St Paul, The Galations and Me

St Paul, the Galations and Me
St Paul, the Galations and me

“You stupid, senseless Galations!”

One of the last Divine Office readings before Ash Wednesday is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galations. He minces no words and we can practically see the spittle collecting at the sides of his mouth as we read the Apostle’s exhortations. Paul is admonishing the new community of Galations in the remote province in current day Turkey that the Mosaic Law does not apply. And making his displeasure with Peter’s ‘dissembling’ known for eternity. The reason for Paul’s anger at Peter and the rest of the Jews is they have backslid into the comfort of the law. Or rather that Peter has chosen not to confront the error of the Jewish believers who simply could not let go. In this case, they could not accept that uncircumcised Gentiles could be saved.

You senseless Galations! Who has cast a spell over you?…you before whose eyes Jesus Christ was displayed on his cross? I want to learn only one thing from you; how did you receive the Spirit? Was it through observance of the law or faith on what you heard? How could you be so stupid? After beginning in the spirit are you now to end in the flesh?…

I understand.

Like many of us, I suspect, I have a love/hate relationship with rules and structure. While  appreciating the dangers implicit in order and structure, like close-mindedness and rigidity, the reassurance of their existence is seductive. In the case of committed Christians, things like tithing, attending Sunday services or Mass, feeding the homeless, saying the Rosary, the Divine Office are just a sampling of the acts of Christians.

Were I a male Jew around two thousand years ago, I can easily understand the Jewish followers of Christ who wanted more from the former pagan Gentiles, something difficult, painful, a real and lasting sacrifice. More then mere words.

But no one understood the law better than Paul. Chief Pharisee, the most zealous of the persecutors of those early followers of Christ. Paul understood that heart-breaking truth; the law was nothing. All of the Masses and alms and sacrifices are nothing. Without love.

But Paul did not write the most popular Bible verse read at weddings today to describe the love between a man and woman:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

The apostle Paul wrote these words to another of his communities who were fighting with one another, arguing about the silly things most humans do. This lyrically poetic passage describes Christians and how we each must behave to one another, then and now. Including those we don’t like, even our enemies.

Rules are infinitely easier, even painful ones, like circumcision.

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