Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Galatians 4:1-7) transports me to Rome in the mid 2nd century BCE, where Senator Lucanus observed an impressive capacity for intelligence in a slave he had brought from Libya, began educating him, and eventually freed him. The freed slave, Publius Terentius Afer, better known as Terence, became one of the great philosophers and writers of the time, considered to be the first poet of the African diaspora. He published six plays by the time he was 25, after which he left Rome to explore the world, and is thought to have died at sea. One of these plays, Heauton Timorumenos, gives us the famous line, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto translated, I am human; nothing human is alien to me. It is a large and deep truth to consider, that our humanity affords us the capacity to be anything and to do anything, from the most beautiful and profound works of art or compassion, to the most heinous and horrible crimes. Terence experienced much of the breadth of the human capacity himself, suffering as a slave and then celebrated as a great poet.
The apostle Paul would have understood and confirmed Terence’s famous line. In his letter to the Galatian church, he described a range of experience for the people of faith, in something of a developmental sequence. In their younger years they had experienced the life of slavery; they were held captive to the elemental spirits of the world. And then, Christ entered their world, and they experienced freedom. It was more than emancipation, though; they were adopted by the Son of God, making them children of God. That’s quite a range of human experience, to go from the status of captivity, deemed worthless, to the status of beloved children of the Divine, redeemed – made worthy – in the eyes of the One who created and sustains the entire universe. As such, these beloved children are set to inherit the world.
It’s quite a mind-boggling concept to consider the breadth and width of this range of human experience, from the abject poverty and despair of slavery to the absolute delight of being lavishly loved by God. The only quibble I have with Paul, here, is his insinuation that this is a linear, developmental process. My observation, and my experience, is that we humans often go back and forth, at least existentially, between feelings of worthless despair and redeemed children of God. We enter into captivity to those elemental spirits, of greed, of addiction, of self-loathing, of prejudice, and we are liberated into the capacity for compassion, generosity, and health in mind, body, and spirit, and then we are prone to enter back into captivity, and experience emancipation anew, and try it again. We are human, and nothing human is alien to us, and we seem destined to prove Terence’s truth over and over again. It’s true we are on a journey, and hopefully that journey is in the direction of love, and hopefully when we stumble we stumble forward. I suspect Paul experienced this, given his own testimony that he had to be crucified with Christ on a daily basis. He had to be set free from those captivating spirits every day, in order to fully experience the grace gift of being a beloved child of God. Thanks be to God that this sense of being beloved and redeemed is part of the range of what it means to be human in this world.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.