Sunday Scriptures

Getting the Message From Paul to @Pontifex

By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

DO YOU REMEMBER when “tweet” meant nothing more than the chirping sound that a bird makes?

These days there may be as many more human-generated tweets than there are of the avian variety, if by “tweet” we are talking about the 140-character (or less) postings to Twitter.com. Even the pope has a Twitter “handle.” It’s @pontifex, and as of this writing, the pontiff has close to 10 million followers (on Twitter, that is), with a worldwide rank of 197, but that’s just his English language account. There are also Italian, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Arabic and even Latin versions.

The Tablet has its own Twitter handle, so you can keep up with “the Catholic perspective on news and opinion” from our Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens by following @TabletNewspaper.

What would St. Paul have done with a Twitter account? I wonder how many followers would @TheRealPaulofTarsus have attracted? Would the Apostle to the Gentiles have posted selfies with Peter and James on Instagram? Would he have posted videos on his own YouTube channel, or would he have preferred Snapchat?

Even without the advantage of today’s technologies, St. Paul was an effective communicator, taking full advantage of the social media available in the first century of our era. The itinerant apostle made his way around the Mediterranean world, bringing the Gospel in person to communities and places we have come to know because of the letters he sent after he had moved onto his next venue.

In handwritten letters that depended on winds and weather to reach their destinations, Paul followed up with communities he had visited to answer their questions, deal with their concerns and check up on what had become of the seeds he had sown in places like Corinth and Galatia. For Paul, the Gospel message was so important that he made every effort to nurture the faith of those in whom God’s Word had only recently taken root. Because letters took a long time to reach their destinations, how effectively Paul might have kept in touch with Skype or FaceTime on his iPad!

This Sunday’s second reading comes from Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians. In the first century, Thessaloniki ­– now the second largest city in Greece – was a vibrant port city, and the comings and goings through that major urban center made it a natural place for Paul to spend three Sabbaths studying Scriptures in the synagogue and proclaiming Jesus as Messiah (Acts 17:1-4).

Letters to the Young Church

Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians was the earliest of his letters, and probably the earliest document in the New Testament, dating to 50-51 AD, some 20 years before Mark’s Gospel was completed. In his first letter to that young church, Paul admonished the Thessalonians: “Concerning times and seasons … you have no need for anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them. … But you … are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-6).

The “Day of the Lord” is an expression that draws on the language of Israel’s prophets, who warned that God would intervene to put a definitive end to this world’s injustice. For Paul and the communities to which he brought the Gospel, the “Day of the Lord” would mean the return of Christ, an article of faith that we continue to proclaim in the Nicene Creed.

By reminding them than the “Day of the Lord” would come unexpectedly, Paul was warning the Thessalonians against becoming slackers, against becoming complacent in living the Gospel.

The unintended outcome of Paul’s first missive was that it left the Thessalonians anxious with preoccupation about the imminence of the “Day of the Lord.” In this Sunday’s selection from 2 Thessalonians, Paul does what he can to mend the consequences of the misunderstanding of his earlier letter. He urges them “not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed.”

This is because, as we can surmise from what follows, the Thessalonian community was receiving mixed messages, with Paul’s own words on the one hand, and on the other hand, the words of others “to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.” Paul wanted to regain control of the message, imploring the Thessalonians not “to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us.”

Paul expressed consternation that he was being contradicted “by a spirit,” that is, by someone confusing the Thessalonians in person with opposing message, or even by a letter fraudulently claiming Paul’s name and authority. Bringing this letter to a close, Paul counseled, “If anyone does not obey our word as expressed in this letter, take note of this person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame. Do not regard him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother.”

@TheRealPaulofTarsus demonstrates the authenticity of this letter by taking over from the secretary to whom he dictated his letters: “This greeting is in my own hand, Paul’s. This is the sign in every letter; this is how I write” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, 17).

In our own media-saturated era, many and mixed are the messages that come our way. No matter how connected we are, it’s no easier for us than it was for the Thessalonians to sort things out and live the Gospel. Through the prayers of Paul and the inspiration of the Scriptures, may we stay faithful to the Word of Life!


Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wisdom 11: 22 – 12: 2

Psalm 145: 1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14

2 Thessalonians 1:11 – 2:2

Luke 19: 1-10


 

Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.

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