Paul’s Understanding of Equality

Reading St. Paul’s letters can be very frustrating, even confusing. On the one hand he writes such beautiful things, as in Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neighter slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all on in Christ Jesus.” On the other, he writes things that make me wince, as in Corinthians where he writes that “everyone should continue before God in the state in which he was born,” in suggesting that slaves ought not be concerned with gaining freedom from slavery, or in Ephesians which says that “wives should be subordinate to their husbands.”

I read a commentary on the Galatians passage which suggested that Paul’s assertion of egalitarianism referred “to the equliaty of all Christians in terms of their salvation, not necessarily as something to be enacted in the social structures of the day.”

Does that mean we should so limit Paul’s words about equality? I think not. As the author of the commentary pointed out, one of the reasons Paul was not interested in changing social structures is that he “believed the parousia, the Second Coming, was imminent.” If you think the present world is ending any day, you don’t really worry about changing status and social structures.

We, however, live in a different world. “Two millennia later, with a heightened sense of global human rights and a vast tradition of social justice in the church, the question of incorporating this baptismal vision of equal status in social and ecclesial structures takes on a different urgency.”

My motive in writing this in part is to encourage us to take seriously our responsibility to promote social structures that treat all beings as equal, as they are before God. But in part it is also a reminder that we need to be careful in pulling random statements out of scripture to justify our actions or inaction. We need to be ever mindful of the context, especially when reading Paul’s letters.


A New Kind of Freedom

“Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,” said St. Jerome. Catholics, as a general matter, spend far too little time in studying and praying with Scripture.

Although Jeff Cavins was not a name familiar to me when I lived on the East Coast, here in Minneapolis (where Cavins currently resides), I have heard his name often from people who have taken his Bible study courses. As a result, I was happy to have a chance to spend some time with one of the books of his Catholic Scripture Study series, Galatians, A New Kind of Freedom Defined, which was sent to me as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program.

The aim of the Scripture Study Series of which this book is a part is to invite readers “on a journey that aims at more than mere knowledge, but transformation.” If we view the study of the Bible as a mere intellectual exercise designed to gather information, we miss that fact that the Bible is intended as living Word, as (in Cavins words) a “love letter” with the “power to transform our lives.”

His approach stresses a number of things that I think are very important aspect of studying and praying with scripture. First, he emphasizes the importance of context – of understanding where the book on which one is focusing fits into the larger scheme and understanding what was its purpose. In the case of Galatians, that means understanding who Paul is talking to and what was the issue the early Church was facing that caused conflict, i.e., the extent to which the Mosaic laws had to be followed by Gentiles. Too often, people pull a quote from one of the books of the Bible without paying attention to what motivated the line and what the author was trying to convey. In order to help readers with that understanding here, the book includes some important interludes from Acts that help set the stage.

Second, there is a focus on understanding how the scripture passage being studied relates to our lives today. One of the criticisms I had of some material I looked at a year or so ago from a Cavins course was that it did not seem to me to view this aspect as critical. But if scripture is going to transform us, we can’t study it as simply a story of some people in a far off time and place. There has to be serious reflection on how this impacts our lives today. I think the questions that are part of each chapter/lesson (the book is divided into 10 lessons) invite serious reflection on our own relation now to each other, to the Church and to God.

Third, each lesson suggest a particular line for memorization. Memorizing scripture is not somethign we tend to do these days. I think many of us above a certain age recoil against memorization, recalling perhaps aspects of the education on our youth where there was an overemphasis on memorization over understanding. However, the danger in reacting against that overemphasis is forgetting that keeping pieces of scipture close to our heart can provide us with solace, comfort and joy at times when we need them. So the encouragement – not to memorize long passages for its own sake – but to take from each lesson a little snippet to carry around with one, strike me as useful.

This is a book that is useful for individual or for group study. (With respect to the latter, the book includes useful material on how to use the book in groups.) In addition to the questions on the text and questions for reflection, each chapters contains additional “points to ponder” for those wishing do deepen their appreciation of the material as well as references to the catechism and other material one might look to for further study. There is a lot here that will enrich your appreciation of Galatians and that, hopefully, will encourage further study of other books of the Bible.

I Have Competed Well

Today’s first Mass reading is a passage from the Second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy that always moves me. Paul realizes he is “the time of [his] departure is at hand.” Looking back at his life, he writes: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

Since I am always so affected by those words, I spent some time reflecting on what Paul is saying in his letter. What would it take to be able to say, as does Paul, “I have competed well”?

I think the words can mean a lot of different things, depending on the circumstances. Of course we’d all like to be able to say at the end of the day that through our words and deeds we accomplished big things, changed the world in a major way, maybe moved a few mountains. And sometimes we do accomplish big things. Other times, our best efforts may produce small results. The circumstances in which we find ourselves mean that we have little show for our efforts.

All of that says that we can not necessarily fairly evalute our discipleship based on visible results. The relevent question is only whether we acted true to our faith. Whether we followed the course of Christ, bearing witness to Christ and being his love in the world as best as we could. If we do that, then, at the end of the day we can say, as did Paul, “I have competed well…I have kept the faith.”

Can We Speak as did Paul?

One of the exercises I’ve done with people as part of a workshop on Reconnecting with our Life Values is to ask them to write their obituary, using a simple form I give them. The form is a way of asking people to think hard about what their deepest desires are, what they hope to be in the world, what contributions they would like to be able to say, at the end of their lives, that they made for the life of the world.

I thought about the exercise in connection with today’s first reading, which is Paul’s farewell to the people in Ephesus, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. This is Paul, who was transformed into a persecutor of Christians into one of Christ’s great disciples.

As I read Paul’s words to the people of Ephesus I thought, if I can say this at the of my life, I will be content. “I served the Lord with all humility….I did not shrink from telling you waht was for your benefit….I earnestly bore witness…to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus.”

As I again read Paul’s words, I pray that I have the courage and the faith that will enable me to say as he did that, “I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace.”

If all of us who call ourselves Christians lived our lives in a manner that would allow us to honestly speak the words Paul did, imagine the effect that would have on the world.

What the Conversion of Paul Teaches Us

The story of the conversion of St. Paul is one I never tire of hearing. Saul, after all, is not just slightly misguided, or weak or lazy. He is not someone who makes a few mistakes along the way. Rather, he is a murderous persecutor of Christians. He stands by watching Stephen stoned to death because of Stephen’s proclamation of his faith in Christ. At the beginning of today’s first Mass reading from Acts, Saul, “still breathing murderous threats” against Jesus’ disciples, “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might arrest them.

Yet, Saul is not beyond salvation. When he encounters Christ on the road to Damascus, he is irrevocably changed. Jesus appears to him, speaks to him, invites him and he becomes a different man. No longer Saul, he is now Paul, “a chosen instrument of [Jesus] to carry [Jesus’] name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel.”

If even someone as seemingly beyond redemption as Saul, can be turned from darkness toward the light, how can we doubt the healing power of Jesus? There are some people who have a tendency to think, “It’s too late for me” or “After what I’ve done, God can’t possibly have any use for me.” The story of the conversion of St. Paul ought convince everyone of the fallicy of such thoughts. It is never too late for any of us.

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

There was a particular point during my years as a Buddhist when I was struggling with the question whether to give up the vows I had taken as a Buddhist nun and to return to lay life. Aggravating my struggle was the sense that I had somehow irrevocably blown it, that I was hopelessly confused. I was irritated that there I was, thirty years old and still floundering about what course I should be following. It took me a while to realize that I was seeing things from the absurd point of view that somehow one ought to determine the correct course of one’s life by age 20 or so and that, thus, my floundering at age 30 was indicative of some major flaw.

I experienced a different version of this difficulty more than a decade later, when I was discerning the call to train as a spiritual director. I struggled with the sense that it was too late for me to be doing this. I looked at others involved in the ministry, who had seemed to know much earlier than I what their path was. Who was I at this late date to be deciding this was work I could engage in?

The story of the conversion of Paul is a good antidote for both versions of those feelings of inadequacy. Paul spends years persecuting and killing Christians before he finally, with God’s intervention, finds his way. God didn’t look at Paul and say – too late, you should have gotten it right earlier. God didn’t look at Paul and say – can’t rely on him, he’s too confused.

Some of us take a little longer to get it than others. Some of us follow a less straight path than others. But God invites all of us and, when we are ready, however long that takes, God say, welcome. It’s never too late.

The Body Is Not A Single Part, But Many

Today’s second Mass reading comes from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and it is a passage I think we could all benefit from reflecting on.

All of us, to at least some extent, have a sense that some jobs are more important than others. We tend to think more highly of the brain surgeon than the trash collector, or of the professor than of the cashier in the grocery store. Lamentably, we sometimes tend to carry over the view of the job to the person, therefore deciding that some people are less valuable than others.

Today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians reminds us that we are all part of one body and, once we accept that, we can not say that any one part is more important than any other. For, as Paul quite logically says, using his analogy to the physical body, one can’t say the ear is more important than the sense of smell, for “if the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be.” Likewise, if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? A functioning body needs all of its parts, so if one part suffers, the entire body suffers.

The same is true of our giftedness. Some gifts may look better or more important than others. But all are necessary and therefore all are to be honored and respected.

I think this is a hard lesson for us to internalize. We often see as the world sees, not as God sees. We need to remind ourselves that we are all part of one body, each part of which is gifted in a particular way and each part of which is vitally important to the functioning of the whole.

Bless Those Who Persecute You

Paul gives us some tough advice in today’s first Mass reading, which is taken from his Letter to the Romans. The passage starts with Paul speaking of our using the different gifts we have been given, but then moves to instruction intended for all of us. He instructs us love one another and to serve God and then writes

Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.

A good checklist to see where we are falling a bit short, where we might need God’s assistance. I paused at a few of those as I reflected on the passage, cognizant of where I have difficulties.

The one that really caught me is “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.” For myself, that is not a great challenge. I have been able to sincerely pray for those who have caused me injury in one way or the other. (It probably helps that, for the most part, the injuries inflicted on me by others have not been severe enough to merit the label “persecution.”)

But as I read the line, I focused on the real challenge for me, on something I think both Paul and God intend to also be implied in the instruction: Bless those who have injured those you love. Bless and do nor curse those who have inflicted serious pain and suffering on those you hold close to your heart. That is a much harder command.

If I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that when someone I love and care about has been injured by the act of another – especially where the act has inflicted serious pain and suffering – what I experience is a lot closer to rage than blessing. And If I’m really being totally honest, I admit there is a little piece of me (the piece I would prefer to keep buried) that wants to lash out at the person who committed the injury, that wants to get back at them for making someone I love suffer. Not a very Christian reaction and I’m not proud of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it lurks there.

Yesterdy, on All Souls Day, I sat in the little prayer room above the chapel in the law school praying for those who had died. As I neared the end of my prayer, having named various friends and relatives whose death I mourn, I forced myself to include in my prayer someone who in the past inflicted serious pain and suffering on someone I love. It did not come easy. I mouthed words of blessing, but could not feel love in my heart.

So my prayer when I reflect on this passage is: Lord, let me love like you. Let me feel love and blessing toward not only those who are kind and generous and loving, and not only those who have injured me, but those who have injured those I love. Open my heart so that only blessing and never curse flows forth.

I, And No Longer I

I’ve just finished reading Timothy Radcliffe’s, Why Go to Church: The Drama of the Eucharist, which I talked about in a post a couple of days ago. I’m very grateful to my friend Julie for recommending it; there is a lot here on which one could profitably spend a lot of time reflecting.

One of the things that resonated very strongly with me is Radcliffe’s discussion of Paul’s line in Galatians, where he says that it is no longer he, but Christ who lives in him. Quoting from Pope Benedict’s 2007 Easter Vigil sermon, Radcliffe suggests that a proper understanding of this idea offers something of a middle way between the secular Western view of the self as “having a purely self-contained identity, hermetically sealed from others,” and the understanding expressed in some versions of Buddhism of non-self as meaning that the “I” is “utterly swallowed up on some impersonal ocean of being.”

Instead, our Christian understanding is really that in Christ we remain “both ‘I and no longer I.’” God gives each of us an identity; there is an “I.” But the “I” is not isolated; instead, it finds itself within the vastness of God. We have identities, our “individuality is not abolished,” but our identity is defined not by separation but by communion – with Christ and with each other.

As I was repeating to myself the words “I and no longer I, but Christ,” I realized that what helped me absorb the idea most vividly was not so much my actual experience of “I and no longer I, but Christ,” but my analogous experience of “you and no longer you, but Christ.”

The months, and especially the last few weeks, before my father’s death from pancreatic cancer six years ago were very difficult for me. Visits to the hospital, anxiety and worry, talking to out of town relatives about his condition, concern for my mother… all were very exhausting.

Often during that period, as at other times during the years I lived in the vicinity, I made frequent visits to St. Ignatius Retreat House for afternoon daily Mass, in addition to whatever programs brought me there. One of the Jesuits on the retreat house staff was at one time my spiritual director and is someone for whom I have a great deal of love and admiration. During that period, there were any number of occasions on which he saw me walk in, doubtless seeing the stress, anxiety and exhaustion, and simply held out his arms for me to walk into. Each time he hugged me, I felt as though I were being wrapped in the arms of God. I felt God’s presence. I felt completely supported and loved and strengthened and for those moments felt better.

What was clear to me then was that it wasn’t that it was God and not my Jesuit friend. My friend was there – but it was both him and more than him. Him and God at the same time. It is hard to put it clearly in words, but understanding “him and no longer him, but Christ,” helps me to understand what Radcliffe and Pope Benedict are trying to convey by “I and no longer I, but Christ who lives I me.”

Saints Peter and Paul

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. At one level, celebrating the two saints together may seem strange; we know there was a certain amount of tension between the two of them at times. However, if one understands the tension between them as reflective of a necessary and dynamic tension that is an inherent part of the Church, a joint celebration of the two makes more sense.

In his book, What is the Point of Being Christian, about which I’ve written before, Timothy Radcliffe, OP, talks about the tension reflected in the Last Supper (specifically, the difference between the bread given just to the disciples and the blood “poured out for many”) between “the gathering into communion of these disciples, Jesus’ close and intimate friends, and the reaching out to all, for the fullness of the Kingdom.” He identifies this as the tension between Peter and Paul.

Peter had been called by Jesus to belong to a community that was in its origins Jewish. Jesus may have reached out to foreigners at times but the inner circle, the apostles, were all Jewish and sent, in the beginning, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This was an understanding of the community which, for many of the first disciples, it would have been unimaginable that one might question. But the Church had hardly been founded when Paul’s reaching out to the Gentiles seemed to subvert the core of its very identity.

Radcliffe speaks of a centrifugal and a centripetal force “whose equilibrium had to be maintained if the Church was to avoid becoming either just another Jewish sect on the one hand, or losing continuity wtih its founder on the other.” The two forces, he suggests, are represented by Peter and Paul, whose dying together in Rome may be viewed as symbolic of the Church’s ability to hang on to the dynamic tension.

Happy Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.