Lectionary Commentaries for June 20, 2010
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 8:26-39

Sarah Henrich

Recalling a relatively recent movie, we could call this study “Four miracles and a sending.”

Luke’s story is lengthy, dramatic, and common in its basic form to that of Matthew and Mark. It will not surprise any preacher or student of the Bible to learn that there are subtle and important differences among the three evangelists. 

The story of the demoniac is part of textual unit that runs from 8:22-9:6. These verses contain four miracle stories followed by the giving of power to the twelve to go out to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” two processes at which they succeed (9:2, 6). This unit precedes the feeding of the five thousand, Peter’s confession, and the Transfiguration story—the climax of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.

The focus of the four miracle stories and the sending of the twelve is twofold:

  • Jesus gives the necessary power to the twelve before sending them off to do ministry.
  • Jesus has the power to give to them, as shown by the different kinds of miracles he accomplishes.

Luke follows in many respects Mark’s ordering of these stories (Mark 4:35-5:43). Mark, however, tells the story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth after this unit. His version would better be titled, “Four miracles and a rejection.” The stories in Mark do not demonstrate the power that Jesus and his chosen followers wield in the service of God’s reign. The point of the stories, including that of the demoniac, is quite different. Matthew includes these same stories from Mark’s gospel, but separates them and distributes them throughout his gospel. The demoniac shows up in Matthew 8:28-34 after Jesus stills the storm.

Focus on Luke’s story
Two important lead-ins to the story of the demoniac occur in Luke 8:21 and 25:

1. In 8:21 Jesus redefines family by stating that his family consists of those who “hear the word of God and do it.” It will be clear at the end of our text that the demoniac has become part of Jesus’ family.
2. Then, the disciples succumb to fear in the raging storm, Jesus asks, “Where is your faith? We will see in our story that fear is displayed by the demons, by the community who had lost their pigs and re-gained one of their people. Faith will be displayed by the demoniac who hears the word of God and does it (8:39).

These lessons will be of importance to the twelve who will “hear the word of God and do it,” when they follow Jesus’ commands to go heal and proclaim in 9:1-6. There is a cumulative effect of all these miracles that deepens and clarifies the power of faith for them and for contemporary hearers as well.

A number of points need to be made about this story to make it the dramatic revelation of Jesus’ power that it is:

  • The story takes place in a Gentile context. Jesus has gone to the east side of the lack where cities of the Decapolis are scattered. The local folk keep pigs. We are in Gentile territory and Jesus will heal a Gentile. It is no small matter that the demons in Gentile territory obey Jesus. (see below).
  • The demons (who are invisible powers whose activities range from annoyance to harassment and destruction) recognize Jesus. Such spirits or powers were understood to be abundant across the cultures of the ancient world. Each group of lesser powers obeyed a greater power. When Jesus consigns these demons to the pigs, he demonstrates the universality of his power by commanding demons who are likely to have served a non-Jewish master. Jesus’ power is greater. (Compare the healing of the slave girl from the Pythonic spirit in Acts 16:16-18). The Messiah of the God of the Jews has power that is not limited to Jews alone, but is universal.
  • The man’s community has tried to preserve both him and themselves from the power of the demons. Shackling and guarding him allowed them to feed him and keep him alive while keeping themselves safe. When unshackled, he leaves the world of the living for the world of the tombs. His life under the power of demons is a paradox of being shackled in a fearful community or freed in a terrible loneliness.
  • When the demon (who is the one in dialogue with Jesus) leaves the man, his life is re-ordered. Unshackled he is able not only to be in the presence of other persons, but even to sit at the feet of Jesus. Real human freedom is lived in human community under the power of self restraint.
  • Furthermore, real human freedom is a gift and is expressed by discipleship. Sitting at the feet of someone is a clear expression for being a disciple (Compare Mary in Luke 10:39 or Acts 22:3).
  • The demoniac has been saved.  In verse 36 many translations (including the NRSV) tell us that demoniac had been “healed.” This is certainly correct. We are again looking at the Greek word that can be translated as either saved or healed. We need to ask ourselves why we see such a difference between these two words in English. The man is healed from his demon possession, from the horrible slavery that had bound up his life with the dead in the place of tombs. He is at the same time saved from that horrible slavery, freed to re-join his community, able to sit quietly to learn, and strong enough to articulate both desire (verse 38) and assent to his own vocation.
  • While this man wanted desperately to follow Jesus and was prepared to hop in the boat even as Jesus was pulling away, he was sent back to his city. This is not the way Jesus addresses many who seek to follow him (compare 9:57, 59, 61). We cannot generalize about what Jesus asks of his followers. Vocation is unique to the one called. Often it seems that we are called to do that which we do not want to do. How unbelievably difficult it would have been for the demoniac to return to his home town where he was so well known. People would have watched him carefully for a long time. He probably would not have married. Not only had he been mad, but his cure had cost the townspeople their living.
  • Notice that Jesus commands the man to go home and declare how much God has done for you.” The man, however, testifies to what he know—how much Jesus had done for him. There is a great freedom and strength in witnesses to what we know instead of always pressing ourselves or others to say more than we truly can. The man told the truth as he knew it (Compare the once blind man in John 10). 
  • Finally, we dare not ignore the difficulties in this passage—very real difficulties for all disciples. These difficulties beset us from the inside and the outside. One of them is fear. What we do not understand, what interrupts our relatively orderly lives, even if it is for someone’s good, frightens us. How can this be? What might this be? Where does this power come from? What if it turns against me? What does this power want? All good questions that make science fiction movies so fascinating and scary. These are the questions of the demoniac’s townsfolk.
  • Add to the fear the fact that their economy has been destroyed by the loss of their pigs and we can understand why they can’t run Jesus out of town fast enough. What would farmers do in my own Midwestern location if someone destroyed their livestock? They would be unlikely to look around to see who benefitted from that destruction or to commend it, even if they did understand. The lives of families are at stake. When the healed/saved demoniac returns home, he is very courageous indeed.

Since his situation is that of most of us, that is, we return home to say what the Lord has done for us, this passage confronts us with the need for courage, the difficulty of going back home to speak with people who know us well about our own salvation and healing, and the power of the Lord to free us for such a life.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 65:1-9

Amy Erickson

Isaiah 65 begins with images of a long-suffering, patient deity.

The emphasis here (in verses 1-2) is on the disparity between God’s receptiveness and desire to be found and the people’s recalcitrance. If we accept that this text emerged during the post-exilic period of Israel’s history, then the context reflects a period of great uncertainty about how and where God is present to the people of the Persian province Yehud (Aramaic for Judah).

To back up historically, Israel went into exile in Babylon in 586/7 B.C.E. In 539, the power of the Empire shifted when the Persians defeated the Babylonians and established the largest-ever empire in the ancient Near East. Unlike other ancient empires, the Persian Empire espoused a policy of cultural and religious independence for its conquered subjects. Cyrus, the first king of Persia, officially announced that captives were free to return to their homelands and to rebuild their temples and worship their gods.

Following the installation of Cyrus as King, the prophet known as “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55) made grand and rich promises about how God would lead the people from Babylon back to a glorious and promised land. No “mass return” resulted, but for those small groups who trickled into the land of Yehud (between 528 and 398 B.C.E.), it seems that what they found upon their return was not nearly as glorious as they had imagined. Particularly in the early post-exilic period, there was economic hardship, famine, and in-fighting. The literature from this period reveals not only that the people were questioning YHWH’s commitment to them, but that they were also engaging in extensive debate about what it meant to be a follower of YHWH.

Like many of the prophets, Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) here asserts that it is not God’s fault that the people are suffering. God has tried to reach the people over and over again to no avail. They have not seen God at work or experienced God’s comfort and compassion because they have not looked for it. God is anxiously waiting for them, with outstretched hands (65:2a), but the people never call.

The oracle in verses 1-7 is one of pure judgment, designed to justify God and God’s decision to punish the people. However, the judgment oracle form defies convention when it abruptly shifts to become an oracle of salvation in verse 8.

Different from numerous other prophetic oracles of judgment, this oracle in Third Isaiah proclaims that the whole community will not be judged as one. YHWH resolves that for the sake of “my chosen” and “my servants” (verse 9), God will not destroy all the people.

Some scholars have argued that the people deemed guilty by the prophet are the priests, who might have held much power in the post-exilic Yehud. The people identified as the servants may have felt powerless to effect change in the power centers of Yehud or to influence those who controlled worship in the temple. The message that their powerlessness to change worship in the temple would not result in their punishment must have come as a welcome relief to a disenfranchised group.

The post-exilic Third Isaiah shows, to some degree, the extent of the split that has ruptured within the community.

The danger in interpreting this passage, especially in places of privilege, is to conclude that since we are not all in this together, we can write off those we do not agree with because our salvation is not wrapped up in theirs. We can claim that we are righteous, and God will save us; they are evil, and God will destroy them. They will receive “full payment” for their sins (verse 7). God’s chosen–God’s servants–however, will receive a blessed inheritance (verse 9).

Perhaps we should shift the angle on this text and identify with the judged ones, the group that wields the power. If we only wonder what the salvation oracle means to us and assume the judgment oracle is referring to someone else, then we may find ourselves looking for–and finding–plenty of “others” to judge. And once we have a suitable candidate for judgment, we can rest easy in our knowledge that we are among God’s chosen. Instead of identifying with the “servants” who imagine themselves to be in the right, perhaps we might try wondering how this accusation might stick if we throw it at the mirror.

The servants claim that the others have not engaged with God. God is ready to be sought by those who do not ask (verse 1). Perhaps like so many of us, they are too busy or overwhelmed to ask difficult questions about faith and the commitment that requires. They do not seek God (verse 2), perhaps because this god is hard to find. They do not call on the name of YHWH because this is a god who requires an intense level of commitment.

The servants also maintain that the ones in power are engaging in syncretistic worship practices (3b-4a), disregarding the laws from Torah that make the people unique (4b), and arrogantly wielding power and claiming special closeness to God (5a). They worship, but they do not know enough to realize that the worship they engage in provokes YHWH. They do not know their god well enough, as a distinctive and unique god with particular requirements of God’s people, to know that what they do incenses YHWH. They engage in worship of a general, one-size-fits-all god. This passage reminds us that any old worship will not do because we do not worship any old god. But the people would rather walk in their own way and follow their own devices (v 2b) than serve the demanding God revealed in scripture.

Who can blame them, really? How many of us want to get to know and seek the particular, quirky, sometimes cantankerous and jealous, passionate God revealed to us in scripture? Living out a faith in the God of the Bible is not easy.

The oracle of salvation assures us that we need not worry about being punished for the sins of others, but the oracle of judgment challenges us to find the sins of the powerful within ourselves.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

The story of Elijah told in 1 Kings 19 is both comically tragic and awesomely powerful.

Elijah has just bested four hundred prophets of Baal on the summit of Mt. Carmel and has one-upped Ahab by outrunning the king’s chariots on their return journey to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:20-46). But then Ahab tells Jezebel of Elijah’s exploits, and she becomes enraged and declares against Elijah (in the typical words of an ancient Near Eastern oath), “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2). In other words, “May the gods take my life if I have not taken yours by this time tomorrow.” 

When Elijah heard Jezebel’s words, he “was afraid; he got up and fled for his life” (1 Kings 19:3). While the story of 1 Kings 19 focuses on Elijah, the reader is left to wonder at the imposing power of Jezebel. This Elijah, the prophet who confronted Ahab with news of an impending drought (1 Kings 17:1) and who destroyed four hundred prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, fled from the scene the moment Jezebel threatened his life.

Elijah’s journey was not a short one. He traveled from Jezreel, located in the valley that lies between Mt. Carmel and the Sea of Galilee, to the southern city of Beersheba, a distance of about one hundred miles. While that distance does not seem all that great to today’s reader (I regularly drive that distance round-trip–and and sometimes one-way–to guest preach in churches), it was an enormous undertaking in a world of foot-travel with the occasional lift on a donkey’s back. It seems very apparent that Elijah was afraid for his very life.

When he arrived in Beersheba, Elijah left his servant and “went a day’s journey into the wilderness” (1 Kings 19:3-4). There he implored God and argued with God about the futility of life (1 Kings 19:4), but God aroused him, fed him, and urged him to continue on his journey (1 Kings 19:5-7). After “forty days and forty nights,” Elijah arrived at Mt. Horeb “the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8). There, God confronted Elijah with words of admonition and commission. God asked, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:9) and then says, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11).

Thus begins a story that theologians and preachers and teachers have puzzled over for millennia. God revealed God’s-self to Elijah in a manner very different from the ways in which God had revealed God’s-self at other points in Israel’s history.

An appearance, a manifestation, of God to humanity is called a theophany, a moment when the sovereign God physically interacts with the human realm. In the Old Testament text, God interacts with humans in dreams (Abraham: Genesis 15; Jacob: Genesis 28); in seemingly human form (Abraham: Genesis 18; Gideon: Judges 6); in fire and smoke (Moses: Exodus 3; Sinai: Exodus 19); in wind and earthquake and unexplainable phenomena (Sinai: Exodus 19; Isaiah: Isaiah 6; Ezekiel: Ezekiel 1).

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah experienced a great wind (verse 11), but God was not in the wind; an earthquake (verse 11), but God was not in the earthquake; a fire (verse 12), but God was not in the fire. Finally, Elijah heard, according to the NRSV, “the sound of sheer silence.” The Hebrew words translated “the sound of sheer silence” are qol damamah daqqah. Qol can be translated as “voice or sound.” Damamah comes from a verbal root that means “to be silent, to be motionless,” and daqqah from a root that means “small or thin.” Various translations have been offered: “a sound of a gentle blowing” (NASB); “a gentle whisper” (NIV); “a still small voice” (KJV). What did Elijah hear? Silence, a whisper, a gentle wind? Whatever it was, it got his attention. And then a voice asked, “What are you doing here?” God had more work for Elijah to do, so he left the wilderness and returned to Israel.

The close reader of the Elijah narrative is struck by the parallels between Elijah’s life and Moses’:
•Moses flees for his life after killing an Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:11-15); Elijah flees for his life after killing the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 19:1-3).
•Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush at Mt. Horeb and God calls him to a specific task (Exodus 3); Elijah encounters God in the form of “sheer silence” at Mt. Horeb and God calls him to a specific task (1 Kings 19).
•Moses out-performs the signs and wonders of the wise men and sorcerers in Egypt (Exodus 7:1-14); Elijah out-performs the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-39).
•Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14); Elijah parts the waters of the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:8).
•God provides food for Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 16); God provides food for Elijah and for the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:6-16; 1 Kings 19:5-8).
•Moses and the Israelites spend forty years wandering in the wilderness (Exodus-Numbers); Elijah spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:8).
•Moses appoints Aaron as successor to himself (Numbers 27:12-23; Deuteronomy 31:14-23); Elijah appoints Elisha as his successor (2 Kings 2).
•Moses dies in the presence of God at the top of Mt. Nebo, God buries him, and no one knows his burial place “to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:1-7); Elijah is taken by God in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11-12).

Elijah’s connection with Moses establishes his connection with and his continuity within the great prophetic tradition of ancient Israel. The prophet Malachi states that God will, at some future time, send to the people “the prophet Elijah . . . who will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents” (Malachi 4:5-6), and so many who heard John the Baptist thought he was Elijah. At the Transfiguration scene in the New Testament (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-37), Moses and Elijah appear and converse with Jesus. Elijah is a powerful figure in the Old Testament, called by God to confront the faithlessness of his day and show people what a new relationship with God could look like.


Commentary on Psalm 22:19-28

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

If we follow the lectionary reading for this Sunday, we enter Psalm 22 right in the middle of an anguished scream.

The psalmist has begun the psalm with a desolate cry of abandonment (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), and then has detailed his troubles, using vivid metaphors. He is a “worm, and not human” (verse 6). He is surrounded by “bulls,” “lions,” and “dogs” (verses 12-13, 16). He is “poured out like water” (verse 14). And he is not afraid to place blame where blame is due: “You [God] lay me in the dust of death” (verse 15).

And yet, the psalmist also knows where his help lies; strangely enough, from the same source he has just accused of foul play. As we enter the psalm, the psalmist cries, “But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!” (verse 19).

Such direct address to God in both complaint and cry for help is typical, of course, of a lament. The psalmist shakes his fist at God while at the same time holding on to God in faith, knowing that his help can come from no other source. The psalmist accuses God while at the same time holding God to God’s promises. “Since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help” (verses 10-11).

As we enter the psalm, then, the psalmist has shifted from complaint to cry for help, always addressing God directly. Even more dramatically, a few verses later, the psalmist moves from lament to praise. Lament ending in praise is, again, typical of the lament form (see Psalm 13:5-6, for instance). The movement from lament to praise in Psalm 22, however, is so abrupt as to cause whiplash. The psalmist cries out to God for salvation from ravenous enemies: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me!” (22:20-21).

In the middle of verse 21, his mouth open for another cry of anguish, the psalmist inexplicably turns to praise: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me!” The NRSV translates the verse, “you have rescued  me,” but that is not what the Hebrew says, and it is more, perhaps, than the psalmist experiences. The psalmist may or may not be rescued, but he is answered, and the fact of God answering is enough for the psalmist. It is exactly what he first sought, after all: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer” (verse 2). Now that God has answered, the psalmist is moved from the depths of despair to the heights of praise.

He begins with a vow to praise (again, typical of a lament): “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (verse 22). He moves quickly, then, to calling on various groups to join him in that praise: all who fear the LORD, offspring of Jacob/Israel, all the ends of the earth, all the families of the nations, all who are dying as well as those yet to be born: “proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (verse 31).

The praise moves out like ripples from a stone tossed into a still pond. The faithfulness of God to this one who has been sorely afflicted, and the fact of God’s hearing and answering (verse. 24) leads to witness. The psalmist cannot help but tell of God’s work. And witness does its work. God’s faithfulness and loving kindness to this one individual leads to worship of the LORD, not just in the psalmist’s immediate family or community, but in the whole world, across space and time. This psalm, which began with an appeal to God’s faithfulness to the ancestors (verse 4), ends by witnessing to coming generations and to a people yet unborn.

As I hope this brief exposition has shown, this psalm provides much rich material for preaching.1  The lectionary reading, unfortunately, gives us only a taste of the psalm. To get the full effect of the movement from lament to praise, the preacher must include the first half of the psalm, as well as the last few verses which are inexplicably left out. (Granted, it is a long reading, but if one chooses to preach on this text, it is well worth the time to read the whole psalm in the congregation.)

Most parishioners, of course, will recognize the opening lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22 is traditionally read on Good Friday, and was used by both Mark and Matthew as a lens through which to view the Crucifixion. But used as it is this Sunday, in the middle of the summer, perhaps the psalm can speak to the suffering that attends every life, in every season of the year, not just in Lent. The psalm teaches us often-overly-pious Christians how to lament–honestly, passionately, which still holding on to God and God’s promises.

Just as importantly, Psalm 22 teaches us how to praise. The praise that ends the psalm neither negates the lament nor denies the pain of the petitioner. Indeed, the praise is made more robust by the psalmist’s journey through hell. God has answered him, and that has made all the difference.

Note that there is no mention of a change of outward circumstances in the psalmist’s life. He may still have enemies surrounding him, but he knows now that God has heard his cry and has answered him, and that is enough to lead to praise. Surely such a situation is true in many of our lives; when outward circumstances (illness, economic troubles) remain the same, but somehow we know that God has heard us. That knowledge, the assurance of God’s presence, is enough to move us to praise.

Psalm 22 can teach us to lament honestly, to praise in the midst of hard circumstances, and to witness to the faithfulness of the God who hears and answers, from generation to generation.

1To read an exemplary sermon on Psalm 22, see Ellen F. Davis’s Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2005), 152-158.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29

Elisabeth Johnson

In Galatians 3, Paul makes an intricate exegetical argument about the priority of God’s promise to Abraham and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and about the provisional function of the law in relation to God’s promise.

Since verses 23-29 bring this argument to its climax, it will be helpful to review briefly the groundwork Paul has laid earlier in the chapter.

Paul is distressed that Galatian (Gentile) believers are being persuaded to adopt circumcision and the observance of Jewish law as necessary to inclusion in God’s covenant people. He reminds the Galatians that they received the Spirit by believing the proclamation about Christ crucified and not by doing works of the law (3:1-5).

Throughout his letters, Paul uses the term “law” (nomos) to refer both to Mosaic law and to the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. Paul reads the Torah primarily as narrative, with Christ as the decisive chapter to which the Torah is directed. He views the legal code within the Torah in a new perspective in light of the larger story culminating in Christ.1 Now in Galatians 3, Paul turns to the Torah as narrative to make his exegetical argument.

The Priority of the Promise
In Genesis 15:6, after God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” In Genesis 12:3 and 22:18, God promised Abraham that “all the Gentiles (ethnε) shall be blessed in you.” Paul views these verses as evidence that God planned from the beginning to justify the Gentiles by faith, and “declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham.” “For this reason,” Paul asserts, “those who believe are justified with Abraham who believed” (3:6-9).

In 3:10-20, Paul makes a number of exegetical points to show that the law is provisional in nature and function:

1.The law cannot justify or bring blessing, for it declares cursed everyone who does not observe all that is written in it. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by taking its curse upon himself in his death on the cross (3:10-14).

2.The promise to Abraham has chronological priority, having been given 430 years before the giving of the law to Moses. The law cannot alter or annul the original promise, received in faith (3:15-18).

3.The law was given through angels by a mediator (Moses). It is a third-hand revelation from God, while the promise was spoken directly by God to Abraham (3:19-20).

The Law as Provisional and Temporary
“Why then the law?” Paul asks rhetorically. It was added “because of transgressions” but was only a provisional measure, “until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made” (3:19: Paul emphasizes the singular form of the collective noun, sperma, to argue that the “offspring” promised to Abraham refers to Christ).

While sin has been in the world since Adam and Eve, the law defined sin and made it known as such. The law served a custodial function with the authority to restrain sin, yet lacked the power to liberate us from sin (3:20-22). So Paul writes that “before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” (3:23-24).

The word translated “disciplinarian” in the NRSV is paidagōgos. In wealthy Greek and Roman families, a paidagōgos was a slave entrusted with the care and discipline of a child when the child was not in school, until the child reached the age of adulthood. The metaphor suggests that the authority of the law is transitory, lasting only until the fruition of the promise — “until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.”

“But now that faith has come,” Paul continues, “we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (3:25-26). The word translated “children” in the NRSV is “sons” (huioi). Sons would enjoy full rights of inheritance from their fathers. Yet it is clear that Paul intends the meaning to be gender-inclusive by what follows.

Baptized into Christ
Now that Christ has come, the rite of entry into God’s people is no longer circumcision (available only to males) but baptism, available to all. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (3:27). Here Paul uses language from early baptismal liturgy, in which the newly baptized were clothed in a white garment, symbolic of the righteousness of Christ.

All who have been baptized into Christ are clothed with him, wrapped up in him, and incorporated into him so that Christ becomes one’s primary identity marker. All other identifiers fall away, for “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

The Babylonian Talmud includes a morning blessing to be recited by every Jewish man, thanking God for not creating him a gentile, a slave, or a woman (Menahoth 43b). While it is not certain that this prayer pre-dates Paul, it demonstrates the power these three categories held in the ancient world. Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, is a radical dismantling of these primary identity and boundary markers.

Differences in ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status do not magically disappear, of course, but Paul declares them to be irrelevant in the body of Christ. For one to be baptized into Christ means being clothed with Christ and finding one’s primary identity and value in Christ.

“And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:29; note that sperma is now interpreted corporately). All who belong to Christ share fully and equally in the inheritance of God’s promises and the call to live as God’s children and heirs.

Preaching Possibilities
The categories that divide us today may be different than in Paul’s day, but divisions persist in congregations and in the broader church — divisions that run along lines of ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, political affiliation, and any number of other factors.

Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ.

Recently a woman in the congregation I serve was questioned by a fellow member who was trying to pin down her stand on a particular issue — to figure out whether she was “conservative” or “liberal.” Refusing to be labeled, she responded by saying simply, “I am a child of God. That is what matters.” Her interrogator was left flustered and speechless.

Our continued attempts to categorize and label one another in the church, and to diminish one another on the basis of those categories and labels, are signs of our spiritual immaturity. Paul reminds us that since Christ has come, we are no longer enslaved to those old divisions. All are justified solely by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Through baptism into Christ, we belong to him and to one another. All share fully and equally in the inheritance of God’s promises and in the mission to which God has called us.

Might this perspective help us deal with contentious issues, which often have to do with interpretation of the law? Paul reminds us that the law is provisional and can never justify or save us. In fact, it can only imprison us. It is Christ who frees us from the curse of the law and makes us children and heirs of God.

This does not mean that “anything goes” in terms of how we live. Paul has plenty to say about how we are to live out our freedom in Christ, as we will see in Galatians 5 and 6.

Yet Paul’s message to the Galatians cautions us against allowing the law to annul the promise and destroy the freedom, unity, and mission to which God has called us in Christ. God’s mission to bless “all the families of the earth,” begun with the promise to Abraham and bequeathed to us as children and heirs, takes priority over all human agendas.

1Charles B. Cousar, Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982) 82.