When I read the second reading this Sunday, I was reminded of an old joke about the diversification and complications endemic to the healthcare system in our country.
Three nurses appeared before St. Peter at the gates to heaven. St. Peter said to the first, “Tell me what you did during your life.” She replied, “I was a neo-natal care nurse. I helped care for hundreds of new-born infants.” “You may enter,” said St. Peter.
Then he asked the second, “And how about you?” She replied, “I was an Emergency Room nurse. I helped save the lives of hundreds of people who were facing life-threatening conditions.” ” You may enter,” said St. Peter.
Then he turned to the third nurse and asked, “And how about you?” Hesitantly, she admitted, “I worked for a Managed Care Network. Over the years, I saved my company hundreds of millions of dollars by denying extended care coverage to people who weren’t entitled to it.” “You may enter,” said St. Peter. “You really mean it?” asked the nurse incredulously. “Yes,” replied St. Peter. “You’ve been pre-approved for a three-day stay.”
Everyone wants to be able to claim that their actions and choices are worthy of respect. As in the joke above, however, not all choices and actions are of equal value. Actions can have lasting consequences; some choices are more attractive than others and some are more virtuous than others. The Letter to the Galatians describes the nature of the choices and actions to which God calls all people.
Today’s second reading says, “Circumcision counts for nothing in God’s plan of salvation, neither does the lack of circumcision; the only thing that matters is being made a new creation.” (Gal 6:15) In this context, “circumcision” and “uncircumcision” are self-explanatory. “Circumcision” refers to Judaism. God’s Covenant with Moses granted a special relationship to the Israelites; circumcision is a sign of that Covenant. In the first few decades of Church history, Jewish converts to the Way of Jesus considered themselves to be particularly blessed because they had to come understand that Jesus was the Messiah promised by God to Israel.
“Uncircumcision,” in this passage, refers to the gentiles. Gentiles enjoyed a somewhat privileged status in secular society during the first few decades of Church history. Those who came to faith in Jesus considered themselves particularly blessed because they had been included by adoption in the promise of redemption made by God to Israel.
The final part of this passage does, however, require clarification. The Letter says, “Circumcision counts for nothing in God’s plan of salvation, neither does the lack of circumcision; the only thing that matters is being made a new creation.” (Gal 6:15) In this passage of the Letter, “being made a new creation” refers to Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Jewish converts to the Way of Jesus considered it a great honor to have been born into the Covenant with Moses. The gentile converts to the Way of Jesus considered it a great honor to have been adopted into God’s People through faith. The author of the Letter to the Galatians says that the distinctions that have great meaning to human societies do not necessarily have great meaning to God; the only distinction that matters to God is the distinction between those who live according to God’s Word and those who do not.
One further aspect of this passage of the Letter to the Galatians requires clarification. When the Letter says that “the only thing that matters is being made a new creation,” it is not referring to the understanding of Baptism that is so common today.
Today, Baptism is very often considered to be a magic talisman; it is used to ward off evil and is believed to do so by magical powers that function independently of the life, choices, and actions of the person baptized. In the Letter to the Galatians, and the preaching of the Apostles, Baptism was an individual’s public commitment to live in strict obedience to Jesus’ teachings and in assiduous avoidance of sin. The current practice of Baptism in the Catholic Church is a far cry from the Baptism preached by the Apostles. Today, Baptism is, for many, a half-hearted commitment to complying with parish policies in order to get what one wants for one’s infant child; this lack of faith manifests itself in the lives of baptized adults who wish that they didn’t sin but have no real commitment to abandoning their sinful behaviors. Curiously, the modern understanding of Baptism has degenerated into being much like the social distinctions that the author of the Letter to the Galatians said count for so little in God’s estimation; the outward sign of a Sacrament is of little value in the absence of the daily practice of Jesus’ teachings.
If this statement above sounds shocking to you, ask yourself whether you understand Baptism as a lifetime commitment to the Trinity or as a commodity to be obtained. The Letter to the Galatians says that possessing religious or cultural commodities means very little in God’s plan of salvation; what really counts is living a life of actual faith in Jesus.
The Letter to the Galatians asks us to evaluate what our habitual behavior says about our values, beliefs, and commitments. Are you committed to possessing some very meaningful religious consumer commodities? Do you value significant social status? Do you place your trust unequivocally in the teachings of Jesus?
Baptism is intended to make one into “a new creation.” (Gal 6:15) This isn’t a metaphorical statement. Rather, it is a description of a person who has made a radical break from sin and is now distinguished by a radical commitment to following Jesus’ commands to love God above all else and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The “new creation” referred to in the Letter to the Galatians is a radically changed life that is defined not by what one has but by what one does.