First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

While Paul’s letters do not relate any narrative traditions about Jesus’ birth, he does speak profoundly about the meaning of the incarnation.

January 1, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7

While Paul’s letters do not relate any narrative traditions about Jesus’ birth, he does speak profoundly about the meaning of the incarnation.

This passage from Galatians 4 reflects on God’s sending of his Son in the context of a larger theological argument about what it means to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ.

Minors and Slaves

Writing to Gentile believers who are being persuaded that they need to adopt circumcision and law observance in order to be fully included in God’s people, Paul responds with a forceful scriptural argument.

In chapter 3, Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham precedes and takes priority over the law. The law served its purpose, holding a custodial function with the authority to restrain sin, yet lacking the power to liberate us from sin (3:21-22). The law served as our disciplinarian until Christ came (3:23-24). But now in Christ we are set free, justified, and made children of God through faith (3:25-26). This is true for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female alike. In baptism we all belong to Christ; we are all one in Christ and heirs to God’s promises (3:27-29).

In chapter 4, Paul expands on what it means to be an heir. While heirs are still minors, they are “no better than slaves,” for they and the property they will inherit remain under the control of guardians and trustees “until the date set by the father” (4:1-2). “So with us,” Paul continues, “while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (4:3).

The root meaning of the word translated “elemental spirits” (stoicheia) is “what is put in order.” It can refer to basic principles or teachings, or to elemental spirits that are believed to order the universe (such as the signs of the zodiac, for instance). In 4:8-10, Paul tells the Galatians that formerly, when they did not know God, they “were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (4:8).

He then pleads: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved by them again?” (4:9). In particular, Paul is concerned that the Galatians are “observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years” (4:10), likely referring to the Jewish liturgical calendar.

Paul makes the astonishing claim that for the Galatians to adopt the Jewish law is the equivalent of returning to their former pagan practices. Being “imprisoned and guarded under the law” (3:23), or being minors, means being “no better than slaves” (4:1). It is the same as being “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (4:3). But there is no need for that, because the “date set by the father” has arrived!

Children and Heirs

“But when the fullness of time had come” (4:4) — at the end of one age and the beginning of another, at the time God deemed just right — “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (4:4-5).

God’s sending of his Son ends the reign of the law and inaugurates a new age (cf. 3:25). The Son is “born of a woman,” fully human, and “born under the law.” The latter phrase might be seen to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish lineage, but in context it seems rather to identify him with all of humanity. Paul suggests that all that are born under the law in one form or another — whether the law of Moses or the law of the “elemental spirits.” Jesus is born under the law in order to redeem us who are under the law (cf. 3:13), “so that we might receive adoption as children.”

Here Paul shifts metaphors, from a child growing to maturity and receiving the inheritance at the time set by the father, to a child being adopted. Under Roman law, adopted children had the same legal status and inheritance rights as biological children. It is significant that Paul does not identify Jews with biological children and Gentiles with adopted children. Rather, he suggests that we are all adopted children. None of us have any prior claim on the father. Our adoption as God’s children is pure gift. Jesus alone is Son of God from birth, but he deigns to share his kinship and inheritance with us.

Paul continues: “And because you are children (huioi = sons), God sent has sent the Spirit of his Son (huios) into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!'” (4:6). The Spirit links us with God’s Son as fellow children of God, and enables us to call upon God with the same intimate language Jesus used (Mark 14:36; cf. Romans 8:15-17).

Our adoption as God’s children means that there is absolutely no reason to return to a life of slavery. In Christ we are children of God and full heirs with him to all that God has promised (4:7; cf. 3:18, 29).

A preacher might help hearers envision the difference it makes in daily life to know that we are children of God purely by God’s grace and not by our adherence to the law, whatever form that law may take. For instance, post-Christmas letdown may be setting in with all its attendant guilt–about the Christmas cards that didn’t get sent, the hoped-for family harmony that didn’t quite happen, the overeating now apparent on the bathroom scale. One way of dealing with that guilt is by making “new year’s resolutions” about how we will change, how we will make a fresh start with the turning of the calendar. And we know how well that usually turns out.

Don’t go back to that life of slavery, Paul tells us. The fullness of time has come! God sent his Son to redeem us from under the law, so that we might receive adoption as God’s children. God’s gift to us will not be revoked, regardless of how well we live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others. We do have a fresh start — not by our own will power, but by the gracious initiative of God in sending his Son, claiming us as God’s children, and sending the Spirit into our hearts. This is pure gift; we cannot earn or deserve it. We can only give thanks and share this gift with others.