Monday of week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Gal 1:6-12

We begin today reading Paul’s Letter to the Galatians and will stay with it until Wednesday of next week.

Galatia was a province of the Roman Empire in what is now central Turkey. Its name implies that it was originally peopled by people of Celtic origin. There is some dispute as to whether Paul is addressing Christians in the area that was, strictly speaking Galatian (the north ) or the whole of the Roman province of Galatia which, in the south, included parts which were not strictly speaking Galatian. It is not an important issue for us in our understanding of the contents of his message.

The letter has been called the Magna Carta of Christian liberty. It deals with the question whether a Gentile has to become a Jew before becoming a Christian. Some teachers had entered the Galatian Christian communities and told them that, in addition to following Christ, they had to observe the Law of Moses. Paul counters this by saying that it is through faith in Jesus Christ that a person comes right with God and not by the observance of external laws and ritual observances. (The Letter of James will complement this teaching by saying that works not inspired by faith are dead but that a faith which does not express itself in loving works for others is also dead.)

The importance of this brief letter is hard to overestimate. Written perhaps about A.D. 55 during Paul’s third missionary journey, it gives many autobiographical details of the apostle’s earlier life and evangelistic activity. Here are set forth, with impassioned elo­quence, the true function of the Mosaic law and its relation to God’s grace manifested in Christ. The declaration of the principles reiterated in these six chapters made Christianity a world religion instead of a Jewish sect. (New American Bible)

It is a very contentious letter in which Paul attacks unknown missionaries who have been telling the baptised gentile Galatians that they must adopt some of the traditional Jewish customs, especially that of circumcision, as a mark of the their Christian identity. Paul disagrees vigorously with this teaching. In the process, he says many other things of great significance for our Christian lives.

Today’s reading consists of a warning expressed in rather strong language. It takes the place of the usual introductory thanksgiving for the graces experienced by the local church with which Paul’s letters usually begin. In fact, at no time in the letter does Paul have words of praise for the Galatian Christians.

Paul is deeply concerned with what he regards as a rather hasty and sudden change in the Galatians’ beliefs so soon after their conversion. They have, in fact, turned away from the One who called them. He accuses them of following a different Gospel and in so doing of basically turning away from the Gospel that Jesus gave and from the call they received from Jesus Christ.

This, Paul says, is the work of “troublemakers”. In the course of the letter we will see that these ‘troublemakers’ are ‘Judaisers’. He is referring to Jews who had converted to Christianity and who want even the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians to incorporate Jewish customs, especially circumcision, as an integral part of their Christian living.

Paul asserts that there is only one Gospel of Christ and that is the one they heard from him. And anyone who preaches a different Gospel is “anathema” and is to be condemned. The Greek word anathema (‘anaqema) originally referred to an offering made in a pagan temple for a vow. Later it came to represent a curse.

In fact, says Paul, if anyone were to preach a different Gospel from the one originally proclaimed to them, whether it be an angel of God or even Paul himself, that person is to be condemned and rejected.

It is clear that some of the Judaising people were accusing Paul of “currying favour”, that is, trying to make conversion easier for Gentiles by not insisting on Jewish customs, especially circumcision (which, in those times, would have been quite a painful – and even dangerous – operation for adult males). While, on other occasions, Paul showed himself sensitive to the weaknesses of Gentiles, he strongly affirms that that is not the case here.

Paul rejects that accusation. If he really wanted these customs to be preserved, he would have remained what he formerly was – a devout Pharisee. But now he is a “slave of Christ” and he follows the Way of Christ whether that wins people’s approval or not, because only there does he find salvation and true liberation.

Finally, he emphasises that the “Good News” he preaches is not a human invention but comes “through a revelation of Jesus Christ””. In so saying, he is not asserting that everything he knows about the Gospel of Christ comes through direct revelation. Much of what he believed came through the disciples of Jesus who instructed him. And the key to salvation is faith/trust in the message of Jesus and not in external observance of a Law. That will be a central point in this whole letter.

For us, too, the same is true. It is possible for the Christian to get hung up on various external acts and obligations which are identified with Christianity (or Catholicism). We may never miss Sunday Mass, we may even keep observing abstinence on Fridays and yet many things in our lives may be far removed from the spirit of the Gospel. We need to reflect on just what makes a “good Catholic”.

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