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St. Paul - The Fool's Speech

On Sexagesima Sunday, we read for the lesson from the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians what is known as the “fool’s speech”. I remember a few years ago assisting for only the second time at a Tridentine Mass this epistle. The length of the epistle alone during the mass, first chanted in Latin, was enough to strike me as something unfamiliar. While the Novus Ordo has two lessons for each Sunday mass instead of one, they often are much shorter. Little did I know this also happened to be the longest lesson in the liturgical calendar. The length of the epistle is vital for this lesson as it gives an insight to all the sufferings St. Paul endured in his Apostolic journey to spread the Gospel of Our Lord.

The main purpose in writing the second letter to the Corinthians, was for St. Paul to defend his apostolic legitimacy. Having just left Ephesus and arriving in Macedonia on his third missionary journey, St. Paul heard of local division in the town of Corinth: where many of his people in the “Church of God” were following the dictates of “false brethren” that were teaching a different gospel of Christ. The false apostles claimed, predictably, that Saul of Tarsus was not a legitimate apostle and his Authority should be put into question. It’s quite amusing reading this in the 21st century seeing as how all of Christian civilization, and perhaps the majority of Holy Mother Church’s theology, is nested in the words of St. Paul. It seems that the only two people that could possibly claim to have more authority than him is St. Peter and Our Lord. I digress. Paul, knowing from whom these slanders come, first boasts, in a way demeaning to his detractors, of his credentials by birthright: being a Hebrew, Israelite and minister of Christ. He doesn’t spend much time on these credentials but rather he chooses quite an unexpected way to defend his Apostolic Authority.

In this fool’s speech, we hear of all the different hardships the apostle suffered during his missionary life. We first hear that the Apostle received “forty stripes save one” (2 Cor 11:24) on five separate occasions. The Torah prescribed a maximum of 40 stripes for a punishment, but the Jews, fearing they may miscount and accidentally exceed the total amount allowed, would by custom only strike someone 39 times. The Romans, not to be outdone, beat Paul with rods thrice. His status as a Roman citizen should have protected him from such abuse. Each successive suffering or persecution told more of the story of St. Paul. What’s odd is that these abuses don’t seem to amount to a great defense of authority in a worldly sense. No governor or emperor would defend their political standing on the grounds of being weak and having been humiliated. But St. Paul isn’t seeking to defend his political authority, but his authority as a father. Throughout second Corinthians, St. Paul describes himself as a sort of spiritual father. Earlier in the epistle he describes himself as feeling jealousy for the Corinthians “For [he] betrothed the [Corinthians] to Christ to present them as a pure bride to her one husband” (2 Cor 11:2). This fatherly relationship is now being torn apart by the “superfluous” apostles, likely Judaizers, who were teaching “another gospel” then the one the Corinthians received. Yet Paul, unlike his detractors, rests his claim of fatherhood on the love he has shown his Christian disciples through his suffering.

Not only is the Father/Child relationship made present through this lesson, but also the bride/bridegroom relationship that St. Paul has with Christ. St. Paul proves he loves Our Lord and loves his children through the pains he suffered, not through some accolades or revelations, but through love. This love is only possible through sacrifice and pain. In the same way we prove we love our children, parents, or spouse through sacrifice St. Paul does to the Corinthians and for Our Lord. These sacrifices are the means by which we show Caritas to one another and Our Lord. Charity, the greatest of the theological virtues, is a grace. That grace is given to us by Our Lord Jesus Christ. That is why Our Lord doesn’t fulfill St. Paul’s request to remove the “sting of [his] flesh” at the end of this epistle. His weakness is the means by which he can suffer and sacrifice for his children. Our Lord, wanting to give the gift of Charity instead replies, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity” (2 Cor 12:9).

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