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Along the Way
Commentary for Letter to the Marianas
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Ok, now that we have read our "letter from St. Paul", let's consider it more closely.

Letters in the first century follow a standard format. They begin with a short statement of who is sending the letter and to whom it is being sent. As we can see from our "letter to the Marianas", Paul follows the same format. Most letters of the first century were were rather simple and brief in the opening statement. "Gaius to Lucius, greetings!" was typical of most letters. While Paul can be fairly simple in his openings, as with Philemon and our "letter to the Marianas", he was often much more elaborate. For example, in Romans Paul goes on for a paragraph or more describing himself as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. He went on at some length in Romans because we had never visited the city of Rome and wanted to establish his credentials for writing to the Christians of Rome.

The greetings statement in the normal letter opening Paul tended to expand into a prayer of thanksgiving for the people to whom he was writing. Thus, in the "letter to the Marianas" there is a short prayer of thanksgiving for the good things that Paul has heard about the faith of the believers in these islands. Such prayers were honest expressions of thanksgiving, as well as way to encourage the believers in the community receiving the letter.

It is common for Paul to put in a friendly personal message at this point as well, depending on the reason for his letter; for example, in Romans Paul mentions that he plans on coming to Rome around this point in the letter. In our "letter to the Marianas" Paul mentions his plans to visit the Marianas if events permit.

During Paul's missionary journeys he would stay in a particular city for several months to a couple of years depending on the needs of the community. When the community seemed sufficiently well established he would move on to another city. However, Paul maintained an active correspondence with cities he already visited and cities which he planned to visit in the near future. He even sent assistants like Timothy, Titus, and Silas off to other cities to represent him in settling problems or further educating the believers. Thus, in our "letter to the Marianas" Paul mentions his activities in Hawaii and the hope that when his work there finished he will be able to visit the Marianas.

All of the opening niceties completed, Paul moved on to the body of the letter. The content here would vary depending on the nature of the issue Paul wanted to address. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul was trying to settle a conflict between factions in that Christian community, so he immediately moves into the issue of conflicts between the factions and what he perceives as the reason for the conflicts. In our letter, there is no pressing problem that needs to be addressed, so Paul attempts to build up the believers by reminding us of the basic teaching of the Good News of salvation as he understood it. This is essentially the approach that we find in the letter to the Romans. However, Paul's understanding of salvation is a bit different from our understanding today, at least in the urgency of our response.

At the time of Christ many Jews expected the coming of the Messiah. The general understanding was that the Messiah would be God's definitive intervention in the history of Israel. Everything would be different afterward. The political order would be turned upside down. Justice would reign and the Messiah would be God's regent on Earth. Thus, Jesus was frequently asked if he was the promised Messiah. However, when he indicated that his messiahship was different than people expected the crowds would disappear.

Paul was very much a believer in the coming of the Messiah. Some scholars suggest that part of Paul's initial animosity to the followers of Jesus was because Jesus didn't fit the expected characteristics of the Messiah and thus he must be a false messiah.

When Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he realized that Jesus was the messiah but that his Lordship was of a very different order than Paul had previously expected. Paul saw that the Messiahship of Jesus was not just for the sake of the Jewish people but that all of humanity was offered salvation through Jesus Christ. Further, he understood that through Jesus, particularly in his death and resurrection, God had definitively acted to institute the Kingdom. Obviously, the Kingdom was not apparent in in all of its glory because there was still pain and suffering in the world. However, the resurrection gave clear evidence that the Kingdom had been established, for rising from the dead was a clear sign of the Reign of God. Paul saw human living in the "in-between" times, where God had acted but the full implication of that action was still working itself out and not yet apparent in all its glory. This was the Good News for Paul.

Paul viewed his mission as taking this message of hope and salvation based on what God had done for humanity through Jesus Christ to the gentiles. The other apostles emphasized the Jews. He would emphasize the gentiles.

In Paul's letters there are often references to earthly powers and spirits. He will speak of death almost as if it were a person. It is common for Paul to describe the coming of the Kingdom in all its fullness in terms of a battle between God and the earthly powers, with the last of the earthly powers to be defeated being death. These images help to place the establishment of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ on a cosmic scale involving not just all of humanity but spiritual worlds as well. Thus, the spiritual challenges we face are not just a matter of personal ethics but are part of a larger reality that is cosmic in breadth.

Another theme that is common in Paul's letters is the role of faith and grace in our salvation. Paul is emphatic that salvation is a gift from God and not based on any action on our part. There is nothing we can do to earn salvation because God has already given us the gift. The issue then is what we do with the gift. If we accept the gift then we become one with Christ, we are part of his body. This union with Christ makes us other christs. When we minister to those in need, it is not just us ministering but Christ ministering through us. When we act in a sinful manner however, because we are united with Christ, when we sin we abuse Christ by dragging him along into our shameful actions. Thus, being a believer implies ethical behavior. The ethics are not a way of attempting to earn salvation but simply the consequence of being saved and united with Christ.

A common feature of Paul's letters is a series of instructions on how to live as a Christian. These instructions follow the main teaching in the body of the letter and are a practical application of Paul's primary teaching. Thus, in the "letter to the Marianas" instructions on fidelity and discerning one's call in life follow the discussion on the Kingdom of God and our unity with love as a consequence of our unity with Christ.

Another theme common in Paul's letters is the wide gap between human wisdom and divine wisdom. The cross is an image of failure in human eyes. Yet, in God's plan the cross was the gate to salvation, the means by which God definitively acted on behalf of humanity. This kind of thinking runs counter to the measures of success common in all societies, especially the Roman culture of the first century. Paul struggles to get his readers to think in divine terms, not human. One way Paul does this is through the use of rhetorical devices.

Rhetoric is the art of public speaking. Someone trained in rhetoric was familiar with logic, law, literature, and philosophy. Just as good literature today makes use of metaphor, clever use of words, irony, double meaning, and other figures of speech to convey shades of meaning, so also good writing and speaking in the first century made use of literary devices. A number of such devices are found in Paul's letters. He will frequently present a number of sentences that portray the position of his opponents, so that he can then attack their position. He also uses ridicule and irony in some letters, as well as references to events and practices of the period with which the readers were familiar. Thus, in reading Paul, the contemporary reader must be careful to understand Paul's use of these literary devices if he or she wants to avoid totally misreading Paul.

Our "letter to the Marianas" contains several examples of literary devices. "Everything has a price. Anything can be purchased if we pay enough." These words create a harsh contrast with the words preceding and which follow. They sound totally out of place. They are the words of secular society which echo in our minds much of the day. He confronts us with our own thoughts, because they are the thoughts of anyone in our society, and forces us to pay attention to what we are thinking. Then he proceeds to undermine these thoughts with divine wisdom. These words grab out attention and prepare us for the rest of his lesson. The letter also makes use of rhetorical questions and repetition.

Having presented the primary message of his letter, Paul then provides a brief summary and closing prayer. He also includes a few more personal comments to individuals he knows in the community or expresses anticipation for his proposed visit to the believers.

Approximately a third of the New Testament is the product of Paul's pen or attributed to him. Thus, he has had a profound influence on Christianity. Much of that influence has been the result of a misreading of Paul in different cultural and historical contexts. However, Scripture studies in the past century have revealed a brilliant man of profound faith whose vision of the Good News is exciting. It is well worth opening the Bible and spending some time learning of one's faith from St. Paul. Though, I would also suggest that a recent commentary on St. Paul might be very helpful in allowing you to translate first century images, figures of speech, and theological crises into something comprehensible to a 21st century reader.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

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