Paul makes his case
Lesson for February 5, 2012 — Galatians 2:15-21By Reta Halteman Finger
Twelve centuries have passed since our lesson with Moses and Miriam. We would be lost without our quarter’s theme of “God’s Covenant” (with Abraham), “God’s Protection” (of Joseph and Moses), and now “God’s Redemption” (proclaimed by Paul). Even so, crossing such historical distance and change of style from narrative to poetry to letter, we probably feel like Dorothy, hurled by tornado from Kansas to Oz. Everything seems different!
Reading Galatians, imagine Paul in a courtroom presenting arguments. He comes on strong, including only material that helps his defense. But what is his case, and who are his opponents?
A clue is found in 2:15-16: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners … and we have come to trust in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s opponents are other Jewish Christians who, like all good Jews, are law-observant. Male circumcision and kosher food laws are signs of the covenant made with Abraham and Moses. For full membership among the people of God and God’s Messiah, Gentiles must also observe these practices. Otherwise, they remain second-class, like the “God-fearers” who hang around Jewish synagogues.
To eat kosher or non-kosher — is that the question?
Paul’s autobiographical material in Galatians 1 and 2 reinforces this interpretation. He is not afraid to challenge even major church leaders like Peter and Barnabas, calling them hypocrites for refusing to eat with non-kosher Gentiles when conservative Jews from Jerusalem show up (2:11-14).
Now a translation issue from 2:16. In English we have different words for the verb “to believe” and the noun “faith.” In Greek the root is the same: pisteuo (I believe, I trust) and pistis (faith, trust, faithfulness). A line in 2:16 should read: “We have come to trust in Christ Jesus so that we might be made righteous by the faithfulness of Christ” (the grammar precludes using “in Christ”). In other words, we trust Jesus to have faithfully represented what God is like, and to trust that following him will make us righteous before God.
Paul fears that insisting on ceremonial “works of the law” will lead Gentile believers to think that these outward signs are what will save them rather than the more radical “crucifixion with Christ” (2:19). What “works of the law” might Mennonites have that keep us from a more radical crucifixion of heart, mind and ego?
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