Who were the Galatians? Galatia was a northern province of today’s Turkey. Once Paul had stopped there (Acts 16:6) when an illness had prevented him from pursuing his journey (Gal 4:13-14). He had visited the Galatians again (Acts 18:23) before settling in Ephesus (Acts 19:1) and he had asked them to help the poor in Jerusalem (1Cor 16:1).
Paul is writing because the community is in danger. Strangely enough, Paul does not make any reference to scandals, laxity or to conflicts of authority, as it was the case in Corinth. There were tensions and doubts as some people wanted to go back to Jewish practices. However, it seems that the community was not expecting such a warning from Paul. He had shown greater foresight. Some people wanted to return to religious practices because they had failed to understand that being Christian was primarily living one’s faith rather than practicing a religion.
For the Galatians, discovering the Gospel had been like a bath in freedom. Those who were Jewish were freed from the constraint of religious practices and those who were Greek (and pagan) were freed from the prejudices of their society: it was like a great cleansing. But were they able to follow Paul when he declared that Christ was able to fill our lives and that the Spirit is a much better guide than any religious obligations?
At first, the Galatians had experienced what was at the core of Paul’s life. But the community found it difficult to maintain itself along such a new line. After their initial enthusiasm, most of these new Christians felt a need for rules and practices. They did have faith in Christ but it was asking for a lot to want all of them to be’“spiritual” people.
It was precisely at that time that preachers of Jewish origin were exhorting them to be circumcised and to observe the customs of Israel (4:10) by promising them a life superior to the life obtained by conversion to Christ.
Belonging to Judaism would have brought material security to the Galatians since the Israelite religion was protected by Roman laws. If they refused both idolatry and the Jewish religion, they were running the risk of being persecuted (6:12-14). On the contrary, if they adopted the Jewish nationality and the customs of Israel, they would have avoided persecution but that would have been the same as saying that Christ had died for nothing (2:21).
This is the reason why Paul reacted passionately. All of us, Jews and pagans, are solely saved by the generosity of God who has forgiven our sins and who has given us, along with his Spirit, the freedom of love (5:13-14). When we give too much credit to the rules and practices of a religion, we are locking ourselves into a system, an order in which we expect, even without saying it, a reward for our good deeds. On the contrary, faith means surrendering to God and his mystery that is as awesome as its symbol, the cross. Faith also means believing that God wants the salvation of all human beings, regardless of their nationality (3:9).
This should be enough to understand that this letter to the Galatians is still addressing us in our time when so many people reduce religion to practices. Moreover, it is a fact that to the extent that the Church has to sustain many Christians who have a very limited experience of life in the freedom of the Spirit, it tends to bring itself to their level and to become a religion. This is why the Church has to regain the awareness of its identity and to rediscover the meaning of living by faith.