The persecutor now proclaims; Paul’s vocation story – Tuesday, 27th Week in ordinary time – Galatians 1:13-24
This pericope could be read either as a testimony or as a defense; it depends on how you read it. Read in a purely spiritual way, as just a text in the scriptures, it reads as a very moving testimony of a persecutor who now proclaims the Gospel. This text could well be a dramatic vocation call. However, read in the context of the letter to the Galatians, this text is a robust defense of Paul’s apostleship and a mandate to preach that came from Christ Jesus through a personal revelation.
Written to the Churches in Galatia, Paul’s letter cuts to the chase and gets to the point. There were these Judaizers, those who were formerly Jews and who now followed Christ, who had arrived in the Churches in Galatia with what Paul calls, a ‘perverse gospel.’ It was their stated position that in order to follow Christ, the Gentiles needed to first become Jews and practice the Jewish law; in particular circumcision. Since Paul did not fall in line with their way of thinking, they did what all opposing systems do, wage a campaign of disinformation, fear and half-truths.
If you want to wage a silent war that will not demand a drop of your blood but bleed your adversary to death, then wage a war of disinformation and fear. Political powers have perfected this art. But tragically the strategy has well been employed from time in memorial even when it comes to religion; today’s text is a case in point. Paul is faced with a deadly combination of all three; the war of disinformation, fear of what and who he is and a robust campaign of half-truths. So, mad was Paul with these Judaizers that this is the only letter he ever wrote that did not begin with a word of thanksgiving but by verse six took on the campaign of lies and falsehood leaving him declare ‘cursed,’ not once but twice, these perverters of the Gospel.
Paul has to defend himself and the Gospel he proclaims and the only way to do that is to bare his soul, not just in an emotional way, but by listing facts and laying down his credentials. Almost everyone hears the gospel from someone else. Not so for Paul! The Gospel that Paul preached was revealed directly to him by Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) and not one that was homegrown in dubious traditions. Even when he reached Damascus, it was not as if Ananias was sent to give him a crash course in ‘Christianity’; that Paul had already received from Christ in a single line, ‘why do you persecute me.’ Paul’s message was not man’s attempt to reach up and understand God; it was God’s effort to bow down and communicate with man.
Yet divine revelation had to also be backed by human credentials so that the converts in Galatia may truly understand and believe. Remember, the Judaizers were tom-tomming that their traditions that must be followed in order to be a true follower of this infant faith. So, Paul threw his weight in; he was no fool when it came to the faith of Judaism. Here was a man who wore the persecution of the ‘Church of God’ as a badge of honour before he met Christ. He was academically brought up at the feet of Gamaliel (one of the highest academic stalwarts and best law schools of the time) and in his own words was, ‘advanced in it (Judaism) beyond many people of his age.’ He was a summa cum laude student when it came to the faith of Judaism and no one could present him as a fool who was talking through his hat for, he was ‘zealous for the traditions of his ancestors’. Paul was set apart by God himself to proclaim his message and he needed no Peter in Jerusalem or Gideon from Galatia to give him a stamp of approval.
Yet Paul is not a rebel with no cause proclaiming an independent message. While he needed no human approval his apostleship was indeed approved of by Peter and James whom he met three years after his conversion in Jerusalem.
St Paul confesses that he began his spiritual journey as a fanatic. Perhaps, some level of fanaticism is required for this journey of salvation. One must be passionate about his or her faith and ready to die for it. I want to encourage you to reflect on our calling. We too, like Paul, Jeremiah and Isaiah were chosen before our birth to be followers of Jesus. Why us and not others is a mystery we will never be able to answer?
As we go through life we may receive other callings and I could ask myself today to what kind of service is Jesus calling me at this time in my life? Let us recall and give thanks to God also for the very many people who, directly or indirectly, have brought and continue to bring a deeper understanding of Christ into our life.