For freedom Christ set us free;
so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
It is I, Paul, who am telling you
that if you have yourselves circumcised,
Christ will be of no benefit to you.
Saint Paul had enjoyed great success when he brought the Gospel to the Galatians. Scholars differ about who these people were and where they lived, but they agree the Galatian Christians were not former Jews. They had heard and embraced a very unfamiliar religion without knowing any of its historical antecedents.
But they were eager and curious to learn everything about this new way of life; and that made them easy targets of the “Judaizers” who followed after Paul. These Christian missionaries insisted, to be Christian you have to be Jewish.
Paul was astonished at this terrible development. He knew very well the Pharisaic approach to religion. It would not lead to a confident knowledge of God. It would not assure one of the abiding, joyous and generous Spirit of God. It would not encourage one to take the Good News to family, friends, neighbors and strangers. That judaizing approach would lead to a life of splitting hairs, of asking, “What do I have to do to be saved?” and “What’s the least I can do and get away with?” and “How far can I go in the direction of greed, lust, avarice and gluttony and still be okay with God?”
Perhaps worst of all, this Pharisaic religion would set one Christian against the other in a pursuit of individual virtue. Like children competing for scarce food around an impoverished table, each would strive to be more Christian, more holy and more like Jesus than their fellows. They would not admire each other’s spirit. Eventually cynicism would set in and each would abandon the pursuit of virtue. They would ask, “What have I got to show for being more prayerful than anyone?” They would seek something more substantial like wealth.
This religion of rules offered only the veneer of salvation to the person who lives on the surface of reality. Not only was it dissatisfying to the soul of the convert; it would have no impact in the real world. It would be a barren plant.
Paul pleaded with those who were wavering; circumcision would be an effective renunciation of their baptism. Christ will have no benefit for you!
The Apostle confronted the conundrum that faces every generation of Christians from the day of the Resurrection until the Day of His Return. How do we live by faith? How do we act as faithful Christians without the customary signs of success?
Looking for signs of God’s redeeming love we often meet, “That’s not it at all.” Saint John of the Cross would speak of the Dark Night of the Soul. An English author called it “The Cloud of Unknowing.” It has been called via negativa, a way of negativity whose only assurance is the reassurance that other paths lead nowhere.
Today’s gospel offers a word of reassurance: But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.” It’s not a magic formula but it is reassuring.