Our task this week is to dive into the first reading for Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo, the Epistle, this week from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I am always blathering on about context and my context right now is that I am on a driving trip with limited resources, a ticking clock and many miles to go before I rest. Cheer now, for I must be brief.
Pius Parsch in his several volume – recently redone by the Canons of St. Cantius – The Church’s Year of Grace has a ready summation of the thematic flow of the post-Pentecost Sundays:
It has been our practice on past Sundays to give special consideration to one dominant thought or scene characteristic of the day’s liturgy. We saw Christ as the Good Host (2nd Sunday), as the Good Shepherd (3rd Sunday), as the Good Fishman (4th Sunday). The fifth Sunday concentrated on the love of neighbor, while the sixth was entitled “Baptism — Eucharist.” Now, however, a sequence of Sundays is beginning that features a series of contrasts; the kingdom of God is shown in opposition to the kingdom of the world, the good Christian versus the bad Christian. Various parables and pictures are employed in developing these antitheses. Mother Church is trying to draw a sharp line of demarcation between the divine and the worldly. Surely this is our greatest fault — to vacillate so easily between the things of God and the things not of God. Not that we never have made a clean, sharp break. We did that when asked at baptism: “Do you renounce Satan and all his allurements?” These Sundays after Pentecost challenge us to renew and observe inviolately that decision.
In the Gospel reading for Sunday we hear the Parable of the trees that bear good fruit or bad fruit. Those that do not bear good fruit are cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, we have the now proverbial phrase so frequent in common parlance if not in common meditation, “Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them.” Looking around at society today its hard to see the bad fruits due to the forest of the bad trees. The consequence for Sodom and Gomorrah was fire. What shall it be for our times? We had best take the not so subtle cues of our sacred worship seriously. Holy Mother Church is the greatest expert on humanity that there has ever been. We do well to follow her guidance and disaster follows us when we don’t. I’d say something snarky about “walking together” with the Church right now, but maybe we would be more prudent to stick to the indications found precisely in her sacred liturgical worship… in either Vetus Ordo or Novus.
Here is our reading. Knowing what Parsch brought to light, look for contrasts.
Brethren: I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A famous phrase is here: “the wages of sin is death.”
The words “slave” and “wages” can help us pry this open. Slaves were massively prevalent in the ancient world. Plus ça change! We should only look around and see the literal and metaphorical slavery of our own time. However, slaves were treated differently under the Romans (to whom Paul is writing) and under the Hebrews.
Please permit an extended quote. I simply cannot improve on this or make it more concise at this time. The great Pauline scholar Ferdinand Prat, SJ, has a helpful observation about our Epistle. He says:
It is hardly to be doubted that Paul, when writing these lines, had in view the Jewish slave and the Roman soldier. Among the Hebrews slavery differed little from ordinary home-life; for compatriots it could not in little be prolonged more than six years without the express consent of the interested party. If this consent was given, the slave entered with full right and for ever into the house of his master, but his position had nothing humiliating in it; he was part of the family; he enjoyed the religious privileges of the nation; he was a man and a citizen, not, as among the Gentiles, a beast of burden.
So Paul, who so forcibly repudiates any suspicion of cringing and servility, loves to call himself the slave of Christ, and even the slave of his brethren for the love of Christ. Though a slave of Christ, he is also the soldier of Christ. It is well-known that the Roman legions enrolled only free men. The enrollment of servi, even after a previous enfranchisement and in case of compulsion, had always been considered as a bad example, incompatible with the dignity of the eagles. The recruits, on taking the oath, consecrated their life to the imperator and bound themselves to an absolute obedience, often harder than slavery, but elevated and ennobled by their quality as citizens and by the sentiment of a duty freely assumed.
This is why the Apostle is so fond of using military language, which recalls to him the engagement contracted at baptism and the state of dependence in which he has voluntarily placed himself by the act of faith which made him a Christian. He preferably gives to his disciple the title of a ‘soldier of Christ,’ the most honourable that he knows; he adjures the Thessalonians to put on the armour of theological virtues, the breast-plate of faith and of charity, and the helmet of hope; in a famous panoply he distributes to the Ephesians the whole equipment of the legionary, the breastplate, the helmet, the short two-edged sword, and the long hide-covered shield, without forgetting the sandals and the sword-belt of leather, and he sees in these the symbol of as many Christian virtues.
If the metaphors of weapons, of combat, of wages, of soldiery and the like recur constantly in his writings, it is because he has continually in mind the oath which obliges him “not to embarrass himself with the cares of this life, but to think only of pleasing his master.” As a soldier and voluntary slave of Christ, the Christian belongs, therefore, no longer to himself. The rule which he must follow, having freely accepted it, is the will of God, the will of the Lord. Such is also the eternal standard which no Christian can ignore.
That explanation of the difference between modes of slavery unlocks a lot of what Paul means with his “slavery” imagery. So it also helps with his military terms, especially in regard to putting on armor. Bottom line: at one time we were slaves of sin. Now we are slaves of justice and of God. We are also moved from the imperator of sin to the imperator of justice.
Bringing this together in the moral sphere of our lives and not just intellectual curiosity, Dom Prosper Guéranger offers this comment on the Epistle.
[S]hall we do less for justice than is being done everywhere in favour of our enemy, sin? Surely justice deserves that we should make greater efforts in her service than for that odious tyrant who requites his slaves with nothing but shame and death. And yet—oh admirable condescension of God to our weakness! — we have St. Paul telling us in today’s Epistle, in the name of the Holy Ghost, that we shall be saints, we shall attain eternal life, if we will but serve justice with as much earnestness as we once served uncleanness and iniquity.
My heart circles back now to that last verse 23 of the reading:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God’s justice we are going to get whether we want it or not. His mercy is always always always there for the asking. The key to receiving His mercy is asking for it.
There is nothing that we little mortals can do that is so vile, so heinous that God with His infinite might and His unfathomable love will not forgive. Not only forgive, but expunge from our souls. Though the memories remain, the stains of the sin are gone never to be held against us in our judgment. They aren’t just ignored by Just Judge. They aren’t just covered over by His own merits. They are cleansed away, washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. As the prophet exalts (Is 1:18):
Come now, let us reason together,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
Listen up you soldier slaves! Get yourselves squared away. Get clean and ready for action.
GO TO CONFESSION
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz