Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 19, 2016

Galatians 3:23-29 Commentary

Once Paul turned the corner on what he thought about God’s Law, he turned hard and never looked back. Indeed, Paul devotes some considerable space to this topic in his various New Testament epistles, coming up with ever-more creative ways by which to reframe the role and purpose of God’s Law. The end of Galatians 3 is one such passage and it introduces a very curious image indeed.

But first: we need to remember that prior to getting knocked flat on the Damascus Road by the very Jesus whose name Saul was intent on wiping off the face of the earth, Saul’s view of the Law was radically different. The Law was its own kind of savior. The Law was your ticket to the heavenly kingdom of God. I know that in recent years the ins and outs of all this have been endlessly debated by old school scholars and “new perspective on Paul” scholars and I admit that it always takes a bit of review for me to re-understand the finer nuances among the perspectives as to what Second Temple Judaism Jews like Saul of Tarsus would have thought about the role played by the Law.

No doubt there was still some sense that the Law was God’s gift to the people to keep them healthy and safe AND that the Law had been given at Sinai only after the people had already been redeemed. Salvation comes first (and by God’s covenantal grace alone) and Law comes second as a response to that grace. The indicative precedes the imperative. True enough. But we also know that keeping the Law—including the “fence around the Torah” and all those extra laws that got added to protect the REAL Law at the center—had come to be the defining mark of a true believer. The cart did get in front of the horse eventually (this has happened in my own Reformed tradition too) and so there was confusion. Keeping the law peerlessly slowly on morphed from a SIGN that you were a true believer into the WAY you become a true believer.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, it is the easiest thing in the world to confuse fruit with root. You cannot see the roots of a tree but only the lovely peaches that grow above the soil on the tree’s branches. Of course, no roots, no fruit but the fruit is so much easier to see that sooner or later its production becomes so fascinating that we forget about the roots. It’s the same with Christian work and keeping the law: what we do is visible on the surface of our lives. That it is all fueled by the roots of grace is harder to spy and, therefore, to remember, and so sooner or later most of us are far more proud of the bumper crop of spiritual peaches we have produced than we are cognizant of the grace that alone made that possible in the first place.

To invoke Lewis’s famous analogy: Suppose a 6-year-old boy asks his father to give him $5 to buy him a present. The father gives the boy the money and is then thrilled with the gift the little tyke later brings to him. But, Lewis observes, only a fool would conclude the father came out $5 ahead on the transaction!

If we don’t get the grace, the energy, the “money” from God in the first place, we’d have no spiritual work/fruits to give, and pleased though God is with our lives of discipleship, he never thinks that this is how we saved ourselves in the first place.

Paul’s own testimonies in Galatians and Philippians and elsewhere to his former way of thinking is abundantly clear: he was God’s favorite person because he was near perfect in keeping the Law. But once Saul-turned-Paul got literally and metaphysically blinded by the searing grace of God that shines from Christ’s cross, he looked back on his own past accomplishments and suddenly the whole thing looked like a stinking pile of cow crap (skubala in Greek).

But a yen to make law-keeping a key player in salvation is like the proverbial bad penny: it just keeps turning up. It did in Galatia, too, as previous sermon commentaries on this epistle have displayed. So Paul had to reframe the Law over and over and in Galatians 3 he comes up with another reframing image: a babysitter.

The Law up until the time of Christ was, Paul says in the Greek, our paidagogos. Some translations now render this “guardian” but “babysitter” is not far from the mark. A paidagogos was someone who watched over a child when the child was too young to take care of him- or herself. The babysitter is not the child’s parent or probably a family member of any kind and, as every child happily anticipates, neither is the babysitter going to be permanently necessary. For any given human being, a babysitter is a temporary presence in a person’s life until a time of greater maturity is reached after which babysitters are no longer needed.

Of course, the principles of the babysitter never go away. Or better said, what happens when a child matures is that he or she internalizes what the babysitter would say or do in order to keep the child healthy and well. You sort of do it for yourself, and apply those same lessons of care to others who may come under your care someday (your own children or someone else’s kids in case you become a guardian or babysitter). The freedom that you later enjoy in life stems from the fact that someone once upon a time both took good care of you—and how could you ever feel negatively toward that person, therefore—and the fact that you now know how to do this for your own self.

This passage ends with soaring words about how now in Christ the old demarcations of sex, gender, legal status, and nationality are stripped away, drowned out and washed out in the waters of baptism. We now have a unity and a freedom in Christ and in his overflowing grace that we could never have conceived of before. The babysitter is gone now but we would never be where we are without that guardian having been there. And that guardian is still with us—the reason we can treat each other in love and with such generosity over and above the distinctions in life that so often keep people apart is because we have internalized the Law of love and all its myriad implications.

We no longer need to be told to keep the Law—the Spirit that lives in us on account of baptism keeps it for us and in us and goads us in gratitude for our salvation in Christ to follow God’s ways joyfully.

Illustration Idea

In the movie The Sound of Music, Sister Maria is sent to the Von Trapp family as governess over the seven children of a wealthy widower. The children range in ages from 5 to 16 and were notorious for having run through a fair number of recent governesses who apparently fled the household in despair. When Maria arrives, she discovers quickly that the oldest of the children, Liesel, is 16 years old and sees no need for a governess. Maria responds, “Well, then I guess we will just be good friends.” Later, when Liesel gets herself into a tight spot with her father only to be saved by Maria’s standing up for her, Liesel confesses that maybe she does still need a governess after all.

But, of course, Liesel and Maria do end up actually becoming friends even as Maria becomes a step-mother to all the children after she and Captain Von Trapp fall in love and get married. Maria is no longer a babysitter or governess for Liesel but she is still necessary, still welcome, still useful in Liesel’s life.

Something about all that made me think of Paul’s image of the Law as our babysitter. Paul never says the Law is now gone, disappeared, useless. It’s still here but in Christ and as we live into the perfect salvation Christ delivered to us, the Law is now a friend, a partner, a still-useful guide to Godly living even if its days as our babysitter are long gone.


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