The uniqueness of this passage is found in the fact that it is the first time that Paul confesses the deeply personal nature of his conversion. While, in Acts 9:1-19 we read about the history of his conversion, written by St. Luke, and in Galatians 1:11-16 we read about what he did immediately following his conversion, and in Philippians 3:4-8 we read about what he was doing immediately prior to his conversion, this passage today goes far beyond just the technical facts of his conversion. Here Paul confesses, “I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry. I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
In the context of his letter to Timothy, what Paul is conveying here is that he was just like the false teachers he had warned Timothy about in vv. 3-10 (“once a blasphemer”), but he is also unlike them because he has an excuse – he was a blasphemer out of ignorance, rather than out of full knowledge of the truth (Cf. Acts 3:17; 17:30). That is an important distinction for us to consider in regards non-believers, and it is also a warning to evangelists to guard against assuming the motive of those who reject Christ.
“This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all His patience as an example for those who would come to believe in Him for everlasting life.”
I find that the glaring point to take from this passage rest not the fact that God does not show partiality, but, rather, in His reasons for not showing it. He saves us because we are sinners in need of being saved. “Jesus heard this and said to them (that), “Those who are well do not need a physician, 11 but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Yet, the beauty of the whole process deepens even further. It is not enough for God to become man so that He could save those who need saving. If that was all that needed to be done then Christ Jesus would not have had to suffer and die on the Cross. On the contrary, the message of the crucifixion is that for us to be truly born again; to be resurrected into our new life In Christ we have to suffer the exposure of who we are in the presence of all those who love us and hate us. The message of the Christ on the Cross is that the transformation from sinner to saint comes by the way becoming transparent people.
Indeed, there is nothing hidden in the truth, and for this reason Christ was stripped down, clothes ripped off, flesh torn away from His body, bones exposed, blood dripping from skull to toe, and body pierced with a lance. Therefore, when God deigns to show His mercy to sinners He does it by calling them into repentance, and the way He moves us to repentance is by exposing our filth for what it is in relation to His Holiness. In even more sensual language, it is to say that He makes us smell and taste who and what we are, and when we respond to that grace by discerning how wretched we are in contrast to how Holy He is and expose our heart to Him by confessing our ugliness, is when God snatches us into Himself and starts to clean us up by sending out on mission.
“. . . so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all His patience as an example for those who would come to believe in Him for everlasting life.” Notice first how St. Paul spoke about why Jesus saves sinners, which is because sinners need saving, then he spoke about the purpose for which sinners are saved. That is, sinners are saved because they need saving ‘for mission’ – for God’s purpose.
In other words, God never heals us solely for our benefit. He does not heal the wounded solider so that the solider can go off and eat ice cream in solitary. On the contrary, God picks up the wounded solider and heals Him so that He can send the solider on a holy mission. Neither does God save us so that we can sit on our butts all day and read about Him. Never! The method through which God desires that we learn about His love is the same way in which every person that we read about in the Bible learned about it. That is, by going out there on mission, carrying our cross, trying our best to love on other, suffering for it, and in the midst of it all, growing closer and closer to God.
The call of today’s Mass is for two people. First, for those who have not been saved; that you pray to God for the grace to see yourself in the light of Him who is all good and worthy of our love. Second, for penitent Christians; that they keep praying to God for the the grace to know your mission and for the strength to see it through to the end.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
Scripture texts in this blog are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.