At times, we Christians are downright stupid, says St. Paul.
That’s how the word is translated in the ‘New American’ version of the Bible, at any rate. It’s right there, in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
‘O, stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’
To be honest, I started to feel a little stupid as I heard the passage continue during the first reading at Mass the other day.
After beginning with the Spirit,
are you now ending with the flesh?
Did you experience so many things in vain?–
if indeed it was in vain.
Does, then, the one who supplies the Spirit to you
and works mighty deeds among you
do so from works of the law
or from faith in what you heard?
Sure, on some level, I understood the words. But the meaning escaped me. Then later in the day, I had the opportunity to hear a different translation of the same passage – presented by the British Jesuits via their wonderful daily podcast site, pray-as-you-go.org. This time, Paul’s exhortation – courtesy of the New Revised Standard Version – seemed quite a bit more plain to me.
Are you people in Galatia mad? Has someone put a spell on you? In spite of the plain explanation you have heard of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ?
Let me ask you one question: Was it because you practiced the law that you received the Spirit? Or because you believed what was preached to you? Are you foolish enough to end in outward observances…what you began in the Spirit? Have all the favors you received been wasted? And if this were so, they most certainly would have been wasted. Does God give you the Spirit so freely – and work miracles among you – because you practice law? Or because you believed what was preached to you?
Clearly, Paul means to teach us about justification and salvation here. He wants us to understand that our good works – our ability to scrupulously follow the Mosaic law – is not the source of our salvation. That’s madness, he says.
And what does he suggest that we cling to instead?
The sweet madness of the cross. Christ crucified.
It’s not hard for me to work up a little sympathy for the Galatians on that point. So often, it seems we are hardwired to want to earn our righteousness…to take control our salvation through our own actions. It seems a reasonable choice, considering the talents and intellect that have been bestowed on us. But Paul assures us it’s a path that will end in failure.
He calls us to suspend our faith in our own abilities – at least long enough to let Christ do something new in our hearts. And yes, it can seem like madness, I suppose. But the better we get at surrendering our egos, the closer we come to the goal:
‘I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.’
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.