BY STEVE RAY
Fathers can be gentle and warm, but they can also be tough and severe at times. I remember every spanking I ever received from my father — and I deserved every one of them. His hand was large, and so was its impact upon me (no pun intended). The spanking always redirected my behavior and brought about a commitment to avoid such punishment in the future.
Because my father loved me and gave me his time and affection, I was able to accept the discipline of love upon my backside. I always had more respect for him at that moment than at any other time. He loved me enough to be tough and demanding. He loved me enough to cause short-term pain to instill long-term character.
Love shouldn’t be confused with simply being nice. Though love often includes being nice, “niceness” is certainly not a synonym for real love. Love is often tough and can initially be perceived as hard or insensitive.
In a similar way, St. Paul was a father in the faith to the churches who received his letters, and he sometimes had to show them tough love. One particular new church, the church of the Galatians in the far-off land of Asia Minor, heard some of Paul’s harshest words and threats of discipline. He spoke sternly to his children — but he spoke even more severely to their enemies. He spoke with a righteous anger and exasperation to the “Judaizers,” as he called them, who intended to upset the applecart and ruin the souls of his children. Thus Paul stepped into the Galatian situation as a protective, loving father, and he stepped in with both feet.
An Early Heresy
But let’s set the stage first. Galatia was located in what is now Turkey. The apostle wrote to the church there sometime between A. D. 48 and 54. (The exact location and date has been a matter of intense debate, outside the scope of this article.)
Paul traveled north from Israel into this land and preached the gospel of grace to Jews and Gentiles alike. The Galatians received the word from him “as an angel of God” (Gal 4:14). Nevertheless, after receiving the good news from Paul, they began listening to others from Jerusalem who confused them with heresy.
Now “heresy” is an unpopular word today — politically incorrect — but it has been an essential word throughout the history of the Church. The term originally meant a “choice or self-willed opinion,” and it was later used to describe an unorthodox teaching, one that was wrong and damaging and caused division. In this particular case, heretics had come to the Galatians saying Paul was wrong and only presented a partial truth.
To understand the great frustrations and drama swirling around this vulnerable new church in Galatia, we must first understand a pinnacle chapter in the Acts of the Apostles: chapter 15. The issue emerging both there and in Galatia involved race as well as religion. It had to do with divided societies and the requirement of the New Covenant to integrate previously separate societies.
The Jew and Gentile had to become one in Christ. But how? Some of the Jewish converts said that to become a Christian the uncircumcised pagan had first to become a Jew. They said: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Needless to say, this requirement caused many problems and was no boon to evangelism (see Acts 15:1).
The confidence of the Galatians began to crumble; they feared they weren’t saved by grace and faith as Paul had delivered it to them. Maybe Paul was wrong! Maybe he had only given them part of the truth. Maybe they should abandon Paul and his teaching.
Yet Paul wouldn’t stand for his children’s being dismayed and confused by the traveling heretics and troublemakers. He argued in his letter to the Galatians that circumcision is not necessary, and he scolded them for their “misbehavior” as any loving father would. He got tough!
“O stupid Galatians!” he chided. “Who has bewitched you?” (3:1 NAB). Some translations render the Greek term here as “foolish.” But the New American Bible uses the English word “stupid” to signify Paul’s disappointment in their senseless and unworthy lack of understanding.
The apostle spoke forcefully to get their attention. And at the end of his letter he was so frustrated with those who were demanding Gentile circumcision for entrance into the Christian faith that he vented his righteous indignation by wishing they would slip with the knife and cut off more than intended — the male organs — saying, “Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!” (5:12 NAB).
Theology wasn’t the only argument Paul uses in this epistle. In fact, he came at the “bewitched” believers from every angle, arguing from the Old Testament, especially using Abraham as Exhibit One.
Was Abraham justified before God by circumcision and following the many requirements of Moses to earn his salvation? he asked. Of course not. When was Abraham justified? Wasn’t it before circumcision, before Moses, before all the 613 laws of Moses? How was Exhibit One justified: as a Jew or a Gentile? Wasn’t Abraham a pagan Gentile from a pagan land?
Was God’s first requirement circumcision? No. Was it faith and obedience? Yes. “Abram put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness,” or as other translations render it: “he believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (see Gal 3:6, also Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3).
So in the courtroom drama that Paul set up, the key witness and exhibit — Abraham — flies in the face of the Judaizers who claim to be his sons but in actuality teach contrary to the example of their father in faith. Abraham’s example demonstrates that the Judaizers were wrong, for preaching the need to “obligate God” through efforts to “earn” salvation.
Paul also argued from his own impressive life story. If anyone was knowledgeable of these matters of the law, it was Paul. He reminded them that he had “persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.” “I progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my race,” he recalled, “since I was even more a zealot for my ancestral traditions” (1:13-14 NAB). He was a Jew of Jews and trained in the Law more than them all. He knew what he was talking about.
Did Paul’s gospel contradict what was taught by the apostles in the great mother Church in Jerusalem? No. He had confirmed his gospel with them, he noted, and he had been given the right hand of fellowship by Peter himself. So why were the Galatians listening to and being deceived by the false teachers and heretics?
Harsh But Loving Words
“Are you so stupid?” Paul asked them. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” (3:3 NAB) — a sarcastic reference to circumcision. Don’t you understand? he pressed. There were “false brothers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, that they might enslave us — to them we did not submit even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain intact for you” (Gal 2:4-5).
The father spoke harshly but truthfully. He spoke with tough love to save his children from confusion, slavery, and damnation. Justification is through faith in Christ, he insisted, which of course includes the aspect of obedience within its very fabric and definition. It doesn’t come through Jewish ritual performed on the flesh. This declaration is the very heart of this fatherly epistle — and the heart of the New Testament.
Sadly enough, Martin Luther and others following in his wake interpreted this great epistle of liberty outside of its historical, cultural, and religious context. They anachronistically read into it the Protestant arguments against the Catholic Church. In so doing, like the Judaizers, they misrepresented the full gospel, not by adding to it as the Judaizers had done, but by stripping it of its fullness, an error that Father Paul would have opposed with the same tough love.
Romans and Galatians deal with the same themes and arguments. But Galatians is much more personal and impassioned, while Romans is theoretical and formal. Paul knew and loved the Galatians as his own children, while his letter to the Romans was written to Christians who weren’t close personal acquaintances.
Galatians may possibly be the “rough draft” for which Romans is the full text. Like Romans, Galatians is an intensely Catholic epistle. The foundations of the Catholic Church lie deep within these letters, and to understand them in their fulness we need to read and listen to them in their native environment — that is, within the heart of the Church as it grew within the milieu of the first century.
Thorn in the Flesh
Several interesting items deserve notice in this epistle. Paul informed us in 2 Corinthians 12:8 that God had given him some physical ailment, a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble and to demonstrate God’s great strength even through the ailment. In Galatians there may be clues as to what the “thorn” was.
It might have been an eye disease, possibly brought on by the light that blinded him at his conversion (see Acts 9:8). The apostle wrote: “It was because of a physical illness that I originally preached the gospel to you” and “if it had been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me” (Gal 4:13, 15). Why would he say this if the physical ailment wasn’t related to the eyes?
Later Paul concluded, writing the last few lines himself (rather than dictating them), “See with what large letters I am writing to you in my own hand” (Gal 6:11). It seems as though his eyesight prevented him from writing in the finer script of the scribe in the lines that had preceded. The apostle may very well have been legally blind by modern standards.
This is a short epistle, probably just a “pamphlet” by today’s standards. But into this brief letter Paul packs incredible passion and content. It’s like a tightly compressed zip file in a computer. Time and work are required to unzip this tremendous piece of literature.
In Galatians, Paul’s soul shines brilliantly, displaying his keen logic, his biting and even sarcastic irony, and his tender affection. It’s powerful in every detail. With a little imagination we can envision Paul dictating this letter with the animation of an actor, the tears of a distant parent, and the intensity of a master debater. This is one of his treasures, and few written documents have been loved and studied more carefully.
Paul closed with irony and a pun, a clever play on words. He had mentioned his own physical ailment and wounds sustained for the gospel — the marks of the cross, figuratively speaking — and he said: “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Gal 6:17). This claim stood in sharp and pointed contrast to those who wanted to make their marks of Moses on the new believers — marks made with the knife on human flesh.
Finally, Paul prayed for them: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers [not the law of Moses on your flesh]. Amen, brothers. Amen” (see Gal 6:18). He ended up by granting them the dignity of brothers, not just of children. But he expected them to live up to that relationship — not only with himself, but with Christ the liberator!