“For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” While these words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans might not be difficult for us to accept, they would certainly have raised an eyebrow or two in the first century. In the earliest biblical traditions, we learn that while the ancient Israelites believed that God exercised absolute rule over all that was living, they did not have a clear idea of God’s sovereignty in the land of the dead. This is perhaps most clearly seen in some of the psalms when the psalmist prays: Turn, LORD, save my life; in your mercy rescue me. “For who among the dead remembers you? Who praises you in Sheol?” (Psalm 6) or when the psalmist claims: “The dead do not praise the LORD, all those gone down into silence.” Only gradually did they come to recognize that both life and death were in the hands of their God. This meant that death could not sever the covenant bond that united them to their God. This is the basis of Paul’s statement in today’s short reading from the Letter to the Romans. Paul maintains that Christ, in virtue of his own death and resurrection, exercises the same power over life and death. Those joined to Christ are joined permanently.
The context of this passage is a discussion about the relationship between the strong and the weak members of the Church. Tensions had arisen in the Church of Rome between Gentile Christians who were liberal in their attitude toward the Law and Jewish Christians who were scrupulous about legal observances handed down to them by Moses; they were the strong and the weak, respectively. Paul urges mutual toleration. The strong in particular should respect the scruples of the weak. You might remember a similar discussion in our readings from the First Letter to the Corinthians just yesterday about eating the flesh of animals which had been sacrificed to idols. For the Jewish Christians, this would have been unthinkable. Gentile Christians had no problem with it. Paul asks them to be tolerant of each other’s attitudes and to avoid scandalizing the weak.
As so often happens, Paul moves from that specific practical problem to the underlying theological principle which governs how we should act. The fundamental principle here is that no Christian exists by himself or herself, but only in relation to the Lord, the risen and exalted Kyrios or Lord, and therefore in relation to other Church members, who are equally related to the Kyrios. Christians do not live for themselves nor do they die for themselves. For them, there is no radical individualism or self-fulfillment independent of Christ. Christ has gained lordship over all. We live in a culture that champions the individual which makes St. Paul’s statement and its application a daunting task for many in today’s Church.
This excerpt looks very much like a baptismal hymn. This is indicated by the use of “we” common in hymns and by the way the hymn goes beyond the point immediately at issue, namely, the relation between weak and strong, to speak of the living and the dead. As Lord of the living, Christ is the Lord of both groups within the Church.
Through baptism we accept Jesus as the Lord of both life and death; it therefore becomes our task on earth to conform ourselves to his image. Today’s Scriptures give us a clear indication of one area where our normal human tendency to hold on to grudges or slights must give way to the kind of behavior which Jesus teaches us in the Gospel; namely, forgiving our neighbor. The unforgiving person is self-consumed by anger and other hateful things. That self-preoccupation stands in direct contrast to our baptismal commitment to align ourselves with the sacrificial death of Jesus. If Christ is our Lord, then his mercy must become our watchword. Just as Jesus forgives those who have nailed him to the cross, we are called to forgive those who have hurt us.
There are many different ways that we can choose to live for ourselves and become self-preoccupied; however, on this particular Sunday we focus on our call to be merciful as our heavenly father is merciful.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator