The word of the day is “under.” At the end of our first reading (Galatians 4:8-21), Paul asks the pivotal question, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?” (Gal 4:21). Today, we consider Paul’s teaching of what it means to be under the Law or under freedom.
In Paul’s day, the “Judaizers” had insisted that the Gentiles had to be circumcised to become “real” Christians. The great Jewish teacher Gamaliel had trained Paul, and the apostle knew that circumcision was the rite of binding one to the Law of Moses. So if the Gentiles were circumcised, they would be bound to keep the entire Jewish Law, its rituals, dietary restrictions, and division of clean and unclean, as well as its moral and spiritual requirements. Such an idea insulted Paul’s understanding of the Gospel and undermined his mission to the Gentiles.
Obligated to Keep the Whole Law
Paul knew that the Law was of one piece. One could not choose what parts of Law to obey. He said, “I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is bound to keep the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). With that in mind, Paul asked the Galatians whether they really wanted to be obligated of the whole Mosaic Law, especially since Christ had freed them from such tyranny (Galatians 5:1).
In our second reading for today (Galatians 4:22-31), Paul appeals to the scriptures for his argument. In an allegorical approach to interpretation, he contrasts Sarah, the free woman, with Hagar, the slave. The difference between the two is of paramount importance for understanding the scriptures, for they represent two covenants (Galatians 4:24). The line between them separates one way of God’s relationship with humankind from another. And that line goes right through the distinction between slavery (Hagar) and freedom (Sarah).
Sarah and Hagar: Two Covenants
In Paul’s mind, the Gospel gives us a choice of living under one or the other of these covenants. We can choose either the freewoman Sarah as our mother or the bondservant Hagar. In this way, Paul graphically asks the question of what is the family, the covenant, and the way of life to which choose to belong.
The key concept is obligation. Why do we keep the Law? In the household of Hagar, we must obey it out of the sense of duty that involves reward and punishment, righteousness, and judgment. But in the home of Sarah, we do it willingly, following the way of Christ out of love and devotion.
Paull’s teaching is so radical that it might shock us. And indeed, that is what the apostle is trying to do in Galatians. In response, we might conclude that Paul goes too far. We might try to rescue at least some parts of the Law–some commands that we are bound to uphold out of obligation. But note what we just said. We want to choose something that will bind us to the Law. But as soon as we try to obey the Law out of duty, we make the work of Christ to no effect (Galatians 5:2). Whatever Law we choose to obey slavishly will judge us. And Christ will not be our Savior of that part of our lives.
No, we cannot have two mothers. Grace must not be compromised. We are not under the Law but under the Spirit of freedom. Thus, if as children of Sarah, we keep the Law of God, it is out of freedom, in love, and by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.