Galatians 5:1-12: In these verses, Paul summarizes his basic point in arguing against the Jewish Christian agitators, and he uses some angry and colorful language along the way. Christ has set the Galatian Christians free to live in freedom. To submit to the Law would be to enter into slavery. Paul sees things in very either/or back-and-white terms here. If you see the need to become circumcised to find favor with God, be prepared to try and fulfill the entire Law. With perhaps a bit of ironic humor, Paul tells the Galatians that those who would be circumcised have “cut” themselves off from Christ. His basic point is that in Christ circumcision really doesn’t matter. Life lived in the Spirit, faith working through love, are what matters. In faith we live and in faith we hope for a time when God’s dream for the world, God’s righteousness, will become fully real.
Paul now turns his attention to the troublemakers. The Galatians had been doing so well, what had happened? They have been unduly influenced by some teachers whose gospel is significantly different from Paul’s. Some might have tried to make Paul an ally by saying that he, too, preached circumcision, but Paul denies that. Paul contrasts the preaching of circumcision with the preaching of the cross. He preaches and teaches the latter. Then Paul uses a very striking, angry and violent image. Deeply frustrated with those he feels are leading the Galatian Christians astray, he writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.” Though filled with anger and frustration, this is also a shrewd use of an image, even if we find it distasteful. The troublesome teachers had been encouraging circumcision – Paul tells them to keep cutting! Those who had been castrated were required to be removed from the community under the terms of the Law. Paul wishes these teachers would go away. Some devotees of pagan goddesses castrated themselves as an act of devotion. Paul may be alluding to his argument that for the Galatian Christians to undergo circumcision would be to enslave them in patterns familiar in their lives before Christ. Might Paul ever have regretted using such harsh language? Here he is not a very good model for the contemporary church as it tries to navigate its differences. As much as we might “feel good” doing it, the conversation would not be much enhanced by telling someone you disagree with, “Go castrate yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-26: Paul again reminds the Galatian Christians that they have been called to freedom. They have been set free for freedom, and should not submit to the requirements of the Law. But that doesn’t mean that they are “free” to do anything at all. “Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom” (The Message). Here Paul uses a startling image – “through love become slaves to one another.” Hasn’t Paul been encouraging the Galatians to remain free, to avoid becoming slaves? Now he tells them to be slaves to each other in love. Paul seems to assume that people will give themselves to something or someone. We become what we commit our lives to. True freedom is found in giving our lives in love to each other. Paul then makes another dramatic assertion – “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” If you want to really fulfill the Law, Paul asserts, forget circumcision. Love.
Live by the Spirit. This is another way to encourage the Galatian Christians to use their freedom to love. Here Paul “draws a contrast between the Spirit of God, which produces its fruit within the justified, and the works of the flesh, which destroy the fabric of community life” (New Interpreters Study Bible). When referring to “Spirit” and “flesh,” Paul is not talking about two components of the human self, but about the Christian life lived in the conflicting force field between two powers (People’s New Testament Commentary).
The use of the term “flesh” has often been confusing. Walter Wink is helpful. Sarx [flesh] can refer to the physical substance we are made of or to the physical body; it can be used for the self or one’s being, or for human beings or humanity in general. Less frequently it denotes physical genetic descent or ethnicity, or earthly existence, or, rarely, sexual desire. But its most striking and theologically weighty use, found especially in Paul, is in reference to the self in its alienated mode. Life lived “according to the flesh” denotes the self externalized and subjugated to the opinions of others. It is the self socialized into a world of inauthentic values, values that lead it away from its centeredness in God. It is the beachhead the Domination System establishes in our being…. It is pursuit of the values of the Domination System. [It] refers to a life that has abandoned the transcendent and become fixated on personal satisfactions…. Everything an alienated person does is infected by alienation, even the quest for God. Therefore God has taken the initiative and come searching for us. (Engaging the Powers, 61-62).
Paul opposes the life of the flesh to the life of the Spirit. The values of the flesh (alienated, inauthentic existence; separation from others, from higher purposes and from God) can be seen in the kinds of qualities and actions produced in those who live according to the flesh. “Paul lists 15 works of the flesh, all of which are destructive of community life” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible): fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Paul’s list is not meant to be exhaustive. It is illustrative and a fairly common list of “vices.” Such actions and values are antithetical to God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world. The Message (Eugene Peterson) translates the list this way: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied-wants; a brutal temper; and impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. I do appreciate Eugene Paterson’s gift for language. The life of the Spirit is a distinct contrast, characterized by these qualities and actions: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Here is how The Message renders this list: affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Again, Paul’s list is not meant to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, I find in these verses about the fruit of the Spirit one of the central images for the Christian life. This is who I want to be. This is how I want to live. This is how I want God’s Spirit in Christ to transform my life. I often use these fruit of the Spirit as a prayer for my life.
Paul, with gentle humor, notes that the law does not speak against such things as these fruit. He offers encouraging words. We who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh, the inauthentic self. We are people of the Spirit and should live as such. This Spirit life is meant to be lived in community, and so Paul reminds them that the Spirit community should not be marked by conceit, competition, or envy. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original. (The Message)
Galatians 6:1-10: “Live creatively friends” (The Message). The life of the Spirit is meant to be lived in community, and here Paul describes what that community life should be like in even more detail. If one falls away, efforts should be made to restore that person in “a spirit of gentleness.” “Such efforts at restoration are a risky business, involving the possibility of further misunderstanding and conflict, self-righteousness, and offending the straying member even further. As his own letter shows, for Paul the business of being a caring congregation is risky, and it accepts the risks.” (People’s New Testament Commentary) Life in community means bearing one another’s burdens. If there is a law in Christ, it is a law of love and mutual care. While we are to be engaged in mutual care, we balance that with paying attention to how we live our own lives. Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. (The Message) In this community, Paul encourages the congregation to support their teachers.
Paul again contrasts flesh and Spirit, and uses the metaphor of planting to describe how one should make choices in the Christian life. Sow seeds of the Spirit and you reap a new kind of life. That’s what Paul encourages, and so he goes on to say that they should not “grow weary in doing what is right.” Instead, whenever they can, they should “work for the good of all.” Straightforward words for our own lives.
Galatians 6:11-18: Paul has been on such a positive roll, but he is not yet finished with the conflict the precipitated this letter. Paul notes that he writes some of this in his own hand. Apparently his practice was to dictate his letters to scribes. Usually when he takes the pen it is to offer a warm personal note, but here he summarizes his argument against the Jewish Christian agitators who have sown seeds of discord among the Galatians. He accuses these troublemakers of looking out only for their own reputation and safety. Perhaps Paul writes this because Jews had been given some protection by Rome. They were allowed to practice their religion. The first Christians were Jews, and saw their allegiance to Jesus as the Christ as an extension of that faith. Arguments were often made that as a part of Judaism, Christians should also receive Roman recognition. The troublemakers could have been concerned about this, hence Paul sees them as not being willing to be persecuted for the cross of Christ. He also accuses them of not keeping the law in its entirety. In contrast, Paul boasts only of the cross of Christ and of the way the crucified Christ has changed his life – it has made him dead to the warped values of “the world” (“the flesh”). “New creation is everything.” Paul wishes peace and mercy upon all those who walk in this way of new creation. They are the “Israel” of God. Paul ends by stating his desire to move away from the troubles he has dealt with in this letter. He has had enough, after all, he has already been marked in life by the suffering of Jesus in his own life and ministry.
Paul finally ends on a positive note, wishing them all the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.