St. Paul mosaic

Studying Galatians 5 16-26

We are studying Galatians 5:16-26, the contrast of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, for Sunday, May 29. The “fruit of the Spirit” is one of a handful of famous lists in the Bible, and rightly so. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are finishing up our study of Galatians, which we’ve been reading the past couple of weeks: an undisputed Pauline letter, seemingly to several churches in what we would think of as Asia Minor, responding to reports of a teaching of which Paul disapproves. The crux of the matter seems to be that others Christians have told the Galatians that they must observe certain Scriptural and covenantal commandments, such as circumcision, to … we don’t know. That is, we don’t know whether they were saying “you have to do this to be a ‘true Christian’” or “to be ‘in Christ’” or “to be saved” or what. But some standard had been set, and circumcision seems to have been presented as a requirement for meeting that standard. Paul opposes this teaching, calling it a “different gospel.” Or, more accurately, a distortion of the [only] gospel. (Galatians 1:6-7)

The letter is an effort to persuade the Galatians of the falsehood of the alternative teaching. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Paul’s comparison of “the law” to a tutor or legal guardian (Galatians 3) [I put “the law” in quotes to remind us that we face complex translation problems here. Paul uses the Greek word nomos, which we translate as “law.” We suppose nomos here is meant to translate Hebrew torah. But a more acceptable translation of torah, which would remind us of the full scope of the torah, would be “teaching” or “instruction.”]

Last week, we skipped ahead to Paul’s impassioned defense of Christian freedom [from “the law”]. That discussion is the immediate context for this week’s text, the contrast of the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit.”

Most of this text – Galatians 5:13-25 – is one of the lectionary texts for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The “fruit of the Spirit” is also popular material for children’s messages, memory work, cross stitch projects, and memes. That is – we are almost sure to have heard this somewhere before, both in church and out.

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CLOSER READING: In v15, the preposition is implied, by the case of the noun. It might matter, to an English reader, whether Paul said “live by the Spirit” or “in the Spirit” or “to the Spirit.” Any of those could work there. What’s clear, though, is that Paul is advocating living in some kind of close relationship with the Spirit, that ultimately involves the Spirit’s leading or guidance.

V18 seems to point back to Paul’s understanding of “the law” as designed to restrain the unruly. Those led by the Spirit, since they are not unruly to begin with, don’t have to be restrained.

Vv19-20 list the “works of the flesh.” The works here are deeds or acts, things done by “the flesh.” In this context, “flesh” seems to mean something like “ordinary human nature.” This list of deeds is curious. It begins and ends with transgressive appetites: fornication or sexual misconduct, licentiousness, drunkenness. In between, the list is mostly taken up with interpersonal, we might even say “political,” problems: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy. Not coincidentally, these undesirable conditions are being produced by the anti-Pauline teachers Paul is critiquing.

Idolatry and sorcery are both on the list, too. It is not too hard to read both as labels of the practice of affirming the spiritual efficacy of good behavior, according to some sacred standard, or the spiritual efficacy of ritual observance. The opponents’ practices, once again.

Paul seems [to me] to be accusing his opponents of being deeply enmeshed in the “works of the flesh.” He seems [to me] to be saying the desire to “live right” according to “the law” – along with the itch to “be good,” and “holier than thou,” too – is a desire of the flesh.

The “fruit of the Spirit” listed in vv22-23 are not, then, “deeds” or “works.” “Fruit” in the material world is a natural outgrowth of a fruit-bearing organism, a form of life – like a tree or a shrub – that produces fruit in the course of its life. This aspect of the metaphor seems significant. Blackberry bushes have blackberries; cherry trees have cherries; Spirit-lives have Spirit-fruit.

There is no law against this fruit, either. That is, there is no need to be restrained by some law from producing fruit of this kind.

In v24, the point of the “crucifying” that’s been done to “the flesh” may be that it keeps the flesh from opposing the Spirit – the problem mentioned in v17.

Vv25-26 recommend a collective attitude appropriate to this Spirit-led or Spirit-encompassed way of life. People like this should “walk in formation,” “stay in line,” rather than boasting, provoking, and envying. Life in / by / to the Spirit is not a competition.

It’s free.

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Rembrandt with turban holding a scroll, in chiaroscuro

Images: “The Apostle Paul Mosaic,” Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Rembrandt [Public domain], “Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul,” via Wikimedia Commons.

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