“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Galatians 5:1, 13–18
June 26, 2022
This Wednesday, we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. As we read today from the letter of Paul to the Galatians, we should take to heart Peter’s comment about Paul’s writings: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand.” We need however also remember that Paul was the first intellect of genius to explore the consequences of Jesus’s death and resurrection for himself and for his congregations. These were a mixture of Jews and Gentiles who lived in many places with many cultures. He can, as we have seen repeatedly, become somewhat convoluted so it is refreshing when he is moved by emotion and speaks more clearly. We may lose some precision, but we see more of the forest for the trees. That occurred when we read a sad, indeed depressed, Paul in 2 Corinthians and we will see it today with a very angry Paul in Galatians.
The sections that we will read this and next week, however, are quite gentle and encouraging but we must look at what came before.
Galatia is not a city but an area in Asia Minor (near Ankura in modern Turkey) Paul had lived there and was treated quite well. He taught the people and thought they were well prepared when he left. He discovered however afterwards that other missionaries, perhaps claiming to have been sent by the apostles in Jerusalem, had come to Galatia and told the people that Paul’s teaching was incomplete because he did not require circumcision and other signs of being fully Jewish. Paul feels betrayed and hurt for himself but more concerned for the salvation of his flock and in this letter blasts his opponents personally and demolishes their arguments intellectually.
We need not examine this in great depth but only note that Paul’s theme is Justification by Faith. That means that we can have a relationship with God because he has revealed himself to us and allows us to trust in him. Justification by faith was examined by Paul more temperately in Romans as we discovered several weeks ago in the commentary for Holy Trinity Sunday.
Today, he will tell us what this means. Paul did not give doctrine even when angry without providing practical instruction on how that doctrine can be lived.
For freedom Christ set us free;
so, stand firm and do not submit again
to the yoke of slavery
For Paul, if we sought to be justified, have a relationship with God, by any way other than faith in Jesus, we would become its slave. The Galatians who had been circumcised became the slave of the law that demanded it, but this was not permanent. They could always become free by giving themselves over to faith in Jesus. Paul then gives several verses of explanation before returning to the theme of freedom. He is quite aware that people could interpret justification by faith as a ticket to licentiousness or at least moral laxity. Paul is ever the good Jew. His aim after his conversion to Jesus is still the same as before: to live a life pleasing to God. A few verses before this he wrote:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision
counts for anything;
the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
Paul did not invent the idea of faith. He believed we all have faith in someone or something. This defines who we are, and we are literally slaves to it. We see that in the next line when he tells the Galatians “To serve one another through love.” The word translated here as serve douleuō is better translated as “serve as a slave.” Paul believed that everyone is a slave to something. When the Hebrews were freed from bondage in Egypt, they became slaves to the LORD. He reminded the Gentile born Galatians that they too were slaves:
Formerly, when you did not know God,
you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.
Now, however, that you have come to know God,
or rather to be known by God,
how can you turn back again to the weak
and beggarly elemental spirits?
How can you want to be enslaved to them again
Paul indeed will introduce himself to the Romans as a “slave of Christ Jesus.” (Rom 1:1)
The highest service is love, to build up other people in the real, concrete, physical world. This command comes from Judaism:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge
against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:
I am the LORD.
Love needs to be seen and experienced concretely. He continues with
But if you go on biting and devouring one another,
beware that you are not consumed by one another.
Small communities are prone to internal dissension and fighting, often quite intense and fierce. These can be so dangerous that the community will literally devour itself and disappear. Paul is telling them very clearly that if they were slaves of Christ, they would be building up the church not consuming it.
How can faith in Jesus help us to love one another? Paul is clear but to understand him we need to accept his anthropology. Paul may have revolted against forcing people to adopt the law and Jewish customs such as kosher foods and circumcision, but he did require them to accept the Jewish understanding of the human person.
They believed that a person did not have a body but was a body. Not all Jews believed in an afterlife but those that did held that when the Messiah came the dead would rise, receive their bodies and live a bodily existence, thus, a resurrection. The Greeks held to the “Ghost in the Machine” model. We were composed of a superior part the non-physical “spirit” and the inferior part “the body.” Those who believed in an afterlife held that only the Spirit survived and was immortal.
We need to keep this in mind as we read the last section.
For Paul the “flesh” is the entire person “body and soul” when its ends are purely human and not directed by and to the LORD. The Spirit is the entire person when he or she allows the Holy Spirit to motivate and guide the entire person.
I say, then: live by the Spirit
and you will certainly not gratify
the desire of the flesh.
Live here is best translated as “walk.” A traditional expression for devoting oneself to a way of life. Living by the spirit is not disembodied. Indeed, as we have seen, it requires that one loves other people in the real world. The most material actions can be prompted by the Spirit. They cannot be merged; a choice must be made.
This indicts the law. If our actions proceed from the desire to obey a law however good, it may be it is not faith in Jesus and not then guided by the spirit. This does not mean that the good intentions of the law are not being fulfilled. I quote a charming example in full:
To use an extreme analogy, a man who dearly loves his wife is not “under” the commandment against murder in regard to her; he does not need the law to keep him from murder because it is the furthest thing from his mind. In Christ the capacity to fulfill every part of the moral law superabundantly comes by the grace of the indwelling Spirit.
(Vanhoye, A., & Williamson, P. S., Galatians, 2019 at p. 195)
In opening his heart to us Paul has shown that the spirit of God does not drive us from the world but leads us into it.