Pauline Slang


The Readings for the 14th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C2)

For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.

Galatians 6:15 (NABRE)

UNCIRCUMCISION Is such an odd word. Of course, it means “gentile”, that is, person without a circumcision. But that’s really the natural condition. So, it seems strange to discuss it as “un-” something. However the Greek is actually kind of vulgar: it’s a technical term that literally refers to the foreskin. And – unsurprisingly? –  Greek-speaking Jews would use this technical term as a slang word for Gentile men. “Hey, look at that foreskin over there…” Mind you, modern Yiddish is no kinder: a Gentile male is called “Shagetz” (Pl: shkotzim) and comes from the word meaning “Abomination”. The abomination in question being the aforementioned part of the male anatomy. (Let’s all sing “Tradition!” from Fiddler on the Roof.) St Paul is speaking in slang because he knows his audience will hear him. We, on the other hand, get the odd and elevated-sounding English word, “uncircumcision”.

In the preceding verses, though, the slang finds the reason for its use: some members of the congregation wanted everyone in the congregation to get circumcised. Why?

There are two theories as to why they wanted everyone to look like Jews. And it was exactly to look like Jews that they were trying for. Paul calls them, “those who want to make a good appearance in the flesh” (v12) and notes that “Not even those having themselves circumcised observe the law themselves; they only want you to be circumcised so that they may boast of your flesh.” (v13) These are people who want to look like Jews. To whom? So, two theories:

One suggestion is that they want to look like Jews to other Jews. This could be read to mean that members of the synagogue were pestering (Messianic) Jews for hanging out with Gentiles. Some Jews did this to Peter as mentioned earlier in this letter. (See Galatians 2:11ff.) Another suggestion is that Romans – who knew Jews and Gentiles should not worship together – were persecuting the Messianic Jews for not being “really Jews” since they ate with Gentiles. As Jews enjoyed a sort of privileged outsider status in the Empire, doing things that risked that statues was not good. If everyone would only get circumcised then we’d all blend in and it would be better for us all.

I don’t know which of these is true and it needn’t be either or. Regardless of the reason, the call was to blend in with Non-Christians. And Paul says

We get called to blend in all the time: by the world, certainly, and also by those Catholics who just want to play along to get along. They want an easy life where “Catholic” is just another word for the “perfectly normal people who live next door”. They can’t have that easy life if Catholic teachers make comments about politicians and abortion, or the homeless, or immigrants, or same sex marriage. If you’re Catholic and rock the cultural boat, they think, all of us will get wet. They don’t want to get wet. Please don’t rock the boat.

That leads us to what I noted yesterday. (Yes, these are the Sunday readings and I’m writing on Thursday.) An unwillingness to “lean in” on the full Truth of the proclamation of the kingdom means people are not always coming into the same place: if we don’t proclaim the Gospel, people cant accept the Gospel. Full stop. We also thereby provide an inoculation against the real thing. Paul calls us to boast in the Cross. And the world has been crucified: so even if we don’t rock its boat, it’s sinking.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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