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13th Sunday after Pentecost: We Live in the Relief, not the Burden

For some weeks we had Pauline readings from the Letters to the Corinthians. We begin this Sunday with pericopes from the Letter to the Galatians. The Epistle reading for this 13th Sunday after Pentecost (or as our ancient Roman forebears would have called it, the 3rd after St. Lawrence, which shows how important the saint was to them) is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 3: 16-22.

As always, we should get some context straight. Paul wrote this letter to the “churches of Galatia” which were in central Asia Minor, comprised mostly of converted Gentiles. According to Acts, Paul went to that area, although scholars are divided about the precise period in Paul’s travels (16:6; 18:23). At some point after Paul’s work amongst them, they strayed from Paul’s teachings into a Judaizing legalism, perhaps under the influence of Christians who were converted Jews. Some false teachers wormed in and taught that the Mosaic Law was also obligatory for Christians, including circumcision. Without observing this Law, they couldn’t be saved. Thus, the Letter concerns matters like observance of the Sabath and circumcision. In the early part of the Letter we have the longest information from Paul himself about his past life (cf. also Philippians 3:1-7). In the chapter preceding our reading, Paul supports his authority among the other Apostles and we have the famous and important description from Paul about how he stood up to Peter in Antioch, who was sliding into hypocrisy and the Mosaic legalism which had been superseded (Gal 2:11ff).

Let’s see our Epistle passage in the RSV. Even as Paul beats up his readers from time to time in this Letter, as in 3:1, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you…?”, he also calls them “Brethren” (v. 15) immediately before the section we will read on Sunday:

[Brethren:] Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many; but, referring to one, “And to your offspring,” which is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained by angels through an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one; but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Not easy, particularly in the version you could hear from the pulpit during Mass.

In Gen 22:18, God made a promise to Abraham that, because of Abraham’s obedience, all the nations of the earth would be blessed by his “offspring,”Hebrew “seed” (zera – “descendant, offspring, posterity,” Greek sperma – dative singular spérmati). Paul makes much of the singular “seed” not “seeds.” For Paul, the Seed about whom God made the promise to Abraham is Christ. Paul also makes the point that God’s covenant with Abraham predates the covenant with Moses. He wrote that, even though the Mosaic Law was imposed “because of transgressions” (i.e., the Golden Calf incident, etc.) the Abrahamic covenant was still operative. God promised something and His promises are enduring and true. Hence, Christ fulfilled the Abrahamic covenant after the Mosaic Law was imposed. The Law cannot save sinners. Salvation is from the Seed, the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, Jesus. The covenant with Abraham continued to its fulfillment by the gift, the grace, of God. Sinners are saved not by the Mosaic Law but by grace. Mosaic legalism reflects the notion that we win God’s favor and salvation through what we do, our works. However, salvation was won for us by Christ.

Paul is not saying by this that people don’t need to obey laws or do good works. The intent behind the Law is still valid, but now has its meaning in the promised Seed.  The Law was a special help, an interim arrangement intended for the Jews to lead them to the Seed. In v. 15 Paul wrote that the Law was “added to” the promise to Abraham as a temporary means to underscore the people’s weakness and to make them long for the Messiah who would lift their heavy burden. To return to the Mosaic legalistic practices would be to go backwards.

That would be real “backwardism” because it would mean giving up the goal for the sake of the means laid down for a particular people of getting to the goal.

The part about “angels” needs explanation.  The promise given to Abraham was given directly to him by God, without an intermediary. The Law was given to the people indirectly through Moses. Indeed, the rabbis of Paul’s time thought that God was so overwhelming that the mediation of angels was necessary even in the giving of the Law. God gave it to angels who gave it to Moses. In Acts 7:53 we find: “you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” In Hebrews 2:2: “since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment”.

Indeed, oftentimes in the Old Testament, when there is an encounter with God, it is hard to determine who is speaking, God or an angel. In Exodus 3, Moses encounters the “burning unburnt bush,” we read: “There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.” After that, “When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’” It’s complicated. We know that the faithful holy angels simultaneously behold the face of God even as they are in action for God in a particular way. They are in complete harmony with God in their actions. In any event, Paul’s point is that the Law is inferior to the Promise to Abraham also by the fact that it was given to through intermediaries.

This pericope from Galatians is never read on any Sunday in the Novus Ordo. That surprises me, principally because of the huge weight Protestants place in the letter to the Galatians and sections of the Letter like this. Luther and the Protestants treated Galatians much like a manifesto, a “battle flag” of the Reformation in favor of salvation by “faith alone” against “works.” Galatians was Luther’s favorite, so much so that he said in a “table talk”: “The epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it I am as it were in wedlock. It is my Katherine.” A little strange.

The Gospel passage today is from Luke 17 about the healing of ten lepers, one of them a Samaritan, a sort of part-Jew, part-Gentile. Samaritans and Gentiles didn’t get along. Jesus sends them off to the priests but the Samaritan alone returns to Jesus to thank Him, which stresses the “eucharistic” theme of the Mass formulary.

Is there a connection in this Gospel reading with the Epistle? Possibilities emerge.

Firstly, the Lord Himself stated openly that He had come to the Jews first in His ministry, accepting as a sign that His mission was ready for the next step, the Passion, when the Gentiles sought Him out. We see in the Epistle the importance of moving from the domination of the Jewish, Mosaic Law into the freedom that comes from faith in Christ. The Samaritan, bearing both the Jewish and Gentile components (culturally at war with each other) finds healing and harmony in Christ. He is therefore a foreshadowing of the fruits of the missions of the Apostles to the Gentiles, as Paul produced and then defended in the churches of the Galatians, the Jewish and Gentile elements in harmony until they were upset by false teachers.

Also, the Epistle pericope reminds us of what it was like to live under the heavy Mosaic Law, burdensome by God’s intention so that sins were easily exposed. They could hardly wait for relief. We live in the relief, not the burden. Will this not stir in us deep gratitude?

Moreover, the discussion of mediation in the Epistle underscores that there is one mediator between God and Man, Jesus (1 Tim 2:5). Under the new covenant of God in Christ with His Church, although He is in the Heavenly temple perpetually renewing the Sacrifice before the Father, Christ is also perpetually renewing the Sacrifice through his priests who act in His person, in persona Christi. The priest is our “other Christ… alter Christus.” Since Christ has ascended beyond the confines of distances and times, His once for all Sacrifice is renewed every time His alter Christus acts in persona Christi at the altar and does what He commanded. If the Mosaic Law was a matter for gratitude on the part of the people upon whom God imposed it for their welfare, how much more grateful should we be after the fulfillment of God’s promise in the Seed of Abraham, Jesus and the graces which it brings through membership in his Church?

In the formerly leprous Samaritan, these strands weave together as he glorifies God, in gratitude falling on his face before the Savior.

Image: St Paul writing by Guercino (+1666 – Slovak National Gallery)

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