We continue with this year’s assignment, present some thoughts about the Epistle reading for Sunday’s Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo of the Roman Rite. Some weeks I feel like Sisyphus, shoving the great border up the hill (Sunday) only for it to roll back down so that I have an even bigger climb (the following Sunday). One can understand how preachers past and present pretend not to notice these Pauline pericopes. But not us! We Sisyphus on upward!
My tool set includes commentaries by great liturgists and biblicists of yesteryear and our own day. Let’s have a first peak at what Fr. Pius Parsch (+1954) wrote about this Sunday’s Epistle, which is from Galatians 5:16-24:
[T]he apostle Paul rises to instruct us, and today he tells us bluntly what is good and what is evil. He speaks of two kingdoms, the kingdom of the spirit and that of the flesh, the kingdom of grace founded and grounded in the soul by the Holy Spirit, and Satan’s realm of sin. Within man’s soul these two forces are battling, their trenches scarring the very core of every human heart. The apostle lists “the works of the flesh” as also the “fruits of the spirit,” for every Christian is a tree planted by the Holy Spirit and destined to bear His priceless fruit. Life in Christ, it must be remembered, is no gay fling, rather a continuing struggle: “They who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its vices and its lusts!” Trust and confidence in God provide the “ultimate weapon.”
“Life in Christ … is no gay fling…”.
I’ll let that one stand by itself for a while.
That’s a start. Here’s the reading itself:
[Brethren:] But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, [murder in some MSS] drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Again, we are with Paul who wrote this angry Letter to the churches in Galatia in Asia Minor who were succumbing to false, Judaizing teachers about having to follow Jewish, Mosaic legal practices, such as circumcision, to be saved after their conversion to Christianity. Paul renews his appeal to freedom in Christ rather than slavery to the Law, freedom in the Spirit rather than slavery to the flesh. In the first verse of this thematic section or chapter 5 – remember that when Paul wrote this, he didn’t divide the Letter into chapters, which came later – we find:
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (v.1).
Paul immediately launches into an explanation about how receiving circumcision and adhering to the superseded Law is “of no advantage” and even a falling away from grace. It is to abandon freedom and taking on a yoke. The yoke is a symbol of defeat and submission. Yokes bound together both work animals and slaves. In war, the Roman’s defeated foes had to walk under the beam of a yoke. In the context of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul equates returning backwards to the practices of the Mosaic Law, circumcision in particular, as a yoke of slavery.
Be clear about something: Jews would have in large part agreed with Paul about how burdensome the Law was. As the chosen people rebelled against God and disrespected His covenants, God imposed more and more laws to the point that it was nearly impossible to obey them, eventually 613 in all, 365 negative and 248 positive. The weight of such a meticulous obedience to so many laws was to help them to long for the freedom from the Law that would come with the Messiah. The yoke of the Law was a burden, yes, but it was also a way for God to channel and direct the people. Try plowing a field with un-yoked oxen. The yoke is also a gift, as correctives can be. Heavy, but helpful.
In militating against a backsliding return to precepts of the Law, especially circumcision, Paul made it clear that their Christian freedom did not mean absolute freedom from every law under the old covenant. For example, Jesus Himself upholds the two-fold law, the greatest of the laws, of love of God and of neighbor. Love of God is a summary of the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. Love of neighbor condenses the second tablet. This would have been known to the rabbis under whom Paul trained. The bottom line is that freedom in Christ means freedom to love and not freedom to sin.
Paul makes this explicit by laying out two lists, works of the flesh, which are sins, works of the spirit, which are godly. Avoid the first. Live by the next. You don’t have to be circumcised to be saved, you have to live in the freedom of God’s children in a virtuous life.
Some laws passed away, such as the many food restrictions and issues of ritual purity and the like. But the core, the foundation of the Law remains, love of God and neighbor. Just before our reading his says: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14).
Let’s now circle back to a few verses and look more closely. For example, v. 17:
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.
This sounds a bit like Romans 7:15ff:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Sorry about the length of that quote, but it is apt. This is not the same thing as what Paul wrote to the Galatians. In writing to the Romans, Paul reflects on man’s natural faculties and proclivities even when grace is active in the soul. His lower appetites are not extinguished by grace and they will bubble up, as it were, constantly against the spirit, even one in grace. The Greek Paul used in that Galatians 5:17 helps a little. The RSV says,
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to [Greek hína] prevent you from doing what you would.
Greek hina is a particle used with the subjective to signify finality or result, consequence. This hina points to the later. So, we translate NOT, “for these are opposed to each other, in order to [Greek hína – final] prevent you from doing what you would,” but rather “for these are opposed to each other, which by consequence will [Greek hína – consequential] prevent you from doing what you would.”
Moving out of the weeds into a thicket, we have the lists of sins in vv. 19-21. Commentators divide them into four categories sins of a) “luxury” (fornication, impurity, licentiousness), b) idolatry (idolatry, sorcery), c) violations of charity (enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit/sects, envy, [murder in some MSS]), d) intemperance (drunkenness, carousing). Paul gives similar lists elsewhere though in a different order.
A couple of these should be spun out a bit. For example, “impurity” in Greek is akatharsía (uncleaness), which Paul uses several times in obvious relation to sexual sins (cf. Eph 4:19; 5:3, Col 3:5; 1 Th 2:3; 4:7). Whereas fornication (porneía) would be with prostitutes or others of the opposite sex in the natural way of things but unlawful, uncleanness concerns acts that are contrary to nature. “Life in Christ is no gay fling,” as it were. Licentiousness would be asélgeia (lasciviousness, outrageousness, shamelessness). What comes to mind in relation to the other two one need only to turn on the news and see vile images of “drag queens,” so vile and shameless that they parade in front of the most innocent with a mind to twist them while they are young. The Latin Vulgate read at Mass includes the sin luxuria although this is not literally in the Greek. Latin luxuria is extravagance and riotous living in excess. Lastly, in this vocabulary dive, I find interesting the world for “witchcraft,” which in Latin is veneficia (poisoning, the preparation of magic potions) and which in Greek is pharmakeía … which in Strong’s is firstly “the use or administration of drugs,” secondly, “poisoning,” thirdly “sorcery, magical arts, often found in connection with idolatry and fostered by it.” In Rev 18:23 it is used about the destruction of idolatrous kings of the earth and of Babylon:
and the light of a lamp shall shine in thee no more; and the voice of bridegroom and bride shall be heard in thee no more; for thy merchants were the great men of the earth, and all nations were deceived by thy sorcery (pharmakeía).
There is no way to dive into these terms at length. Some pointy-headed scholars and less than scholarly advocates for some perversion or other will quibble till the stars fall about the precise sins they are meant to describe, their objective being the fog of confusion which serves as a cover for those who are weak against the flesh in the war of the spirit. However, allow me a last little space to muse.
Contrary to nature licentiousness is today being condoned in some very polished corridors of the Church. Idolatry has been made manifest in the Church’s most sacred precincts. When big pharma and the kings of the earth made their demands, people were shut out of churches while being pushed into even multiple jabbings with mystical magical concoctions containing hardly to be grasped pharma powers. And now we see more and more often that many who underwent the magical rites may not now have the “luxury” of long life.
Walk by the spirit.
Go to confession.