In the information age, bad interpretations of Scripture flourish faster than good ones can replace them. The Bible can then become a warrant for all manner of dubious moral and theological claims. In this Year of St. Paul – and especially in this Holy Week – we can be grateful for many things about Paul’s example, but especially that his modern interpreters have not done an even worse job with him than we might fear.
There is plenty of material to work with. Paul called the Galatians “stupid,” (Gal 3:1) and then wished their Judaizing opponents would circumcise themselves and have the knife slip. This was after he bragged of having opposed the first pope to his face, not caring whether he really was a “pillar” of the Church. (I suspect Paul lost that verbal confrontation because otherwise he would have bragged about his victory.) He mocked the pretenses of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:8), belittling them by calling them babes, while refusing to accept their support for fear of being tainted. He insulted the Cretans by repeating the hoariest stereotypes of their lying beastly gluttony (Tit 1:12).
The Thessalonians probably never took literally Paul’s instruction to starve those who would not work, but was this the best way of encouraging his flock to work quietly for a living? When the servant of the high priest Ananias slapped him, Paul did not turn the other cheek but instead threatened him with divine vengeance, calling him a whitewashed wall and a lawbreaker (Acts 23:3). Paul did not mince words either, referring to his past pre-Christian glories as so much “dung,” (Phil 3:8) and I would not be surprised at all if one his secretaries inserted this euphemism for a more scatological term.
And all this was after Paul became a Christian.
The interpretive tradition has always been reserved in obeying Paul’s command to “imitate me” (1 Cor 11:1) and in identifying the times Paul is really “imitating Christ.” Perhaps it is too much to say that had others done these things they would have been committing sin. But we cannot ignore the fact that Catholic mothers and schoolmarms would not tolerate some of Paul’s antics.
Things are quite different with Our Lord. Jesus exercises what media types today would describe as perfect control over His public persona. Even the potentially embarrassing stories about Him in Mark – friends and family calling Him mad or His inability to work miracles in Nazareth or His having to try twice to heal a blind man – seem strategic “leaks,” which in our skeptical age give the Gospel stronger claims to authenticity.
Not so with Paul. His writings reveal a man with no idea that readers would be wrangling over his words two millennia later; that he reveals so much of his own character is quite incidental to why he wrote at all.
His raw letters posed a major problem for readers from the start. He was “hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16) and he himself has proven difficult for the Church to domesticate.
One large theological consequence is the split in western Christianity, basically over the meaning of Paul. The practical consequences are significant as well. We know more about Paul’s life than any other first-generation follower of Jesus. And yet his life has had little influence in popular piety, especially compared with saints such as Therese of Lisieux or Padre Pio.
This is unfortunate. Luke and Paul’s own letters portray a man whose mission was to suffer so that Christ might be exalted. Even Paul’s greatest glories go unmentioned. He suffered martyrdom though Luke opted not to tell us and drops Paul’s story in Rome years before he died under the Neronian persecution. Paul is credited with a few signs and wonders, but mostly these seem to have been used to keep the natives from getting too restless.
As it happened, the natives got plenty restless, and Paul spent the lion’s share of his career one step ahead of Jewish and Roman enemies, suffering lashings, beatings, and imprisonments. Jesus’ ministry seems mostly to have drawn admiring throngs. Paul’s seems mostly to have drawn angry mobs. Our Lord was so impressive in death that he is recorded to have made converts by the way he died. Few were much impressed with Paul’s sufferings; indeed Paul’s afflictions actually seem to have harmed his reputation even among the churches he founded. Paul’s poor eyesight and bodily afflictions did not prevent the Galatians from troubling him and embracing another gospel (Gal 4:15; 1:6).
The Corinthians had the gall to ask Paul for letters of reference (2 Cor 3:1), so put off were they by his inarticulate speech, his meager appearance, and his embarrassing refusal to accept their financial support. And Paul’s protestations that his sufferings actually made him more Christ-like seem to have only made things worse.
Yet there is much of value in Paul for us. We may easily identify with someone who is an ardent Christian, but does not seem very effective in the main passion of his life. We who work at child-rearing or housework or jobs where we are underpaid or underappreciated can identify with a man who spent most of his adult life in that condition. We who are unlikely to become martyrs and must pursue our Christian vocation incrementally can admire a man who follows God mostly in fits and starts and with nearly constant setbacks.
Paul’s life reminds us of an old truth that, provided we make Christ crucified our center, God will show forbearance for the rough edges and personal flaws at our perimeter. That should give us greater comfort as we approach Easter: holiness is not the same as success, and lies within closer reach than we think.