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October 24, 1997     The Message
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8 The Message -- for Catholics of Southwestern Indiana r October i 0 ! The astonishing Apostle to the Gentiles By FATHER PAUL J. SCHMIDT Catholic News Service Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren are famous let- ter writers. Daily they pour out answers in letter form to newspaper readers with problems and questions. It is interesting to read their answer first and see if one can figure.out what question the reader had asked. For example: "Wake up and smell the coffee" usually means that a reader has been in denial about a problem that should have been fairly obvious. "Ten lashes with a wet noodle" means the reader has improved on the columnist's own advice. Reading the New Testament letters of St. Paul is very much like reading Ann or Abby backward. In Paul's letters, we have the answer. What we do not have in written form is the question m the situation that caused Paul to write. We have to figure that out -- with the help of know- ledgeable Scripture scholars. Paul's shortest letter, the Epistle to Philemon, is a good place to start. It resembles a letter one of us might write. It has a salutation, a message and a sign-off. It deals with a particular situation. Onesimus, a slave, ran away from his master, Phile- mon, who was a Christian. Paul notes that the slave was useless to his master, and Paul offers to pay for any wrongs the slave committed. (Had Onesimus stolen something?) .... Paul does not directly condemn slavery, simply tak- ing it for granted. But while acknowledging that Ones- imus is Philemon's slave, Paul appeals beyond that to a new fact: Onesimus is now baptized. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon. But Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus "no longer as a slave but more than a slave" -- as a brother. And Paul hints that Philemon may want to set Onesimus free and send him back to be of service to Paul, who at this point was imprisoned. The other New Testament letters of Paul are more complicated. Some circulated from church to church. Some may be compilations of shorter letters. If we take them bit by bit, however, we see that Paul often is answering questions and solving problems which emerged in the communities he established. At the beginning of Chapter 7 of First Corinthians, he states clearly, "Now, concerning the matters about which you wrote..." He goes on to give advice to married, unmarried and widowed people. Earlier in First Corinthians, Paul addressed the problem of quarreling factions in the communit); a situation reported to him (by letter?) by "Chloe's people" (1:11). In Chapfer 5 he condemns a case of incest, gives practical advice about dietary restrictions (Chapters 8-11), reprimands the people for misbehav- ing at the Lord's Supper (Chapter 11), deals with the matter of charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit (Chapters 12- 15), and answers questions about Jesus' resurrection and the resurrec- tion of believers (Chapter 15). Paul wrote two Epistles devoted primarily to the subject of the law, Galatians and Romans. Galatians is a kind of rough draft of Romans. It is written in anger and shoots from the hip: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (3:1) Paul was angry at the truth squads which followed him around and con- tradicted his teaching that faith in Jesus Christ brought salvation. By the time Paul wrote Romans, he had calmed down and was able to make a more moderate presentation of his arguments. This time he was also introducing himself to people he had not met (1:11-15) rather than correcting errant converts. And he had spent time reflecting on Israel's role in salvation history (9-11) and was able to outline Christian teaching in a way that should have ended anti-Semitism once and for all. Paul's approach to moral life is evident in the pre- scriptions given at the end of most of the epistles. Our conduct is always seen as a response to the unfath- omable love of God. Paul often strays from his topic into associated top- ics, personal reflections or biographical information. At these places we see the personality and spirituality of Overview of the letters Paul wrote St. Paul's letter to Philemon resembles a letter one of us write, says Father Paul J. Schmidt. Paul sends a back to Philemon. At the same time, Philemon is asked to, sider setting the slave free -- perhaps so that he can aid of Paul, whowas imprisoned. CNS photo by Bob the great apostle to the gentiles: We witness his struggle with sin, struggle each of us experiences (Romans writes, "I do not understand my own actionS."' He tells the Galatians about his ministry (Galatians 2:14). He recounts the lows and highs ofhis lif apostle (2 Corinthians 11:23-12:10): "When I then I am strong." The whole Letter to the deep affection for his first converts I love and long for, my joy and my crown" See By FATHER JOHN J. CASTELOT Catholic News Servio The seven letters unquestionably writ- ten by St. Paul himself are First Thessa- Ionians, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Philippians, Romans and Philemon. First Thessalonians, written from Corinth, is the earliest Christian writing we possess. Paul wrote it to the Thessa- Ionian Christian converts to encourage them in their trials and to clarify their con- fused notions about Christ's second com- ing. Those still alive when Christ returns will enjoy no advantage over Christians who died before then, Paul explains. The letter to the Galatians was written from Ephesus. It pleads with the Chris- tians there, recent converts, not to be taken in by some Jewish Christians who insisted that, if the Galatians wanted to be saved, they had to become Jews first. Quite different is Paul's affectionate letter to the Phifippians. It was original- ly a thank-you note, for they had sent him a care package when he was briefly imprisoned at EphesUs. Two other short letters to tbn were added to the thank- you note to form our present Letter to the Philippians. It is a gem, especiaUy the hymn to Christ in Chapter 2:6-11. Also written from Ephesus were the two letters to the Corinthians. First Corinthians attempted to respond to alarming reports about a situation in Corinth and also to reply to questions submitted to him. Paul treated a wide variety of subjects in this lively letter: factions in the com- munity, a scandalous case of incest, par- ticipation in pagan sacrifidal meals, the abuse of spiritual gifts, worship -- espe- cially the Eucharist -- and mistaken notions about the resurrection. Apparently this letter did not satisfy the Corinthian Christians, and Paul made a "flying" visit to settle matters in person. While he was there, someone publicly insulted him, making light of his role. And when Paul got back to Eph- esus he wrote the Corinthians a no-non- sense letter. He later referred to it as a "letter written in tears." This letter no longer exists indepertdently. Titus was sent to deliver the no-non- sense letter. But before Titus could report back to Paul, the apostle had been dri- Ven out of Ephesus. When Paul and Titus crossed paths as Titus returned from Corinth, the apostle received encouraging news. Titus report- ed that the Corinthians had received the bitter letter well. Paul was so relieved that he sat down and wrote Second Corinthians, express- ing his relief and warm concern for them. But Second Corinthians as we now have it is a composite of several letters. And many scholars feel that what I labeled Paul's "no-nonsense" letter is now found in Chapters 10-13 of Second Corinthians. The tone of these chapters is much different from the rest of the letter. Back again in Corinth, at a crossroads in his career, Paul wrote his masterful let- ter to Rome's Christians. It is a leisurely exposition of his position on justification by faith, the wonder of God's Spirit's work in their conduct in their pagan city. Paul's shortest letter, a remarkably delicate note to a named Philemon, appeals come a runaway slave to consider freeing him. Father Castelot is a Scripture author, teacher and lecturer.