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St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is read in the Office of Readings next week, the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time. It is by far Paul’s feistiest letter. He was angry when he wrote it. “O stupid Galatians!” he wrote (Gal 3:1).
Paul was in Ephesus in the year 53 when he got disturbing news. A delegation from the Church in Antioch was determined to convince Paul’s communities that they had to be circumcised and follow the Jewish laws. The delegation had gone to Galatia, and then was going to the Churches in Philippi, Thessalonica and Corinth. These were what Paul called the Judaizers.
They attempted to discredit Paul, telling the communities that he represented no one but himself, and certainly not the original and true Apostles in Jerusalem.
Then they taught about Abraham and God’s promises to the Jews. Jesus’ importance, they said, lay only in the fact that the salvation promised to the Jews was now available also to the Gentiles. But Christians still had to observe the Mosaic Law, they said.
This called for immediate action! Paul dashed off his Letter to the Galatians, focusing on the Judaizers. It is a masterpiece of rhetorical ability and literary skill.
Paul first asserted that his commission “came through a revelation directly from Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12), not from the Churches in Jerusalem or Antioch.
Indeed, he had been in Jerusalem only twice since his conversion, he said. The first time was to make sure that he and the leaders of the Church there agreed on “the truth of the Gospel” (Gal 2:5). The second time was when the decision was made at the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles did not have to become Jews.
He wrote about his standing up to Peter at Antioch when Peter separated himself from the Gentile converts. “I opposed him to his face,” he wrote, “because he clearly was wrong” (Gal 2:11).
He then focused on Abraham’s faith. This faith—not the law—was fundamental, he said. “Realize that it is those who have faith who are children of Abraham,” he said (Gal 3:7). And the promises to Abraham were to him and his descendant—in the singular. This reference, he said, was to Christ.
Paul’s anger at the Judaizers is clear when he discussed circumcision, essential to following the Mosaic Law, later in the letter. “Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:12).
Now, is that any way for a saint to talk?
Faith in Christ has set us free, he said. “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather serve one another through love” (Gal 5:13).
He warned against 15 “works of the flesh,” saying that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21). Instead, he said, Christians must practice the virtues.
He then reiterated what he had taught them about the unique importance of Christ and his redemptive sacrifice on the cross. He said that faith in Christ, not following the Jewish law or submitting to circumcision, was sufficient to gain eternal life. †