Correction: St. Paul DID Correct the Philippians

Brothers and sisters: I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.

My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen. Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20

For five weeks, the second readings at Holy Mass on Sundays have been from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. You may recall my earlier homilies on Philippians. Today I am going to have to acknowledge that I made a mistake.

As we recall, St. Paul founded the church in Philippi as soon as he arrived in Europe. Then he traveled south to preach the Gospel throughout Greece. During his travels, he kept in touch with the Philippian Christians. Unlike the other churches he founded, the church in Philippi never gave St. Paul any grief. To the contrary, they followed his teachings faithfully.

The Apostle showed that he trusted in the purity of the Philippian Christians’ faith by accepting money from them. Generally he did not accept donations. He wanted to leave no doubt as to the purity of his own apostolic intentions. But he made an exception with the Philippians.

It would certainly be the understatement of all time to call St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians a ‘thank-you note,’ but it is a thank-you note, albeit with a twist, as we shall see.

The verses of today’s reading come from the very end of the letter. You may recall that I have more than once asserted that this Pauline letter is unusual because it does not correct the audience. The Apostle had to correct the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Thessalonians. But not the Philippians. I made this point in earlier homilies on Philippians.

Well, it is true that St. Paul did not have to urge the Philippians to return to the true faith which he had taught them, because they never left it. He did not have to tell them to be kind to each other and to strangers, because they were kind. He did not have to tell them to pray in the way they had been taught to pray, or to hope for the resurrection of the body, because they did pray, and they did hope.

I have to amend what I said, though, because I was been wrong. St. Paul would not be the loving shepherd of souls which we know him to be if he did not correct the Philippians at least a little bit. Perhaps we, too, can profit from this correction. At least the good and generous ones among us can profit from it.

Let us try to read between the lines to find St. Paul’s fatherly correction of his spiritual children in Philippi. The Apostle wrote the letter to thank them for their help. But how did he conclude his thank-you note? He wrote: “I know how to live in poverty and in abundance.”

Consummately gracious as he was, the Apostle did not say, “Don’t do me any favors, people. I don’t need you.” No—he was humbly grateful. But his gratitude was not obsequious; it had an edge.

Statue of St. Paul at his Basilica outside the walls of Rome
Statue of St. Paul at his Basilica outside the walls of Rome
He was saying: Thank you. But do not think that I am beholden to you. I do not need your money. It is not really yours anyway. He wrote: “God will fully supply whatever you need.” St. Paul was saying: I am not in debt to you. We are all in debt to the good Lord.

He was pointing out to the kind Philippians: Your generosity to me is its own reward. Do not expect me to tickle your ears and tell you you are wonderful just because you sent me some money.

Let the good and generous people keep St. Paul’s subtle yet clear teaching in mind: It is impossible to do God a favor. We need Him; He does not need us. If we are generous with what He gives us, it helps us.

If I do something for someone else, it is actually he who has done me a favor, by giving me an opportunity to give away what I do not need, or to redeem the time which the Lord has given me by spending it well, or by putting to good use the talents the Lord has given me.

The Apostle was saying to the Philippians: You are faithful, you are generous. You are full of love and concern for those in need. You pray; you trust in God; you look forward to eternal life. Good.

But be humble. Never forget that you owe God everything. Above all, you owe Him any goodness and virtue which you possess. Without the grace of Christ we would all be lost. The salvation He offers us is a free gift. The opportunity we have to serve Him is a gift; it is the best gift we have ever been given. If we do good, we are just doing our job. We are unprofitable servants.

To God be the glory and the praise.

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