Bishop Bonomelli’s Sermon on Romans 6:19-23

THE homilies I am giving, as you know, are simply a commentary on the Epistles and Gospels of the respective Sundays as they come round. This method has its advantages; it is based upon the example of the Fathers, it is in keeping with the prescription of the Council of Trent, and it affords an opportunity to set forth the teaching of Holy Scripture; still it is not exempt from certain drawbacks, the chief of which is that the Epistles and Gospels read in Holy Mass are taken from various places in the Gospels and the apostolic Letters, and thus detached from their context. Hence being so detached from what precedes and from what follows, they rarely present a complete whole which can be taken by itself and understood without reference to the text of which it forms a part, and this is especially true of the Epistles. To form a correct judgment of a branch that has been cut from a tree it is essential to see the tree from which it has been taken. I find the same method necessary in giving my explanations, particularly of the Epistles. To get at the true meaning of the words I comment on, I am obliged to know what goes before these words, and thus catch the line of reasoning and see the connection between the parts.

The scope of the apostle St. Paul, in his Letters to the Romans, is to show that one who is baptized is in duty bound to lead a new life, the life of Jesus Christ, and to cease living the life of the old man, the life of sin. The development of this thought furnishes St. Paul an opportunity of making a very beautiful and practical application of it. He says that whatever faculty or organ we made to serve as an instrument of sin before being baptized, after being baptized we should make the same faculty or organ serve as an instrument of justice. And here begins the text of the Epistle which you have just heard and which is the subject of this homily.

“I speak a human thing, because of the infirmity of your flesh; for as you have yielded your members to serve uncleanness and iniquity unto iniquity, so now yield your members to serve justice unto sanctification.”

“I have told you that by Baptism you have been made servants of justice,” then as if excusing himself, St. Paul adds: “The word servant may seem harsh and offensive to you, since to be a servant or a slave implies that you have lost what man esteems most highly and loves best, namely, his liberty, but I am compelled to use the word, as I can find no other that will serve my purpose. I am forced to write in this way because of the poverty of our language and to make myself understood as best I can; and you should not take offense at the word servant. I speak a human thing because of the infirmity of your flesh.”

The phrase: “I speak a human thing,” may possibly also mean that he speaks bluntly to them, naturally, and in a way easily understood. And what is his meaning! “As long,” he says, “as you lived in sin, indulging your passions, you were slaves to your passions and bore their shameful yoke. Your members were instruments of sin; your eyes, your ears, your tongue, your hands and your feet, your whole body, how were they all employed if not in serving in a thousand ways as instruments of sin? You despise a slave and will not consent to be the slaves of any one, and yet you were the slaves of every uncleanness and iniquity, going headlong from iniquity unto iniquity, and now you ought not blush to serve justice and virtue unto sanctification.”

One of the old Fathers of the Church has left us this commentary on the words of St. Paul: “By these words the Apostle wished to make his readers ashamed of themselves, so that they might pay that homage to virtue which they had formerly paid to vice, as if to say: Formerly your feet were swift to run in the way of sin, now let them be equally swift to run in the way of virtue; formerly your hands were stretched forth to seize the property of others, now let them be stretched forth to distribute their own in alms; formerly your eyes looked covetously on your neighbor’s goods, let them now look upon the poor to pity and succor them; let every member that ministered unto vice, now minister unto virtue; and what it then did to serve uncleanness, let it now do to serve unto chastity and holiness.”

Serve justice unto sanctification.” The word slave or servant, grates upon you; you do not wish to hear it; the very sound of it is an insult to your dignity, but remember there was a time when “you were slaves of sin” and when “you were free from justice,” or from the yoke of virtue: “For when you were servants of sin, you were free from justice.”

Here it is necessary to go into a fuller explanation of the thought of the Apostle. There is good and there is evil, there is virtue and there is vice, there is the law of God and the law of the world and of the flesh. We are placed between the law of God and the law of the world, between vice and virtue, between good and evil. We must necessarily adhere to the one or to the other; to be in different is impossible, and were it possible, it would mean that we would take the part of evil, of vice, and of the world, since he who is not with Christ is against Him. We must, then, as an absolute necessity of our condition serve either good or evil, either vice or virtue, either God or the world; nature itself forces us to take either the one side or the other, to choose between being a slave of God or a slave of the world, of sin or of justice. Offensive as this word to serve may be, it can not be withdrawn from this sovereign law. Now up to the day when you believed in Christ and were baptized, whom did you serve? asks the Apostle. You served sin: “You were, servants of sin.” In serving sin you did not serve unto justice; you were loosed from its yoke; you were free; and now, so reasons the Apostle, which do you think is the more worthy, to serve sin or to serve justice? You must bend the neck either to the one yoke or to the other, nnd who will not say that it is better to serve justice than to serve sin?

Man is a strange and incredible contradiction. There is in him an innate tendency to regard anyone as an enemy who attempts to limit his independence; he thinks it his inalienable right to use his liberty as he pleases. He sees only his rights and his liberty; he is impatient of any one who speaks to him of duties and dependence, and he readily forgets that he has any duties. What is man’s liberty in its true meaning? It is the privilege of using his powers, of doing or not doing certain acts, of not being hindered in the exercise of his faculties and his rights. Now, can a man’s liberty be conceived as separated from his duty to respect the rights of others or their liberty? Evidently not. Every man is surrounded by other men who have the same rights that he has, and hence there are liberties that limit his, and where the liberty of others begins, his ceases. Above him, again, is the civil and political authority with its laws, and the Church with her laws; and above the civil authority and the Church, there is God, the absolute Master of all. Now as regards the rights of other men, as regards the civil authority, the authority of God and His Church, what is the duty of every man? How is he to use his liberty? He is to use it by subjecting it to those who have a right to its subjection. Only then is it properly used, only then does man use his powers as he should, only then does he exactly fulfil his duties, when he respects the rights of others. This is true liberty.

I should indeed be happy if I could make you comprehend in what true liberty consists. It consists not in being free to do what one pleases, whether it be good or evil, but solely in discharging one’s duties, in doing right, for this alone can benefit us. To see, the eye is dependent on light; to breathe, the lungs are dependent upon air; to circulate, the blood is dependent on the heart, and so on of all the members of the body, each of which is more or less dependent on the others. Now what would you say if, on pretence of enjoying a fuller liberty, the eye should refuse the light, or the lungs should attempt to get on with out air, or the blood should disdain to be served by the heart, and each member should reject the aid of the others and set out to do for itself? We should then have absolute disorder and death. It is the due dependence of each member of the body upon all, that creates and maintains the liberty of each, and so, also, is it our legitimate dependence upon, or in other words, the exact fulfilment of our duties to our fellow-men, to all authority, and above all to God, that gives us true liberty and secures us in its possession; and it is in this sense that Christ said that he who commits sin is its slave, and that he is free, who is free from sin. Let us not, then, my friends, confuse things; let us not give the sacred name of liberty to slavery, nor call true liberty by the vile name of slavery. He is a slave who obeys his passions and serves sin; he, on the contrary, is a free man who curbs his passions, who casts sin out from his heart, and serves justice and virtue, for man by his nature is made to serve virtue and not to serve sin.

Here is a son who refuses to obey his parents, and instead obeys a servant, whom he should command, boasting that he is free to do as he likes: Would you say that this son is really free? On the contrary, you would say that the son who obeys his parents and commands his servant is free, because justice and order require this. So also we should say that one who casts off the yoke of sin and serves God, his Father, to serve whom is to reign, is truly free. My friends, let us cease calling light darkness and darkness light, liberty servitude and servitude liberty. Let us serve justice, serve God, and we shall be free from sin and from the bondage of the world. Never since time began was liberty as much talked of as it is to-day and never was the idea of it more false and confused. How many now think that liberty consists in doing what one likes, be it good or bad! How many demand for themselves the most unlimited liberty, caring not a whit whether or not, in the exercise of this liberty, they violate the liberty of others. Such liberty would turn the world up side down and lead to the most shameful slavery. Bear well in mind that to have true liberty, according both to reason and to the Gospel, it is essential that every one shall respect and observe all the laws of God and of His Church, and all the laws of civil authority, and that every one shall fulfil his own duties and scrupulously respect the rights of others. If all follow this rule you may be sure that you will enjoy true liberty and be really free.

And now to return to our commentary, St. Paul follows up and again enforces the truth already referred to, namely that we must serve justice and not sin: “What fruit had you then of those things of which you are now ashamed? Time was, says St. Paul, before your new birth in Baptism, when you did the works of sin, and now looking back upon that time in the light of faith, do not your cheeks burn with very shame at the thought? Are you not overpowered at the memory of so degrading a servitude! And this is a proof that to serve sin is not liberty, but an unworthy and shameful slavery; because were it liberty, we should, in stead of being abashed and of blushing at the very thought of having done so, rejoice and glory in it.

Not only, the Apostle goes on, does the serving of sin fill us with shame and confusion, but what is worse, it merits a frightful retribution; for the end of the works of sin is death: “For the end of them is death.” What sort of death? Ever lasting death (see note). Away then with sin, which, hav ing filled us with shame and confusion here, if not in the sight of men, certainly in our own conscience and before God, condemns us to a life that is a living death for all time to come. Away with the servitude of sin that dishonors, pollutes, and murders the soul. Note: Here the word death means eternal death, as is clear from the following verse where St. Paul, writing antithetically according to his wont, and speaking of the fruit of sanctification, as the opposite of the fruit of sin, calls it life everlasting.

What, then, must be done? “Loosed (or being made) free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end, life everlasting.” St. Paul has condensed into this verse all the duties of man in time and his destiny in eternity, namely, break with the passions and with sin, which is their fruit, sanctify yourselves by the practice of virtue and thus at tain your last end, eternal life. “And the end of the servants of God is life everlasting.”

The following verse, which is the last of the Epistle reading for today, is but a repetition of what has already been explained: For the wages of sin is death,
but grace of God, life everlasting in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The word stipend used by St. Paul, is a military term and means the wages paid a soldier. You have served your passions, St. Paul seems to say, you have served sin, you have fought as soldiers under the banner of sin, and now you have the recompense due to so infamous a warfare; your wages is eternal death. Will you turn your backs on sin? Will you take service under the standard of justice and fight gallantly in its behalf? If so, your stipend, your reward, will be the gift of God, life everlasting: “But the grace of God, life everlasting.”

Here a difficulty arises. In other passages of his writings St. Paul tells us that everlasting life is a crown due to him who has fought manfully and won, that is, it is the recompense of labor and is rigorously due as a matter of justice; and Jesus Christ Himself tells us to rejoice and be glad because our reward is very great in heaven. How, then, can St. Paul call a recompense, that is due in justice, a favor or gift: “But the grace of God, life everlasting.”  If it is a gift, it is not a wage, and if it is a wage it can not be a gift or favor. Has the Apostle here contradicted himself? The Apostle does not, and assuredly can not contradict himself, and it is not difficult to reconcile the two statements. Life eternal is a recompense due in justice to our exertions, and God Himself can not deny it to one who has honestly earned it. But how and by what means do we do works meritorious of eternal life? By the means of the grace, which is a gift of God. Is grace, the first grace, due to us by any work or merit of ours, or is it the gift of God? Grace, the first grace, is not due to any work of ours, nor can we possibly merit it in any way whatever; it is the free gift of the bounty of God. Life everlasting, then, considered in its root, is a grace, a favor, a wholly gratuitous gift of God; considered in relation to our works, which are the fruit of grace and of our co-operation with grace, it is a recompense or a crown due to us. A very familiar similitude, that of the talents in the Gospel, will illustrate this. A rich man gives his servant a large sum of money to invest or to traffic with as he likes. What right has the servant to this money? None at all; it is a gift which a benevolent master gives him purely out of goodness of heart. Well, the servant invests the money; he trades with it, and his gains from trading and investment are enormous. His gains are the fruit of his own foresight and industry and of the money received from his generous master; and as I can say that his gain is both a gift of his master and the recompense of his own efforts, and both statements are equally true, so also can I say that heaven is a grace or gift of God and that it is the reward and recompense of our efforts and toil, since to gain both, the grace of God and our own exertions are necessary, and if either is wanting the gaining of heaven is impossible.

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2 Responses to Bishop Bonomelli’s Sermon on Romans 6:19-23

  1. Pingback: Father Callan’s Commentary on Romans 6:19-23 | stjoeofoblog

  2. Pingback: Seventh Sunday After Pentecost: Commentary on the Mass Readings (Dominica VII Post Pentecosten) « The Divine Lamp

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