The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7-C) 23 June 2019

June 23, 2019 | by Paul E. Capetz

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a Psalm 42 and 43 Galatians 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39 Isaiah 65:1-9 Psalm 22:19-28

1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7), 8-15a

This portion of the biblical text is taken from 1 Kings which is part of the sequence of historical books from Joshua through 2 Kings (except Ruth) known as the Deuteronomistic History, so called because it narrates the story of Israel’s history through the lens provided by the theological perspective articulated in the Book of Deuteronomy.  These books tell the story of Israel’s conquest of Canaan[1] and the early tribal league, the eventual establishment of the monarchy and its high point in the reign of David, the building of the temple by Solomon, the division of the united kingdom into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and the destruction of these two nations by Assyria and Babylon.  The theological point of this historical narrative is to show that the fate of these two nations was the direct consequence of their own failure to observe the terms of the covenant between Israel and God set forth definitively in the Torah (law) of Moses.

The story related in our text takes place in the ninth century in the northern kingdom of Israel which had secured its own independent existence apart from the southern kingdom of Judah in 922.  The protagonist is Elijah, the fierce prophet of Mosaic religion.  His antagonists are Ahab, the king of Israel, and Jezebel, his Phoenician wife, who continued to practice her native religion on Israelite soil.  Ahab and Jezebel gave their official support to the Canaanite (and Phoenician) religion of Baal.  For this purpose, Ahab built a temple to Baal in Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom.  Ahab had no intention of supplanting the worship of Yahweh, Israel’s god; rather, his cult was merely being supplemented by that of Baal. 

The critical issue looming throughout this text is religious syncretism and the crucial role played by prophecy in insisting upon Israel’s sole allegiance to Yahweh, the God who had revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. 3:15), delivered the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, and brought them into the land of Canaan (Ex. 3:16-17).  Syncretism was the great temptation facing the newcomers upon their arrival in Canaan and thus posed the greatest threat to the exclusive worship of Yahweh.  Recall the Decalogue’s imposing opening words: “‘I am the LORD [Yahweh] your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me’” (Ex. 20:2-3).[2]  Accordingly, Israel owed its allegiance to Yahweh on account of his liberation of the oppressed slaves and his gift to their descendants of “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17).  But the indigenous religion of the Canaanites was Baalism, a religion of fertility that increasingly appealed to the Israelites once they found themselves dependent upon the settled rhythms of agriculture for their survival and prosperity. To be sure, Yahweh had proved himself as both a liberator and a warrior, but Baal had a reputation for insuring the regular cycles of seedtime and harvest.  So why not be prudent and worship both? 

To people of the ancient world, such syncretism or blending of religions seemed most natural and self-evident.  Indeed, refusal to acknowledge other peoples’ deities seemed downright inhospitable.  But to Elijah, syncretism was nothing less than an abandonment of Israel’s religion and thus a betrayal of its God.[3]  The prophet’s despair to which our text gives expression is the result of this threat to Yahwism.  For him, the existential issue is who will be acknowledged as God in Israel: Baal or Yahweh?  This was the question he posed to his contemporaries on Mount Carmel: “‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the LORD [Yahweh] is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’” (I Kings 18:21).  Even his name reflects this single-minded devotion: “Elijah” (eli + jah) means “my god (eli) is jah[weh].”

Our text begins in medias res: having slain the prophets of Baal whom he had bested in the contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40), Elijah’s own life is threatened by Queen Jezebel.  Taking flight, he asks God to let him die.  The passage gives us a picture of the prophet, fearful and in despair.  He eventually makes his way to Mount Horeb (Sinai), where he experiences a theophany (a manifestation of God).  We are thus obviously reminded of the theophany to Moses on Sinai.  At Horeb, he witnesses wind, an earthquake, and fire, only to discover that God is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire.  Rather, there is “a sound of sheer silence” (19:12; NRSV) or “a still small voice” (RSV) or “a soft murmuring sound” (Jewish Publication Society) or “the sound of a gentle whisper” (The Living Bible).  Much ink has been spilled in the effort to clarify the significance of this verse.  Does it suggest that Yahweh will no longer be known in such dramatic ways as characterized previous theophanies?  Von Rad cautions us against accepting “the widely held idea that the ‘still, soft whisper’ expresses a more elevated, more ethical and spiritual, concept of God.”[4] But Kyle McCarter speculates that “this incident represents a transition from the spectacular theophanies witnessed by early Israel to the quiet transmission of the divine word to the prophets.”[5]  The Jewish scholar Marvin Sweeney argues that the denial that Yahweh is to be identified with any of these natural phenomena is intended to draw a contrast with Baal: whereas Baal is identified with nature, Yahweh “as sovereign of creation controls nature.”  The affirmation that he is revealed, rather, through the “still small voice” is intended to highlight his “incorporeality and intangible nature when compared to Baal or other pagan gods.”[6]  Afterwards Elijah is instructed by God to go on his way.  What are we to make of such a text today?

This periscope caused me not a little consternation since I was puzzled as to how I would preach on it.  I found myself troubled by the intolerance exhibited by Elijah and was reminded of other examples of religious intolerance in the history of Christianity that, in my judgment, have marred its witness to the gospel (e.g., the church’s anti-Judaism, its crusades against Islam, the disdain of many Christian missionaries for indigenous religions, etc.).  As a liberal Protestant I am more inclined to want to respect other religions and to learn from them than to kill their representatives or to destroy their sacred sites.  In fact, trying to come to a new relationship with non-Christian religions has been a major item on the agenda of process theologians.  John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, and Marjorie Suchocki have written important books on this topic.[7]  A friend of mine, Duane Bidwell, has recently written a book that reflects upon the lives of people for whom one religion isn’t enough.[8]  So, are these all examples of the very syncretism to which Elijah and the entire Bible are opposed?  Hence, I am puzzled.  Accordingly, a few reflections are in order here.  But I cannot presume to utter the definitive word in this regard.  My thoughts are intended merely to provoke readers’ own reflections as they grapple with this text.

First, we have to acknowledge that Israel’s exclusive monotheism is the premise of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Had it not been for Israel’s (or the prophets’) intransigence in refusing to worship other gods, Judaism would not have emerged out of the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile.  Instead, Israel’s deity would have been assimilated into the pantheon of gods and the exiles from Judah would have been assimilated into Babylon.  So, if we value Judaism, we have to appreciate its unwillingness to compromise in this regard.  We should also remember that this was the issue for which Christians lost their lives in the Roman empire when they refused to worship the Roman gods, including the emperor as a god.  If Christians hadn’t been so uncompromising, Christianity would have become merely one more Hellenistic mystery cult. So too, then, if we value Christianity, we have to appreciate its unwillingness to practice this kind of syncretism.  Therefore, if we remain monotheists, we need to insist that there is only one God who deserves our worship.  But does monotheism preclude us from appreciating non-Christian religions as many have believed or does it open us up to learning from them?[9]

Second, as a matter of fact, syncretism has characterized the entire history of religion, including the histories of Judaism and Christianity.  This insight was the great contribution of the “history-of-religions school” (religionsgeschichtliche Schule) that revolutionized biblical studies at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.  Scholars now acknowledge the ways that Israelite, Jewish, and Christian religion was influenced by the neighboring religions of the Egyptians, Canaanites, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks.  Hence, in spite of their official polemics against syncretism, Judaism and Christianity are actually indebted to other religions for much that is important to them!  One thinks, for instance, of the Jewish debt to Persian religion for the development of apocalypticism which played such an indispensable role in the emergence of early Christianity.  Or one thinks of the contribution of Hellenism to the spread of Christianity.  From a scholarly perspective, therefore, syncretism is an important category for understanding how religious traditions have interacted with one another and have been mutually influenced by one another. 

Third, ours is a new day, I believe, as far as the relations of the various religions to one another are concerned.  If we human beings are to develop a just and sustainable global community, then we need to learn a new way of dealing with religious differences that is willing to see the truth and goodness in religions other than our own.  We now have Jewish-Christian dialogues and Buddhist-Christian dialogues as well as many others.  Cobb, Ogden, and Suchocki are, among others, leaders in teaching us how we might think in new ways about Christianity and the other religions of the world without jeopardizing the integrity of our own.

But there is another side to things that I think we need to consider.  And here, perhaps, our biblical text may challenge us to reflect more deeply than we are otherwise wont to do.

First, I remain troubled by the fact that it is common to see American flags in the sanctuaries of our mainline Protestant churches.  What is being symbolized here?  That loyalty to one God is compatible with loyalty to our nation?  Ideally, of course, we would all want to affirm this.  But what about situations in which we have to choose between loyalty to God and loyalty to our nation?  I remember that in my sixth-grade class there was a girl whose family belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Whenever the rest of us would stand to say the Pledge of Allegiance, she would sit at her desk.  We thought she was weird for not joining us in affirming loyalty to our nation, but, in retrospect, I wonder why my Methodist church didn’t teach me as a child to have a more critical attitude toward this question of dual loyalties.[10]  After 9/11 the Presbyterian Church that I was then attending draped an American flag on the outer wall of the church facing the street.  I wrote a letter to the session (the board of elders governing the congregation) and objected to this display of the flag, but my objection was not taken seriously.  From my point of view, when a church displays an American flag next to the distinctive religious symbols of Christian faith, we have a problem of dual loyalties not unlike that which Elijah saw himself called to address.  Is the God of monotheism really that easily combined with nationalism?

Second, I am troubled that our American currency has the phrase “In God We Trust” printed on our bills and engraved on our coins.  As Cobb points out, “economism” (“the belief that the economy is the most important dimension of human life, that the whole of society should be organized around it”) is the de facto religion of the American nation today.[11] Since unbridled capitalism is the source of the great injustices under which poor persons and communities suffer as well as of the environmental degradation that imperils our ecosystem, we have to ask ourselves which god it is in whom we are trusting when we profess the faith inscribed on our currency.  It is certainly not the God to which biblical faith bears witness (see Matt. 6:24 on the question of serving two masters, God and wealth).  Perhaps this is the kind of syncretism that Elijah would have viewed as an existential matter of life and death similar to that which he discerned at issue between Yahweh and Baal.  Christian faith is not compatible with economism.

Third, the biggest direct threat to the integrity of Christianity during the twentieth century was posed by the so-called “German Christians” who wanted to synthesize Nazi ideology with their inherited Protestant faith.  National Socialism went beyond nationalism of the ordinary variety by teaching an explicitly racist worldview that led to the Holocaust.  This type of syncretism is completely antithetical to the gospel.  I have no doubt that the members of the so-called “Confessing Church” under the leadership of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Niemoeller who opposed the syncretistic program of the German Christians had no trouble or qualms preaching on our text about Elijah.  They knew at first hand the dangers of worshipping two incompatible deities.  Happily, many white American Christians learned the same lesson about the incompatibility of racism and Christianity during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (though we should have learned it much earlier from our black fellow-Christians), but recent events have brought home to us that this battle is far from having been definitively won.  We should not forget that even the members of the Ku Klux Klan claim to be Christians.   

Hence, those of us in the liberal or mainline churches, including those of us who have learned from process theology, need to be reminded that religious syncretism is an ambiguous phenomenon.  On the one hand, we want to move beyond our Christian absolutism that sees nothing but sin and falsehood in the non-Christian religions; on the other hand, we dare not forget that true Christian faith is incompatible with any number of worldviews or ideologies. 

Like Cobb, I am worried that those of us who have worked the hardest fighting against Christian absolutism vis-à-vis non-Christian religions may have been so infected by relativism in the nihilistic sense that we have lost the ability to articulate and to defend any deep Christian religious convictions at all.[12]  Recently two missionaries from the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door to share their faith with me.  I wondered why we never see liberal Protestants sharing their faith with others in a like manner.  Have we, who have opened ourselves up to non-Christian religions, lost our ability to preach the gospel with conviction?[13]  I don’t have an answer to my implied question about the difference between good syncretism and bad syncretism (if we may so speak of this distinction), but the stories about Elijah should give us much to think about.

Psalm 42 and 43

These two psalms are closely related in content.  The superscriptions in the NRSV bring this out clearly: “Longing for God and His Help in Distress” and “Prayer to God in Time of Trouble.”   Moreover, they focus on the plight of the individual who desperately needs God’s aid and assistance: “My tears have been my food day and night” (Ps. 42:3) and “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Ps. 42:11a, 43:5a).  These are highly realistic depictions of a person in despair.  The mystics spoke of “the dark night of the soul” and this existential condition is very much the theme of our two psalms.  Two things stood out to me as I began to ponder these texts. 

First, there is the despair that results from oppression, that is, from being the victim of other people’s evil-doing: “Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” (Ps. 42:9b) and “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against…those who are deceitful and unjust” (Ps. 43:1).  Perhaps the oppression is that experienced by a single individual or perhaps the individual’s plight is reflective of that of an entire group (e.g., the situation of the Jews in exile).  Most psalms give no indication of their historical origin or Sitz im Leben (the form-critical term for the actual sociological setting in the life of the people).  As one noted scholar explains, “it is practically impossible to deal with the Psalms in their proper historical periods or life-situations.  Unlike modern hymnbooks, no reliable indication of the date or occasion of a particular psalm is provided at the beginning or the end.  Moreover, with the exception of Psalm 137, which clearly presupposes a situation in the Babylonian exile, the content of particular psalms tells us very little about the time and circumstance of their composition.”[14]  But, clearly, they were not included in the Bible for the primary purpose of giving us historical information about ancient Israel.  They were meant to be prayed or sung, which has been, of course, their actual “setting in life” in the worship of the synagogue and the church.  In the church in which I was raised, we recited a psalm antiphonally in the worship service every Sunday morning.  The fact that the Psalter has always been one of the best loved books of scripture is a testimony that its content is well-nigh universal and thus these psalms transcend any particular situation or context so as to speak to many situations and contexts.

Second, whatever the cause of the despair, the psalmist depicts the soul in crisis in terms very reminiscent of the current epidemic of addiction in our country: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2a).  The key words here are “longs” and “thirsts.”  One of my former colleagues, Jim Nelson, wrote a riveting account of his own struggle with alcoholism in a book entitled Thirst: God and the Alcoholic Experience.  We know from the accounts of those who have been helped by “Twelve-Step” programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous that addiction, in addition to its medical or psychological components, is at heart a spiritual problem.  Whatever may be the original cause of the suffering from which the addict seeks to escape through the use of a substance, the supposed remedy only serves to exacerbate the addict’s suffering.  In the final analysis, the person trying to break free of addiction has to seek a spiritual remedy that penetrates far deeper than mere treatment of the symptom itself (e.g., drinking).  This is described as finding a spiritual way of life, that is, a life oriented to God or, if theistic language is found to be off-putting, a “higher power.”[15] 

Nelson reminds us that “desire is at the core of our spirituality.”[16] Saint Augustine (354-430) knew this long ago.  He prefaced his own autobiography (Confessions) with the statement that the human heart is restless until it finds its ultimate rest in God alone.[17] In other words, he posited a “thirst” for God, so to speak, at the heart of human existence.  The problem, he realized, is that we try to satiate this thirst with non-divine substitutes that inevitably betray us.  Nelson put his own experience of this Augustinian insight into these words: “As my alcoholism progressed, my thirst for God increasingly became transmuted into a thirst for the seemingly godlike experience that alcohol induced.”[18]  The spiritual discovery that is made by one on the path to recovery from addiction is that only God can slake the thirst at the core of our being. 

Whether we find ourselves in the grip of an addiction or not, we can acknowledge with the psalmist that we ought to place our “hope in God” since God is our final and ultimate “help” (Ps. 42:5b, 11b, Ps. 43:5b), “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).

Galatians 3:23-29

This passage contains one of the most famous statements from one of the most important books of the Christian Bible.  “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” (Gal. 3:28).[19] There is no more resounding declaration of the radical implications of the gospel (“good news”) as this was understood by some early Christians than this statement recorded by the apostle Paul.[20]  I say “some” because not all of the early Christians affirmed these implications or, at the very least, understood them in the same way as Paul did.  Most controversial, and most pertinent to the occasion for the Letter to the Galatians itself, was the statement that the new Christian identity is one in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek.”[21]  Paul wrote this letter to the congregations of Gentile believers he had founded in Galatia in Asia Minor.  After his departure from them, other non-Pauline Jewish-Christian missionaries succeeded in persuading the Galatian believers in Christ that they needed to adopt Judaism and to live according to the precepts of the Mosaic Torah in order for their salvation to be complete.  The Galatians found this to be a compelling argument, most likely because they had been unable to cope with the moral infractions that had been committed by some members of the church after Paul’s departure (Gal. 6:1).  The Torah gave them a blueprint with clear moral instructions on how to act and what to avoid doing whereas the Pauline ethic of living according to the Spirit (Gal. 5:25) evidently did not suffice for this purpose.[22]  We Western Christians who have been raised on the letters of Paul (via Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley) and who, therefore, take his answers to be self-evident may find it difficult to imagine how difficult and perplexing were the issues that confronted this first generation of Christians, but let’s try to do our best to reconstruct that early situation so that their questions may be illuminated for us.  In other words, let’s try to be fair to Paul’s opponents even as we seek to understand Paul and what he thought was at stake.

Paul directed his missionary efforts at Gentiles, i.e., pagans.  He sought to bring them to belief in one God and in Jesus Christ (1 Th. 1:9b-10).  His success in this regard could be seen by Jews as a fulfillment of Jewish hopes that someday the Gentiles would surrender their pagan worship and turn to the one true God of Israel.  But, while converting them to monotheism and the gospel, Paul did not require of these erstwhile pagans that they convert to Judaism as a condition of their full participation in the Christian church.  Yet other Jewish-Christians didn’t see things the way Paul did.  For them, it was necessary that the Gentile Christians become Jews.  This position actually makes a lot of sense once we think about it.  After all, Jesus was believed and proclaimed by all Jewish-Christians to be the long-awaited messiah of the Jewish people.  Hence, from their perspective, the idea of a Gentile becoming a Christian without simultaneously becoming a Jew would be similar to the idea that somehow one could become a Baptist or a Lutheran without being (or becoming) a Christian.  Just as being a Baptist or a Lutheran is a way of being a Christian, so too being a Christian was originally another way of being Jewish (i.e., another denomination of Judaism, if you will) in distinction from Pharisees, Sadducees, and those Jews at Qumran who left the Dead Sea Scrolls for us to find.  So, imagine what a conceptual absurdity Paul’s missionary strategy must have seemed to these non-Pauline (soon to become anti-Pauline!) Jewish Christians.  After all, a Gentile could not expect to become a Pharisee without first or simultaneously converting to Judaism.  Paul’s view was the truly radical position in this debate, for it threatened the continuance of a separate Jewish identity and lifestyle, which was actually the reason for his original opposition to and persecution of the church (Gal. 1:13-14).  Now he championed the position to which he was initially opposed.

While Paul didn’t demand of his fellow Jewish believers in Jesus that they set aside their observance of the Torah, the clear implication of his understanding of the gospel is that the Torah is radically relativized since it is no longer the basis of eschatological or end-time salvation.  Paul agreed with his fellow Jewish-Christian believers that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:15-16).  But he disagreed with them regarding the practical implications of what this belief entails.  For one thing, Paul denied that Gentile converts have to adopt Torah observance and live like Jews.  For another, he saw Torah observance as optional for Jewish Christians (1 Cor. 9:20; Rom. 14:14), though he did object to Jewish Christians who insisted on keeping the Torah if it meant that full fellowship with Gentile Christians was thereby jeopardized.  Hence, Paul condemned Peter for withdrawing from his previous table fellowship with Gentiles in order to appease Torah-observant Jewish Christians (Gal. 2:11-14).  Although Paul’s position on this matter became normative for subsequent Christianity, we should not forget that he remained a controversial figure for a long time in the church and that other Jewish Christians disagreed with his position on the Torah and the necessity of observing it (Matt. 5:17-19; cf. Rom. 10:4).  And even some Gentile Christian converts came to disagree with him such as the Galatians themselves.  Nonetheless, as a result of Paul’s thinking on this question and its triumph over other ways of thinking, the church did not remain a sect or denomination within Judaism but became a new religion distinct from Judaism. 

Such a direction seems clearly portended by the declaration that “there is no longer Jew or Greek…in Christ Jesus.”  Here the gospel is celebrated as having overcome the barrier that historically divided Jews from non-Jews.[23]  It is interesting that the distinction is formulated as that between Jew and Greek instead of Jew and Gentile which would have been the standard Jewish way of making this distinction.  Just as the Jews divided up the world by means of their own binary distinction of “us vs. them,” so too did the Greeks.  By implication, “Greek” is distinguished from “barbarian” (uncivilized).[24]  We have illustrations from the ancient world of how these Jewish and Greek ways of dividing up the world were perceived by those who made them.  From the Jewish side, there is a traditional morning blessing that is to be recited daily by every Jewish male: “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me other than a Jew [i.e., a Gentile].  Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a slave.  Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.”[25]  From the Greek side there is a saying recorded by Diogenes Laertius, sometimes ascribed to Thales and sometimes to Socrates: “he used to say there were three blessings for which he was grateful to Fortune: ‘first, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian.’”[26]  These examples illustrate the importance of these distinctions for people in the ancient world.  Paul, in effect, is saying that these distinctions have now been abolished and thus are irrelevant.  A new possibility for human self-understanding has been made possible by the coming of Christ and his proclamation by the church.  Paul identifies this new self-understanding as “faith” and divides human history into two halves: “before faith came” (Gal. 3:23) and “now that faith has come” (Gal. 3:25).  He acknowledges that, before the coming of Christ, Abraham had faith (Gal. 3:6-9) since he believed, so Paul thinks, in the coming of Christ.  In his later Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that the promise given to Abraham that through him all the nations of the world shall be blessed “did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13).  Paul argues that since “‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’” (Rom. 4:3, citing Gen. 15:6), Abraham is a prototype of Christian faith.  But what had previously been an isolated example in his case has now become a general possibility for all people.  Therefore, as those who live by faith, Christians are “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).  Paul thus appeals to Jewish scripture to argue that the righteousness acceptable to God is based on faith, not on works of the Torah (Gal. 3:6-9, 3:11; Rom. 4:6; cf.  Phil. 3:9). 

Speaking as a Jewish Christian to Gentile Christians who now want to become Jews in addition to being Christians, Paul tries to persuade them of the error of their proposed course of action by arguing that the Torah served a particular purpose in Israel’s history that is no longer needed.  To do so, he gives an example from the everyday experience of childhood with which his readers are familiar (Gal. 3:24-25).  In antiquity children were accompanied to and from school by a slave called a paidagogos (from which we get our English word “pedagogue”), variously translated as a “disciplinarian” (NRSV), a “custodian” (RSV), or a “schoolmaster” (KJV).  The Living Bible correctly captures the function of this particular slave, namely, to keep the children in “protective custody” so that they would make their way safely to school and back home again.  Through this analogy, Paul is saying that being under the Torah is similar to being a child under the watchful eye of a paidagogos.  Yet once one has reached adulthood, it is no longer necessary to be under the care of a slave since one has now come into one’s inheritance (Gal. 3:25, 29).  Hence, the observance of the Torah to which the Gentile Christians of Galatia aspire is akin to wanting to be a child after one has reached adulthood; Paul even goes so far as to equate it with a relapse into the polytheism from which the gospel has freed them (Gal. 4:8-9). 

For those of us engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue and concerned to develop a new relation between Jews and Christians today, this passage will no doubt be a stumbling block since it characterizes Jewish life under the Torah as being akin to a childlike stage of human historical development.  But we have to read Paul in his context which was that of a Jew who was filled with excitement and enthusiasm for the new possibility of self-understanding which he had embraced when he became a Christian and the consequent reinterpretation of his Jewish scriptural heritage.  Like many Hellenistic Jews, Paul had been struggling, even when he was a persecutor of the church, with the relation between Jews and Gentiles; now that he had embraced the gospel, he believed he had found the answer to the question that had most perplexed him, namely, how to reconcile the particularity of Israel’s election with the universality of Israel’s God.  This issue is captured in the rhetorical question: “[Is] God the God of the Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles also?”  Paul’s answer: “Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one” (Rom. 3:29).  We may no longer share Paul’s methods of exegeting the Old Testament and, after two thousand years of Christendom, we may not share his naïve belief that the divisions plaguing humankind would be resolved if only everyone became a Christian.  Like the other early Christians, Paul believed he was living in the last stage of human history before its denouement in the parousia of Christ.  But obviously he was wrong about this since history has marched on in uninterrupted continuity.  Maybe Jesus will still come sometime.  Who knows?[27]  In the meantime, we have to take seriously the ambiguity of our New Testament texts in light of the tragic history of Jews and Christians since Paul’s time.   For this reason, I would restate Paul’s point in different terms today. 

Those of us who have inherited a Christian tradition that includes Paul’s letters as among the most treasured aspects of our canonical scriptures are not facing Paul’s own issue whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity should also embrace Judaism or not.[28]  I, for one, would not object if some decided to do so, but I would be opposed to any attempt to force them to do so.  Like Paul, I would argue that Christian ethics is different from Jewish ethics.  Unlike traditional Jews, most Christians today do not see themselves obligated to observe the 613 discrete commandments found in the Pentateuch.  I certainly do not.  Yet there is another angle from which to consider Paul’s theology that yields a much more positive interpretation of the Christian’s relation to the Torah than we are likely to gather from most (though not all) of his statements in the Letter to the Galatians.  In another passage in this letter he speaks approvingly of what he calls “the law of Christ.” The full context makes it clear that he thinks Christians are obligated to obey this law: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).  But what is the law of Christ if not the law (or Torah) of Moses?  Another verse answers the question: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14).  Elsewhere he reaffirms: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).  Paul has here taken one of the commandments found in the Torah and used it as the hermeneutical key for interpreting the purpose of the entire Torah.  Other Jewish teachers, such as Jesus, had been asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt. 22:36).  Jesus answered this question by citing two commandments in the Torah: Deut. 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”; Matt. 22:37) and Lev. 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; Matt. 22:39).  Perhaps Paul was familiar with Jesus’ statement; we simply don’t know.  Nonetheless, Paul cites only the second commandment from Lev. 19:18. 

Now, there are two ways of making sense of such summaries of the Torah.  One way is to say that certain commandments in the Torah are more important than others but that all of them are obligatory.  This is the way of later Rabbinic Judaism which followed the precedent of Pharisaic Judaism of which the pre-Christian Paul was a disciple.  This is also the way chosen by Matthew’s Gospel when it criticizes the observance of certain other Jews: “[Y]ou tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.  It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23, with emphasis added).[29]  Another way, however, is how Paul the Christian appeals to Lev. 19:18 to argue that whoever truly loves one’s neighbor has fulfilled the intent of the Torah even if many of its specific precepts are not actually observed.  In other words, Paul found a principle in the Torah that serves as a criterion for measuring the Torah itself.  The specific commandments he lists concerning murder, adultery, theft, and envy are all instances of what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  According to this way of conceiving what it means to fulfill the Torah, love of neighbor is paramount whereas commandments such as circumcision, dietary laws, and other means of differentiating Jews from Gentiles are no longer seen as important.  In this Pauline sense, then, even non-Jewish Christians observe the intent of the Torah, which is another way of saying that they live according to the Spirit: “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against such things” (Gal. 5:22-23).[30] 


Luke 8:26-39

This is a story of an exorcism that Luke has taken from Mark (5:1-20).  In Luke’s gospel, this is the only incident where Jesus ministers outside of Jewish territory.[31]  There is confusion, however, on account of the textual variations as to the exact name of the place: “the country of the Gerasenes” or “Gadarenes” or “Gergesenes.”[32]  At any rate, it is said to be “opposite Galilee” (v. 26), that is, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.   

In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus is repeatedly portrayed as engaging in exorcisms as a regular part of his ministry.  Perhaps a modern reader has trouble with the notion of “demonic possession” but it was a standard feature of ancient belief.  Probably the closest modern analogue we have to such a phenomenon is severe mental and emotional illness.  In whatever way we understand it today, our text presents Jesus as restoring a tormented person to his right mind (v. 35). In this respect, exorcisms served the overall purpose of Jesus’ healing ministry.  He came not only to preach but also to heal, not only to call for repentance in view of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God but also to bring wholeness to broken human lives.  Indeed, he saw his exorcisms and those of his disciples as heralding Satan’s defeat (“I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven,” Lk. 10:18) as well as a sign of the kingdom’s presence (“[I]f it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” Lk. 11:20). 

The demon-possessed man is depicted as living outside the pale of civilized society: he wore no clothes and lived among the tombs (v. 27).  This means that the man suffering from demonic possession is also marginalized and in need of reintergration into ordinary society.  

We are informed that the man is possessed of many demons.  Indeed, their name is “legion,” meaning “a multitude” or ‘great in number.”   Characteristically throughout the gospels, the demons know beyond a shadow of a doubt who Jesus really is while the unknowing crowds around him continue to wonder about his identity.  The demonic powers address him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (v. 28).  As an aside, it is worth noting that here is an example of what the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century called “demons’ faith,” referring to James 2:19 where it is stated that “[e]ven the demons believe.”  In the Letter of James, the idea is that although the demons believe in a monotheistic theology, it doesn’t do them a bit of good since they are not saved by their correct theological knowledge.  Here, in Luke, the demons give us a perfectly “orthodox” statement of christological doctrine: Jesus is the Son of God.  But they are not thereby saved simply because they can articulate a correct theology.  It is only after the exorcism that the man formerly possessed is able to proclaim “how much Jesus had done for him” (v. 39b).  This underscores the point made by Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon about the true nature of faith: “To know Christ is to know his benefits” (Loci Communes).  Genuine or saving faith is much more than a mere recitation of doctrinal formulations, since it is the trust of the heart that is assured of God’s favor (grace) to us.  True faith is not a matter of the head alone but engages the heart and thus transforms a person.

The New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has made a very provocative suggestion for how we are to interpret the motif of Jesus sending the demons into the herd of swine (vv. 32-33).  First, he finds it to be telling that the demons give their name as “legion” which is the name of a Roman military unit.  He also thinks it is noteworthy that pigs are considered “unclean” animals according to Jewish food laws.  He reminds us, moreover, that the broader political context of the New Testament is that Palestine (the Land of Israel) was under Roman political and military occupation at the time of Jesus.  Hence, Crossan asks whether we might not discern “a connection between colonial oppression and forms of mental illness easily interpreted as demonic possession?”[33]  I think this is a very insightful way of considering things in this passage of scripture.  Crossan explains: “An occupied country has, as it were, a multiple-personality disorder.  One part of it must hate and despise the oppressor, but the other must envy and admire its superior power.  And…if body is to society as microcosm to macrocosm, certain individuals may experience exactly the same split within themselves.”[34]  With respect to our specific text, then, Crossan writes: “An individual is, of course, being healed, but the symbolism is also hard to miss or ignore.  The demon is both one and many; is named Legion, that fact and sign of Roman power; is consigned to swine, that most impure of Judaism’s impure animals; and is cast into the sea, that dream of every Jewish resister.”[35]  Crossan admits that he does not take this story to reflect an actual incident in the life of the historical Jesus; still, he does think that this story “openly characterizes Roman imperialism as demonic possession.”[36]  It’s hard not to be impressed with Crossan’s brilliance in seeing this connection in our text.  Accordingly, Jesus’ ministry, including his exorcisms, had a political dimension which we should not underestimate.

Whatever sense we make of the phenomenon that was interpreted by ancient people as demonic possession, the fact remains that many people, today as then, live under the domination of evil forces and are trapped by them.  Salvation for them thus requires liberation from evil.  In an earlier comment on another passage of scripture, I spoke of the prevalence of addiction in our society.  People under the power of an addiction feel that they have lost the freedom they once had to control their lives.  This experience of addiction can be likened to that of possession by an external demonic power.  We also speak today of “systemic evils” such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.  These are structural or collective evils from which individuals suffer.  So, however we name the evil in our midst, it is part of the church’s mission to exorcise it from the lives of people, just as Jesus once did. 

*     *     *     *    *    *


[1] In 1 Kings 19:10, 14 Israel’s deity is called “the God of Hosts” (i.e., “armies”).  This is probably a reference to the conquest narratives in Joshua.  Unless otherwise noted, all citations from the Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

[2] In English translations of the Old Testament, “LORD” (in capital letters) is a circumlocution for the name of God.  Since Hebrew is written using only consonants, the pronunciation of the divine name YHWH (or JHWH), called the “tetragrammaton” (“four letters”), has to be inferred, yet scholars are virtually unanimous in agreeing that “Yahweh” (or “Jahweh”) was the correct pronunciation.  The circumlocution LORD reflects the practice of later Jewish scribes who added vowel points to the consonantal text of the Bible to indicate how to read the text aloud; but when they came to the tetragrammaton, instead of inserting the likely vowels “a” and “e” (Yah-weh) they inserted the vowels for another word, “Adonai,” meaning “lord,” so that Jews would not pronounce God’s name which by that time was considered too sacred to utter.  This unwillingness to utter the divine name may reflect the transition to the fully monotheistic theology characteristic of Judaism that denies the actual existence of other so-called gods.  By contrast, the earlier pre-Jewish religion of Israel was henotheistic, which acknowledged the existence of other gods at the theoretical level while refusing to worship any but Israel’s own God at the practical level.  Notice that the opening words of the Decalogue presuppose a polytheistic situation: “I am Yahweh your God…. you shall have no other gods besides me” (Ex. 20:2-3).  To introduce oneself with a proper name is an indication of being one person among many: “I am Paul” means “I am not Joe” or “I am not John,” but, like them, I too am a human being.  Genuine monotheism, however, rules this out: “God” in the monotheistic sense is not one among many deities.  Hence, monotheism is not primarily a quantitative matter about how many gods there are; rather, it is a qualitative redefinition of the very word “God” itself: by definition, there can be only one God.  Gerhard von Rad asks whether Elijah was truly a monotheist or, perhaps, a henotheist: “The keen edge to his polemic makes it perfectly possible that he would have allowed that Baal did exercise divine power, though of a relative and naturally much inferior sort.”  Old Testament Theology, 2 vols., trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1962, 1965), 2:25.  Since most scholars view the Babylonian exile as the great event dividing Israel’s pre-Jewish henotheistic religion from monotheistic Judaism, it is most likely that Elijah was a henotheist. 

[3] “Elijah typified a primitive Mosaic tradition still alive in Israel…[H]e regarded Ahab and Jezebel as the ultimate anathema.  His was the God of Sinai, who brooked no rival and would exact blood vengeance for crimes against covenant law such as Ahab had committed.”  John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), p. 247; see Ex. 22:20 and Deut. 13:6-11.

[4] Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2:19.

[5] P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “1 Kings,” Harper’s Bible Commentary, ed. James L. Mays with the Society of Biblical Literature (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 320.

[6] Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), p. 250.

[7] John B. Cobb, Jr., Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), Marjorie Suchocki, Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), and Schubert M. Ogden, Is There Only One True Religion or Are they Many? (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1992).

[8] Duane R. Bidwell, When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

[9] Some interpreters of our present situation equate contemporary religious pluralism with a functional polytheism.  Whether or not this is a correct interpretation, it is certainly worth pondering. 

[10] When I lived in Germany I learned about the heroic resistance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Nazi tyranny.

[11] See his discussion of “The Discipline of Economics and the Triumph of Economism” in Cobb, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 2010), pp. 107-124.  The quote is found on p. 107.

[12] See Cobb’s discussion “Responses to Relativism” in Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way beyond Absolutism and Relativism, ed. and introduced by Paul F. Knitter (Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1999), pp. 95-112.  I remember a disturbing conversation I once had with a student at my liberal seminary who told me that there was nothing so valuable to her for which she would be willing to sacrifice her life.  Such lack of deep conviction on the part of a liberal Protestant troubles me.

[13] “Today we tend to value tolerance so highly that we sometimes advocate indifference toward competing religious loyalties.”  Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1986), p. 280.

[14] Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, p. 541.

[15] “Recovering people have diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds, and some people carry lasting religious damage.  Hence, a more generalized ‘spiritual’ approach is utterly appropriate for those contexts.” James B. Nelson, Thirst: God and the Alcoholic Experience (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 6.  While I agree with Nelson that a more generic approach is appropriate for those who are turned off by the church’s language, my first and lasting impression of the “Twelve Steps” is that they are a secular restatement of important principles characteristic of the New Testament (e.g., the admission of helplessness to overcome addiction by one’s own efforts, the belief that God can provide the power to overcome it, etc.). 

[16] Nelson, Thirst, p. 23. 

[17] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 21.

[18] Nelson, Thirst, p. 31.

[19] Many, if not most, scholars believe that Paul is here citing a baptismal formula. 

[20] Whereas we tend to think about biblical theology in purely “religious” or “moral” terms, this statement has wider implications of a cultural, even social and political sort.  “There can be no doubt that Paul’s statements have social and political dimensions of even a revolutionary dimension.  The claim is made that very old and decisive ideals and hopes of the ancient world have come true in the Christian community.  These ideals include the abolition of the religious and social distinctions between Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, men and women…. Being rescued from the present evil aeon (Gal. 1:4) and being changed to a ‘new creation’ implies these radical social and political changes.  The Christian’s relationship to the social and political structures of ‘this world’ follows the rule set forth in 6:14: ‘through whom [=Christ] the world is crucified to me and I to the world.”  The Christian is now ‘dead’ to the social, religious, and cultural distinctions characteristic of the old world-order (cf. Gal. 2:19).”  Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p. 190.

[21] Strictly speaking, the word “Christian” here is an anachronism since it is not found in the letters of Paul or elsewhere in the New Testament except in late documents: Acts 11:26b, 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. (The noun “Christianity” does not appear in the New Testament at all.)  Still, Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” as a functional equivalent for the new religious identity that is in the process of formation and that will later be designated by the term “Christian.”  Hence, a Jewish or a Gentile believer in the gospel is said to be “in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17; cf. Gal. 6:15).  I have to assume that Paul did not know the name “Christian,” though his concept of being “in Christ” signifies that he is obviously looking for a new term with which to name this new religious identity that is neither Jewish nor Greek. 

[22] “[T]he Galatians, for reasons that may now have become understandable, lent their ears to Jewish-Christian competitors of Paul who offered themselves to the churches.  These competitors had what Paul seemingly lacked: their Christian version of the Jewish Torah provided them with a solid base and clear guidelines for ethical behavior.  If the Galatians were to carry out what Paul saw them as ready to do, they would accept circumcision and Torah and thus become beneficiaries to the Sinai covenant.  Paul himself, however, wrote his letter to the Galatians precisely to defend his earlier theological position and to persuade them that reliance on the spirit, if properly and faithfully maintained, would be sufficient for the treatment of their problems.”  Hans Dieter Betz, “The Foundations of Christian Ethics according to Romans 12:1-2,” in Witness and Existence: Essays in Honor of Schubert M. Ogden, ed. Philip E. Devenish and George L Goodwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 60.

[23] Since the Letter to the Galatians is only concerned with this distinction, we must notice that the other two pairs of distinctions are dealt with elsewhere in the Pauline corpus.  See, for example, 1 Cor. 11:3-15 and Eph. 5:22-33 on matters pertaining to men and women and 1 Cor. 7:21-23, Eph. 6:5-9, and the Letter to Philemon on questions pertaining to slaves and freedom.    

[24] In Rom. 1:14 Paul explains that he is under obligation “both to Greeks and barbarians.” 

[25] The Traditional Prayerbook for Sabbath and Festivals, ed. and trans. David de Sola Pool under the Direction of the Siddur Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America (New York: Behrman House, 1960), p. 108.

[26] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.33, trans. R. D. Hicks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 1:35.

[27] I once heard a lecture by the noted New Testament scholar N. T. Wright.  During the Q & A that followed his lecture, a member of the audience asked him: “What would most surprise Paul if he were made aware of our historical situation today?”  Wright answered: “He would be shocked by the divisions among Christians today.”  How Wright could have replied in this manner is beyond me!  Clearly, Paul would have been most surprised to learn that history has continued unabated for nearly two thousand years since the awaited parousia failed to occur.  Besides, why would he be surprised (or “shocked”) by the divisions separating Christians today when there were so many divisions pitting Christian against Christian in his own time?  Most of the polemics in the New Testament writings are directed against neither non-Christian Jews nor pagans but at fellow Christians.  See Paul’s critical remarks about those Christians who peach “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6) or “another Jesus” (2 Cor. 11:4).  This is the intra-Christian issue of “orthodoxy” versus “heresy.”  Obviously, there was no theological unanimity in the early church.

[28] The question of Torah observance is not only to be decided by Gentile converts.  Even some Christians who have grown up in Catholic or Protestant homes have decided to affiliate with “Messianic Judaism” (“Jews for Jesus”) and thus to live like Jews observing the Torah.  I once met a Christian who underwent the entire process of converting to Orthodox Judaism in order to be considered a Jew in the State of Israel.  He concealed his Christian faith from the rabbi who supervised his conversion.  

[29] I am personally of the opinion that Matthew’s interpretation of the Torah is at odds with that of Paul (see Matt. 5:17-20 and 7:21-23).

[30] As far as I understand it, this is in essence the approach taken by modern Reform Judaism.  One early statement of Reform Judaism articulates its position in this way: “‘We can no longer recognize a code as an unchangeable law-book which maintains with unbending insistence that Judaism’s task is expressed by forms which originated in a time which is forever past and which will never return.’”  Cited by Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1980), p. 592.

[31] Fred. B. Craddock, “Luke,” Harper’s Bible Commentary, p. 1025.

[32] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, corrected ed. (London: United Bible Societies, 1975), p. 145.

[33] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), p. 88.

[34] Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 89.

[35] Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 90.

[36] Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 91.

Paul E. Capetz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and taught Historical Theology for 27 years at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.  He has also taught at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Claremont School of Theology. His research interests and teaching focus on understanding the history of Christian theology with special attention to the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath in modern Protestant theology.  He is especially interested in understanding the implications for theology and ethics of a fully historical approach to the study of human religion. In our religiously pluralistic culture he seeks to articulate a non-dogmatic, non-authoritarian model of theology that conceives its task as an open-ended, yet rigorous conversation with other religious traditions about what it means to be human and to be so authentically.  He believes that today all the religions should be committed to working together in order to create a pluralistic, just, and sustainable global community. Beginning in July 2019 he will be serving as minister of Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church in Newport Beach, California.