THE EXTREME CHARITY OF ST. PAUL
In the second reading of today’s Mass, the Church continues to have us read, and hear, from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans. We have left behind the wonderful, comforting and inspiring chapter 8 of recent weeks, and are moving into the very difficult and challenging chapters 9 and 10. After Paul has told us about the wonderful gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit in our bodies, souls and in the whole of creation, he very painfully turns his attention to the refusal of his fellow-Israelites to accept Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
Paul will launch into the question in great depth and try to analyse it and understand why Providence has allowed the very chosen people, beloved of God, to harden its heart to the Gospel, to the glorious Son of God made flesh. He provides astonishing answers!
What I would want to marvel at today, though, is the extreme charity of St. Paul towards his own people. He expresses it in these breathtaking words: “What I want to say now is no pretence; I say it in union with Christ – it is the truth – my conscience in union with the Holy Spirit assures me of it too. What I want to say is this: my sorrow is so great, my mental anguish so endless, I would willingly be condemned and be cut off from Christ if it could help my brothers of Israel, my own flesh and blood” (Romans 9:1-3).
Why do these words indicate an extreme charity in St. Paul? Well, for one thing it is almost impossible to think of St. Paul apart from his consuming and passionate love for Christ. For Paul, everything is worth nothing except for Christ. At one point in the letter to the Philippians he professes how “all he wants to know” is “Jesus, to share in his sufferings so as somehow to attain to his resurrection.” In Galatians, he says, “I live not now: Christ lives in me.” And again, “to me life is Christ … death is gain.”
So, for him now to say in Romans 9 that he would “willingly be condemned and be cut off from Christ if it could help my brothers of Israel” is either extreme madness or it is extreme love. It echoes God’s own love who “gave up his only Son” in our place. When we consider our relatives and friends who have turned away from Christ, would we even be able to think, never might assert to all and sundry, that we would ourselves rather lose eternal life than see them lose it? Maybe not, but we have to marvel at St. Paul!