Galatians 4 (& Ecclesiastes 7-8)
“All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun, while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt.” (Ecc 8:9)
As you are all aware, the United States has a deep and dark history with slavery. Generations of family wealth were built on the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves. We abused our power and took advantage of others for our own gain. Thankfully, although through great struggle, we abandoned the practice.
But we still feel the ripples of our past today. Slavery ended, but it took many, many years before everyone could say they had the same fundamental rights. It takes a long time to recover from being held down as a people for so many years, especially as those in power do everything they can to stay in power. It is painful to see that senseless acts of racism and hate still happen, and that the systems and powers still propagate forms of racism. I do not claim to know what the solutions are, but there is still a lot of work to be done to correct our great wrongs.
The United States wasn’t the first nation to have a practice of slavery. For an example, let’s go back in time to the exodus. You probably remember the story, but if not, it’s… in Exodus. Moses and the Israelites were miraculously delivered from slavery in Egypt. This was an important memory for the Israelites and was commemorated by the Passover meal. In fact, we trace our tradition of communion back to one particular Passover meal that Jesus had with his disciples.
If we move forward to the time when Paul was writing to the Galatians, slavery was a thing then too. It was a normal part of the culture. Although, compared to what the United States did, it was milder. Think more along the lines of indentured servitude. It was not a good situation to be in, but it was not to the level of horror that we took it.
Unfortunately, the practice of slavery is still alive and well in our world. There are more slaves in the world than ever before. Usually we call it “human trafficking” now, but the concepts are not that different. It is about owning people. The mindset that you can own a person and profit from them is big business, and it’s terrifying to think about.
We come to Galatians 4 and see that Paul is drawing a strong connection between following the Jewish law and being under slavery. This seems to fly in the face of what we have seen elsewhere in scripture about the law. The law is supposed to be a good thing that was received from God. For the Israelites, it was an important pathway toward connecting with God. Jesus himself upheld it as something good (Matt 5:17 and surrounding verses). In Galatians 3, Paul seems to agree it was good, and even necessary for a time. But if we have a chance to corner Paul and ask if he thinks the law is good or bad, he’ll probably say “Yes!” There are two sides to this.
Usually you don’t think of things as absolutely good or bad. You compare them to other things or judge them in context. A burger is better than salad. It is savory with lots of protein and fat. The salad is better for providing micronutrients and some fiber, otherwise it is worthless. I would put a tomato slice and lettuce on the burger and call it a day. If you are hard pressed for finding food, then a salad is better than nothing. But if you had access to a burger, then you would not bother with a salad. I am the least picky eater I know. I can enjoy and see the value in a salad. They are a good thing. But there is just no comparison to a burger. A burger wins every single time.
The law is like the lettuce that the Jews had to live on until they had burgers. It was the best option for a long time, and it was a blessing from God. But now that we have grace, the promises of God, and the spirit through Jesus, the law looks pathetic in comparison. After a bite of that burger, you won’t go back. Taste and see!
“But when the fullness of time had come, 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. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Gal 4:4-7)
Paul is saying it is better to be a child and heir than to be a slave. Because of what Jesus has done, your status has changed from a slave under the law to a child of God and an heir of his promises. If you’re a child and heir, with rights and a large inheritance, you wouldn’t think of going back to having nothing.
You can imagine that trying to follow the letter of the law would feel burdensome, like it owned you. And the law has a way of making you hyper-aware of your sin. And sin is all tangled up with death. Thankfully we are filled with and are influenced by the spirit of God to help guide us. If we keep in step with the spirit and make ourselves vessels of God’s love, we don’t have to worry about breaking God’s laws. It is like they take care of themselves.
Starting in Galatians 4:21, Paul gives us an allegory of the slave woman and the free woman. He’s presenting us with a crossroads of sorts, but the choice should be easy. Of course if Jesus hands you a burger, you take it, and don’t bother with the salad. Why be a child of the flesh when you can be a child of the promise? Why be a slave when you can be free?
With all of this influence from Ecclesiastes lately, I can’t help but think Paul would say being slaves to the law is like chasing after the wind.