us. His Christian opponents were appalled. They saw Paul compromising the Word of God - watering down its demands. Such people would describe themselves today as fundamentalists. Such fundamentalists vehemently opposed Paul throughout his ministry. Paul knows his position is vulnerable. He certainly was not intending to abandon scripture. He was interpreting it. But then how could he declare that the biblical Law no longer applied?

Paul argues that he is, in fact, taking scripture seriously. Abraham is his example (3:6-9). Abraham found favour with God before there was any such Law. The promise to Abraham that not just Israel but the whole world would benefit from his stance Paul takes as a prediction of the coming to faith of the Gentiles. Gentiles come to favour with God also not on the basis of keeping the Law, but simply as Abraham does: by faith. This still leaves Paul needing to explain why the Law was even necessary.

His explanation is quite negative. The Law was designed to expose people's need of God by showing how they fail (3:10-14, 19-22). Even though given by God, it played a very indirect role. It was not set up to offer an alternative to Abraham's way of responding to God. On the contrary, he argues, its function was to drive people to the point where they saw that as the only way forward. The Law, he suggests, puts a curse on us and traps us in guilt and failure. For Paul, the death of Jesus was an act whereby he took the curse on himself in our place and released us from it. Paul's usual way to speak of God's initiative in reaching out to us is to interpret the death of Jesus as an act which does what is necessary to make God's love and forgiveness available to us. Whether one chooses this way of expressing it or simply asserts on the basis of Jesus' whole life (and much of the biblical tradition besides!) that God reaches out to us in compassion, the major claim Paul is making remains: God treats us the way he treated Abraham and expects from us only what he expected from Abraham.

Our passage begins with Paul's assertion that the Law functioned to enslave us and expose our needs, like the slave in richer households (3:23-25), who was responsible for disciplining children for their education (frequently very harshly!). People who see in the biblical Law something with ongoing relevance as an expression of God's guidance will be appalled by Paul's descriptions. In the next breath (in chapter 4) Paul will speak of Gentiles who were once enslaved to false gods! How dare he associate commitment to scripture with enslavement to pagan gods! Paul made such claims not because he was dispassionately analysing the role of the Law in Israel's history and people's experience, but because of Christians who had turned the Law into a set of demands which became almost a set of qualifications one had to meet before one was acceptable to God. That is his context and it will remind us, perhaps, of Christians today for whom biblical laws have become not a source of generous guidance but an instrument whereby to oppress oneself and others.

As Jesus appears to favour speaking of God as "father", so Paul asserts that God wants us to see ourselves not as slaves of commandments or inferiors bossed about in the household, but as family, as sons and daughters (3:26). He returns the attention of the Galatians to their conversion and baptism (3:27). Paul understands faith as an event in which we join and become incorporated into Christ's being or body. Here he uses the image of Christ as a coat: we put on Christ. It does not mean we lose our identity, but rather that we become one with Christ. We enter the sphere of his power and influence, especially understood as love. As God's love flowed in Christ, so that river continues to flow and in baptism we celebrate our new relationship with him by diving into the river, as it were (and in other contexts placing our infants in that stream where it is flowing in the community of faith). In another sense, as he is the true child of God, so we becomes daughters and sons of God as we join him. The main emphasis is that we are treated as people of worth. That is the meaning of God's love. We are children not slaves.

3:28 broadens the picture. Paul could not speak of a loving relationship with God without seeing the implications for our relationships with others. He was also wanting to say to his opponents: you see, it makes no difference as far as God's love is concerned. God does not favour one group of people above another and God certainly does not favour people who keep the biblical laws over those who don't. So Paul picks up what might have been a common way of expressing the new unity people found in Christianity by listing pairs. The love was there equally for Jew and Greek (his common word for Gentile), just as it is equally there for slaves or free people, men and women. Every person is of worth. Of course, Jews remain Jews, and Greeks, Greeks. Women remain women, and men, men. And, perhaps more worrying, slaves remain slaves, and free, free. But we see elsewhere (especially in Philemon) that Paul took the worth of each individual very seriously and that included slaves.

Paul was fairly conservative when it came to social customs. He wants women not to abandon their usual attire (1 Corinthians 11), for instance. But his strong affirmation that all are one in Christ is radical. It means that no one side of these pairs can claim superiority. All can exercise ministry. Paul is typically radical in his thinking. He grounds his approach ultimately in his understanding of God. He also goes beyond laws - for instance, against discrimination - to positive engagement, because he places the person and the personal relationship at the centre of his thought. Faith is also not an achievement, but an open positive welcoming response to the possibility of love.

Paul concludes by bringing us back to Abraham. Earlier he had spoken of the promise to Abraham's seed. He interprets this in a rather contrived manner not as a reference to Abraham's descendants but as a reference the one descendant, Jesus, and then implies that by our solidarity with Jesus we become heirs of the promise. People in Paul's world sometimes employed such methods of interpretation. Underlying the argument is a conviction which we might share with Paul: all that mattered in the case of Abraham was his willingness to welcome God's goodness. That is all that ever matters, because when this truly happens our lives begin to change as love creates love in us and through us.

Gospel: Pentecost 5: 19 June Luke 8:26-39
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