Thursday of Week 31 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Philippians 3:3-8

Paul has already mentioned divisions and arguing among the Philippian community. Today he indicates one source of the problem, namely, the agitation of the “Judaisers”. We already saw this problem when reading the Letter to the Galatians. Clearly it was a fairly widespread phenomenon. Perhaps it was less expected in Philippi, where there were not many Jews and apparently, not even a synagogue (cf Acts 16:12).

The first Christians were all Jews and in the beginning they naturally followed many of their traditional customs. But, once non-Jews began to be accepted as full members of the Christian community, many of these traditions and the place of the Mosaic Law were seen in a different light. It gradually became clear that the teaching of Jesus transcended this Law. It was not that the Law was abolished but rather that the demands of the Gospel included and went far beyond the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is quoted as saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Matt 5:17)

One of the most basic marks of identity for the Jews was circumcision. The Jews were not the only people to practise it (Muslims did also) but for them it had a very special religious significance as God’s people. Soon after non-Jews, “pagans”, began to be admitted to baptism, it became clear that the custom of circumcision should not be extended to them. (It would have been a very painful operation for adults, who formed the bulk of converts, to undergo.)

However, in many places, especially in more outlying areas of the Jewish diaspora*, there were Jewish converts who felt that traditional Jewish customs should be preserved, in particular, the custom of male circumcision. As we saw, Paul has much to say about this in his letter to the Galatians.

But in Philippi, too, he was faced with this problem. After attacking his critics and referring to them contemptuously as “dogs” and “cutters”, he claims that the Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, were the “real people of the circumcision”. “Dogs” was a highly insulting term, often applied to Gentiles, because of their ritual uncleanness. As scavengers that would eat anything, dogs were regarded as very unclean. Even Jesus used the term about Gentiles, indicating their ‘uncleanness’ (Matt 15:26). Paul is suggesting that the Judaisers are also, in a sense, unclean.

He sees circumcision in a spiritual sense. The truly ‘circumcised’ are those who are inwardly united with God through his Spirit, not those who have had a physical operation on a part of their body. The cutting of the body by itself is no guarantee of true allegiance to God. (We might say the same of the purely external observance of a sacramental ritual, e.g. pouring water and saying some words in Baptism.)

In calling them ‘cutters’ Paul is using a term (katatome,literally ‘cutting down’) as a contemptuous pun on ‘circumcision’ (peritome, literally ‘cutting around’) and so implying a comparison between physical circumcision and the self-inflicted gashes in pagan cults, as described in the famous ‘competition’ between Elijah and the priests of Baal, who slashed themselves in their frenzy (cf 1 Kings 18:28).

Instead, it is the Christians who “are the circumcision”; they are those who worship through the Spirit of God and whose boast is in Christ Jesus and who do not put their confidence in the flesh – that is, merely outward observances of the Old Law, or weak human nature.

And Paul does not speak as a Gentile ‘outsider’. On the contrary, Paul claims more qualified than most other Jews, especially those in the Greek-speaking diaspora. He then proceeds to present his Jewish credentials, credentials that probably none of his Judaising opponents could match:

  • Even though born in Tarsus, he is a true Hebrew, belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. His Jewish roots are deep and unambiguous. Jerusalem, the Holy City, lay on the border of the tribal territory of Benjamin.
  • Both his parents were Hebrew (unlike some of the diaspora Jews or those converted to Judaism) and Pharisees too, as he says elsewhere. We know also that, unlike Hellenist Jews who would have spoken Greek, Paul knew Aramaic (Acts 21:40).
  • He was physically circumcised at eight days after his birth, as laid down by the Law (cf. Gen 17:12).

When it came to observing the Mosaic Law, he was a Pharisee. Nothing more needed to be said about his orthodoxy. As we know from the gospels, the Pharisees made a point of observing the Law in its tiniest details. As for working for his religion, he was one of the most zealous in persecuting the infant Church. If observing the Law could make a person perfect, then Paul was absolutely without fault.

But that all changed when Christ came into his life. All those things he formerly believed brought him closer to God, he saw now as barriers. The former advantages were now seen as grave disadvantages; the former profits seen now as losses. For him now, everything is outweighed by the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord. And this is not knowledge about Christ, but a personal, intimate, and mutual knowing which colours every facet of his life.

And it is not that the Law is wrong; it is just not needed. It has been superseded. Union with God is now seen not as the external and perfect observation of laws, regulations and traditions, but the establishment of a close, personal relationship with God through Jesus, allowing God to work in one and bringing about a complete transformation in one’s thinking and behaviour.

Unfortunately, there are still Christians today who measure the quality of Christian life by strictness in keeping rules and regulations and these tend also to be very critical of those they see as less observant than themselves.

Obviously, for the sake of good order, the Church, like any other society, needs a certain number of laws and regulations. But we must never forget that, ultimately, we will be measured not by our keeping of these regulations but by the depth of our relationship with God in Christ, and our living out of the Gospel in relationship with others. It is the level of our loving that will be the criterion. “By this will all know that you are my followers, if you have love for one another.”

*It is not unusual for ethnic or religious groups living overseas and surrounded by “outsiders” to be more conservative and more concerned with preserving traditional marks of identity than those who are at the centre.

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