Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Uniform Series text for the day is Galatians 3:26-4:7. Its “unifying principle” is

Image illumination Galatians 1:1
“Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead …” Galatians 1:1

Differences of race, class, and gender make it hard for people to get along. How can we live in harmony? Paul tells the Galatians that through Christ we have received the Spirit, making us heirs of God and bringing us into a community of oneness where human differences are no longer divisive.

Here’s the text:

…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith [or alternatively, “faith in Jesus Christ” or alternatively, “the faith of Christ”]. (27) As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (28) There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (2) And if you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (4:1) My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; (2) but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. (3) So with us, while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits [or, alternatively, “rudiments”] of the world. (4) But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, (5) in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. (6) And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our [or, alternatively, your] hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” (7) So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 3:26-4:7)

All the lesson materials we normally use focused on the issue of diversity vs. unity in the church. That’s in line with the focus statement, of course, and it draws on a clear reading of 3:28.

Paul seems to be making less a statement about church diversity-in-unity, however, and more a statement about the source of the genealogical nature of the covenant. Galatians, it is widely recognized, addresses the 1st century debate about the necessity of Jewish observance, paradigmatically circumcision (but presumably including other elements of ritual observance). Most readers will acknowledge that debate as being at the heart of the message of Galatians. Paul – the undisputed author of the letter – is making a case to the churches in Asia Minor that such ritual observance is not necessary, and in fact, is detrimental to the salvation or justification they have through faith [or, faith in Christ, or the faith of Christ; how to render this, and whether the distinctions matter or whether these different expressions can really be treated as interchangeable is disputed].

In 3:26-4:7, he is developing an argument begun earlier in chapter 3, about the divine relationship with Abraham, and the status of “descendants of Abraham.” This relationship and this status Paul is going to relate to freedom as the argument proceeds. He begins in v. 6 with the assertion that the relationship with Abraham is established by Abraham’s faith – not Abraham’s observance of the “law.” He notes that Abraham’s paradigmatic “offspring” is Christ (v. 19). The “law” is an addition to the covenant with Abraham (vv. 15-18), not a different covenant; furthermore, the “law” is presented in vv. 19-25 as an instrument of constraint – a prison, or a guard, or a “disciplinarian.”

This is the immediate context of the set of binary oppositions in 3:28. The Galatians are all “children of God” (v. 26), participants in Christ – in a sense, inside the large garment that is Christ (v. 27). The binary oppositions of 3:28 group Jew/slave/male – the position of being “under the law” – opposite Gentile/free/female – the position of being not “under the law”. This is a suggestive opposition. The first evidence of the well-known set of blessings in rabbinical Judaism’s daily morning prayer (thanking God for not having made the person praying a Gentile, a slave, or a woman) doesn’t appear in text until some time in the 2nd century CE, so it would be a mistake simply to assert that this set of binary oppositions refers to an understanding of the prototypical subject of the covenant that is already being reinforced by liturgical use. It probably isn’t, however, far-fetched to suggest that it refers to a set of oppositions that are already present in the 1st century religious consciousness, and that in that consciousness the paradigmatic subject of God’s covenant with Israel was a Jewish, free, man. Paul’s “faulty parallelism” of slave and free, then, calls attention to the point he will make explicitly in verse 4:1, building on his statements about the tutelage of the “law”: that contrary to what the observant may think or preach, “heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves.”

On this reading, Paul’s point about baptism is that it obviates the distinction between those who are in the covenant community and those who are outside it. All are potentially “children” and “heirs” in the original and inclusive covenant, which involves invisible (baptism, spirit – available to anyone) rather than visible (circumcision – available only to males) signs. That covenant, established with Abraham through faith, has now been extended, through Christ and through faith, both to “those who were under the law” (by means of redemption (4:5)) and to Gentiles (who receive the Spirit of adoption (v. 4:6, which they need because they were not originally God’s children). In the end, then, both categories of people belong to a single family of children/heirs, established through faith. This family membership makes no distinction between genders or status. While those distinctions are reasonable in the context of time-bound, commanded ritual observance, they are not required in the context of a participation secured through faith.

This reading, then, questions whether Paul has his mind on the “diversity-in-unity” problem 21st century readers might assume is the topic of 3:28. That is a problem for contemporary Christians, and Galatians might be relevant to that problem. But if it is, it is relevant through the implication that Christians are all intrinsically siblings, at least spiritually. As people who have siblings can attest, people can be members of a single family and differ markedly – which does paint a picture of diversity-in-[familial]-unity.

All of this leaves aside the way this text, and the larger text of Galatians, has been used historically to establish and maintain an opposition between Christianity and Judaism, which seems to be a further distortion, and one with particularly negative consequences.

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