Tuesday of Week 28 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Galatians 5:1-6

Paul continues to speak to the Galatians about freedom, a freedom they cannot find by submitting themselves again to the Mosaic Law.

“When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free.” If only those words were emblazoned in huge letters in all of our churches! One finds either that people feel Christianity is restrictive of a ‘normal’ human life or that it consists of living a restricted life for the sake of some future salvation.

By taking on again the requirements of the Law to which they are being urged by certain Judaising “missionaries” the Galatians are, in Paul’s view, going backwards. They are giving up the freedom which came to them through the Gospel of Jesus. This freedom is a freedom from a life based on a law of external observances, many of them clearly of human origin and not part of being a totally fulfilled person. It was this kind of legalistic mentality which was creeping back into Church life that made the Reformers emphasise the importance of faith in Christ as the basis of life.

“Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” To make the Law the rule of one’s life is to undergo a kind of slavery. By trying to live up to the rigorous demands of the Law, which few, if any, people could observe in its totality, the Galatians were taking on a heavy burden, a real yoke, which could only fill them with feelings of inadequacy and guilt.

Jesus in the Gospel invites us to carry a very different yoke, a yoke which he will carry along with us (Matt 11:28-30). It is a yoke which is “easy” and whose “burden is light”. It is a yoke of total surrender to his Way of truth, integrity and love. Because of our many weaknesses, to follow such a way can at times mean the denial of our lower appetites but the bearing of this yoke can only be beneficial in the long run. It brings us to where we really belong. And it brings true peace.

In particular, Paul tells the Galatians not to submit to the requirement of circumcision which, of itself, has nothing whatever to do with the following of Jesus. Moreover, anyone who accepts to be ritually circumcised, in practice is bound to the observance of the whole Law. The Law is a unit and one cannot pick and choose – it’s all or nothing. Consider circumcision as a kind of sacrament that expressed one’s total allegiance to the Law of the Old Testament. (Of course, it also has a similar meaning for other faiths, e.g. Islam.)

Again, those who look for fulfilment and salvation in the keeping of the Law have in effect separated themselves from Christ. They have “fallen from grace”. They have put themselves outside the scope of divine favour, because gaining God’s favour by external observance of the law and submitting in faith to love and service of Christ are mutually exclusive.

Those who follow the Law believe, that, by keeping it perfectly, God “owes” them salvation. Their model is the Pharisee in the Gospel who thanked God that through his meticulous observance of the Law he was not like others. He saw all his imagined virtue as emanating from him personally. God should be grateful to have people like him around. However, his contemptuous remarks about the tax collector behind him revealed that, while his external behaviour was without fault, he was far from that inner love and compassion that the following of Christ expects.

On the other hand, those who follow Jesus know that salvation comes as a “grace”, a freely-given gift which none of us can earn but which is given to those who surrender totally into the hands of the Lord. Ideally, that surrender takes place all during our lives as Christians but the extraordinary thing is that, even if it is not made until the 11th hour, that salvation is given.

Of course, as we shall see in tomorrow’s reading, putting off the day of surrender is not a very smart thing to do but the point is that the door is never closed until we close our eyes in death. God does not have an accountant’s ledger. He only looks at me in the here and now.

So it is through faith in Christ, that surrender in loving trust (itself a gift!), that we live in the firm hope of finding ourselves right with God. It does not matter a whit whether one is circumcised or not. The Christian community that Paul was addressing consisted of both circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles.

All that matters, says Paul in a lovely expression, is that “faith that makes its power felt through love”. Faith is much more than intellectual assent to certain truths or dogmas which we are told to accept as true. It involves the total and unconditional surrender in trust to Jesus as Lord and as the Way to Truth and Life.

When this faith is active and strong it results quite spontaneously in a life lived in love for God and in care and compassion for all those around us. The only really free person is the one who, in all circumstances, is able to respond in love, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation to all the people and situations of one‘s life.

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