Lent with Paul, Session 2

Paul’s Letters

From What Paul Meant by Garry Wills:

Paul’s writings were almost always “fired off to deal with local crises”, dictating them to “answer problems or refute opponents”.  We see Paul writing and “thinking under pressure” and the outcome is a sort of “lava-flow of heated words”.  He is not a cool detached philosopher, but an “embattled messenger” as well as “a mystic and a deep theologian” – a “man busy in many fronts, often harried, sometimes desperate”.

Paul’s letters are the earliest part of the New Testament – all written 25-50 years before any of the gospels.  They were probably written about 20 years after the death/resurrection of Jesus.  There are 13 letters relating to St. Paul:

Undisputed Letters of Paul:

  1. 1 Thessalonians
  2. Galatians
  3. Philippians
  4. Philemon
  5. 1 Corinthians
  6. 2 Corinthians
  7. Romans

Deutero-Pauline Letters:

  1. Colossians
  2. Ephesians
  3. 2 Thessalonians
  4. Titus
  5. 1 Timothy
  6. 2 Timothy

Paul describes himself as, “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more:  circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”  (Philippians 3:4-6).  What is the source of this zeal, which we feel so much in his letters?

On Zeal

From Paul, A Biography by N.T. Wright:  Paul was raised studying the Torah, wearing the tefillin on his arms and head.  Tefillin were small, leather boxes containing key scripture passages that were strapped on as Moses had commanded all male Jews to do when praying the morning service (p. 27).  We lived and breathed his faith, and learned early on that it was God’s people against the rest of the world.  Outsiders were considered a threat.  One must strive for righteousness.  The Hebrew word for righteousness is tzedaqah, or more closely translated as a committed, covenanted relationship.  There is a covenant between God and God’s people to be bonded.  Zeal was the outward badge of the unbreakable relationship (p. 31).

So when Paul met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, this zeal was challenged AND channeled in a new way.

  • Challenged in that ALL people are God’s people now, not just the Jewish people.
  • And channeled in that it is ALL for Jesus. Paul is the Messiah Man!

His zeal is read throughout all of his letters.

2nd Reading – Philippians 3: 17 — 4:1


  • A prominent town in the Roman province of Macedonia
  • The Via Egnatia is the road constructed by the Romans in 2nd Century BC. Paul would have used this road when leaving Philippi to Thessalonica.
  • Agricultural plains and gold mines nearby. On those plains Oct 42 BC Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius (slayers of Julius Caesar).  Octavian made Philippi a Roman colony.
  • Mimicked Rome in having forums, theaters and coinage inscriptions.
  • Strategic site in all of Europe. There is a range of hills which divides Europe from Asia, east from west and just at Philippi there is a dip into a pass.  That city commands the road (Barclay, p.3)
  • First “church” on European soil, birthplace of Western Christianity (Powell, Introducing the New Testament, p. 346).
  • 100 years later, Polycarp speaks of the firmly rooted faith of the Philippians (Brown, An Intro to the New Testament, p. 484).

This is written probably when Paul was in prison.  How does knowing this affect our understanding of Paul’s words?  What meaning does this reading have for you?

From Exploring the Sunday Readings, March 2001 and 2007:

When Paul talks of the “enemies of the cross” he is warning the people of those who would come to take their faith in Christ away – those religious leaders who still insist on being saved by religious, ritual law – dietary laws (“their God is their stomach”) and circumcision (“their glory is in their shame[ful parts]”. They are so caught up in the letter of the law that they miss its spirit – that which gives life. Jesus had said the Sabbath and the laws of religion were created to assist us – to bring life not division.

Today, perhaps, there is another way to understand the ‘god of our stomachs’.  Could we see this as a symbol of our yawning hunger for acquisition of every kind? We want, we desire, we wish, and we yearn. We window-shop, surf the Net, and dream of something more . . . greed can often feel like need, but is it? Augustine reminds us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. May we find ways this Lent to be hungry for the living God, the one who can satisfy us with real food.

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