The Epistle reading this week, Romans 12:9-21, contains some of the loveliest passages in all of Paul’s writings. Indeed, one might say that these passages are Paul’s equivalent of Jesus’ Beatitudes, as these are very similar in both style and in spirit to the teachings Christ gave in His Sermon on the Mount.
Indeed, in many ways what Paul is doing here is telling us that while God will “bless” many of the downtrodden, we ourselves are called to emulate God in doing so — by bestowing our own weak substitutes for “blessings,” namely our loving spirit and goodwill, upon those very same downtrodden.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” taught Christ, and likewise Paul exhorts us to “weep with those who weep.” (When Christ says “they shall be comforted,” Paul says in effect that we should help provide the comfort.) And as Christ says “blessed are the meek,” Paul tells us to “associate with the lowly.” And so on.
What I’d like to concentrate on in particular, though, is Paul’s use of a turn of phrase that these days is becoming at least slightly archaic. Paul writes that we should “hold fast to what is good.” It is a phrase he likes: Paul also uses it, in much the same context, in Thessalonians 5:21.
Now I can’t prove this, but I bet that if you said to most of the so-called “millennial” generation (or the one after it) to “hold fast” to something, they would look at you rather quizzically. “Fast” these days is almost always used in reference to speed, not to the strength of a grip. In fact, “fast” in English is one of those curious words that is almost its own opposite: Just as “cleave” can mean to “stick together” or (its opposite) to “split apart,” so can “fast” mean (taking this directly from online dictionaries) “moving … quickly” or “not easily moved.”
Paul, of course, uses it in that latter sense, the one largely unfamiliar to younger people, of not easily moved.
But there’s a special quality to this sense of “fast” which connotes something more than something that is merely “tight” or held together “tightly.” To “hold fast” has the connotation of something done actively, willfully, with effort. And as Paul uses this phrase at the very introduction to the whole list of what I (for shorthand purposes, although not 100 percent correct theologically) consider “Paul’s beatitudes,” it has the effect of setting the predicate for all the ones that follow.
In other words, those that follow — “persevere in prayer,” “extend hospitality to strangers,” “be patient in suffering” — are in one sense examples of what Paul means in his opening line telling us to “let love be genuine” and “hold fast to what is good.” Those other rightful ways of acting are further elucidations of what it means to love and to do good. And by “holding fast” to them, we actively, with willful effort, choose to hold them as our values and perform them in our lives.
(This sense of the active-ness of this exhortation, the need for a strong will, is only furthered by the traditional bidding prayer or benediction in several denominations to “be strong and of good courage, hold fast to that which is good….”)
Paul is telling us that living this way will not be easy, or at least that it will require that we do not “take the path of least resistance,” but instead that we actively must hold fast to these missions of goodness even as others would fall away or lead us astray.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus puts the imperative even more starkly: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
The message to us from Paul’s beatitudes, about how to add our own little assistance to the cause of Christ’s Beatitudes, is that we are called to serve others or to serve a cause (the specific cause of God) that is larger than ourselves, specifically by putting ourselves in the position of “the least of these.”
Even if doing so involves carrying a personal cross.
If we (quoting Paul) ” take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” and work to “overcome evil with good,” we will be holding fast to God’s truth and His love.
And we will eventually come to know, quite profoundly and quite wonderfully, that God is holding fast to us as well.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a degree in theology. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication later this month by Liberty Island Media.