Wednesday of week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Gal 2:1-2, 7-14

We carry on from yesterday’s reading and today Paul tells us of how he began his mission.

It is fourteen years later and Paul finds himself again in Jerusalem. This is dating either from his return to Tarsus, his meeting with Peter on his last visit or his conversion at Damascus. It is not clear and it does not really matter. In any case, it is quite a lengthy period during which Paul must have grown greatly in his understanding of Christ and the Gospel.

This time he went in the company of two people whom he had come to know during these years and who would be closely involved in his evangelising work – Barnabas and Titus.

Barnabas means “one who encourages”. His other given name was Joseph and we know that he was a Levite from Cyprus. He would also accompany Paul on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-14:28). Titus was a gentile Christian. He served as Paul’s representative in Corinth and later went to Crete to “oversee”, to be an episcopus (‘episkopos) over the church there.

Paul says he went to Jerusalem as the result of a private revelation. His main purpose was to let the leaders of the church in Jerusalem – Peter, James and John – know how he was proclaiming the Gospel to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish “foreigners”. He specifically went to the leadership because he knew there were elements among the Christians in Jerusalem who were strongly opposed to accepting Gentiles into the church, especially when they did not follow the Jewish traditions.

Paul says he went “so that I might not be running, or have run, in vain”. In other words, he was anxious that his preaching be in harmony with the teaching of the Jerusalem church, the “mother” church. It is not that he doubted the rightness of what he was doing but he was concerned that when new churches were founded they should keep in touch with the mother church. It is why, later on, he will agree with the request to support poorer churches (of which Jerusalem seems to have been one).

The leaders in Jerusalem gave him their full endorsement. They recognised that Paul had been called to proclaim the Gospel to the “uncircumcised” just as Peter was called to proclaim it to the “circumcised”. In fact, Paul did not just confine himself to the Gentiles. When he arrived for the first time in a town he nearly always headed straight for the synagogue. Often, of course, his message was usually rejected by the local Jews. So, he saw himself as primarily an apostle to the Gentiles.

And, as far as Paul is concerned, the two distinct apostolates of Peter and himself were assigned by the Lord himself.

A kind of contract was then made. James, Peter and John (notice the order), the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church, shared the right hand of fellowship with Paul and Barnabas. Among both Hebrews and Greeks, this was a common practice indicating a promise of friendship. It was agreed that the former would concentrate on working among the Jews while Paul and Barnabas devoted themselves mainly to the Gentiles. This division, as we have seen, was mainly geographical as Paul did reach out to Jews as well as Gentiles but confined himself generally to territories where Gentiles were in the majority.

There was one proviso: that Paul would remember to give help to the poor, something he was only too happy to do. The “poor” seemed to mean mainly the Christians of the Jerusalem church who had to be regularly helped by the churches of Asia Minor and Greece, as the Acts tell us.

In the second half of the reading we find Paul back in Antioch in Syria. Antioch was the main city in Syria and, after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt, the third largest city in the Roman empire. It was already becoming a major Christian centre, especially with those working among the Gentiles, and Paul used it as a home base during his missionary journeys.

Here we find a showdown taking place between Paul and Peter. Peter, who in a vision (recorded in the Acts) had been told by Jesus that there was no such thing as ritually “unclean” food, had baptised the first Gentile Christian and had been mixing freely with Gentiles and eating with them.

However, when some followers of James arrived in Antioch from Jerusalem, Peter refrained from doing so because he did not want to offend those Jewish Christians who insisted on circumcision and other Jewish customs e.g. concerning ritual cleanliness and the avoidance of eating ‘forbidden’ food. Other Jewish Christians and even Barnabas (who was a Levite Jew) began to follow Peter’s example.

Paul became very angry at this compromising of an essential principle which had already been agreed on. He opposed Peter “to his face”. Not only that, in the presence of everyone he declared that Peter, although a born Jew, had been living like a Gentile and not like a Jew. He had no right, then, to be imposing Jewish ways on Gentiles which was the message his behaviour was giving.

It was not a question here, as Paul practised elsewhere, of not giving scandal to weaker brethren by enforcing one’s own belief and practices (cf. Acts 16:3; 21:26; 1 Cor 8:13; Rom 14:21; 1 Cor 9:20). Peter was giving out a misleading message. Peter’s behaviour should have advertised his real position but instead of that he disguised it. He was suggesting, by following the Judaisers’ ways, that the only true Christians were converted Jews who followed the Law. This could only result in two separate communities which could not then celebrate the “breaking of bread” together.

There is a radical difference between accommodating the weak and compromising on essential principles. In Paul’s eyes, Peter was guilty of the latter and he had to be challenged.

The problem was especially relevant to the Galatian situation where Jewish Christians were trying to impose Jewish customs, including circumcision, on Gentile Christians. Peter’s misleading behaviour was not at all helpful in such a situation, especially as it did not represent his own beliefs.

Today, there is a good deal of discussion about the extent to which our leaders can be challenged in the Church. There will always be a tension between what we may call the ‘institutional’ and ‘prophetic’ wings of the Church. While some would prefer perfect harmony between all members, it is not the way the Church has operated from its earlier days. We must not confuse ‘unity’ with ‘uniformity’. Unity presupposes harmony between differing elements.

We need the ‘institutional’ as the conservers of orthodoxy and tradition and continuity. But we need the ‘prophetic’ to arouse us to the need to adapt our message to changing needs and changing situations in a constantly changing world. No change means stagnation and ultimate death; too much change means loss of identity.

We have to keep a balance between both so there will always be ‘Pauls’ opposing ‘Peters’ to their face. This is not to say that Peter the conserver is usually wrong and Paul the (r)evolutionary is always right. Most of the time, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Careful discernment is needed at such times. One of the truest signs that we are on the right track is that the ultimate result is greater union. The truth can never divide because there can only be one truth.

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