We are studying the first part of Galatians 5 – Galatians 5:1-15 – for Sunday, May 22 – “For freedom Christ has set us free!” This is the culmination of Paul’s argument about justification by grace through faith. He also lets loose his frustration with the opponents who are preaching a different set of requirements to the Galatians. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here [and also here] are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are a bit further on in this letter to the churches of the region of Galatia than we were last week. Paul has been through a lengthy discussion designed to persuade his readers that faith is the vehicle for receiving God’s promised blessings. This faith makes the Galatians “heirs of Abraham,” who himself received God’s blessing by faith, through their baptism into Christ and their faith in Christ. All of that is made possible by the grace of God. Chapter 4 hammers this point home further, with two linked analogies. First, the analogy of the relation of parents to children and inheritance. Minor children “are no better than slaves,” they’re subject to guardianship, etc. But Jesus, true son of God, not a slave, has redeemed “us,” so we do not need to be enslaved to the “elemental principles of the world,” or enslaved under the law, but can be free in Christ.
That analogy is reinforced with the related analogy of the “two covenants,” represented by the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, and their mothers Hagar and Sarah, and Paul’s assignment of those two women to Mt. Sinai and Jerusalem, and to slavery and freedom. It’s a creative analogical way of reading the Bible, that’s in the Bible itself, now.
This discussion brings us to chapter 5, our reading for Sunday, and its focus on freedom. As well as Paul’s displeasure with those who are, in his view, advocating something less than that.
That emphasis on freedom will lead to the formulation of the contrast between the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit,” which we’ll see next week. Then, after some practical ethical advice, the letter concludes.
The first and last few verses of our text are the Revised Common Lectionary’s epistle reading for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year C. That means it will be coming up later this year. Paul’s harsh words for the advocates of circumcision for Gentile Christians, on the other hand, are words you’d not know were in the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Maybe they’re considered nsfc – not safe for church.
CLOSER READING: Since reading Galatians 5:1 decades ago in a Gideon Bible in some hotel room while I was traveling for focus groups, I have always read it as “Freedom Christ.” “For/because Freedom Christ has set us free …” The Greek grammar really pushes the reading more towards “Christ has set us free, to/for/in/by freedom.” Either way, the freedom is preferable to the reimposition of a yoke of slavery (or, servitude). In my mind it will always be “Freedom Christ” though, no matter what.
The yoke we probably think of as a device for harnessing beasts of burden. That’s probably what Paul thought, too. Suggestively enough, however, it is the same word used for the early layer of the Talmud: the zugot, the pairs of halakhic (“Jewish religious law”) teachers that span the years 170 BCE – 30 CE, ending with Hillel and Shammai. So Paul might have snuck in a bit of double meaning there.
The verb seems a little strange; it can mean “to hold on” (as in, perhaps, “press down on”), but also “ensnare, entangle,” and by extension to “hold a grudge.” All of it seems like a different idea than “submit.” More like “don’t impose a yoke of servitude upon yourselves,” maybe.
Verses 2-6 seem to form a unit, with a theological meaning. As I read it: if you let yourselves be circumcised [presumably, for the sake of being incorporated into “the covenant” or “God’s people,” or for the sake of not being “cut off from God’s people,” or whatever existing Biblical language Paul’s opponents were using], then the way of Christ won’t do you any good. Instead, what you will have to do is immerse yourself in the study of the whole law, and work at observing it. Working on getting righteous by observing the law is the exact opposite of relying on grace and hoping to be counted righteous by throwing yourself on the mercy of God through faith in Jesus. Two completely different strategies. With different values, frankly, and different priorities and imperatives.
The verb in v4 is not really a “cutting” verb, but more a “broken, out of order” verb. English translations like to draft in the “cutting” image, and we can probably see why, since the main problem is the practice of circumcision. But the image seems to me to be one of plants and fruit: you were broken off of Christ, whoever are being justified in the law, and have dropped away from grace. Something like the broken stalks on plants that weren’t handled properly on the way home from the garden center. [Not Paul’s first thought, no doubt. But let’s not forget all that “seed” language from chapters 3 and 4. And the “fruit” language coming up at the end of chapter 5.]
Paul’s point seems [to me] to be: don’t be thinking you can pursue the life of transformation that comes from relying on and following Christ, but just improve it a bit by adding that token of circumcision. Because the circumcision route requires you to go all in. And because the approach of “being snuck in to righteousness by Christ by faith, and by grace, and by the Spirit” and the approach of “fulfilling all the requirements for belonging to the Righteous People Club” are fundamentally different approaches. Mutually incompatible approaches. Only one of which actually has a prayer, moreover, according to Paul.
Then, verses 7-12 constitute a rant against his opponents, the purveyors of that “join the Righteous People Club” program. The word translated “obey” in v7, “persuasion” in v8, and “confident” in v10 all cluster around the same Greek root. It means “to convince” or in some contexts “to assent.” We could render v7 something like “You were running well; who cut you off, to not be persuaded by the truth?” Because “persuasion” is, precisely, at issue in this discussion: what’s persuasive to the Galatians? Why?
Verse 9 seems [to me] to be a little dig at the opponents, saying they are leaven-y. Which would be ick, within the purity system they presumably stand for.
Verse 11 implies [to me] that the opponents have called Paul a hypocrite, saying he is still “for circumcision.” So he denies, here, that he is “preaching circumcision.” Which might not mean that he would be against anyone [like Timothy, for instance] getting circumcised under any circumstances. But as we might say these days, “this circumcision issue has gotten politicised.”
In verses 10 and 12, describing the activity of the opponents as “confusing” and “unsettling” the Galatians is to use strong terms, with Scriptural resonances. They are, frankly, causing them to suffer; terrifying them, turning them upside down, shaking them up. Not very loving.
In verse 12, Paul famously and furiously expresses the wish that these characters, who are so into genital mutilation, would mutilate themselves. “Chop off your own **** why don’t you?”
In verses 13-14, freedom comes up again; and this freedom also demands servitude: servitude to one another, in love. NRSV translates that the whole law is “summed up,” but Greek is literally “filled up.” The whole instruction (aka Torah, aka “law”) is filled up with, satisfied by, this: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Verse 15 seems actually to be a lead-in to v16 – where we will pick up next week. But Paul seems [to me] to be saying: this approach, of establishing the requirements for belonging to the Righteous People Club, will turn out to involve constantly comparing yourself to others, pointing out their flaws, talking about them behind their backs, needling and criticizing them, and all in all, destroying one another for the sake of a temporary and ultimately valueless sense of moral superiority. I could be reading a lot into this. But the “works of the flesh” Paul will list starting in v16, in this context, could [it seems to me] be read as the “dark side” of the “being servants of the law” approach Paul is opposing.
One more thought on this: Working on our own righteousness could involve: carefully listing all the rules a person needs to follow to live up to an acceptable standard of righteousness; working at following them; noticing when others are NOT following them; disapproving of those inadequate or unacceptable people – because, after all, “we” are at least making an effort, and are getting better at succeeding. Etc. That strategy takes us more and more in the direction of focusing on ourselves, our performance, our standing or ranking vs. others. It can become thoroughly “worldly” – in the sense of being fully preoccupied with materiality and human behavior.
We do not have to be “Jewish,” or “Christian,” or even religious, to live that way – the opposite of the freedom way we’re called to live. All we need is a standard of purity, and some purists devoted to articulating and enforcing it. “True radicals,” or “true feminists,” or “real Americans,” or whatever brand of political correctness we’ve fallen away from grace into – any of them will do, or all of them. The signifiers take on a life of their own, and managing them becomes more important than the substance of life together. And voilà – there we are, in our brave new world, slaves to sin and death, all over again.
[And if you almost get the impression I have some experience with this kind of thing, I’m not going to say you’re wrong.]
Images: “Saint Paul mosaic,” by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons