Galatians 2:16-20; Luke 8:27-39; Luke 16:19-31; OT passages on “Son of God”
This weekend is one of the few in which the Orthodox jurisdictions do not follow the same gospel reading. Some read the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, while others read the story about the man with a legion of demons. The epistle, however, remains the same, and is comprised of the words by which St. Paul corrected St. Peter when Peter was swayed by trouble-makers to make the Law primary and to separate himself from eating with Gentile believers. This detail may not be clear in just reading Gal 2:16-21, but knowing the context helps us to understand what the apostle is saying to his friend, whom he addresses in this way:
We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, even we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. Even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
(Gal 2:15-21 RSV)
Here are a lot of complex ideas that can be easily misunderstood: we might be tempted to think that St. Paul is degrading the Law, the written word of God, or that he is saying it doesn’t matter what we DO, just what we BELIEVE. Our gospel readings, taken together from different jurisdictions, help us see that this is not the case. First, there is the story of the rich man, who was condemned because he would not listen to Moses and the prophets, and thus did not demonstrate by his living that he was indeed a child of Abraham. Whether one heeds the deep lessons of the Torah and prophets with regards to the character of our generous God is a good indication as to whether they will even hear and receive the gospel of resurrection:
“There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, `Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, `Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'” (Luke 16:19-31 RSV)
This Jewish wealthy man, with all the benefits of God’s word, and the leisure to read it, has not learned what the Torah has to say about God’s goodness to Israel and to the world, the importance of faith in that God, which Abraham exemplified, and the reason why Israel was called by God—to be a “blessing to the nations” (Genesis 12:3). Instead, he turns in on himself, and consequently cannot receive God’s blessings.
Other jurisdictions read the dramatic story of the Gentile demoniac, an afflicted man we know was NOT Jewish because he lived in the country of the Gerasenes, and among Gentiles who kept unclean animals, pigs:
And as Jesus stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.)
Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but he sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:27-39 RSV)
Just as the other gospel reading insisted that good actions must accompany faith, so here we are reminded that being transformed by Jesus is not automatic. The demoniac, true, does nothing to earn his healing: but he is given instructions to be a witness, and the people round about who have witnessed the miracle ask that Jesus LEAVE their land. They are not changed! Moreover, the demons themselves acknowledge who Jesus is –the Son of the Living God—but this does not work for their salvation. As James puts it, “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (2:19). So, then, whatever our Galatians reading is about, we are instructed by the gospel readings not to see St. Paul as telling us that it does not matter what one does, so long as he or she holds the right opinion about God.
What, then, does St. Paul mean? He argues with Peter that “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.” Consider the context: Peter has refused, because of peer pressure from those who put the Law first, to stop eating with his brothers and sisters, this meal that is supposed to be a foretaste of the meal that Lazarus enjoyed, when all will come “from east and west and eat in the kingdom of God.”
By these actions, Peter gives the impression that the cultural matters of the law—Sabbath keeping, circumcision and kosher foods—are more important than Jesus himself. So then, the “works of the Law” about which the apostle Paul speaks here are not kindness and mercy, but those things particular to the Israelite and Hebrew people—the things that distinguished them OUTWARDLY from others, and that might, wrongly interpreted, give the impression that Gentiles were “sinners” (Gal 2:16), but Jews were not. Those commandments God gave for a time and for a purpose: to set apart the people that other nations might see God at work.
Some scholars suggest that we might read the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ” as
“faithfulness of Jesus Christ” in this passage—a very probable translation of the Greek. If we read Galatians this way, we hear these words: “A person is not justified by the works of the Law (i.e. circumcision, kosher-keeping, Sabbath observance) but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. So we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by the faithfulness of Christ, and not by the works of the Law”—which were never intended to justify, anyway! Reading the passage like this keeps the balance that we need: we are reminded that all things, including our acceptance by God and our transformation, are given to us as a gift; yet we are also called to believe in Jesus, and to (as the passage goes on to say) “live to God.” We ourselves take up the cross (are “crucified”, as Paul puts it) and then we live, and move, and act—but all this action is made possible and effective because of the faithful righteousness of the Son of God!
What, then, does it mean to speak about Jesus Christ as the Son of God? This is the label that the demons give him, and the title given to him by St. Paul, as well: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
In order fully to understand this little phrase, we must go to the Old Testament. The Old Testament uses the phrase “Son of God” in several ways. Occasionally it is used of the angels. But more often, it refers to God’s people, as when the prophet Hosea lets us listen in to God who declares, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (Hos 11:1 RSV). Next, the title is used in particular of the king of Israel, as in Psalm 72:1, where the Psalmist identifies these with a parallel structure: “Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son!” And finally, , the term Son of God becomes a synonym for the title “Christ” or “Messiah”— that great King to come! Speaking to King David, the Lord promises: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2Sa 7:12-14 RSV). (On a historical level, of course, this verse indicated Solomon, who built the temple, but the rabbis and the NT writers come to see it as a promise of the great Messiah, whose kingdom will be forever, not cut off at the next generation, as Solomon’s was.)
So then, when the term “Son of God” is used in the gospels and the letters, its most natural meaning is that of the anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ. Yet the NT does not wholly forget the other meanings of the OT. Luke’s gospel is famous for its chronology of Jesus, “son of (so it was thought) Joseph,” moving back through the generations to “son of David” and then finally back to “son of Adam, “son of God” (Luke 3:24-37). For Luke, who would chronicle the entrance of Gentiles into the kingdom of God, and the descent of the Spirit upon humankind for theosis, even a human being, even an uncircumcised human being, can potentially be called “son of God.” Indeed, that is what we are to become if we are incorporated into the one who is in his very nature the Son of God. Jesus is the NEW human being, the one who is everything that God intended for us to be. Moreover, he is the Son of God in the sense of being God the Son—for at the end of Luke’s gospel, the disciples “worship” him! (Luke 24:52).
The phrase “Son of God,” then, is full of meaning. It recalls God’s choice of Israel to be a light to the world; it reminds us of King David, the man after God’s own heart, by whom we learn to pray; it speaks specifically of the Messiah whom we know is Jesus, the anointed One; it goes beyond a mere title to suggest the divine nature of our Lord whom we know to be the true and only Son; and it gives us hope that we shall be conformed to his image, called “sons of God,” little anointed ones, because of what he has done in taking on our humanity, dying for our sins, and raising it to new life.
The rich man of Israel thought himself to be a “son of Abraham,” but did not follow in Abraham’s footsteps, looking with faith to a generous and human-loving God. The demons named Jesus “Son of God” but were not healed, while the humble and oppressed Gentile living among the pigs DID receive mercy. St. Paul rightly corrected the pillar of the Church, St. Peter, who had forgotten for a moment that Jesus is the center of our faith, not the Torah, which points to the one who is the true Son. The Torah cannot make us right in God’s eyes, but it can show us our weaknesses and so lead us to Christ—the one who justifies. Once the Son of God becomes the center of our lives, then we are energized, as was the demoniac, to tell everyone what God has done. With St. Paul, we may cry out, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in (or the faithfulness of) the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This weekend we also recollect with wonder the life-giving power of the risen Son of God, who raised a woman from the dead—a woman who demonstrated the divine life she had been given, showing her “faith” by her “works” (Acts 9:34-36; cf. James 1:27-2:18):
With the flow of the many-streamed river of almsgiving
You watered the dry earth of the needy.
Showering alms on the widows and the poor,
You shone with the light of your works
And were radiant with grace, O Tabitha.
Glory to Christ who loves you!
Glory to Christ who has blessed you!
Glory to Christ whom you followed as a true disciple and a spotless lamb
We honor Tabitha, as we also honor Lazarus, Abraham, David, St. Peter and St. Paul. But in doing so, we give glory to the “Son of God” who has given us the “Spirit of sonship” so that we may become what God intends—”sons of God” who call out “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15-16) and who learn to bear the sorrows of this world, so that we might be glorified with Christ.
“Save us, O Son of God, Who art risen from the dead, who sing to thee, Alleluia!”