‘Are you a son or a slave?’ OK you might be a daughter rather than a son, but are you a Son (or daughter) of God or a slave? Throughout this talk I will say ‘sons’ but I mean daughters as well.
Paul uses this contrast between a slave and a son to illustrate to his Galatian readers the difference between living, on the one hand, as a slave under the Law (and here he means the moral law of the Jews – including the 10 commandments and the 600 other laws in the Old Testament, largely given by God to the Israelites through Moses) and living as a son, under faith in Jesus Christ.
Are you a son or a slave? Because the difference is huge. The father loves the son but, although the Father might like the slave, he does not necessarily love him. The son inherits everything from the father. But the slave inherits nothing.
The difference between son and slave would not necessarily have been obvious to an onlooker in the Ancient World at the time that Paul was writing. In the first century it was typical for the Graeco Roman families to whom Paul is writing that the son of the household would have had a tutor. The tutor or paidagōgos (from which we get the word ‘pedagogue’ ) would himself have been a slave and it would have been his duty to to take the boy to and from school, and to superintend his conduct. The pedagogue was not the boy’s teacher, so much as his disciplinarian. He was often harsh to the point of cruelty, and is usually depicted in ancient drawings with a rod or cane in his hand. He was the son’s moral guardian. He was responsible for ensuring that the son came out of childhood knowing right from wrong and guiding him, with the cane to be used if he went off track. The son’s life would have been so constrained that he would have looked to onlookers like a slave until the moment that he became a man and put on the toga virilis the dress of maturity and could be recognised by all as a son and no longer a slave.
When I was about 7, I was carted off to a preparatory school near Windsor Great Park for a term of three months before I saw home again It was a fairly Edwardian set up. And I know that they meant well. But boys at that age can be pretty horrible, sadistic even, as anyone who has read the book the Lord of the Flies will be able to tell you. It was a pretty dog eat dog environment, very different from the boarding schools of today.
However, on one particular occasion, I allowed myself to be persuaded to join in with a group of boys in my dormitory whose aim was deliberately to be unpleasant to another boy who had some kind of disability. I think it was banging on his door after he had gone to sleep or something like that. Really horrible. Anyway we were, of course, caught. We had to stand individually in the Matron’s room in our stripey pyjamas and dressing gowns with our faces to the wall to await the arrival of the headmaster Mr Owen, on his evening patrols. One by one we were sent down to his study. He produced a bamboo cane and hit each of us as hard has he could on the backside, without raising his arm above his shoulder, 10 times. Of course, such is the resilience of small boys, the marks of this beating were great badges of honour amongst us. But I never did anything of the kind again. I learned a lesson not to be pushed by peer pressure into doing things which were not right.
Although, of course, the punishment was brutal and appears very odd now, and I don’t at all want to endorse corporal punishment, but I do look back upon those days as the period in which my moral compass was set. With chapel every morning and evening and learning passages of scripture on Sundays, it was a time when it was pretty clear to me what was right and what was wrong. But there’s no doubt that morality was being imposed on me from outside. I was subject to the law, being disciplined by the pedagogue.
It’s so striking to compare this up bringing with the words from Lily Allen’s song ‘The Fear’. This is by no means a worship song and, if you don’t know the song already, only go looking for it on I tunes if you have a strong stomach – the lyrics are described as ‘explicit’.
But I think she reflects in her lyrics the zeitgeist of the times – a total lack of a sense of sin that a whole generation have grown up with. A total blurring of the lines. She sings in the third verse “I’m not a saint, but I’m not a sinner, and everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner” and then the refrain “I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore. I don’t know how I am meant to feel any more. When do you think it will all become clear, because I am being taken over by the fear”. It seems that not knowing the law, not knowing what is ‘right and what’s real’ doesn’t result in freedom, but rather in fear.
But for some people religion is a bit like the pedagogue. An inflexible disciplinarian. Imposing morality from the outside. Condemning us. Imprisoning us. Some people would assume that that is what religion is. Indeed many of the first names given to Muslim children begin with the Arabic word ‘Ab’ which means ‘slave to’ often followed by a characteristic of Allah, as, for example, in ‘Abdul al Rahman’ which means ‘slave to the merciful’. And of course Islam itself means ‘submission’.
Jesus came to call us away from slavery to the Law, the submission to the pedagogue. He came to call us into sonship with God. Faith in Jesus Christ secures this sonship for us.
A son of God knows his father’s business. He knows what the father loves and what the father hates. He is well imbued with the family culture. It is part of his identity. He has, in the words of Ezekiel 36, a heart of flesh and not of stone. The wish to do what God wants is in the sons heart. If we are sons, the wish to read the Bible, to want to find out more about our Heavenly Father, about the sin that separates us from him and desperately wanting to liken ourselves to him, that’s what we feel in our hearts. The wish to be obedient to Christ is a joy not a burden.
But that doesn’t mean that the law is not useful. It doesn’t mean that Jesus wants us to be free to murder and steal and envy. In fact Paul says in Romans 7.7 if it had not been for the law, we would not have known was sin was. We would not have known what is the obstacle that separates us from the Father. We need to know the law, to recognise that we are sinners, to ask for forgiveness, to have faith at all.
But as the theologian John Stott writes: we cannot come to Christ to be justified, to be put right with God, until we have first been to Moses to be condemned. The Law given by Moses to the Israelites, like the pedagogue with the cane, had a purpose: to help us to recognise our sinfulness. And if we are sitting in church today saying ‘I’m not a sinner’ then all I can say is that we are making a catastrophic error. We need to recognise our sinfulness, but we don’t need to be oppressed by it. We don’t need to be condemned by it. Because Jesus Christ has come……We can be sons not slaves.
But how do we become sons?
A single act of obedience can start a relationship of trust and love. Something that we do which is not because it’s good for our health, like giving up chocolate. Or because we can tell our friends that we think it is the right thing to do. But we do it only because Jesus has called us to do it. Peter left his nets. Matthew left his tax collectors stall, because Jesus called them to do so. An act of unequivocal obedience.
That’s why so many lively churches have a thing called an altar call at the end of a service. Those who have felt called by God at the service come to the front to be prayed for. Many people’s lives have been totally changed by this single simple act of unequivocal obedience..
And obedience and faith are linked inextricably. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: ‘only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes’. So when people say to me ‘I find it difficult to believe’, you will not be surprised that my answer is: ‘are you being obedient to the call that Jesus has placed on your life?’
It is no surprise that Lily Allen says ‘I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore…… I am being taken over by the fear’. If we don’t know what is right, if we don’t accept that we are sinners, then we cannot pursue the forgiveness and the faith which is the antidote to fear.
Do you want to be a son and not a slave? Or do you want to be overtaken by the fear? If Jesus is calling you. Be brave. Take a step. A single act of obedience to that call. Tell someone. Tell me.