Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 19, 2022
Galatians 3:23-29 Commentary
Occasionally the Revised Common Lectionary’s choice of where to begin and end a Lesson isn’t just puzzling. It’s also downright bewildering. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is a case in point. After all, the chasm between verses’ 23-25 and 26-29 may seem to be a kind of grand canyon that has no bridge that crosses it. In fact, the NIV even divides them with an (admittedly uninspired) subject heading.
As a result, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, proclaimers might quickly choose to preach on just the first or second half of the Lesson. But they may struggle with how to preach on both without the benefit of a theme that obviously unifies them.
However, the great divide between Galatians 3:23-29’s first and second halves isn’t just thematic. It’s also somewhat metaphorical. The gap between verses 25 and 26 is, after all, almost as large as the chasm that exists between the faith of Jews and of Christians.
After all, Jews don’t characterize God’s law as some kind of prison guard (23) or something God put in charge to lead people to Christ (24). The second assertion is, in fact, offensive to them. God’s law is central to Jews’ relationship with God. While Christians profess that we are no longer under the law’s supervision (25), Jews see the law as their supervisor.
Our shared involvement in feeding our neighbors who are hungry has given my wife and me the opportunity to befriend a number of Orthodox and observant Jews. A number of other Jews have become acquaintances and partners in caring for our neighbors who are materially vulnerable.
Our conversations have led my wife and me to feel something of a kinship with observant Jews. They too, after all, see the Scriptures as their guide for life. While observant Jews are guided by just the First Testament and rabbinical interpretations of it, we share a commitment to faithful obedience to God’s Word.
Yet while Christians share so much with our observant Jewish neighbors, we don’t share an understanding of the role of God’s law. Observant Jews live out their relationship with God by observing Torah. The book of Galatians, including chapter 3, insists that Christ Jesus’ friends live out our relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Revised Common Lectionary originally designated Galatians 3:23-29 as the Epistolary Lesson for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost. So it followed Galatians 1:11-24 and 2:15-21’s lessons. However, the RCL has since, regrettably, omitted the Galatians 1 and 2 passages from its Year C schedule. So on the second Sunday of Pentecost, it now “drops” its proclaimers into what’s basically the middle of Paul’s fairly tightly woven letter to Galatia’s Christians.
Galatians 2:16’s omitted text is, in fact, central to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There he writes, “a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Jesus Christ that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law, no one will be justified.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, however, suggests that at least some Galatian church leaders insisted that justifying faith includes obedience of God’s law. They seemed to assume that Christians must do things like be circumcised and observe Jewish dietary laws in order for God to include them in God’s covenant people.
Paul, however, sees the role of the law in Christians’ lives very differently. To help his readers understand that, he describes a kind of “before-and-after” scenario. Before the Spirit gifted God’s adopted sons and daughter with faith (23) in Jesus Christ, God’s law had several functions.
It served as a kind of warden that held God’s dearly beloved people captive (23). Since Paul doesn’t explain what he means by calling the law our “captor,” proclaimers must guess at its meaning. In his commentary on Galatians (Galatians, Eerdmans, 2021, 237), N.T. Wright notes that in the ancient world, imprisonment was not a punishment, but a place where authorities “put undesirables until it was decided what to do with them.”
If that’s what Paul intends his readers to understand by our text’s reference to imprisonment, then he’s saying that God’s law served as a place where God “held” people until Jesus Christ came to live and die for us. It served as a kind of protective custody until Christ could come to free us.
Paul’s reference to the law as a “supervisor” (padagaigos) in verses 24 and 25 seems a bit clearer to his 21st century readers. The NIV translates it in verse 24 as “put in charge.” In verse 25 it’s referred to as a kind of supervisor. Wright (ibid) helpfully notes that a padagaigos was a slave whose job it was to ensure that children got back and forth to school without getting into trouble along the way. He compares the role to that of a babysitter who has responsibility for a child for a certain reason. Such supervisors often watched over children until they reached adulthood.
However, Paul continues, God’s adopted sons and daughters no longer need Torah to babysit us. We have reached “adulthood.” The Christ whom God tasked the law with pointing God’s people to has come. The Spirit has also come, creating the link that is faith between God and God’s dearly beloved people.
However, the life and work of Christ also unites people in a way Torah could not. After all, at least some Jews understood (and still understand) the law to be a supervisor only for Jews. They don’t expect non-Jews to obey more than a handful of God’s laws. In that way Torah serves as a kind of divider between Jews and non-Jews.
The law is one of the barriers that Christ Jesus as well as faith in him break down. When we’re baptized, we’re baptized into a relationship with Christ Jesus. Those who are baptized into Christ then emerge from baptism’s waters clothed in Christ. We rise from baptism’s threatening waters to a new life of identification with Christ’s sufferings, as well as the obedience for which the Spirit equips those whom God justifies.
Those who are baptized are, as a result, no longer “clothed” in ways that distinguish Jews from non-Jews. In the community of the baptized, the distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, between slaves and those who claimed to be their masters, and men and women no longer define us.
As the biblical scholar Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us (italics added) … All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ.” God has, after all, made us “all one in Christ Jesus” (28).
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Lesson in a North American context do so in a culture that’s sensitized to ethnicity. So it will be hard for at least some hearers to accept that baptism into Christ affects the distinctions and relationships between members of various races and people groups. Galatians 3’s proclaimers will want to reflect on that prayerfully and carefully.
As we do, we might land in a couple of places. First, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers Christians another opportunity to confess and lament how members of various races and people groups have done much to harm each other. This text offers a good opportunity to repent of Jesus Christ’s friends’ sometimes deliberate failure to live out Galatians 3:28’s truths.
What’s more, Galatians 3’s proclaimers can admit that it’s radically counter-cultural. Many of us live in a society that often chooses sides based on things like the color of our skin, language, sexual identity and politics. Here Paul invites us to a different and more unifying way. He invites his adopted brothers and sisters in Christ to spend at least as much time celebrating our unity in Christ as we do our uniqueness.
On top of that, proclaimers might emphasize, with Wright (ibid) how, “in terms of membership in Messiah’s family, none of these either/or categories matter.” Paul doesn’t obliterate racial, socio-economic or gender distinctions. He simply insists that because of what Christ Jesus has graciously done, no member of God’s family is somehow superior or inferior to any other.
While obeying the law could never save anyone, it plays an important role in an orderly society. In his prologue to his book, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, Keith Law describes the breakdown of European society after 1945:
“Law and order are virtually non-existent because there is no police force and judiciary. In some areas there no longer seems to be any clear sense of right and wrong. People help themselves to whatever they want without regard to ownership.
“Goods belong only to those who are strong enough to hold onto them, and those who are willing to guard them with their lives. Men with weapons roam the streets, taking whatever they want and threatening anyone who gets in their way.”
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