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Theological Telephone Game

Who is “Gentile” to your “Jew”?

by Michael Danner

Epistle Reading: Galatians 2:15 – 21

For Sunday, June 16, 2013; Year C—Ordinary 11

At some point, every youth group plays the telephone game (usually for the gossip lesson). But I confess—I hate the telephone game.

Why? Because the people playing the game all know what is going to happen. The message is going to get distorted. Their only hope is that something funny will emerge at the end, but it seldom does.

Why? Again, because players of the telephone game all know what is going to happen. Therefore, they do not even try to preserve the original message. They distort the message on purpose.

It drives me crazy (which is a short drive).

Context, Context, Context

Here’s my problem with most interpretations of Galatians 2:15 – 21. The clear context is a social setting. Paul’s purpose in writing this is to defend the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God.

No disrespect for Augustine and Luther, but this is not about an individual’s relief from guilt or getting relief from feelings of worthlessness before a righteous and just God. It never was about “me” being right with God, it was about God’s gift of grace in and through Jesus Christ which made Jew and Gentile one people on the same footing (which was Jesus).

But Does it Play in Peoria?

How many congregations want to hear that this passage is not about them?

How many want to hear that this isn’t about how they get to heaven when they die?

How many of them want to hear that this is really about reconciliation between people groups with a long history of enmity and violence towards each other?

How many of them want to hear that the work of justification in their lives is really about justification in “our” lives and in the lives of our enemies – the fruit of which is reconciliation?

The Theological Telephone Game

It is really tempting, when preaching on this passage, to play the theological telephone game. We know what the passage says and we know what Paul meant. Yet, people want the message to be something else. So, somewhere between the pastor’s study and the pulpit, we are tempted to play the telephone game.

We are tempted to forsake even trying to preserve Paul’s original meaning. We are tempted to walk away from a robust exploration of the implications of this passage in our time. Instead of asking if we are guilty of “building up again the very things that Jesus once tore down”, we are tempted to go for something the crowd is sure to enjoy. “Thanks be to God that you are all, as individuals, justified by faith and not by works. If you believe in Jesus you will inherit an eternal paradise when you die.”

More Confession

I’ll admit it: that is a much easier sermon than asking who is “Gentile” to my “Jew” (i.e. who do I think should be left out of God’s people). It is much easier to preach pie in the sky when you die than to ask how following Jesus impacts things like immigration, homosexuality, people of other faiths, and so on. Yet, this is where this passage— understood and applied in context–takes us, isn’t it?

So, will I go with Augustine and Luther and preach this as a passage about individual freedom from the guilt of sin? Or, will I go with Paul and preach this as a passage about how, in Jesus, there are no longer any second class citizens?

The Hardest Question

Can we accept that in accepting Jesus we are called to accept all those that Jesus accepts? (I think it would be way easier just to have my sins forgiven and get on with it…what about you?)

Michael Danner is an ordained pastor of the Mennonite Church USA. He serves as Lead Pastor at Metamora Mennonite Church, a rural community on the outskirts of the empire (easy to miss unless you live nearby). When he is not actively engaged in husbanding, fathering, pastoring and blogging he confesses to spending far too much time trying to move objects with his mind…a practice he picked up at church as a kid. To date, it has not worked…but he isn’t giving up. His blog can be found at  and he can be followed on Twitter @michaeldanner


  1. John Dobbs says:

    Great points…thank you for the clarity!

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