“The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came.” The idea of a disciplinarian can stir up so many images, most of them rather negative in my mind! I think of a harsh taskmaster. It reminds me of the response in a book by C. S. Lewis who tells the story of a young boy who, when asked what God was like said that God is the “sort of person who is always snooping around to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it.” No one wants a kill joy God like that.
But this concept of God is so far off of the point which Galatians was attempting to make. Part of the problem, as is often the case, is the problem of translation. It is interesting to see the various ways in which the Greek word paidagwgovV has been translated: disciplinarian (NRSV) in our reading for today), schoolmaster (KJV), tutor (NASB), was put in charge (NIV), guarded (NLT), our guardian (NCV), teacher (CEV), tutor (NKJV), and Greek tutors (Message).
One thing you can be sure of is that if translations differ significantly then the word being translated is a hard one in which to find an English equivalent. The word literally means “boy-ward” that is the ward of a boy. It referred to a slave who had a particular relationship to the boy which the slave was responsible for. But the hard part is actually helping us today understand what exactly that is. This is actually the only time this particular word appears in the Christian scriptures, it is a word borrowed from secular Greek society.
The Message with its rather loose translation actually helps us the most. Eugene Peterson uses thirty-three words to translate that one term. “The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.” So what is being spoken of here is not what we would normally assume from the use of the word disciplinarian or really from any of the other English words which translators have chosen.
You might be thinking why, do we even care, since the thrust of the passage is that it no longer applies to us. But I think it important because it can subtly shade our opinion about the Hebrew scriptures. Do we see them as harsh rules and regulations from a stern God watching over us or do we see them in another light.
Seeing things from God’s light, God’s perspective, is often so very different from our own. In the reading from First Kings today the Lord passes by Elijah. First comes a great wind, but the Lord was not found in it. Then came the earthquake, but the lord was not found in that either. Then a fire, but once again the Lord was not to be found. Finally came the silence. And in the silence the Lord was found.
God was not found in what we might think was something powerful. No, God was found in a different place, God was seen in a different light. God was found in the silence. The wind would have been an excellent place to find God. The earthquake too. Both are very powerful and for people who had experienced God as so very powerful this seems like the right thing. Fire was an excellent place for God. God was found by Moses in the burning bush, God was seen by the Israelites as a fire leading them in the desert. It is only logical to find God in these kinds of manifestations, but God was found in a different, and surprising place. In the silence.
I think we sell ourselves short and we sell God short when we think we have God all figured out. God will continue to amaze us if we only open our hearts and minds to new ideas.
In Galatians we are told that there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female because all of us are on in Christ Jesus. I wonder how different the church and the world would be if all Christians really lived into this call of God.
I believe that this passage is trying to tell us that the distinctions we see between one another are just that - between each of us. They are meaningless to God. New in some areas we find that very easy to agree with. Others I think no so much.
You have to look into our recent history to see the times when we have missed the mark of this passage as clear as it may seem to us today. Christians held slaves for centuries in spite of knowing this verse. Women have been treated unequally for centuries and in many, many places still are in spite of this verse.
I think the challenge to us at followers of Jesus though it to figure out where we are missing the mark with respect to this verse rather than look to others who might be falling shorter than ourselves. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think that this is true and particularly so for Christians. Far too often Christians seem to have the annoying tendency to examine others lives rather than their own.
Let us focus on the hard work of looking deeply into ourselves.