Fr. Smith on Romans: Surest Way to End with God is to Begin with Him

Paul Writing His Epistles, attr. Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century, Museum of Fine Arts (Houston)

Paul Writing His Epistles, attr. Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century, Museum of Fine Arts (Houston)

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
June 14, 2020

It has been my custom to examine the first reading of the Mass in some detail for our emails and website. This is usually from the Old Testament. The passages are unknown to many Catholics and the wisdom contained in them can be quite a revelation. For most of the year the second reading is from St Paul. It is surprising that he too is often unknown and even when acknowledged usually misunderstood. From next week to mid-September we will be reading the Letter of Paul to the Romans and I have decided make this a summer project.

It is in some ways a very good choice to look at Paul through Romans. It is the most comprehensive letter: it covers the most topics. These topics are among the major issues of our faith. He also speaks in calm and disciplined manner and does not go off on tangents. This letter is so critical that some theologians have called all subsequent theology footnotes on Romans. By the end of the summer, I hope you will understand why.

That can make interpreting Romans very tricky. It has been so influential that everyone who writes on virtually anything Christian wishes to claim it as their own and doctrines which developed later can obscure Paul’s message. We will see that next week when we will talk about the Sin of Adam which was used in the 5th century to support the doctrine of original sin. The reformation discussion on Justification also reflects the concerns of the 16th century as much as the 1st.

It is however the letter which we read for the longest sustained period and is worth the effort to understand in some depth.

The first question: why Rome?

Paul’s letters were written to individual communities that Paul knew and indeed formed. He is acting as a father to them encouraging or admonishing them. He also wrote to individuals whom he knew and mentored. He did not establish the church in Rome, nor did he ever visit it. Why then did he write to the Christians of Rome? Although this letter does not deal much with Paul’s personal biography, we need to know something about the church in Rome and Paul’s situation at the time.

There was always a large Jewish colony in Rome, perhaps as many as 50,000 in the 1st century. They were mostly merchants and records show that they traded throughout the world but especially with Jerusalem and Judea. They had not only close financial but also religious ties to their ancestral land. Christianity spread very quickly in the Mediterranean and it was inevitable that the Gospel would reach Rome. We need to remember that the Christians who catechized Rome were closer to James than Paul. It was cautious and conservative but not silent. Although the Jews of Rome were given many privileges by Julius Caesar and Augustus the emperor Claudius expelled many Jews from the city c. 43 AD because of disputes between the “orthodox” Jews and followers of “Chrestus.” This conflict influenced the subjects that Paul will discuss and the way he will explore them.

Now for Paul himself.

Romans was most likely written in 57 AD. Paul has become estranged from many of the leaders in Jerusalem. About 48 AD Paul and Peter were both in Antioch. Peter was accustomed to eating with Gentiles. When people who Paul identifies as the “party of the circumcision” came to Antioch, Peter refrained from continuing. Paul took great offense at this and called Peter a hypocrite. (Gal. 2) This was so serious that it required the leaders of the church to meet in what has been called the “Council of Jerusalem.” Luke tells us the story in Acts 15. In this version, everything ends peacefully with Paul being acknowledged as the Apostle to the Gentiles.

We should remember that Acts was not written until about 90 AD and the Romans would not have been able to read it and perhaps would not have even heard the stories behind it. They would however have heard much about Paul and been able to read his letter to the Galatians. Paul, hurt, angry and very sarcastic in writing to the Galatians. He examines topics especially the relationship between following Jesus and being a Jew, which were very important to the Roman Christians without sufficient delicacy. They would have been prejudiced against him and Paul knew it.

Why then did he write?

He needed them for several reasons. After the council of Jerusalem, Paul knew that he had fences to mend. He decided to take up a collection from “his” churches to support the Jerusalem Church. There were many other and perhaps more spiritual and noble reasons for this but the key question for Paul was “Would they accept it?” This would be more than pique but a break in relations and community. He knew the connection between the Roman Church and the Jerusalem Church and wanted them to intercede for them. This is found in (Roman 15:26–28) which we will not read at this time. (Our readings end with Rom. 14:7–9 on Sep. 13.)

Secondly, He also wished to bring the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. This most likely meant Spain. He needed the financial resources and their trading network to accomplish this. He may indeed had done this between 62 and 64. (Rom. 15:22–23; we will also not address this.)

Also, it may well have been in his mind that he may need more direct support from them. As a Roman citizen, Paul was able to ask for trial before the emperor. This indeed was to occur in 60 AD. They did not have prisons in our sense of the term then and one could hire one’s own jailer and live in some comfort and indeed freedom which Paul did for 2 years. He could do this only with the financial assistance of the Roman church.

Finally, Paul was a genius. He had a great understanding of how God was working in the world and he knew that his message could be of great help to the Romans. It would be unworthy of the gift he was given not to share this with them.

As with our examining of the Old Testament, our primary objective will be to see what Paul was saying to the Roman people of his time. However, as we found with the Old Testament sometimes, these discussions can reveal much in our own time and place.

Next week we will begin with Rom. 5:12-14. I ask you to read the chapters before this. Read it from the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic and the present, and I pray not momentary, impossibility of ignoring the racism expressed in the disparity of treatment of Black and white people, especially by the police. Most of all remember that the Faithfulness and Righteousness of which Paul speaks is God’s not ours and learn the first lesson of Romans: “The surest way to end with God is to begin with Him.”