Wednesday of week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Gal 5:18-25

In our final reading from Galatians today we have a magnificent passage where Paul once again touches on the Spirit-given freedom which is the characteristic of the true Christian.

He begins with a statement which we Catholics should have engraved on our hearts: “If you are led by the Spirit, no law can touch you.” In the Letter to the Romans Paul had also said: “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom 8:14). And, just a little earlier he had said to Galatians: “Live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:16)

By putting oneself under the Spirit one is not under the bondage of trying to please God by minute observance of the law for salvation or sanctification.

The sign of the Spirit’s presence is love (agape, ‘agaph). If we are genuinely filled with the Spirit of truth and love, then we really have no need of law. As we read in the First Letter of John: “Wherever there is agape-love, there is God.” Or as St Augustine put it: “Love and do what you like.” The truly loving person cannot commit sin, although such a person in certain circumstances may violate the letter of a particular law. On the other hand, a person who meticulously carries out the smallest detail of a law may be a very unloving person, may be an intolerant bigot, a person full of hate.

(In practice, of course, every institution or organisation needs some kinds of rules which help members to live according to the spirit of the group. So Ignatius of Loyola realised this when he wrote his detailed Constitutions for the Society of Jesus. But the principle enunciated by Paul here must remain paramount. The rules are to help advance the spirit and goals of the group; any rule or any application of a rule that frustrates that spirit or goal is to be set aside.)

Paul illustrates the difference between a life which is purely self-directed (lived according to the “flesh”) and one lived in the Spirit by describing two kinds of people. These are diametrically opposed to each other and mutually exclusive.

One kind consists of those who act in a spirit of total self-indulgence, those who do what they like whenever they feel like it. It is a description of the self-centred hedonistic, individualistic, person.

He gives a partial list of 15 kinds of behaviour: “Fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility; idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealously, bad temper and quarrels; disagreements, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies and similar things”. These emerge from our lower instincts and are destructive both of others and oneself. Such lists of vices and virtues were common in the ancient world and others can be found in the New Testament. Clearly, such behaviour is clearly at odds with what one expects in a world where God’s way is paramount.

On the other hand, those who live in the Spirit of the Father and Christ behave in a very different way. The presence and power of the Spirit in such people results in the following characteristics: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-discipline. All of these are, in fact, expressions of love – and hence, of God’s presence.

Christian character is produced by the Holy Spirit, not by the mere moral discipline of trying to live by law. Paul makes it clear that justification by faith does not result in a law-less life. The indwelling Holy Spirit produces Christian virtues in the believer’s life. These are not just “virtues” which I can acquire by constant practice. Much more they are the natural outcome of a life lived in close relationship with Jesus through his Spirit. They are the natural outcome of allowing the Way of Jesus to guide one’s life. It is not a question of self-discipline or self-control but rather of having a vision of where the good life really is and following that path.

We might notice that Paul contrasts “works of the flesh” with the “fruit” (not “works”) of the Spirit. It is the Spirit and not the following of laws which lead to such qualities in a person. And, as Paul points out, there is no law covering such characteristics. They are above and beyond any law and, when they are operative, the keeping of the law is more than adequately looked after.

The only way, then, to belong to Christ is by letting go of all “self-indulgent passions and desires” and let the Spirit of Jesus direct our lives. “Christian character is produced by the Holy Spirit, not by the mere moral discipline of trying to live by law” (NIVBible).

On the other hand, absence of law does not mean lawlessness or spiritual anarchy. On the contrary, our deepening relationship with Jesus and our prayerful reflection on his teaching and our acceptance of that teaching, points us firmly in the direction of truth, love and freedom.

The Letter to the Galatians, although it seems to be dealing with a very specific problem of a very specific group of people, in fact has a great deal of relevance for Christians of every age and every place. The lesson about the freedom of the Christian is of the greatest importance. It is very sad if we see our being Christian as a restricted form of being human, if we see it as a set of limitations set as a condition for ‘salvation’ in a future existence. Marx called it the ‘opium’ of the proletariat, a means of numbing the lower classes to accepting an unjust existence as the price for a future happiness.

On the contrary, it is the person who is a world unto himself, with no thought of the needs of others, who becomes the slave of his own passions and fantasies. And when society is full of such people then we see the kind of behaviour that Paul deplores in today’s passage. Strangely, it is the loving person, the one who lives for the genuine wellbeing of others who becomes the most enriched. The best society is one where everyone gives and so everyone gets.

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