Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Galatians 4

Galatians 4:1-7: Moving back from the argument that the Galatian Christians are all a part of Christ and thus heirs of Abraham through baptism, he returns to the image of a will. This time he adds a twist – what status does a minor heir have? The status of a slave, at least until the appropriate time arrives. The image isn’t perfect, for a son knows he will inherit one day whereas a slave has no such hope. Paul then offers an even more strained analogy – “we,” meaning all humankind, we minors are as such enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” “Here Paul refers to those transcendent cosmic powers that oppress humanity, the enslaving conditions of human existence as such” (People’s New Testament Commentary). For Paul, human existence is often driven by “powers” or “forces.” That may not be as strange as it seems. Sociologists argue that there are many things in our lives that are shaped by our social experiences and social location. Psychologists argue that there are often unconscious drives that move and motivate us. Both will make the case that seeing our lives more fully, completely and clearly allows us to make more choices about how we will incorporate the social and psychological forces and drives that are a part of our lives into our actions. As we are more aware we are freer to shape our lives.

Theologian and Biblical scholar Walter Wink has written extensively on the language of the powers in the New Testament (The Powers That Be is a summary of this work). For Wink, “the spiritual Powers… [are] the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power” (Naming the Powers, 104). “The Powers are simultaneously the outer and inner aspects of one and the same indivisible concretion of power” (Naming the Powers, 107). Biblically and theologically Wink believes that we need to simultaneously affirm three things about the Powers: “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.” (The Powers That Be, 51) An illustration is in order. Governments are powers, and they have a good function, necessary for human community. We need to figure out how to live together and work together and share resources together. Governments allow us to do that. They are a power for good, at least theoretically. In reality, those who govern often lose sight of the common good. Governing power becomes an end in itself. Power structures become corrupt and the persons who seek nothing more than to stay in power become warped, to some extent. The Powers are not functioning as intended. They are fallen. But it is the intention of God to redeem the Powers – to make systems more just, to liberate persons from the captivity to a lesser self. Wink’s work is rich and suggestive and I have only scratched the surface of it here. I hope it illustrates how seemingly arcane language can become alive again, relevant and pertinent.

Paul’s basic point in all of this is that lives were subject to elemental spirits until, in the fullness of time, Christ came. When Christ came our status could be changed. It is like an heir coming into an inheritance. Paul then shifts images – it is also like being adopted into a family, this time the family of God. The inheritance we receive as a part of this family is God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit at work in our hearts moves us to know God as “Abba,” “Father.” This is not intended to be a gender-specific identification of God. Rather it suggests an intimacy with God that is ours as a part of God’s people. The Galatian Christians are part of the family of God already and do not need to submit to the dictates prescribed by the Jewish-Christian agitators.

For our own lives, we are invited to see that God is always at work to bring us into a more intimate relationship with God. When the Spirit of God is at work in us, we sense that closeness of God, at least sometimes.

Galatians 4:8-11: Paul now addresses the situation of Gentile Galatian Christians directly, using again the image of slavery. Formerly, the Galatian Christians followed gods that really weren’t God. Paul uses a wonderful turn of phrase in verse 9. “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” - - - our relationship to God is always a knowing and being known. The Galatian Christians have come to this place of freedom, why would they want to return to a form of slavery. For Paul, Gentile submission to the requirements of the Law, when seen as necessary for being completely a part of the family of God, is akin to worshipping gods who were not God, and akin to a form of enslavement.

Galatians 4:12-20: In this letter where Paul is trying to call the Galatian Christians back to the message he shared with them, to loyalty to that message and to Paul himself, he uses everything in his rhetorical medical bag. He now appeals to their shared experience. Paul has become as them, that is, free from law-works. Apparently Paul first preached to these churches because of some physical suffering he was undergoing. This may have been an unplanned stop on his journeys. In spite of his troubles, Paul was welcomed, and he asks them to welcome him again. Their hospitality was deep and radical, and he asks them to restore it. Paul argues that the agitators are trying to flatter the Galatians, but to no good end. Paul is not saying that positive encouragement is unimportant. “It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times.” Paul offers such positive words about these communities for the good of bringing them around. He then offers a startling image of his leadership. “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” - - - Paul feels like a mother toward these communities. The image is of tender strength, and it is an image that would have been very unlikely in that day and time. Paul is like their mother, but right now, a perplexed mother. What might we who lead in the church today learn about Christian spiritual leadership from Paul’s imagery?

Galatians 4:21-31: Paul shifts again, moving from a deeply personal note to an argument from Scripture. "O.k., so you want to follow the Law? Have you even read what is there?" Paul tells them. Remember that Abraham had two children, one born of a slave and one born from his wife Sarah. Paul is clear that he is making this an allegory. This allegory is meant to address the situation in Galatia in the first century and is not meant to be Paul’s final word about Judaism or the Law. Again, Paul’s specific argument strikes us as an unusual use of the Scriptures, but it can be instructive to see just how they were used by Paul. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretive methods have been used for Scripture. This is an uncomfortable truth for those who think that Scripture should be interpreted literally and we should stick with its “plain meaning.” The texts are intended to be read together in community and the value of an exegetical strategy is in important ways to be determined by the effect of that interpretive strategy in the lives of the people. Anyway, Paul proposes and allegory of two covenants, and argues that the Galatian Gentile Christians belong to the covenant of freedom, they are children of promise. Paul encourages them to drive out the trouble makers. “Paul had considerable tolerance for a broad range of understandings of the Christian faith, but also recognized a line at which it was not only a different perspective, but a different gospel that was being proclaimed” (People’s New Testament Commentary).

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