Read Galatians 1:11-19
Have you ever spent some time perusing the self-help section of a bookstore? What an abundance of texts whose authors claim to hold the key to success: follow this advice, stick to this program, and you'll find happiness! But we all know it's not true. If it were, everyone would already be happy. No, happiness does not seem lie at the end of some program or series of tricks. And yet we all continue to think that with a little more effort, a little more faithfulness to the program, it would happen. This mind-set seems programmed into our DNA.
It is precisely this mentality that Saint Paul sets out to fight in his letter to the Galatians. In the specific context that is his, the program that exasperates him is that the system of laws that grew in the Jewish religious tradition. He had followed this program to the letter, he knew all its secrets, he had been the most careful of his generation in its observance, and yet... This program did not give him a fraction of the joy and peace he found in his encounter with the risen Jesus. This encounter completely changed his way of understanding God, himself and the world. He became convinced that his happiness did not depend on his own faithfulness to God, but on God's faithfulness to him. Talk about a paradigm shift!
This deep conviction lies is at the heart of Paul's teaching. It is not the result of his personal reflection, or of the tradition of human wisdom, or of an academic debate: it was came directly from the One he met on the road to Damascus, Christ himself .
Paul's conviction, however, was not shared by all the disciples of Jesus. Some believed that Jesus had simply come to "adjust the system," to make it a little better. They reduced the gospel to a new font of spiritual self-help, an "improved" version of the well-known Jewish tradition. And these disciples, full of good will, followed after Paul wherever he went to "correct" his teachings. He announced that no personal effort could lead to happiness and salvation; they insisted that people had to make a little more effort. He proclaimed that God's love was to be received as a gift; they reminded Paul's followers that only careful observance of the Law could merit such love. He explained that his teaching came from Christ himself; they bolstered their arguments with appeals to the authority of some of the leaders of the young Church.
For Paul, this conflict of visions was not simply a matter of personal sensibilities or private spirituality. For him, the essence of the Gospel was at stake. This explains the vehemence of his letter to the Galatians, the nasty tone he sometimes uses in speaking of his opponents, the radicalism of his statements. We must understand that for Paul, everything was based on the seminal moment he encountered Christ: "The Gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ."
Over the next few Sundays we will meditate other passages of this letter, essential for our understanding not only of Saint Paul, but of the Gospel itself.