According to the flesh

The first reading for today is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The verses that caught my attention were: “…we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:12-13). As you read it, the natural question that arises is “what does it mean to live according to the flesh?”

Most of St. Paul’s epistles are pastoral letters admonishing people to live according to the great grace they have received in their reception of the Faith. In Galatians 5:16 Paul begins a section on how to live by the spirit and not by the flesh. He doesn’t mince words: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal 5:19-23)

If that was the only passage of  Paul that you ever read, you might well assume that he is a kind of dualist that makes everything corporeal bad and everything spiritual good. Since the corporeal is bad we should not be surprised that only evil things should be the “fruit” of the corporeal. But that would be a misunderstanding of Paul.

“The flesh” is a common expression, especially in Paul’s letters, and especially in Romans and Galatians. Just take a read through Romans 8 and 13 or Galatians 5 and 6 – see how many times Paul invokes the word “flesh.” The word in Greek, sarx, means more than just our physical bodies. Paul can even say, positively, that “yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20)

Paul also uses the word “body” (sōma) quite a bit, and many of these uses are positive. Paul describes the believer’s “body” as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). He calls on Christians to offer our “bodies” to God as an act of worship (Rom 12:1). He insists that our future resurrection state—imperishable, immortal, untouched by sin and death—will still involve a sōma (1 Cor 15:35-44).

In other words, it’s complicated. And it is also the way St. Paul communicates. He likes stark contrasts: “flesh” in contrast to “Spirit”; “Law” in contrast to “Christ” or “faith”; “this present age” in contrast to “the coming age.” It’s this last one—“this present age” in contrast to “the coming age”—that helps make sense of the rest of them.

This is what the contrast between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” is all about. These are, effectively, contrasting ways of being human in the world. If you are living “according to the flesh” it means to be self-centered, selfish, greedy, vain, ever seeking to win or dominate. By contrast if you consider your life and you find it is oriented towards others and characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – it is safe to say you are living according to the Spirit.

It’s your choice how you live.

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