LET THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH AND THE MEDITATION OF MY HEART, BE ALWAYS ACCEPTABLE IN THY SIGHT
O LORD MY STRENGTH AND MY REDEEMER
SET ME FREE
“Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.”
When I read St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians it struck me that it was unlike his epistles to the Corinthians or the Romans in that it did not clearly state what he was really trying to telling us. When we attempt to interpret a passage like this, we must remember that, for devout and scholarly Jews, and especially for the Rabbis, Scripture had more than one meaning; and the literal meaning was often regarded as the least important. Simply stated St. Paul is saying that apart from Christ there can be only bondage to sin under the yoke of the law, but in Christ there is true liberty and freedom. The allegorical exegesis that St. Paul uses to support this point was typical of the methods of Scriptural interpretation current in the rabbinical schools in which he was trained. To us it is more of a riddle than a clear exposition of the theme that in Christ there is true liberty and freedom. Some believe that the Apostle intended this allegory to be sort of a parody of the methods of exegesis employed by his opponents in the Galatian churches. The Jewish converts to Christianity sought to enforce upon Gentile converts the full requirements of the Jewish Law, like circumcision. You may remember that the leaders of the Jewish Church had over three hundred laws that they expected the people to follow. And the Gentiles of the day were pretty much viewed as lawless by the Jews.
Whether in earnest or in irony, I doubt the Apostle’s interpretation of the tragic story from Genesis about Hagar the slave girl and Ishmael her son by Abraham is appealing to us. In his letter to the Galatians St. Paul uses two allegories, the one concerning Hagar, is based upon the Jewish tradition that Abraham cast out the bondwoman or slave woman because Ishmael attempted to kill Isaac his son from Sarah his wife who was a free woman.
Hagar represents the Law and the bondage of service to the Law which the Judaizers preached in the Galatian Church. And it is this bondage to the Law that must be thrown out of Christ’s Church. Interwoven with this was a second allegory of two Jerusalems, the earthly and the heavenly. The earthly typifies Judaism, bound to the Law and persecuting the Church; the heavenly is Christianity, free from the yoke of the Law, being born ‘after the Spirit’. It is also probable that St. Paul’s application of the term ‘mother’ to the true and free Jerusalem, the Church, was intended to set a contrast between it and the pagan cult of the Earth Mother Goddess whose worship was much fostered in the province of Galatia. The next verse in the bible which was not included in today’s reading, perhaps provides a good summary. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (Gal 5.1).
Jesus delivered us from evil when he died on the cross for us. When He taught God's word; He was setting people free of the devil and bringing them to God. The devil's will is sickness and imprisonment, and the Jewish people were imprisoned by the Jewish Law. God's will is health and freedom, and in Jesus we can see God's kingdom unfolding right before our eyes. The works of evil are marked by oppression, impurity, and a falling away from God. The works of God are marked by light, thanksgiving, and a free relation to God. The Jewish converts to Christianity were set free from the Jewish Law and for the Gentile converts they were set free from the pagan gods like the Earth Mother Goddess.
Today we are set free when we read and study the Word of God just as we are doing now. We are set free from evil by God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. God the Father sets us free when we read and learn what he tells us in the Bible. God the Son, Jesus, sets us free when we internalize what he taught us. And God the Holy Spirit is in our heart to guide us - if we listen to him.
As strange as St. Paul’s letter may seem to us, it contains one great truth. Those who make the law the principle by which they live their lives, are in the position of the slaves; where as those who make grace the principle of their lives are free. As St. Augustine put it, the Christian’s maxim is: “Love God, and do what you like.’ It is the power of that love, and not the constraint of the law that will keep you doing what is right throughout your life. Love is always more powerful than the law.
During the forty days of Lent Christians are expected to renew their relationship with God by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigor during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbor). One might ask are these practices part of God’s teachings or are they just laws of the Christian Church similar to all those Jewish laws? We find in the Bible Old and New Testament examples for this time frame of prayer and fasting. The number forty is found frequently in scripture to signify either a time of penitential preparation, or a time of punishment and affliction: mankind was punished when a flood covered the earth for forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:12) the people of Ninevah repented with forty days of fasting when Jonah preached the destruction of Ninevah (Jonah 3:4) Moses and the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years (Num 14:34) the Prophet Ezekiel had to lie on his right side for forty days as a figure of the siege that was to bring Jerusalem to destruction (Ez 4:6); the Prophet Elijah fasted and prayed on Mount Horeb for forty days (1 Kings 19:8) Moses fasted forty days and forty nights while on Mt. Sinai (Ex 34:28) and finally Jesus himself spent forty days in the wilderness where he was tempted by the Devil.
The Church sets aside the forty days of Lent in order that we might imitate Our Lord by our fasting, prayer, self-denial and good works, thereby preparing our hearts for what is to come, an Easter renewal.
Let us pray
Dear Lord, we ask that you set us free so that we may follow your good example and live our lives free from the yoke of the law and standing fast in the liberty wherewith you have made us free.
And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion as is most justly due this day; world without end.