Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 14, 2008
Paul a man of many temperaments
Some see him as arrogant, but he inspired deep affection in associates
The beheading of St. Paul is portrayed in this painting in the Basilica of St. Paul in Toronto.
By GLEN ARGAN
St. Paul was always in trouble. He didn't go looking for trouble, but it regularly seemed to find him. Paul was run out of town, beaten, stoned, imprisoned and the cause of a riot.
He chewed out the Christian community at Galatia, calling them foolish. He had strong words and lots of advice for the Corinthians too.
One might conclude that Paul was obnoxious and off-putting, stubborn and boastful.
That in fact is the conclusion drawn by Krister Stendahl, one of today's leading scholars on St. Paul: "St. Paul was arrogant. . . . He was also the greatest: the greatest of sinners, the greatest of apostles, the greatest when it came to speaking in tongues, the greatest at having been persecuted" (Final Account, p. 3).
But Paul was more complex than that. His description of love as the greatest virtue is still frequently read at weddings 2,000 years after he wrote it because it itself is so gentle and loving.
He had a marvellous relationship with the Church at Philippi. The Christians there sent money to support him in prison. From that prison cell, he wrote them his most exuberant letter.
He could be remarkably tender-hearted and he inspired great loyalty from his associates. Paul describes Timothy as "my beloved and faithful child in the Lord" and he urged the Corinthians "to put him at ease in your midst."
Eager to collaborate
Pope Benedict describes Paul as one who was eager to collaborate with others in ministry. He worked with women and he worked with men. To do that, Paul must have been flexible enough to put his own views on the backburner when others disagreed with them.
So why did Paul stir such opposition, not only in the first century, but even today in the 21st century? Part of it, no doubt, was that he did have a strong personality. "God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and self-control," he wrote (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
But the other part was the message he proclaimed. Paul was untiring in proclaiming that Jesus is lord of the universe. And if Jesus is lord, it meant that Caesar was not. It also meant that Aphrodite - the goddess of love and lust - had to take a backseat.
Paul's proclamation of the lordship of Jesus was not meant to start a cozy, middle-class religion. It was meant to force a radical change in people's personal lives, in society and in the life of faith.
Paul had undergone a deep and lasting conversion that transformed his life. He was no longer a militant right-winger who went around persecuting those who did not ascribe to his rigid fundamentalist adherence to the Mosaic Law. His conversion had given him a more inclusive outlook.
Instead of being a Jewish supremacist, he had come to see that the Gospel of Jesus was meant for everyone. There is no religious elite. Baptism is open to all who have faith in Jesus and all the baptized are welcome at the Lord's table. Religious purity becomes secondary to inclusiveness and unity.
Down in the boondocks
Paul expected others to be equally transformed. But people could not abide the notion of a crucified God who lived and died in the boondocks of Judea. They expected God to be powerful at all times.
The very thought that this Jewish God had risen from the dead was laughable. Indeed, that's exactly how the Athenians did react to this teaching.
Paul knew that people saw the Gospel as ridiculous. If this Gospel was preached with power, it was made perfect in weakness. At the end of the day, Paul would only boast of the cross. He was proud of his weaknesses because they proved that any success in preaching the Gospel was God's work, not his own. "God chose the weak in the world to shame the strong," he wrote (1 Corinthians 1:27).
So Paul was both powerful and weak. He was a strong personality who is widely acknowledged as one of the great figures in world history.
He never would have anticipated that. He was so thoroughly abused and persecuted, so beset by misfortune and natural disasters that he might have seen his greatest personal accomplishment in life as merely surviving to 55 or 60 years of age before he was finally martyred.
St. Paul was always in trouble. But because of that trouble, the Gospel was spread far and wide.