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Radical Paul and Radical Jesus

Given the amount of criticism of Paul over the centuries, if we can try to understand Paul in light of his authentic letters (the seven letters he, in fact, actually wrote), we soon discover that the radical Paul (the Paul of his authentic letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) had a lot in common with the radical Jesus (the Jesus of history).  Stated more accurately, the Jesus we learn of in the gospel stories had a lot in common with Paul.

Open table commensality.  Unsurprisingly, both Paul and Jesus were earnest practitioners of open table commensality.  Commensality means “open table fellowship.”  Breaking down the word, commensality: “com” means together, “mensa” means table, and “ity” suggests a state of being.  Thus, commensality is a “state of being together at the table.”  Jesus was renowned for eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, diseased persons, and other societal rejects.  Open table commensality was a distinctive practice of both Jesus and Paul.
The explanation for what happened to Paul in his view of open table fellowship is that his spirit was transformed in his Damascus enlightenment experience.  As Karen Armstrong notes in her book, St. Paul: the Apostle We Love To Hate,
… the laws that separated Jews from Gentiles–laws he had championed and promoted all his life–had been abrogated by God.  Like Jesus, he would always insist that in the Kingdom of God, everybody (i.e., Jews and Gentiles) must be allowed to eat at the same table.
What Paul’s enlightenment experience confirmed for him was that, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, or anything else, open table commensality (eating together) was God’s way.  Thus, open table commensality was a cornerstone of the radical egalitarianism practiced by both Paul and Jesus in their public ministry.
Parallels between radical Paul and radical Jesus.  When we consider the common Christian values of love, compassion, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit, there are a number of parallels with Paul and Jesus.  Let’s look at the parallels between how Paul speaks of these values in Romans 12 and how Jesus speaks to these values in portions of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6f).
In Romans 12:14, Paul urges the Romans to Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Matthew 5:44 records Jesus saying: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Luke has a similar teaching in Luke 6:27-28).
In Romans 12:17, Paul exhorts the faith communities in Rome: Do not repay anyone evil for evil; and, from Romans 12:21: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  In support of this, Matthew 5:39 has Jesus say: Do not resist an evil doer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
A final parallel is revealed in Romans 12:19-21, where Paul says: Beloved, never avenge
yourselves … .  …if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink … .  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Complementing this, in Luke 6:27-28, Jesus says: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. pray for those who abuse you (Jesus offers a similar teaching in Matthew 5:44.).
Paul and Jesus have additional parallels in what I call the inverted order, or the upside down world of Jesus.  In this world, Jesus alerts us that the first will be last and the last will be first (Mark 10:31); and Paul claims that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:25).
In these claims, it is compelling that both Paul and Jesus see the power of God and the wisdom of God through the lens of paradox.  Sometimes the paradoxical in life awakens us to greater depths of life in unanticipated ways.  For example, it’s a paradox that “the first will be last and the last will be first.”  In other words, this would not seem to be the way things are.  It is the same with the claim that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger then human strength.”  Again, this would seem to contradict the way of things.  Generally, we don’t think of foolishness being wise, or weakness being strong.
A glimpse of the inverted order and the upside down world of Jesus is seen in the self-emptying love of Jesus unveiled in portions of what is known as the Christ hymn from Philippians 2:6-11.  In the hymn, Paul talks about how Jesus emptied himself of any earthly pretensions and was exalted by God.  By imitating the self-emptying love of Jesus, Paul’s congregations, which were generally poor, could build communities of mutual support that looked to the interests of others and not merely to their own.
In summation, radical Paul and radical Jesus are both progressive in their teachings.  In their interactions with people, they are both open and inclusive.  In evaluating Paul in this vein, we should insist he be judged on the basis of his authentic letters, letters he actually wrote, not on letters merely attributed to him.  Over the centuries, the Church has been remiss in not demanding a more fair treatment of Paul.
Part of the problem is that people have gotten used to hating Paul.  They have grown accustomed to hearing all the criticism of him–particularly from women–and they are often resistant to offering Paul a more just hearing.  However, just as with the radical Jesus, radical Paul should be held in high esteem by all persons of good will within the wider Christian circle.

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister.  He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida.  His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor.  He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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