In the First Reading Paul is preaching in Antioch, and things are not going well for him. His audience contradicts him and shouts violent abuse at him. They find Paul’s Christianity an affront to their own religion, which they do not want to give up.
What response would we expect Paul to make to these angry people in his audience? How about this?
Paul: “Oh, gosh! I see that I have offended you! I am so sorry! I want you to know that I validate your point of view too. After all, we all believe in the same God! I wasn’t for a moment trying to suggest that there is anything wrong about your religion! I do wish that you wouldn’t call me names and shout at me when I am trying to talk to you, but it’s OK if you feel you need to do so. I appreciate that I upset you, though I really didn’t meant to do so.”
But, of course, this is not at all what Paul says. “By rejecting my preaching,” he tells the angry people, “you condemn yourselves and show yourselves unworthy of eternal life.” This is a stern condemnation of both of their religious views and of their rejection of Paul’s preaching. What happened to meekness, to turning the other cheek, to love of your enemies?
Well, if your enemy is determined to walk off a cliff, what would you do? Validate his point of view and tell him that all paths near cliffs are equally good? The only way to love your enemy in this case is to tell him vehemently that he will kill himself if he doesn’t alter his path. You do not show love for him by being meek or gentle when he is about to go over the edge.
In fact, all of us are headed for that cliff because of our post-Fall human nature. We are all unworthy of eternal life. But Christ suffered and died to save us—not from a wrathful God but from ourselves. Our path to God lies through Christ and his cross.
And so Paul’s line to his audience is as stern as it is because in their abusive rejection of him they are racing towards destruction. Telling them that they are is the last loving thing he can do for them.