Poor St. Paul. He has the problem many colossal geniuses have: he assumes the rest of us are colossal geniuses. Consequently, he is constantly racing ahead of us, chattering excitedly about things that are incredibly clear to him but obscure to us, using jargon that he understands completely and we do not, and tossing off references to ideas and images and quotations from Jewish scripture he assumes we will instantly get when we are not even aware he is doing it.
Not for nothing did C.S. Lewis remark of him:
“I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition.”
A quick read of a typical passage like Ephesians 3:1-14 gives a sense of what I am talking about:
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…
Note the dash in verse 1. Everything after that until the word “glory” is one gigantic parenthetical remark. You can practically imagine Paul going off on this long rhetorical tear, finishing his thought and then turning to Tertius, his scribe, and saying, “Now where was I?”
In short, Peter was not kidding when he remarked of Paul:
There are some things in [his letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Pe 3:16).
One of the things hard to understand in Paul are the words “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). These days they are often misquoted to support what is known as the Both Sides Moral Equivalence Fallacy.
It goes like this: “Both Sides are Equally Bad” or “Both Sides are the Same” or “Oh well! Everybody’s a sinner.”
That’s it. That’s all. In discussions of oppression of the weak by the strong, such arguments always and only have one object as their goal (even if the person making them has been so blinded by their own ideology as to be unaware of that goal). It is this: To defend the Oppressor and maintain his power over the Oppressed.
Don’t believe me? Try these arguments on for size:
- Yes. I definitely grant that rape is a very serious evil. But we have to realize that rape “victims” often behave provocatively and immodestly. Both Sides are Equally Bad.
- Pedophilia is a serious sin, but we have to remember that children have a responsibility to say “No.” There is sin on Both Sides here.
- We all hear about how slaves were wronged in the South. But nobody ever talks about how slaveowners were wronged by being deprived of their property when slaves just left the plantation after the Civil War. Both slaves and slaveowners were equally wrong.
- The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. – Anatole France
These, like every other Both Sides Moral Equivalence claim, are designed to defend the Oppressor and assist him in oppression.
And these days, one of the most appalling ways Scripture gets dragooned into this perversion of Christian teaching is by constant deployment of Romans 3:23.
To stop it, we need to understand what Paul is actually talking about. He is not writing the First Epistle to the MAGA Apologists for White Supremacy. He is writing to the community at Rome, which is an ethnically mixed one just like ours. Only the ethnic mix is not Black/White (categories that would have been unintelligible to the brown Mediterraneans from all over the Empire who made up the Roman Church) but Jew/Gentile. That was the big dividing line in that community.
The problem in the first century Church that Paul wrestles with repeatedly–and most especially in Romans and Galatians–is the notion current in some circles that Jewish Christians were naturally superior to Gentile Christians and that if you wanted to really have the inside track with God, you should practice the ceremonial laws of Moses (circumcision, keeping kosher, observing various Jewish rites, etc.). Paul has no objection to Jews observing their ancestral customs. He does so himself. But what he fiercely objects to, following the teaching of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) is the notion that these ceremonial customs will save you and that Gentiles aren’t “really” saved without them. That is the lie he is at pains to debunk again and again. Paul insists that Christ, not performance of Jewish rites, is what saves and the whole point of the Jewish rites was simply and solely to point us to Jesus.
The consequence of this line of argument is that Jews arguing that Gentiles are greater sinners than themselves is like patients in a cancer ward arguing over who is the least terminal.
In all this, Paul is thinking as a Jew himself. He is acutely aware of what we would today call his “privilege”. He absolutely believes that his people are the Chosen People. “To them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Ro 9:4–5). Israel is the cultivated olive tree that God himself planted. Gentiles are wild olive branches that God, in his mercy, grafted on to that tree.
More than this, Paul feels privileged even within the People of Israel. He describes himself, recall, as “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law blameless” (Php 3:5–6).
It’s important to get this, because it means that when he is addressing the Roman community, he is speaking to fellow Jews with the assumption that by nature they are in the socially superior position, not the inferior position. In other words, he speaks as a son of privilege talking to other sons and daughters of privilege in the Christian community. It is primarily to them, not to the Gentile Christians, that he says “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He is quoting their own Scriptures to them, not to say to Gentiles, “You are just as bad as your social betters” but to say to the Jews in the community “You are no better than your social inferiors.”
All this is preface to saying that apart from Christ, Jews can no more be saved than Gentiles and, indeed, (speaking as a Jew to Jews) that the paradox of the Jewish predicament is that our knowledge of the law only makes us guiltier before God than these Gentiles who never received all the revelations we received:
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Ro 2:17–24).
In short, this is the polar opposite of Paul telling oppressed people that, really, when you think about it, you are just as bad as your oppressor. He is speaking as a privileged person to other privileged people in his community and saying (like his Master), “Those to whom much is given, much will be required.”
This, like so much else in Catholic moral teaching, comes out of the Jewish moral tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is what Catholic Social Teaching describes as the Preferential Option for the Poor:
No. Really. Here is Jesus in the Lucan Sermon on the Plain:
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
“Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Lk 6:20–26).
Jesus takes sides here, like it or not, and in shockingly unnuanced language. He does not say “The poor are just as bad as the rich who oppress them when you really think about it.” He has not a word to say about the rich as Job Creators and philanthropists. He picks a side: the oppressed, the losers, the have nots. And he demands we be on their side too.
That does not make him a Marxist class warrior advocating violent warfare on the rich. He will, in fact, have friends who are well-to-do (Mary of Bethany’s anointing oil was worth about a year’s wages and Joseph of Arimathea was rich too, as was Zachaeus. And the Rich Young Man sought his friendship too.)
But Jesus himself remains so poor that he has to borrow a coin in order to make his point about paying taxes to Caesar. And he chooses to do this for a reason: because he is not kidding when he says “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
Justice does not mean treating people equally. It means treating equals equally and unequals unequally. The alien, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, and the least of these do not have the power that their oppressors and exploiters do. Therefore, God takes their side. We are called to take their side too, not torture Scripture in order to justify scolding Lazarus that, “Really, when you think about it, you are just as bad as the rich man. After all, all have sinned!” as we step over him to join the Rich Man’s banquet.