Letter to Fidel Labrador continued…
Here’s how St. Paul got his chance. Remember that Emperor Claudius had a penchant (Fancy French word used by the pretentious, pronounced “pawn-shawn” meaning a bit of a tendency) toward women of ill repute? His first wife, Urgulanilla was forced on him by his grandmother the Empress Livia whom he divorced for committing adultery and murdering her sister in law. Two wives later he married his cousin Valeria Messalina who seems to have had a contest as to stamina with the head of the guild of interesting and available women. (I’m being discreet here) the Romans seem to have had a guild for everything. (By the way, Messalina won).
The morals of the Roman ruling class may shock you, but they are really no different than those of our ruling class, the politicians and Hollywood luminaires. Both have the moral sensibility of weasels. His final wife was his niece, Agrippina. She was the mother of Nero. Yes, THE Nero who didn’t actually fiddle whole Rome burned, he did blame it on the Christians. Before he started killing Christians, he was tolerant of them because they were just another kind of Jew as far as anyone new. That’s certainly what most Christians thought, as evidenced by the aforementioned Chrestos riots. Agrippina managed to get her son Nero adopted by Claudius (they were actually sort of cousins) and he was made joint heir along with Claudius’ underage son whom Nero later had killed. Once it was a sure thing that Nero would be the next emperor, Agrippina fed her husband/uncle a dish of poisoned mushrooms and that’s all she wrote.
Nero seems to have allowed the Jews to return to Rome gradually. He killed his first wife, his cousin Claudia, then married his friend Otho’s wife Poppea Sabina and sent Otho off to be the governor of Portugal. Poppea is important I suspect. She was Nero’s girlfriend before she was his wife and according to Josephus she was a friend to the Jews, though I’m not sure of all the dates. Things were definitely looking up for the Jews and that small Jewish sect, the Christians. By the way, just for the sake of salacious gossip, Roman authors wrote that Nero kicked Poppea to death in 65 AD while she was pregnant with his child. She had gotten into a hissy fit about all the time he spent at the race track. Ever after, Nero was disconsolate at the loss of her.
The author of naughty novels and man about town, Petronius found Nero a substitute for Poppea. First the good news: the substitute looked exactly like Poppea. Next the bad news: the substitute was a 14-year-old boy. This was easily remedied by gender re-assignment surgery. You thought all this was modern stuff. It’s just as disgusting now as it was then. Nothing new under the sun. This is the world, not unlike our own, in which Christianity was born and which the faith conquered. All this allowed the Jews to return to Rome and with them the Christians. I believe that St. Paul wrote his letter to make the point that, as the Church of Rome was being re-founded, it should be founded as a CATHOLIC Church, that is, a Universal Church with no distinction between Jew and gentile.
St. Paul provides a reasoned way to extrapolate from the Law of Moses that the rigorous following of dietary and sacrificial law is no longer necessary. He points out that Abraham was not a Jew. It was impossible to be a Jew before Moses because to be a Jew is to follow the law scrupulously. There was no Law of Moses before Moses. Jews will disagree with this, but it makes sense to me. Abraham had a righteousness that cannot come from the Law of Moses because it predates the Law of Moses.
James and Paul are not contradicting each other. They are agreeing. St. James is saying the same thing in his epistle when he writes,
“O foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is worthless? Was not our father Abraham justified by what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith was working with his works, and his faith was perfected by what he did.…” (James 2:20-22)
In other words, Abraham could only do this if he completely trusted the Lord. St. Paul makes exactly the same point. Both Paul and James point to Abraham, who could not have been justified by the Law of Moses. James is using that reality to point out the responsibility of Christians for one another especially the rich for the poor. Paul is using the example of Abraham to point out that Greeks and Jews now have something beyond the Law of Moses. This is precisely where Orthodox Judaism and Christianity part ways. Christians and Jews agree completely that righteousness includes good works. Paul never absolves the Christian of the need for good works. In the very same letter to the Romans, Paul says clearly that without good works we cannot enter eternal life.
God “will repay each one according to his deeds.” To those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, He will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow wickedness, there will be wrath and anger… (Romans 2:6-8)
Notice that the translation I have chosen uses the word deeds not works. This is a little dishonest. The word in Greek is “ergon” which means (a) work. It is exactly the same word used in the phrase Works of the Law, erga tou nomou in Greek. I don’t think it could be more clear. We are bound by the obligation to charity and the Ten Commandments which predate and supersede the Law of Moses.
This may all seem a bit obscure and tedious, but I assure you wars have been fought over the relationship between faith and works, and are still being fought though, thank Heaven, with pen and no longer with sword. I remember meeting a much respected evangelical theologian who had just finished sending Mother Teresa to hell, that is if she thought her works had saved her. His theology taught that if you believe you are saved by a work, then you are not trusting Jesus and you are bound for hell. I had to ask myself, “Has this fellow ever even read the Gospels?” There are whole wings of Christianity since the Reformation that having never seen things like the Dead Sea Scrolls tried to figure out what was meant by the phrase, “You are not saved by works.” they came up with the convenient theory that you need do nothing to go to heaven if you are saved. I hope they are right. I suspect they are wrong.