Monday of week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Gal 4:22-24, 26-27, 31

The passage begins with a verse not in our reading: “You who want to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” By this Paul is invoking the witness of the Scriptures. To inherit the promise it is not enough to be just a descendant of Abraham, as Ishmael was. It is necessary to be descended as the result of promise, like Isaac; it is necessary to be a spiritual descendant, not just a genealogical one. Hence, for Paul Isaac’s birth prefigures the rebirth of Christians.
Paul uses the examples of two of Abraham’s wives, Hagar and Sarah, to illustrate the difference between the Jews who were following the Law of Moses and Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, who follow the law of Christ.
Hagar was a slave woman while Sarah was a free woman and the ‘real’ wife of Abraham. In the beginning Sarah, Abraham’s wife was barren, so he took the slave girl, Hagar, who gave him a son, Ishmael. It was only later, when she was already past child-bearing age that Sarah bore Isaac. The difference between them, according to Paul, is that Ishmael was born “in the ordinary way”, that is, in the ordinary course of nature and without any special intervention on God’s part.
Sarah, however, had been barren into her old age and the child she eventually bore was the result of a special promise that God had made to Abraham about his descendants. That promise only applied to Isaac and his descendants. (Hence, the significance of Abraham’s total trust in God when he was asked to sacrifice his only legitimate son Isaac and was ready to do so.)
The point Paul is making is that it is not enough to be descended from Abraham, as Ishmael and many Jews could claim. He sees in the two mothers symbols of the two covenants. “One was from Sinai, bearing children for slavery; and this is Hagar.” He refers to it as an “allegory”, not in the sense that it was not historical but that Paul is using the story to illustrate the theological truth he is sharing with the Galatians.
The first covenant Paul identifies with that made on Mount Sinai between God and Moses. But, says Paul, its children (the “present Jerusalem”) are now to be regarded as slaves, slaves of a Law that cannot save them. This is in contrast with the messianic Jerusalem, to which, as Isaiah foretold, “all nations will stream” (2:2). The Jerusalem which the prophets proclaimed – a Jerusalem not of laws, rituals and holocausts but a Jerusalem which created a society of truth and justice for all.
The second covenant, however, belongs to this second Jerusalem, what Paul calls the “Jerusalem above”. The rabbis taught that the “Jerusalem above” would come down during the time of the Messiah. It is, in Paul’s eyes, the place where Christ reigns as King and whose citizens are his followers, in contrast to the “present Jerusalem”. It is this “Jerusalem above” which is the “mother” of the Christians.
“Shout for joy, you barren women who bore no children!” Paul quotes from Isaiah’s joyful promise to Jerusalem, “barren” of children because her children are in exile. Paul applies Isaiah’s joyful promise to exiled Jerusalem to the ingathering of believers through the gospel, by which “Jerusalem’s” children have become many.
Paul tells the Galatian Christians – both Jews and Gentiles – that they are children not of the slave-girl (of the Law) but of the free-born wife (the Spirit of Jesus). There is no need for them to continue following the old ways of the Law. To do so is to renounce the freedom which came to them in Christ.
The purpose of Christ’s liberating death was precisely to make us free. To go back under the Law would be to return to a way that is equivalent to a form of slavery. Human beings must choose either Christ or the Law as author of salvation. The freedom spoken of here is freedom from the yoke of the law. The burden of the rigorous demands of the law as the means of gaining God’s favour makes an intolerable burden for sinful man. As Peter said at the Council of Jerusalem when the acceptance of Gentiles into the Christian community was being debated: “Why are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we [Jews] have been able to bear?” (see Acts 15:10-11).
It is important for us Christians to be aware that following Christ and the Gospel is meant to bring real freedom into our lives. If we do not experience our being Christian as liberating then there is something lacking in our understanding of what the Gospel is about. One gets the impression that many Catholics do not have any real sense of liberation, although their faith may give them a measure of security – at a price. They have replaced the Law of Sinai for another set of legalities. (“If I do this, is it a sin?”) It has to be said, too, that some pastors preach a gospel heavy with rules and regulations and threats of sin and damnation.
Some see being a Christian as a matter of having to observe all kinds of restrictions which “other people” are not obliged to follow. Young people have been heard to say things like, “Oh, I wish I had not been baptised!”
For this reason, some remain riddled with guilt because they consistently feel they are not living up to the requirements of their “religion”. Others rid themselves of this guilt by leaving the Church altogether. “Now that I am not a Catholic, I am not bound by that nonsense any more.” “I don’t have to go to church on Sunday, I can have sex with anyone I like whenever I like…”
Others see virtue in “denying themselves” and “making sacrifices”, giving up the “freedom” that other people seem to have in order “to save their souls and go to heaven”.
There is no question of doubting the sincerity of such people but it is sad that somehow they have not learnt or been taught that the true Christian is a truly liberated and free person. To be free is not simply doing just what one feels like doing. Such an attitude inevitably leads to self-destruction and certainly not to happiness and fulfilment. To be free is to be effectively able to follow the good. That good we believe is found in the vision of life that Jesus proposes and which he personally followed. It is not a way just for Christians. It is a way for people everywhere. It is the vision of the Kingdom – a world of truth and goodness and justice and mutual respect for all without exception, a Way that leads to God. A world where God, people, the world and myself are living in a beneficially harmonious relationship.

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