In the beginning

Column: Paul’s letters are both timely — and timeless

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

I didn’t remember doing a favor for (blank). So, why had I received the thank-you card?

On occasion I have found myself in this awkward position. Similarly, we may not recall having done anything for St. Paul. So, why do we hear him thanking us, in Sunday’s second reading, Phil 4: 12-14, 19-20? He writes: “Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.”

The verses omitted from our reading (15-18) reveal the favor in question. The Christian community in Philippi had sent St. Paul a gift of money several times. Consequently, St. Paul is thanking them for their financial support. His gratitude is not directed toward us. We only overhear his expression of thanks toward the Philippians. In this case, we are not the “you” in the letter:

“You Philippians indeed know that at the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, not a single church shared with me in an account of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was at Thessalonica you sent me something for my needs, not only once but more than once. It is not that I am eager for the gift; rather, I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account. I have received full payment and I abound. I am very well supplied because of what I received from you through Epaphroditus, ‘a fragrant aroma,’ an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.”

Philippi was a city in northern Greece. It lay eight miles from the sea, on a rich agricultural plain, surrounded by mountains that were mined for gold. Consequently, it was a prosperous area, and many veterans of the Roman army had settled there. St. Paul had established the Christian community in Philippi, which would explain its strong attachment to him and concern for his well-being.

In this note of thanks to the Philippians, we are reminded that St. Paul wrote his letters to specific communities, while addressing concrete issues and concerns which were often of a limited nature. He was not composing essays on generalized topics for an undetermined audience. Neither did he intend his writings to last for eternity. He did not foresee that they would be included in sacred Scripture.

That these things have happened makes St. Paul’s letters all the more amazing. In many cases, they have outlived their original purposes. That these writings still speak meaningfully to us and remain valuable reflects their inspired character. They hold lasting value for us and for the whole world.

But they began by being addressed to a group other than ourselves, with a focus on issues that do not have direct concern for us. We find real gems, mingled with the dross of everyday life.

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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