Commentaries on Galatians
Who were the Galatians? This rather imprecise name can denote either the communities of Pisidia evangelized by Paul on his first mission (Acts 13:13–14:25), or those that Paul would have founded in the course of his second mission (Acts 16:5–18:23).
Paul writes because the community is in danger. Strange, he does not mention scandals, a conflict of authority as was the case in Corinth. There are indeed tensions and doubts: certain people overdo it and would like to restore Jewish practices. However it would seem neither the promoters of this return to the Law nor those who oppose it would expect such a strong warning from Paul. In fact he has seen through what they do: they want religious practices because they have not understood, or because they have forgotten that to be a Christian is not primarily to belong to a religion but to have faith.
The discovery of the Gospel had been for the Galatians a bath in freedom. Those who were Jews escaped religious practices that touched the whole of existence. Those who were Greek (and pagan) were liberated from a fatalist vision of the world and social prejudices. In both cases it was a complete change. Were they capable of following Paul when he spoke to them of his own experience, when he affirmed that Christ was able to fill our existence, that the Spirit directs us much better than religious obligations do?
At first, the Galatians lived what had been Paul’s life, but it was difficult for the community to maintain themselves along such a new line. Once the time of the first enthusiasm was over the great majority of these new Christians felt the need of rules and practices. They had faith in Christ but by no means could all of them be “spiritual” people.
There were persons who offered a response. They were, doubtless, Christians of Jewish origin, and they knew the benefits of a law. They aspired to assume the direction of the community, but chapter 6 of this letter shows that they also had ulterior motives: a return to Jewish practices opened all the doors of Jewish society. The Jewish communities flourishing throughout the Roman Empire were united and strengthened by common bonds; such relationship proved to be beneficial to them in many ways. Some Christians would prefer that kind of security rather than take the risk of embracing a new faith, and facing challenges and opposition which Christian communities had to face.
Paul’s response is severe; it will, perhaps, appear quite negative vis-a-vis religious practices: but it is the word of God. Relying on the rules and practices of a religion is to enclose oneself within a system, where the reward of one’s good deeds is constantly expected. Faith, on the contrary, is to give oneself to God and to his mystery, as awesome as the cross which is its symbol.
This is enough to understand that the letter to the Galatians speaks to the present when so many are searching for certitude. On the other hand in as much as the Church has to carry a number of Christians who have only a slight experience of life in the Spirit, it is always inclined to descend to their level and to become a religion again. So we must continually react and become conscious again of our identity: rediscover life by faith.
• 1.1 Paul reminds them and stresses the fact that he has been called and sent directly by God. Speaking of apostles he does not first think of Jesus’ Twelve who had been sent by him, but of others who had this title, sent by the Church and God, but in fact chosen by people.
• 6. I am surprised at how quickly you have abandoned God… and have gone to another gospel. There are many ways of preaching the Gospel and making of it a different one, no longer the Good News given by God through Jesus. Some of the Galatians who were of Jewish origin did not understand it. The style of life, in appearance more religious, that they were trying to impose on the community, was in fact a way of doubting Jesus, who alone is Savior.
The one we preached to you (v. 8). Astonishing words for us who are used to receiving different points of view: was Paul then infallible? He knew he was bearer, not only of the Word of God, but also of the “truth of the Gospel.” In fact the faith of the Church has always been the faith of the apostles: we believe in Jesus as the apostles believed, understood and taught. It is impossible to make this a subject of discussion without departing from the Christian faith. The doctrine received from the apostles and guarded by the Church is what we call Tradition.
• 11. The enemies of Paul criticize his authority saying that he was not an apostle like those Jesus had chosen. Paul will then briefly recall his itinerary: see on this subject Acts 9:1-31.
To reveal in me his Son (v. 16). Paul has not only “seen” Christ, he discovered him intimately present in himself. The risen Christ, Word and Wisdom of God, gave him in a unique illumination all the truth of faith (not all the truths which are only partial aspects which we may discover in different stages of life).
The case of Paul, whom Christ called directly, is special. Yet we see that Paul did not impose himself on the Church. Christ sent him to ask Ananias for baptism. Later he saw “Cephas” (the Aramean name for Peter), recognized head of the Church, and James, responsible for the Church of Jerusalem. This “union” or “communion” is indispensable for acting in the name of the Church.
Paul says: They acknowledged the graces God gave me (2:9): they recognized that the Spirit of God was in Paul’s work. The leaders in the Church do not impose a personal policy, but they try to recognize the call of the Holy Spirit.
• 2.1 This meeting in Jerusalem is related in Acts 15 and its commentary is found there.
When they became Christians, the Jews by race and religion continued to observe the Law of Moses in which the great commandments (to know God, not to murder…), the rituals of worship, and national customs are combined. When people of different races began to be converted to Christ, Paul demanded that they should not be forced to follow the Mosaic Law. Naturally, they had to respect their neighbor and were not to steal, but this emerges from the Gospel without having to impose the Mosaic Law.
So that the truth of the Gospel remain intact in you (v. 5). Because the Gospel frees us from all that limits our horizon. God is pure liberty and pure gift. May he be seen (it is not wrong) as the fabulous creator of an immense universe, or (what has more truth) as unique Love and Lover, Father of all who are able to return his love, he cannot tie us to a certain way of dressing nor enclose himself in our cooking and our times of prayer. Time has come for reciprocal kindness (Jn 1:17).
We are concerned, and rightly so, for keeping true faith. Here Paul shows that keeping the truth of the Gospel is not only a matter of formulas; our very way of life, free vis-à-vis of all that is not God, proclaims what the Gospel is.
It does not matter what they were before (v. 6). Peter, James and John had no titles, or money or culture. They may even have been despised by more learned believers. Paul does not pay attention to that; he looks upon them only as the leaders of the Church.
• 11. In the church, Paul feels it is his duty to reprimand the supreme leader, the first pope. Jesus promised Peter that his faith would not fail but he did not say that he would never make a mistake.
Jews did not eat with pagan non-Jews since, for them, it would have been something “impure,” a blemish. When some Jews were converted and entered the Church, if they had maintained this attitude toward their Christian brothers and sisters from another race, they would have kept an inadmissible division within a community renewed by Christ.
Peter (or Cephas: see Jn 1:42) knows that now all people are equal and he accepts for himself, not to take the Law into account. Yet he is afraid of what his friends and compatriots will think. He does not realize that, in order to please them, he is endangering the evangelization of those who are not Jewish. These people, in being seen as impure, are no longer at home in the Church. They are pressured to adopt the Jewish customs and with this, they will become alien to their own people. If they do not comply, they will be second-class citizens in the Church.
This problem is always with us, since often those who give the tone in the Christian community belong to a certain social level: others have no reason to do everything as they do. Each one in the Church comes from a particular milieu with its culture and language: we have the right to be shocked by what is foreign to our own culture but we must bear many things we do not like. The Church has to be open to diverse peoples.
• 15. We are Jews… Paul develops here what his reply to Peter contained: when you welcomed Christian faith, you gave up any hope of being rewarded for fulfilling the commandments; you put instead all your trust in Jesus as a Savior. This challenge has made Christian faith very strong. If now, for fear of scandalizing the Jews you decline from eating with non-Jews, all will understand that you have gone too far and that in fact the Law is still valid.
If we do away with something and then restore it (v. 18). This is exactly what the Galatians are doing in their turn. Paul taught them to be free of the prejudices of their pagan religion just as of the practices of the Old Testament. Now without these practices they feel naked: was faith in Christ sufficient when all around them each one had religion and practices? It was not pleasant to be circumcised, but at least, it gave you an identity.
We have here a summary of what Paul will develop four years later in chapters 2–8 in his letter to the Romans. We must not let the defense of Christian freedom, something that was so new and had not finished cracking cultural and social molds, hide from us what Paul would most like to transmit: “Christ lives in me.” Paul is not a theoretician; what makes him write today and tomorrow urges him to cross seas and traverse mountains is a passionate love of Jesus-God. It would need audacity to comment on this dwelling of Christ in those he loves and who love him. It has taken nothing less than this love without reserve, to bring about the greatest achievement of Christian faith and yet the least noticed: pardon and humility among others: with Christ I am crucified.
• 3.1 A good number of these Galatians are of Jewish origin, the others already have some notion of the Old Testament given that it is read in Church meetings (the New Testament does not yet exist). Paul then will recall first their own experience in baptism, when they received the Spirit; he will later interpret this experience in reading the Old Testament.
You begin with the Spirit and end up with the flesh (v. 3). This phrase has a double meaning. First the Galatians experienced the working of the Holy Spirit and his miracles and now they want to receive circumcision in the flesh. In another sense, they started with the truth of God that was in Jesus: that is “the spirit.” Now they go back to Jewish observances which, though they come from God, many times remained, as any religious practice, at a human level: the flesh.
Those who disturbed the Galatians said: you belong to Christ, but Christ is a descendant of Abraham and a Jew. Then follow Abraham and do as the Jews do: and so, along with Christ, you will be children of Abraham. Paul reports that one is not a son of Abraham or a son of God by race: this is a point that he develops more in Romans 4.
Let us not think that such prejudices have disappeared. There are some who think they are Catholics because they have been baptized at birth: they forget that without faith, baptism is meaningless.
Righteousness or justification (3:8). Like in Romans Paul will use this word abundantly. It means that through faith we are set right with God and our self is re-ordered so as to enter his ways.
• 15. We know that, in the Bible, Testament and Covenant mean the same: the Old Testament is the first covenant of God with humankind. Here Paul compares God with someone making a testament.
First God made a solemn covenant with Abraham. He did not demand anything of him, but made a promise to him. All that God expected of Abraham’s children in order to save them was that they would trust him. After such an important initiative from God, the Law which the Lord gave to Moses later did not really change the situation. Therefore, Paul says, most of the Jews are wrong when they are so concerned about observing the Law and so little concerned about opening their hearts.
• 19. In the preceding paragraph Paul began to show that there were different stages in faith history. The Jews already saw a progression in the revelation of God: they spoke of successive covenants of God with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses. For them the progress was that God had given a more complete law and that his choice was narrowing to the point of concentrating all his promises on the small Jewish community. Paul, as we have seen, shows that progress is elsewhere: God has replaced a religion where faith was, in fact, obedience to a law, by faith which is gift of self to God, as response to God, person to person.
Here Paul says more: there is a pedagogy of God in this change. “The Law led us to the school” (3:24): let us look at the word “pedagogy”: in Greek it signifies “take the child to school.” At this time the children of well-to-do families were entrusted to a servant called “pedagogue” who took the child to school but did not teach. Here Paul says: the Law was the servant, while Christ is the master.
Why then the Law? Paul will raise the question in Rom 3:1; 5:20; 7:7. He gives here his response in 4:1. He points out the negative character of the Law that constantly denounces and condemns: The Law closed out every viewpoint other than that of sin (v. 22). It is good that for a time God obliges us to keep our eyes fixed on our sins, our infidelity and ingratitude towards him, but he is much more concerned in making us grow, consequently becoming able to deal with him, person to person. Some will say: “This simplicity with God, we shall have up there.” That, however, is not what God wishes. He wants his kingdom to be among us now.
The Law was the means of leading the Jewish people to a better understanding of human hard-heartedness in relation to God, and giving them a sense of sin. It served as an education of a people during a certain time.
With this we can understand verse 19: with Moses as their mediator. Paul does not consider the Law something divine and eternal, dictated by God himself. He thinks that God let the angels in charge of diverse historical forces decide together on this temporary arrangement, so that the law would fit a particular time and circumstance; then Moses had to reconcile their diverse demands. The same thought is expressed in 4:3. In short, the Old Testament already contains the divine truth, but it has come down to us through mediators who adapted it to their ways and obscured it.
For each of us, it is necessary to have been submitted to a law, to have learned to obey without discussion during our early years. This first formation is irreplaceable; later we shall know how to obey our conscience without confusing it with our caprices. It was the same for God’s people as a whole: the Law led them to the freedom of the Gospel (5:1). So, if Christ has already taught us, why return to Jewish practice?
• 4.1 As long as the heir of the host is a child. God made people to be free, holy, strong, in the image of Christ. No one is born as an adult; she must be a child first. Similarly humankind has to go through infancy. There was a primitive society, a naive science, a simple culture, a transitional religion. People remained “among slaves”; Paul saw them dependent on “created forces” that govern the world. For him the laws of nature as well as the rules and prejudices of primitive peoples are one with the invisible forces of good and evil (the word we translated as “created forces” also means “directing principle”: Eph 3:10; Col 2:15). Now, through Christ, the great door of freedom opens to us. First, Christ liberates people from religious superstitions and from the prejudices that prevent them from knowing the Father and from becoming his children.
He came born of woman and subject to the Law (v. 4). Christ saves humans because he is a man. Christ came first as the savior of the Jewish people and, to save them, he became one of them. He received his whole formation from the Law, namely, from the people and religion of the Old Testament. This Law was highly positive, but, as time passed, we had to be redeemed from the yoke of this Law to receive the fullness of divine truth.
We must see in this obedience of Christ born of woman and subject to the Law a fundamental disposition of the plan of salvation: God saves us by becoming one of us. The same is now true of the Church, which saves people rather than giving to them or “being interested in them.” The Church cannot bring them a permanent and transforming salvation if it does not share in their very condition.
This is the reason why the Lord wants Third World churches to bear the cross of the people of their continents: their marginalization, their sufferings and humiliations, in order to lead them to authentic salvation. When there are only middle-class churches following occidental or Roman patterns, these churches are unfaithful to their mission.
You want to be enslaved again? (v. 9). We soon tire of liberty, for it always complicates life. It would be much simpler to be told: “This is right, that is a sin.”
Paul said to the Galatians: “You belong to Christ, be guided by his Spirit.” Did they really want to be more pliable with their ready-made judgments? Were they ready to restrain that kind of pride that accompanies the eagerness for social recognition? If not, there would be no Spirit. The Galatians actually preferred to walk along familiar paths. They kept certain festive days and obeyed the rules just like the Jews; they were, in fact, quite content with a mediocre faith and a love that risks nothing.
• 12. Here, a few more personal lines. These Galatians loved Paul, and Paul loved them, but some aspect of faith escaped them. That is why they felt more at ease with others than with Paul, those who had a sense of “religion” and did not fail to profit from it.
• 21. In the history of his ancestor Abraham, Paul discovers an image of conflict opposing the true believer to the “Judaizers”—those who say one is saved by religiously observing practices.
At the start of sacred history is Abraham’s faith and the promise God made to him. It should be noted that this promise was not to be inherited in the same way as family goods, which had to be distributed among all the children. The promise will not come to Ishmael born like any other. (Paul says: “born according to the flesh”.) Rather, what God promised was only destined for the son of promise, Isaac: the one who was born through a miraculous and free intervention of God. Thus, from the very beginning of the Bible, we see that we do not come to faith and to God’s inheritance because we have a right to them, but through grace.
By clinging to their religious observances, the Jews were forgetting that they were, above all, the people of the promise. Chosen by God in preference to other people, their mission was to announce that there are promises of God for all nations. They were wrong in thinking thus: since we are chosen by God, let everyone do what we do and observe our practices. Instead they should have shared their hopes with others; they should have taught others to believe in God’s promise and not put their trust in particular religious practices.
Hagar, the slave woman who gave birth to Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs, becomes the image of the people of the first covenant, people who received the Law on Mount Sinai in Arabia: they did not achieve true freedom and held the earthly Jerusalem as their capital.
While Sarah, the free woman, with her son Isaac, born according to the divine promise, represents God’s new covenant with those who believe in his promises. These are the free people, the Christians who wait for the heavenly Jerusalem.
Ishmael persecuted Isaac and Abraham sent him away. This means: the inadequately converted Jews are disturbing the Galatians; the Church, then, has to send them away.
• 5.1 Paul does not want converts to be circumcised. See how firmly he speaks to them: this would be a falling away from grace. Why? It was not a sin, Paul could well have tolerated without encouraging it.
Yet for Paul, you cannot preach the Gospel in an authentic way without taking stances that upset others. Again “the truth of the Gospel” is not only in the formulas of dogma: it is also in the stand you take, showing how free we are. If the Gospel is liberation, the apostles should adopt, at least on certain points, positions that disturb and shock. Jesus gave an example in violating the holiest of laws, that of the Sabbath, when it was not necessary to do so.
Such is the necessary scandal in all Christian behavior, which will never be as scandalous as was Jesus’ death on a cross (see 1 Cor 1:17). To save people means, somehow, making them discover who they are before God, and then bringing them to confront the forces that have kept them subjugated and alienated. This is why Paul was so opposed to perpetuating Jewish practices. Following Paul, we could ask in our days: Who are those who give in to prejudices and alienating powers, and who are the persecuted (5:11; 6:12)? Oftentimes, the Gospel is lived more authentically in Christian groups that are politically aware and active than in groups that limit themselves to liturgical practices.
• 13. If the Galatians are looking out for religious practices it is partly because they feel that faith should be expressed in a concrete way. Here Paul tells them: if you are anxious for putting faith into life, look at your community life. We, like them, are terribly accustomed to a double life: on one hand we proclaim we are children of God, we speak of grace, of spiritual life, while we are terribly ordinary, often very dishonest and malicious in daily life or with our rivals within the Church, especially if we have a title to defend.
Paul rightly gives a short list of the works of the flesh and another of the fruits of the Spirit. He places side by side idolatry and the ambitions or divisions so common in religious and practicing groups. It is clear that for him flesh and spirit are not the same as “body” and “soul”: the pettiness and attachment to our privileges are also sins of the flesh, that is of people alien to the Spirit (see com. on 3:3 and Rom 7:16).
• 6.11 At the moment of saying good-bye, once again Paul speaks about the crisis in the community. It is not only a problem of religious practice; there are also certain persons anxious to put up a good show in life (see Phil 3:2-11).
Those who persuade you to be circumcised: they are members of the community. They want to be different from “ordinary” Christians, forming an apparently more serious group, more religious because of being circumcised. Actually, this rite would assure them a welcome to Jewish homes—a good way of making professional contacts. Already at that time the links uniting Jewish communities established in all the cities of the Roman Empire increased their possibilities. For those middle class people it was advantageous to rely on them. Paul instead chose to break up and he was to be persecuted from city to city till the moment in which his adversaries would have him condemned by imperial justice.
The world has been crucified to me. Paul has chosen a different way. He goes on his way, without a home, persecuted by some, despised by others, feared by those who cannot stand his example of complete abnegation, nor his mingling with so many people whom they consider inferior. This is to follow Christ to the cross.