A Mass Reading from Second Corinthians on the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time conveys Saint Paul’s thorny lesson about freedom and power. Our world has it all wrong.
It is not by design, but the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time follows Independence Day in the United States. The Mass readings assigned to that day (Lectionary 101 – Year B) have an important lesson about the nature of freedom and the source of true power. The lesson’s focal point, as in every Mass, is the Gospel (Mark 6:1-6). Jesus concludes that the people in his own “native place” would not hear Him, but “only took offense at Him.” I certainly know the feeling.
These were his own people. The Gospel mentions that they knew Joseph. They knew Mary. They knew some of the Apostles, but Jesus “was amazed by their lack of faith.” He concluded famously that “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (Mark 6:4). It is having confronted that reality that the Mission of Christ Universal begins to unfold.
As I read this Gospel passage, I thought of a letter sent to me two years ago by Cardinal Raymond Burke. In it, he expressed his concern for my plight and asked for my prayers for him and for the Church. His words suggesting that I offer some of what I endure for a greater good – “pro bono Ecclesiae,” a phrase taught to us recently in Father Stuart MacDonald’s provocative post, “Last Rights: Canon Law in a Mirror of Justice Cracked.”
Cardinal Burke’s request that I suffer for something greater than suffering was an honor without measure. I wrote of this in a Christmas post last year. Here is an excerpt from my post, “Silent Night and the Dawn of Redeeming Grace.”
“This letter is among the best Christmas gifts I have received out here among the Church’s debris, and it came as a source of grace, a sort of awakening. What follows may be the most important sentence in this post: There is no greater service to those who suffer than to give meaning to what they suffer.
A few months after my receipt of Cardinal Burke’s letter, a bishop came to this prison to offer Mass on Divine Mercy Sunday. Our friend, Pornchai Moontri and I were among the fifty Catholic prisoners gathered in the prison chapel for Mass. You know Divine Mercy Sunday is a special day for us.
After the Mass, as we filed out, the Bishop grasped my hand and said something very strange to me. He had obviously been reading These Stone Walls. As he took my hand, he bent forward a bit and said quietly but forcefully, “You are a prophet! YOU are a prophet.” There was no further exchange.
As we descended down the long flights of stairs outside, my friend, Pornchai said, “Wow! That was weird. What do you think it means?” I responded sarcastically, “If the Church is consistent, it means my head is about to be lopped off!”
Our prophets do not fare very well. In Scripture, some were thrown into prison. The Prophet Jeremiah was stoned to death. According to legend, the Prophet Isaiah was sawed in half. The Prophet Jonah was thrown overboard. John the Baptist was beheaded. Saint Paul was shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned, and finally martyred.
As the great Saint Teresa of Avila once said to God in prayer, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder that you have so few!”
SAINT PAUL’S THORN IN THE FLESH
The Gospel is, of course, the centerpiece of the Liturgy of the Word, but on the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time it is the Second Reading that really leaps off the page in my quest for my own Independence Day. It is Saint Paul’s famous account from the Second Letter to the Corinthians (12:7-10) about his thorn in the flesh:
“… A thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:7-8)
Scripture scholars – both real and imagined – have pondered for centuries to decipher what this cryptic thorn in the flesh could mean. Some have interpreted it to mean a physical ailment or disability of some sort that rendered Paul weak and challenged. His phrase, “my power is made perfect in weakness” lends itself to that theory when you consider the vast influence he has had on the growth of Christianity.
Others have suggested that his thorn in the flesh was the manifestation of some mental illness which, in Saint Paul’s time, was often described in Jewish tradition as a manifestation of Satan or some other demonic attack. His words, “to beat me, to keep me from being too elated” suggest a sense of personal diminishment that could support a theory about some mental condition such as bouts of chronic depression or anxiety.
In more modern times, some have suggested with a straight face that the thorn in the flesh could be an allusion to some morally compromising sexual proclivity over which Paul experienced little self-control. I believe that all three of these theories are incorrect, and the third one is far more descriptive of the preoccupations of our own time than Saint Paul’s.
I have formed my own conclusions about Paul’s mysterious “thorn in the flesh,” and they come from a more panoramic understanding not just of what he wrote, but also of who he was – and is. I believe his “thorn in the flesh” is a person, someone who stood in hostile opposition to Paul and his missionary activities.
THE ANGEL OF SATAN
Saint Paul, formerly Saul, was a Jew born in the town of Tarsus in the Roman Province of Celicia. In his Letter to the Romans (11:1) he revealed that he was from the Tribe of Benjamin. He was also a Roman citizen which gave him certain rights and privileges. In Acts of the Apostles (22:25-29) Paul was about to be scourged by a Roman tribune. When it was learned that he was a Roman citizen by birth, the punishment was halted.
Paul was also a zealous member of the Pharisees (Acts 26:5). This meant that in Jewish circles, he was highly educated in the law and Jewish Scripture and traditions. His writing has to be seen in this context, and the phrases he used have to be weighed against the Hebrew Scriptures with which he was thoroughly familiar.
In those Scriptures, the word, “thorns” as often symbolically used to refer to enemies. The context for its use by Paul in the excerpt from Second Corinthians cited above was not that the “thorn in my flesh” was placed there by Satan, but rather is described as “an agent of Satan.” This presents an impression that this thorn is a person in hostile opposition to Paul.
As a Pharisee, Paul would have been thoroughly familiar with the Torah, the Books of Moses held to be especially sacred. The Book of Numbers, which is a re-telling of the Exodus story and the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land, contains an allusion with which Paul would have been very familiar:
“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your side.” (Numbers 33:55)
Saint Paul’s description of this “thorn” as a “servant” or “angel” (messenger) of Satan suggests that Paul was faced with a growing personal hostility and oppression from someone within his own community. By “his own community,” I mean his Jewish community and not the community of believers in “The Way.” It was more likely someone in the Jewish community who oppressed Paul because his allusion to the thorn as depicting an enemy is a purely Old Testament Jewish symbolism.
So the only remaining mystery is not “what” the thorn in his flesh was but rather who. It was during Paul’s Second Missionary Journey commencing in 50 A.D. that he established the Church in Corinth, a city in Greece on the Isthmus of Corinth. Paul remained there for over a year, but before departing he was viciously attacked by an unnamed enemy (2 Corinthians 11:13).
The unnamed enemy may well be the thorn in Saint Paul’s flesh. He was a Pharisee who had persecuted Christians, capturing them and handing them over for stoning. He was deeply committed to the Pharisaic tradition of maintaining legal and ritual purity for the Jews. Now Paul was promoting this new faith, and not only promoting it, but actively welcoming gentiles to its ranks.
THE POWER AND THE GLORY
It was during his Third Missionary Journey to Macedonia that he wrote the Second Letter to the Corinthians in 53 A.D. He wrote it from Philippi in Macedonia. Then, proceeding to Corinth, he wrote his Letter to the Romans. At the time he wrote both Second Corinthians and Romans, he began to speak of his impending imprisonment and martyrdom.
Saint Paul’s allusion that “Three times I begged the Lord” about the thorn in his flesh, i.e., the hostility he encountered – likely refers to a leader in the Jewish community. Using the past tense, “begged,” infers that he has stopped begging, and has accepted the answer that came to him:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power [the power of God] is made perfect in [your] weakness.”
The power Paul encounters is manifested in his acceptance of weakness, meaning his acceptance that it is not his own gifts and talents that are driving the bus on this mission:
“I will rather boast: most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Independence Day thus dawns for the Apostle Paul.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post with your contacts and on social media, You may also like these other journeys into the wonderful depths of Sacred Scripture from These Stone Walls:
- The Conversion of Saint Paul and the Cost of Discipleship
- Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found
- Casting the First Stone: What Jesus Wrote in the Sand
- What Belongs to Caesar and What Belongs to God