The Letter to the Romans

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

St. Paul's Letter to the Romans has long been considered the preeminent piece of Pauline literature and theology. It is certainly the longest and the most systematic explanation of St. Paul's Gospel of salvation brought about by God's holiness and righteousness rather than anything for which the human family might claim responsibility. It is also unique in that it is written to a community that St. Paul did not found; rather it seems to be written to a community of Jewish converts living in the capital city of the Roman Empire.

Scholars believe that St. Paul had decided to move west after his three missionary journeys to the east. He was planning on a foray into the Iberian Peninsula, specifically modern day Spain. It was his intention to journey there after stopping Jerusalem where he was to deliver some much needed aid to the impoverished Jewish-Christian community. However, according to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and sent to Rome as a prisoner. He died a martyr's death there in about 76 A.D.

Today's reading is the formulaic greeting which begins almost every letter written in this time period. Our custom is to end our letter with the sentiments with which letters from that time period begin. The correspondent identifies himself from the outset and uses that opportunity to go into some detail about his or her qualifications or credentials.

First, St. Paul calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ. This may not register very importantly on our consciousness. However, let us remember that at that time, men and women were classified as either slaves or free men/women. Slaves were members of conquered races, nations that had lost in their battles with Rome. By calling himself a slave, Paul, who was a free Roman citizen, acknowledges that he has been conquered by Jesus.

Next, Paul identifies himself as an apostle, one who has been sent by Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel. Again, let us remember that St. Paul was not an eyewitness of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus as were most of the apostles.

Then Paul identifies himself as a Jewish convert by making the assertion that the Gospel he preaches is an extension of the message of the prophets of Israel. He goes on to maintain that God's purpose in calling him to preach the Gospel was to affirm the fact that the obedience of faith has supplanted obedience to the Law. This is, of course, the major theme of much of the Letter to the Romans. Even in the greeting of the Letter, St. Paul is already preaching the Good News.

As we read from this Letter for the next several weeks, we will once again plunge into the mystery of faith, a faith that saves us because of God's justice, God's righteousness, and God's holiness. As God is totally other, we are called to be totally other as well.

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