On the Misuses of St. Paul

Published June 3, 2020

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:

Image may contain: text that says 'Institute for Christian Socialism @smashmammon "We have to recognise that the only God we know is the God of the poor, the God who takes sides in the struggle, and that any God of consensus who is supposed to belong to both sides is an illusion and a dangerous one." -Herbert McCabe, OP'

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.

32 Responses

  1. Just wanted to address that quote by Anatole France.
    It seems that Google Translate is aware of prose in public domain and uses literary translation. I created a link for you with the passage from the Red Lily for context: https://tinyurl.com/yb2tnyty

    France used irony and intended to express that the law is inherently unjust. I have actually heard that quote before, but I have never seen it subverted to support the notion that the law is indeed just and equal *because* it applies equally to the rich and the poor alike.

    It’s pretty much the same as if you said the law, in its majestic equality, enables both the rich and the poor to embezzle billions and get away with it.

  2. I think it’s important we Americans remember that when we say the poor, on a global scale, it means about 99% of Americans don’t qualify. We have our poorest of poor, the homeless, those living in the worst inner city poverty, those who live in Appalachia. But many who we consider ‘poor’ still live like middle class in many countries around the world. And many who gripe and complain about low standards of living here live like kings to others. I remember a dear friend I had from Nigeria who once said how difficult it must be to focus on God when all you need to get food is a grocery store. I’ve never forgotten that. Like you say, being rich doesn’t mean off to Hell you go – and a good thing too. But it means making sure we don’t draw the ‘rich/poor line’ conveniently above our heads when so many millions around the world would say otherwise.

    1. Ever the excuse-maker for oppression. “The poor have it made! They should quit whining.” You always always always side with oppression against the weak.

      1. You’re not one of the poor. Get over it. Most in America aren’t. Get over it. You and most in our country are the rich compared to the agony and suffering and starving and dying around the world. Don’t think God misses that fact, whether you want to deny it or not.

      2. When did I say the poor have made it they should quit wining? Right back at ya. I said in America, many who are considered “poor” do quite well on the national state. I know this for how many times I have donated items to charities, only to be told the poor wouldn’t want them. The poor in many parts of the world would be happy for them. That’s because apart from the poorest in our nation and the homeless, what we refer to as poor would be the envy of many in the world. Therefore, when we call down hellfire on the rich, make sure that category includes a great many of us.

    2. It is easy to say this.. and in some senses it might be true. Someone in Hati, or parts of Africa, or Latin America, might gladly trade places with many folks we would consider poor… but if we look at it, 11% of Americans (according to the USDA) experienced food insecurity in 2018.. Its hard to claim that a family who isn’t sure they can afford the food they need to survive is not poor. And in addition, I am sure the above figure ignores how many folks live off of cheap, unhealthy calories rather than a nutritionally balanced diet.. or those who have to string together two or three jobs totally 80 hours a week or more to provide all the necessities of life in even their basic form.

      1. Sure they did. And poverty ebbs and flows in good and bad economic times. The point being, we are a staggeringly wealthy society. As I just told Mark, I’ve donated items to charities before only to be told they won’t take them because those who go there don’t want a list of things if they aren’t good enough. In one case, it was an end table with scratches. When your poor turn their noses up to things because they have scratches, something is different than it is in much of the world. Also, we don’t want to think rich means Wall Street and Madison Ave. It means us. It means, on a global scale, many who we who have more would consider poor. I get that things can be different. For instance, our wealth itself may make being lower middle class more difficult than you would think. But we don’t want to be too loose with ‘woe to the rich’ when the rich is, in fact, most of us.

    3. It is fine to be realistic about your financial situation, but the gospel message still stands. We are called to generosity. Help those who are needier than you.

      “Rich” and “poor” are relative terms. If you have more money than someone, you are richer. If you have less money, you are poorer.

      That the poorest in the US may or may not be better off than those globally (acknowledged there are people living in landfills on $2/day out there) is no excuse to not help the poor in the US.

      1. Well said, and I agree. I certainly was coming nowhere close to saying we should not help the poor in the US. I was saying we should, as you point out, be wary of throwing terms like rich and poor around since they are relative. I used to say that in my pastoring days. I warned churches not to sit high and mighty and think rich means those people on Wall Street and not us if we fail to give to the least of these. It’s also a point of thankfulness, though also a temptation. That we live in a nation where all but the poorest of the poor live better than so many in the world is a two edged sword. I feel we’ve misused that blessing. But blessing it could have been.

    4. No… I don’t think this is right thinking at all.
      I used to, but I do not anymore.

      It is a notion which is used to distance oneself from suffering–to make The Deserving Poor out to be far off, and not our close neighbors.

      It is a mistake and only makes our hearts harder towards our near neighbors.
      It also gives us a distorted view of the unlimited depths of the mercy of God, as you did on the follow up comment below.

      1. I think you’re right. We never want to use such observations to avoid our responsibility to those nearest us. I personally have given far more in neighboring cities and towns than to those oversees because, well, it’s what we can do best in our situation. We just want to make sure we don’t make the mistake of assuming we’re the deserving poor because Bill Gates, or even people in upper middle class neighborhoods when we don’t live in such. After all not only fellow Americans, but masses of those far away, would kill to have our worst days. That’s something I always think on when I read about the condemnations laid out against the rich in Scripture.

  3. Some of the readings from Paul’s epistles are hard on a lector. I have had to practice for hours on some of those mile long lines. It’s parenthetical within parenthetical and then some abrupt and short concluding phrase on the actual content of the line. By the time you get to the end of the line, that actual content is quite jarring. I can perceive the eyes of listeners glazing over by then.

    I have a quibble with citing ” 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 ” as both-siderism. You mean well, but this is one of those lines, in its historic context, was made to expose both-siderism.

    Anatole meant the opposite, and it’s in support of your point here. Anatole is using sarcasm, to illuminate that the law is both side-ism at its best, and it’s intended outcome is violence on the poor. It is onerous for the poor to comply with the law against, say, sleeping under bridges; not so for the rich.

    That is a “systemic” inequity, cast into law.

    That law is absolutely fair, but it oppresses the poor. Is this law fair? Or was the law written to oppress the poor? In defending that law as fair, are you really defending fairness in abstract? Or are you surreptitiously hiding behind fairness, to oppress the poor? If you are indeed defending the fairness of law in abstract, over the reality of the law’s oppression of the poor, what kind of person are you?

    Anatole’s statement is a illuminating statement for the current ongoing protests. This is exactly what system racism and inequity means. The burden of laws and its policing fall disproportionately on our colored brethren.

    1. I don’t think it’s a thing about ‘Good Christians’ one way or another. Those we know who are Jewish, liberal or otherwise, were stunned when the police were sent to break up an Orthodox Jewish gathering in New York. That apparently sent shock waves through the Jewish Community of all stripes, even those who disagreed with the gathering itself. And rightly so. I think we can all understand why law enforcement descending on a Jewish gathering would cause concern among the Jewish community. The fear that such things might spread likely goes hand in hand with the uptick in anti-Jewish crimes and attitudes we’ve seen across the board in recent years.

      1. The uptick in anti-Jewish crimes has nothing to do with the pandemic lockdown and everything to do with white nationalism. History Will Judge the Complicit, Dave!

      2. Well, no. It has everything to do with an uptick in antisemitism. That’s why the ADL came out and asked not to make it about politics, since it clearly extends beyond one group or another. That much is clear. We can’t ignore threats to human beings and their suffering when it ceases to fit neatly into various political narratives.

      3. Citation needed about the shockwaves.

        As a Jewish man, I was not shocked about the police breaking up the Hasidic funeral. I was grateful that they were there to tell the religious nuts that they were not celebrating anything but disease. It wasn’t an anti-Jewish action, anymore than the arrest of Rodney Howard Browne was an anti-Christian action. If you see everything through a religious lens, everything That looks like a nail begins to require something that looks like a hammer.

      4. bensnewlogin, again, don’t know how to link right now. You could Google. Here’s one I got from the NYT story: “Jewish groups and leaders reacted with outrage to the mayor’s warning’. Here’s another quote in reaction to de Blasio’s actions from a CNBC article: “We deserve better from our leaders than generalizations and fingerpointing.” There were many others others. The story I saw was on CBS. Again, pretty easy to find.

  4. Another good example (out of many from Catholic blogs) of why untutored laymen should not theologize on the Sacred Page. (That means “Sacred Scripture” for your atheist, homosexualist, feminist, et al., followers who may not know.) Mark Shea pontificating on St. Paul’s faults as a writer (bolstered by every leftist Catholic’s favorite “authority,” C.S. Lewis) and what he really means, or how he is expanding on what is really meant by the Lucan Sermon on the Plain (is there another Sermon on the Plain in the Gospels that we have missed for the past 2,000 some years?)–none of it has the slightest weight or authority. At best, it’s slightly gussied up 20th-century Scriptural criticism, without (judging from your conclusions) the slightest glance at the works of St. Chrysostom or St. Thomas, or, well, anyone who actually is an authority. In the end, what does this blogpost on (purportedly) St. Paul offer? The nth snide commentary on “Christianists/MAGA Cultists,” a.k.a. all the Catholics or Christians that Mark Shea hates.

    1. C.S. Lewis is every leftist Catholics’s favorite authority? That’s when I started laughing and couldn’t stop. Your point appears to be “Paul did *too* endorse oppression! Good luck with that.

    2. Once you begin by positing that C. S. Lewis is a leftist, you immediately announce yourself to be a noisome pile of ignorance, not worth the trouble to read from that point forward.

    3. Well! Homosexualist, atheist and C.S. Lewis all on a page. As someone who is gay— I have no idea what a homosexualist is— And an atheist, and yet Who was deeply influenced by Lewis as a a young man,all I can say is…

      Whatever it is that you’re smoking, I really don’t want any.

    1. No, those are shoes I could never fill. Jack’s patience and charity in debate are charisms I don’t possess. I told people I would come over and see what Mark would do with his new blog. Whether it’s a blog that fosters discourse and debate like his blog back in the olden days (c. 2005) or not is the question.

      1. I’m going to do something I rarely do, but it seems appropriate here. You wrote that you could never fill happy Jack’s shoes. As a frequent target of Jack’s immense self regard for his own holiness and righteousness, it’s not shoes that you would be filling.

        It’s diapers.

        Like so many religious people of the hyper conservative type, Jack uses his faith in God – and I won’t write what I think that faith is – not as a ladder to lift himself up, but as a hammer to use against others. That he hides this all behind his “faith”, as so many do, does not disguise what is going on.

      2. bensnewlogin, I can’t speak to Jack’s motives since I don’t know his heart. Hyper conservatives types, by definition of the hyper qualifier, probably do a poor job at things, but no worse than other hyper types, or no worse than I do. I think it’s fine to call out wrong and praise right when we see it, but never lose fact that we might be more a part of the mischief that we imagine. I saw Jack take quite a lot of puff and stuff for standing his ground in a hostile environment, and he typically responded with charity. That’s no small feat in our modern era.

      1. I could always refer to myself in the third person. Dave agrees with you. Or I could add a definite article. The Dave agrees. Or perhaps, The Dave abides. 😀

  5. Good to see that I’m not the only one who finds St. Paul’s writing to be long-winded and hard to comprehend. I am a lector, and have had to deal with him too 🙂

    And yet… the time I came to really appreciate who he is for the Church was when I had the opportunity to go to Rome and visit his basilica: St. Paul Outside the Walls. Although the church had been burned down and much of it is of the relatively recent 1800s vintage, his tomb is intact and the evidence for its authenticity is relatively strong. The church is much quieter than St. Peter’s and the holiness of the place and the saint it memorializes is palpable.

    I realized that St. Paul was not only a genius and an apostle on whom the international character of Christianity depends, but also an exponent of the central mystery of theosis: union with God. Furthermore, he was once a furious zealot, someone who may have fit in with the Taliban or ISIS. We should stop trying to over-analyze all his verbose terminology. God visited him, overcame his fanatical hatred and replaced it with divine love. He is a demonstration of God’s grace indeed.

Leave a Reply

Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

NEW BOOK!

Advertisement