Column: St. Paul’s wordplay enriches reading

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

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The early copies of the books of the New Testament would be hard for us to read. First of all, they were all written in a foreign language: Koine Greek.

Also, to use more efficiently the expensive papyrus or parchment on which they were written, no separations were made between words. They would all run together. Punctuation would be missing. No numbers would indicate chapters or verses, since they were only introduced centuries later. The text would not differentiate between upper and lower case. It would look like one, big cross-word puzzle.

In Sunday’s second reading, the word “spirit” sometimes appears capitalized, and at other times uncapitalized. This represents an editorial decision, not found in the original, to reflect the distinctions in meaning which St. Paul makes. When capitalized, the word refers to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity. We see an example in the sentence: “Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”

On the other hand, when uncapitalized, the word refers to the spirit of the human person, the soul: “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” In his use of the word “spirit,” St. Paul is capitalizing upon its several meanings.

Similarly, St. Paul also plays with the different possible meanings of the words “flesh” and “body.” At times, he is referring to the physical body: “The One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also.”

On the other hand, following the lead of the Old Testament, St. Paul also has the word “flesh” mean that which opposes God, that which is corruptible: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” By this, St. Paul does not mean that only as disembodied spirits will we be able to please God. He does not regard the material world as inherently evil. Rather, by the words “in the flesh,” St. Paul is referring to an attitude of the heart, a state of mind, that puts us in opposition to God. St. Paul can also use the term “flesh” to mean the human condition, our weakness as human beings.

While we sometimes interpret “the flesh” as sexuality only, it is not restricted to that. St. Paul certainly counts sexuality in that category, but he includes it as part of human nature as a whole, which is weak and susceptible to sin.

Throughout his letters, St. Paul frequently sets “the flesh” in opposition to “the spirit” and plays back and forth between their various meanings. For example, the word “spirit” appears 36 times, and the word “flesh” 20 times, in his Letter to the Romans. This back and forth in meaning can sound confusing at times, but also adds to the richness of his message. St. Paul can be hard to understand, but he is worth it.

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