September 10, 2011 - Saturday of the Twenty-Third Week in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” This statement by St. Paul can be difficult to understand. It all pivots on what he means by “foremost”. If he means that he is the worst sinner in the history of the world, that is doubtful. Judas of course, but also Herod the Great, and old King Manasseh are just a few examples of people who Paul would have known about. Paul did some bad things, but he certainly is not, objectively speaking, foremost among sinners.

But perhaps he is speaking subjectively, meaning that each of us should see ourselves as the worst sinner. We often see this example in the Saints. Anyone who says they have not sinned very much is probably sinning a lot. The sort of person who has made strides against the power of sin in their life is the one who knows how badly they have sinned. There is something to be said for this attitude, but I do not believe that it is precisely what Paul is writing about here; he never says that we should take up this same attitude. He seems to be saying something particular about himself.

The word “foremost” is just the word “first” in Greek: protos. St. Paul is saying that he is the first sinner, but he is not the first sinner in the history of the world, nor the first sinner to be saved by Jesus Christ. Without a doubt, Peter and John and Mary Magdalene were all sinners too. Crowds of sinners converted while Jesus preached. Tax collectors and prostitutes gave up their former lives, one after the other.

No, St. Paul is using the word here in another way. From the word protos comes the word “prototype”. Paul confirms that this is what he means when he says “so that in me, as the first, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example.” Paul’s conversion was not only for his own sake. How many people have heard the story of how the murderer Saul became the Apostle Paul? Jesus showed such extraordinary love and patience with this man who was persecuting and killing Christians that there can be no doubt that conversion is possible. Now, because of how Jesus dealt with St. Paul, a conversion story is not the exception among Christians but the norm. There is no more typical Christian life than the life of St. Paul.