07 October 2008

Introduction to Galatians: A look at the Pauline Lections for this week and the next

This week and part of next we are reading Galatians and I have to say it is one of my favorite letters, not simply because it is Paul at his most passionate and biting, but because it is here we see one of the greatest bits of evidence that the Church came only over time to understand the Gospel and its implications; further, because it gives us a sense that church documents do not have to be studies in compromise when the truth is at stake I find it tremendously refreshing.

Galatians is the story of a man fighting for the truth of the Gospel, a truth he knew deeply and which came to him from his experience of the risen Christ. This experience led him to understand that Jesus was truly the Son of God and God's own messiah or anointed one. It was an understanding that so completely conflicted with his former pharisaical wisdom and position, especially his rightful persecution of the Church apparently idolizing a crucified man, that it overturned everything he held dear --- not least his own love of the Law and emphasis on the need to show one is a member of the covenant people by being circumcised. For Paul, it took real courage not to compromise and accept a Law-laced Gospel, not to insist that Gentile Christians also become Jews to be the REAL covenant people, but despite his love for the his own Tradition he came to see that indeed, God was doing something really new in Christ -- even while it was consistent with the best of the Jewish Tradition.

There are so many lessons for us today in this short book that it is one of those that make me thank God it was included in the Canon. Certainly life in the church would have been much easier without it: No condemnations of Peter's hypocrisy, no examples of letting go of long-held God-given gifts (Traditions) so that God could do something new, no sustained examples of genuine conversion and apostleship despite not being among the original twelve, no sharp indictment of law and its opposition to the freedom (and spirit-breathed responsibility) of the Christian, no examples of actually going against what Jesus himself APPARENTLY held onto as necessary for the time being (circumcision!)!! (Consider this last carefully because the NT certainly does not indicate Jesus ever exempted anyone from circumcision, nor was he himself exempted --- and yet, here we have Paul arguing that maintaining the practice is insufficiently sensitive to and even undermines the truth of the Gospel! For those who argue, "Had Jesus wanted x (or not wanted x), he would have DONE x (or not done x)," Galatians is a wonderful kick in the backside.) The resurrection did indeed turn things on their heads, and cultural truths as well as God-given tradtions fell in the process. And thanks be to God this is the case, for there would be no truly catholic church had this not been the case, merely a Jewish sect stamped with a need and capacity to do great good but also marked by a kind of separateness and righteousness open to the relative few.

Yesterday's readings were a great combination: the introduction to Galatians where Paul covers briefly (and sometimes merely implicitly) all the accusations made against him and states what is at stake in the Gospel he has preached, and the Lukan version of the parable of the good Samaritan. In the Gospel from Luke we see that two men doing their duty according to the Law avoid what looks like (and could well be) a dead man. The Law demanded they not defile themselves in this way, and further, that they take care of their temple duties. Hence, they passed by the injured man. Yes, the Law allowed for intervening in life and death situations, but it also leaves a lot of room for casuistry: note the scholar of the Law's final question to Jesus: "who is my neighbor?" Jesus' own ethic leaves no room for such casuistry: the one who loves even the least as God loves has discovered who is the real neighbor, and has acted as one himself. There is nothing more important than this love, no piety which is more demanding. This is a love that law cannot legislate and is dependent upon a freedom law does not give or (sometimes) even allow. It is an extravagant love that calls for no compromises beyond the canny shrewdness of the Samaritan's generosity. What Paul will be arguing to the Church in Galatia this week and the next is precisely this point: The Gospel gives is the freedom of Christ, a deeply responsible freedom which far exceeds the freedom of the Law. We combine it with Law at our own peril, but most significantly at the peril of the Gospel itself.

For now, let me make one point clear which was at the heart of things for Paul: if Christ has really been raised from the dead and vindicated by God, then nothing could go unchanged or without reevaluation. The Law especially and its place in the life and piety of Jews and Gentiles could not go unchallenged, for it was according to the Law that Jesus was crucified as a blasphemer and stigmatized as Godless. It was according to the Law that Paul persecuted Jewish Christians. It is either Law OR Gospel for Paul, because he knew that either Jesus is the risen Christ killed by the Law, or what was done to him was not only legal but the correct way to deal with a blasphemer. Galatians is largely the story of what happens when Paul, as the result of his experience of the Risen Christ, sees this clearly and others do not, but instead try to compromise between Law and Gospel.

I will try to post several more times this week (and next) looking at the daily lections and the challenges posed by Paul's letter to the Galatians. For now let me encourage readers to really spend some time rereading it in the next ten days. If you are looking for a readable and inexpensive but good commentary to use with it try NT (Tom) Wright's Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians. James Dunn's The Theology of the Letter to the Galatians is also quite good, and Sacra Pagina's volume on Galatians is excellent, of course. For readability though, Tom Wright's books are nearly unbeatable.