Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Children of God (continued from 3:26)
What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of heirs. 6 Because you are children of God, he sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Paul’s Concern for the Galatians
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? 10 You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! 11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.
This reading comes from Galatians, which devotes a lot of attention to a subject that might seem like it doesn’t have anything to do with our lives in the 21st century. But not so fast, I think.
Paul had established the churches in the Roman province of Galatia, where most of the converts to the Christian faith were considered “Greeks,” which was sort of a generic term for people from gentile backgrounds. (Actually, historians say the Galatians were Celts who had migrated at some point from Europe. The name Galatia is said to be from the same root as Gaul, the ancient Roman name Celtic Western Europe.)
Anyway, in his preaching and teaching in the Galatian churches, Paul had taught them the story of Jesus and the meaning of his life and death. But Paul did not teach his converts that they themselves had to live like Jews. He didn’t teach the new Christians to keep all the Jewish practices like circumcision and eating kosher foods and doing ceremonial cleansings.
But then after Paul left Galatia and went on to other places, he got word that a group of Jewish Christian teachers had come into the area and told the Galatian Christians that they couldn’t be real followers of Jesus unless they observed all those traditional practices. This caused Paul to get pretty worked up, to put it mildly, and later in this letter he expresses his exasperation in very angry language.
It’s kind of interesting to note Paul seems to have kept the traditional Jewish practices personally, especially when he was in Jerusalem. (He just didn’t teach new gentile believers to keep them.) So what was it about the idea of the Galatians keeping the traditional practices that got Paul so upset?
As a person who was well-versed in Greco-Roman culture, Paul would have known that the gentiles had been raised with the standards and practices of the Greco-Roman society. And Paul was clearly very concerned that the people to whom the church was telling the story of Jesus might think they had to follow Jewish practices in order to become Christians. Paul recognized that would cause two immediate problems.
First of all, the people of the Greek world thought that circumcision was a gross and barbaric custom. In the ancient Olympic Games, for instance, circumcised men were not allowed to compete. (The competitors were naked, so there was no hiding it.) So if people thought they had to undergo circumcision, lots of them would reject the faith without even listening to the good news about what God had done in Jesus.
Second, Paul knew that if followers of Jesus thought they were required to keep the kosher rules, they would refuse to eat in gentile homes. (Eating with gentiles or eating gentile food was regarded as making a person “defiled.”) And refusing to eat with gentiles would eliminate one of the most important opportunities for telling the story of Jesus to people who needed to hear it. You might remember that in the tenth chapter of Acts, God had sent word to Peter in a vision that it was OK to eat gentile food. That was important because it allowed the followers of Jesus to visit gentiles in their homes and accept their hospitality. Sharing meals was (and still is) an important way of establishing ties with non-believers, so Paul seems to have been deeply concerned that keeping kosher practices might deprive the church of a great opportunity for building relationships and telling about Jesus.
So in today’s passage, Paul says that those who keep the old Jewish practices were like children, who need to be given detailed instructions on what to do and not do. But with the coming of Jesus, he said, those who followed him are supposed to act like adults, thinking for themselves what would best please the Father. Returning to old practices, while it might give a comforting sense of order and structure to life, would amount to returning to a childlike way of life.
Paul is regarded as the great ethical teacher of the Christian faith. So it’s kind of surprising to come across this and other places where he suggests that being a faithful follower of Jesus isn’t about keeping a set of prescribed rules. Instead, it’s about living by the teachings of Jesus, which requires some serious wrestling with the practices of the faith. And following Jesus also means living in a way that reflects our gratitude toward God for the new life we’ve been given in Jesus. And it means asking ourselves daily how we can help to bring his kingdom to fulfillment “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
So as I said at the beginning of this Reflection, even though we don’t spend time arguing about circumcision and eating kosher, Paul’s letter winds up raising some questions that take as much thought in the 21st century as they did in the first.
Let’s pray. Lord, help us to see past the external things of the faith – rules and rituals and religious practices – and remind us that the real sign of a follower of Jesus is a life surrendered to his lordship and showing his love to the world. Help us to live joyfully by his teachings, to tell others the good news of what you’ve done in him, and to follow him in service to others. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 9 and 62; Isaiah 51:17-23; and Mark 7:24-37.)