Lectionary Commentaries for July 17, 2016
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 10:38-42

Mikeal C. Parsons

The design and structure of Luke’s story about Jesus’ visit in the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) is straightforward, and it is told in a linear fashion.

Martha extends hospitality to Jesus (38).
Mary listens to Jesus’ teachings (39).
Martha attends to the duties of hospitality (40a).
Martha complains that Mary has neglected the duties of hospitality (40b).
Martha asks Jesus to instruct Mary to help her (40c).
Jesus responds that Mary has chosen the better activity (41-42).

Within the larger travel narrative (Luke 9-19), such stories as this revolve around the act of traveling and feature elements that are representative of the ancient Mediterranean custom of either hospitality or inhospitality.

The passage begins on this note: “Now, as they went along, he entered a particular village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him” (Luke 10:38). While Martha has fulfilled the typical expectations associated with a host, it is her sister, Mary, for whom Jesus reserves his highest praise. The contrast between the sisters’ actions is striking: “She had a sister named Mary, who had taken a seat at the feet of the Lord and was listening to him speak. Martha, though, was distracted by all that needed to be done” (10:39). Martha busies herself with “the details of serving” while Mary chooses to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he was saying. Apparently exasperated, Martha confronts Jesus about her sister’s actions, “Lord, doesn’t it concern you that my sister left me to serve alone? So, speak to her in order that she might help me” (Luke 10:40). Rather surprisingly, Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary, in fact, has made the right choice, and it will not be taken from her” (10:41-42). In this light, it would be difficult to imagine that the authorial audience understood Jesus’ praise of Mary to be an implicit criticism of Martha’s hospitality (a point underscored by the repetition of Martha’s name, an example of conduplicatio, a rhetorical device used to indicate compassion or pity).1 Of course, Jesus had the capacity to level such criticism, as we see in the story of one Simon the Pharisee, who fails to follow proper hospitality protocols (Luke 7:36-50).

The passage turns on the meaning of the “one thing.” The “one thing” in Jesus’ logic is the “best part” which Mary has chosen. And what is that? According to Jesus, hearing the word of God’s messenger is the one thing needed, not providing for his physical needs (also Luke 8:15, 21). Thus, however important hospitality is in Luke as a social context for the spread of the Christian message, it is even more important to have followers who attend to Jesus’ messengers. The saying is less a condemnation of Martha’s frenzied activity and more a commendation of Mary’s posture as a disciple.

The language and setting of the story of Mary and Martha are reminiscent of the social custom of ancient hospitality, generally understood, in the ancient world, to refer to kindness shown to strangers.

The constant social context in ancient hospitality scenes appears to be travel. Hospitality was a highly valued and presumably widely practiced custom among pagans, Jews, and Christians. Hosts were expected to provide food, shelter, amenities, and protection to these traveling strangers, who sometimes turned out to be gods incognito.2 In Greek culture, Zeus was celebrated as the god of hospitality3, and the practice of hospitality (among other things) separated high Greek civilization from the “barbarians.” Often these hospitality scenes ended with the host bestowing gifts upon the guest.4 Jewish examples of hospitality also abound (e.g., Genesis 18:1-16; compare with also Genesis 19:1-23; 24:10-61; 43:16-34; Exodus 2:15-22; Joshua 2:1-22; Judges 4:17-22). Luke has a particular interest in issues of hospitality (Luke 7:36-46, 10:38-40; 19:1-9, compare with also Acts 9:43-11:3, 21:3-6, 21:7, 21:8-16; 28:6-10; 28:13-14). Often, as in our text here, the host initiates hospitality (Luke 7:36; 10:38; Acts 10:23; 10:22; 28:7).

This Lukan social ethic provides a solid foundation for Christian habits and practices both within the community (we have unlimited responsibilities to fellow believers) and with the world (we are called to provide Christian hospitality to those unlike us in nationality, faith, or ethnicity and assistance to those in immediate crisis). Christians are called to extend hospitality both as hosts and guests, and to fellow believers and non-believers alike. Such hospitality calls for personal and intimate engagement in a way that an insipid value such as “tolerance” does not. We are not called simply to “tolerate” or “endure” those not like us; rather the ancient “Christian virtue” of hospitality demands that we engage and interact with the Other, whether we are guest or host.

But there is another motif running alongside the theme of hospitality. Yes, Martha, the host, has busied herself with caring for her guest, and she exemplifies ideal hospitality. In the subsequent history of interpretation, Martha also represents the vita active, the active life. Mary, on the other hand, represents the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life. She sits at the feet of Jesus as a student and listens to him teach. Both the active life and the contemplative life are needed; to choose one over the other can create a false dichotomy. Ambrose observed: “Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God.”5 Still, Christ gently reminds Martha (and Luke’s audience), that Mary’s is “the better part,” because actions — even acts of Christian charity and hospitality — if they are to be sustained, always follow being; that is, what we do flows naturally from who we are.

Material adapted from Luke. Paideia Commentary Series. Eds. Mikeal C. Parsons, Charles H. Talbert, and Bruce. Longenecker. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (a division of Baker Publishing Group), 2015. Used by permission.


1 compare with Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.28.38.

2 Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.626-724.

3 Homer, Odyssey 9.266-71; Heliodorus, Aethiopica 2.22.2.

4 compare with Homer, Odyssey 1.311-18; Chariton, De Chaerea et Callirhoe 5.97; Longus, Daphnis and Chloe 3.9; 4.6; Dio Chyrsostom, Venator 7.21-22, 45, 57-58; Virgil, Aeneid 8.152-69.

5 Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.85.

First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 18:1-10a

Samuel Giere

Genesis 18 occupies the place of the First Lesson for the next two weeks.

This week we find Abraham and Sarah encountered by the three mysterious travelers under the trees at Mamre. Next week, we listen-in to Abraham’s appeal for the sparing of wicked Sodom. Preachers and their hearers would benefit from spending these two weeks dwelling in this narrative, which is abundant with fodder for the imagination of faith.

Particular to this week’s pericope boundaries, the reading ought to be extended through Genesis 18:15.

Textual horizons

“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre … ” (Genesis 18:1, NRSV)

At least two things are critical here in this first bit of the pericope — a bit that functions like a section heading. The encounter under the terebinths of Mamre is between Yhwh and Abraham. While there is great debate and significant mystery about how to understand Abraham’s three visitors, the text frames the encounter as an encounter with Yhwh.

A second important bit of this is the location of this encounter. Abraham is reclining beneath the terebinths of Mamre.1 Recall for a moment the significance of this place, which among other things was place where Abram built an altar to the Lord after the covenant was renewed.2 There is a tradition, cited by Josephus, that the terebinth at Mamre is as old as the world itself, and another tradition that this place, where Abraham was circumcised, is the spot upon which the altar in the Temple of the Lord would eventually stand.3 What unfolds under and around the terebinths of Mamre unfolds in a holy place.

Abraham, this ninety-nine-year-old fellow, who (together, of course, with Ishmael and all the men with him) has just had his foreskin lopped-off, is in a posture of repose under the terebinth. (A seemingly reasonable assumption of the newly circumcised.)4 It is a time of recovery and healing, as the covenant with the Lord has been cut in the flesh.

Into the midst of this time of recovery and during the heat of the day, when it would be odd for anyone to be traveling, three travelers show up unbidden. “Voilá!” they appear.5 In line with the high value placed on hospitality in the Ancient Near East, Abraham runs to greet them. Given his post-circumcision condition and age, this running is at least jocularly remarkable.6 Suffice it to say, the physical mark of the covenant does not prevent Abraham from extending lavish hospitality: the washing of feet, rest, freshly baked cakes, a roasted calf, curds, and milk. Abraham assured that these guests were welcomed most properly.7

As this gesture of hospitality reaches a crescendo, the travelers speak. They ask after Sarah, knowing her name and relation, presumably without meeting her. They are reclining under the tree; Sarah is in the tent. With the opening words of Genesis 18:1 spilling now forward, it is at this point when the reader’s left eyebrow might just rise up a bit questioning who these visitors are. The verbs shift from plural to singular, as one of the visitors states that next year, when this visitor wanders through again, Sarah will have a child. Dear menopausal Sarah, rightly so, chuckles to herself with a hint of sadness at something so foolish. To paraphrase her words: “I’m old. Abe’s old. The dream of such a happy thing has long since faded.”8 With left eyebrow still raised, the reader now hears explicitly: “The Lord said to Abraham … ” The identity of this particular visitor is revealed. Yhwh. To be sure, this raises far more questions than it answers, but it calls out from the page for us to explore.

The episode comes to a conclusion with Sarah’s denial of her laughter at the promise’s absurdity. Abraham remains silent at this point. Both are passive. The Lord, however, hurls a question into the midst of the narrative, which echoes throughout the whole of Genesis 18, and orients the whole: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14, NRSV)

Herein is the key to the narrative. It is about what Yhwh does / is capable of doing.

So that we have the mood of this question relatively straight, the Hebrew verb pala’ presents a range of nuanced possibilities, from being difficult to being wondrous to being extraordinary. Perhaps the latter, extraordinary, is worth employing. The Lord asks, “Is anything too extraordinary for the Lord?” The Lord promises to do something extra-ordinary and by means of this question invites trust that it will be so — something so absurdly outside of ordinary that it invites Sarah’s laughter.

Homiletical horizons

“Is anything too extraordinary for the Lord?”

In a time when we find wide-spread incredulity mashed-up with a politics that values entertainment over decorum and the common good, we may well have sympathy for dear Sarah. How shall we respond to God’s promise of life and healing and wholeness? How shall we respond when fear is conjured and used to divide and manipulate? Cynical laughter. Disbelieving laughter. Why not? Look around. Might not our contemporary incredulous chuckles be on a par with Sarah’s?

Back to the text. Given that this mysterious encounter is an “appearance of the Lord” (v.1) and that the question comes from the Lord (v.13f), the presumed answer is no. There is nothing too outside-the-ordinary for the Lord.

Against the soundscape of Abraham’s silence and Sarah’s incredulous laughter, the Lord’s extraordinary promise rings through. This promise does not usher in a utopia. Far from it. It does, however, confirm yet again that in the midst of humanity’s capacity for messing things up God remains faithful.


1 The Hebrew ‘elon is commonly misrepresented as “oak” in English translations. More properly it is a terebinth (Pistacia palaestina), a shrub-like tree with red foliage and berries.

2 Genesis 13.18. Mamre is also the place that provides an orientation for the burials of Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac.

3 Louis Ginzberg, ed., The Legends of the Jews: Volume One — From Creation to Jacob (Henrietta Szold, trans.; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1909, 1937) 240.

4 Mildly insincere apologies for this bit of vulgarity, but it seems unnecessary to dress-up the events at the end of Genesis 17.

5 I appreciate William P. Brown’s suggestion that hineh might be rendered best here as voilá! Cf. “Manifest Diversity: The Presence of God in Genesis,” in Genesis and Christian Theology (Nathan MacDonald, Mark W., Elliott, & Grant Macaskill, eds.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 7.

6 Abraham again runs to fetch lunch (v.7) from the herd.

7 Hebrews 13.2 is worth recalling.

8 Genesis 18.12

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Amos 8:1-12

J. Blake Couey

The week’s reading from Amos contains two different units: a prose vision report in Amos 8:1-3 and a poetic announcement of judgment in Amos 8:4-12.

(The second unit continues to the end of the chapter, but the lectionary leaves out the last two verses.) They are linked by the motif of turning festivity into lament in vv. 3 and 10.

The reading combines a stirring denunciation of economic oppression with violent images of divine judgment. Although it may be tempting to downplay the latter, this juxtaposition is characteristic of the book of Amos, and any honest attempt to engage the text must acknowledge both parts. The depictions of judgment in Amos 8 offer insight into the relationship between economic and environmental justice and the freedom of God.

The vision

Like last week, this reading begins with a vision that the prophet received. God shows him a basket of summer fruit, which might have included pomegranates, figs, and grapes, and then pronounces doom upon Israel. There is no portrayal of the judgment itself, as if it were too horrible to put into words. In fact, v. 3 begins at some remove from the unspecified disaster by describing the shrieks of grief that will replace the festive temple songs (see Amos 5:23). Only then is the cause for this lamentation revealed: a landscape strewn with vast numbers of unburied bodies. In contrast to the earlier sounds of wailing, the description ends abruptly with the interjection, “Be silent!”

What does all of this have do with a fruit basket? The vision relies on a Hebrew pun. The term for “summer fruit” is qayits, while the term for “end” is qets. (The two words would have sounded even more similar in the dialect spoken in the northern kingdom of Israel.) A few Bible translations attempt to recreate the wordplay in English, such as the New International Version: “The time is ripe for my people Israel.” Puns like this are common in biblical prophetic literature (e.g., Jeremiah 1:11-12; Amos 5:5). Still, the juxtaposition of such a pleasant, sensual image with such a grotesque, violent threat is jarring.1 The shock intensifies the sense of foreboding created by the vision.

The announcement of judgment

Like other prophetic judgment announcements, Amos 8:4-14 explains what the guilty party has done wrong (vv. 4-6) and declares what will happen as a result (vv. 7-14). The guilty party in this case is merchants who sell grain. Their self-incriminating statements in v. 5 demonstrate religious hypocrisy, as they complain of lost profits from closing shop for religious festivals (“new moon” and “sabbath”). They also brazenly declare their intention to defraud their customers. “Ephah” is a unit of measure, equal to approximately 15-20 liters.2 To “make the ephah small” means using an undersized container to measure grain, thereby giving customers less than they paid for. Similarly, “shekel” is a unit of weight (approximately 11.5 grams); to “make the shekel great” means using an excessively heavy stone to weigh payment, thereby taking more than was charged. Verse 6 refers to another fraudulent business practice, diluting the purchased grain with chaff (“sweepings of wheat”). The verse also specifies that the targets of the merchants’ oppression are the poor and needy, likely because they lacked resources or standing to challenge their exploiters. Of course, it is unlikely that the merchants would have spoken so openly about their dishonesty; the text offers a parody of a dishonest businessperson. Still, the fact that such practices are condemned Leviticus 19:35-36 and Deuteronomy 25:13-16 suggests that they did occur, perhaps frequently. And in a society where news of Ponzi schemes or subprime mortgage abuse seems almost normal, Amos 8:5-6 doesn’t sound all that exaggerated.

In response, God threatens a variety of calamities in vv. 7-14. They will affect not just the corrupt merchants but all of Israel, suggesting that the society at large bears responsibility for creating the circumstances in which such actions could prosper. The fact that God swears an oath (v. 7) underscores the seriousness of the divine intention to punish these crimes. Verse 8 appears to describe an earthquake (see Amos 1:1, 9:1), comparing the seismic disturbance to the rising and falling water of the Nile River during its flood, and verses 9-10 depict further cosmic disturbance. Many contemporary readers of the Bible many find the claim that God causes natural disasters to punish human sins unhelpful. At the same time, this verse makes a crucial point about connections between economic and environmental exploitation. Corporate fraud, exploitation of the poor, and ecological disruption are all consequences of the drive to maximize profit at any costs. People who live on the margins often suffer disproportionately from environmental abuse.

The language of vv. 11-12 appears at first to continue the series of natural disasters, but the threat is actually “a famine … of hearing the words of the LORD.” In ancient Israelite religion, prophecy was the primary channel through which God was expected to communicate. Because the people of Israel have rejected the warnings of prophets like Amos (Amos 2:12; 7:12-13), they will lose access to prophecy when they desire it (see 1 Samuel 3:1; Psalm 74:9). This frightening possibility reaffirms the freedom of God from any human manipulation. While Christians rightly celebrate God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ, it is important to recognize this as a gift that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Pop theology tritely claims that God never stops speaking, but humans sometimes stop listening. On the contrary, God does not owe us any revelation and may sometimes withhold it from us for reasons known only to God.


1 See Yvonne Sherwood, “Of Fruit and Corpses and Wordplay Visions: Picturing Amos 8.1-3,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 92 (2001): 5-27.

2 Phillip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 200; Marvin A. Powell, “Weights and Measures,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 6: 901-2.


Commentary on Psalm 15

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Psalm 15 is usually categorized as an entrance liturgy.

The mention of God’s “tent” in v. 1 recalls the portable tabernacle of the wilderness era (Exodus 33:7-11; Numbers 12:5); but the designation came to be used of the Temple (Psalms 27:5-6; 61:4), which was located on Mount Zion, God’s “holy hill” (Psalms 2:6; 3:4; 43:3). While we have no actual description of a ritual for entering the Temple gates, it is reasonable to infer from Psalm 15, along with the similar Psalm 24, that such a ritual existed (see also hints of such a ritual in Isaiah 33:13-16; Micah 6:6-8). And we do know that the Temple was equipped with gatekeepers, whose responsibility it was to guard the purity of the place (2 Chronicles 23:19; see also Deuteronomy 23:1-8). Given the opening question of Psalm 15 and the similar questions in Psalm 24:3, it is reasonable to conclude that these two psalms functioned as responsive entrance liturgies.

But, of course, to anchor Psalm 15 in its ancient Israelite past raises the question: What does this text from long-ago and far-away have to with us and our markedly different context and identity? To begin to get at this question, it is helpful to start with what Jerusalem symbolized and what entering the Temple meant. Jerusalem was understood to be God’s place (see Psalms 46, 48, 87, 122, 132); and the Temple, God’s “house” (Psalm 5:7), was where one went to encounter and be encountered by God. The worshipper in Psalm 27:8 describes the experience in the Temple (see “tent” in 27:5-6) like this:

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, LORD, do I seek.

To be sure, the language is metaphorical; but such a direct, “face-to-face” encounter with God would surely have called for conscientious preparation; and it would have promised profound transformation (see also Psalm 24:5-6).

Such preparation and anticipated transformation are what Psalm 15 is really all about. Even in its ancient setting and use, it is not likely that vv. 2-5b functioned as a checklist of requirements. Rather, as James L. Mays says of vv. 2-5b, “It is a picture, not prescription.”1 In other words, what vv. 2-5b suggests is that worship — a genuine encounter with God and the experience of being encountered by God — will have pervasive and profound implications for personal character and conduct. This is still the case for Christians, who claim to experience God directly in Jesus of Nazareth, and who affirm that they regularly encounter God and are encountered by God in the preaching and hearing of the Word and in the real presence of God in the sacraments. In short, then and now, Psalm 15 invites the offering of our best selves to God in preparation for worship, even as we open ourselves to being further transformed by God in and through worship.

And, biblically speaking, what constitutes our best selves, and in what direction may we expect worship further to transform us? The general answer to this question – which is my contemporary paraphrase of Psalm 15:1 — is found in v. 2ab, followed by specific examples in vv. 2c-5b. We are to “walk blamelessly” and “do what is right.” The translation “walk blamelessly” is misleading, since it implies sinlessness; and this is not the point. A better translation would be “walk with integrity.” The Hebrew root involved means “to be complete” or “to be whole.” In Deuteronomy 18:13, the same adjectival form that occurs in Psalm 15:2 is translated “completely loyal,” and this may be the best translation. To approach God in worship invites our complete loyalty; and naturally, there are behavioral implications.

To “do what is right” or “do righteousness” is elsewhere the essence of God’s will, as both the Torah and the Prophets proclaim (see Deuteronomy 16:20, where NRSV’s repeated “justice” is the same word translated “right” in Psalm 15:2; Isaiah 1:21, 27; 58:2; Amos 5:7, 24). Complete loyalty to God and conformity to God’s will involve faithful and responsible speech (vv. 2c-3, 4c; see Psalms 5:9; 12:2-5, where the speech of the wicked is hurtful and destructive), as well as honest and compassionate action (v. 5ab). Not lending money at interest — a particular challenge in our consumer-capitalist system! — was a matter of compassion for the poor and dispossessed (see Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20; Ezekiel 18:8, 13, 17; 22:12). Not taking a bribe was a matter of honesty, of course, but also of compassion for the needy (see (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 10:17; 16:9; 1 Samuel 8:3; Isaiah 1:23; 5:23; 33:15; Micah 3:11).

In short, Psalm 15 suggests that the appropriate and faithful posture for worship — both in terms of preparation and anticipation — is complete loyalty to God and commitment to act compassionately for the sake of others. This, of course, should sound familiar, since it is essentially the way Jesus summarized the message of the Law/Torah and the Prophets (Matthew 22:24-40) — that is, love God unreservedly (see Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and love neighbor as self (see Leviticus 19:18). It is fitting, therefore, that interpreters detect a kinship between Psalm 15 and the torah-psalms (Psalms 1, 19, 119); and in this regard, the arrangement of Book I of the Psalter reinforces this kinship. Psalms 15 and 24 form the boundaries of a chiastic structure, as follows:

A          Psalm 15        entrance liturgy
B          Psalm 16         trust
C          Psalm 17        lament
D         Psalm 18        royal
E          Psalm 19                    torah-psalm
D’        Psalms 20-21             royal
C’         Psalms 22       lament
B’         Psalm 23        trust
A          Psalm 24        entrance liturgy

At the heart of this chiasm is Psalm 19, vv. 7-14 of which is a celebration of torah (see “law” in v. 7), God’s teaching; and Psalm 15 complements this celebration by offering key components of God’s teaching.

Then too, it is fitting that Bellinger and Brueggemann also detect in Psalm 15 “a strong prophetic tone.” As they conclude: “Perhaps ancient Israel’s prophets learned their faith with this kind of emphasis in worship and in that way such worship influenced their preaching, as seen in Micah 6:6-8 and Isaiah 1:12-17.”2


1 James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 84.

2 William H. Bellinger, Jr. and Walter Brueggemann, Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 84.

Second Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:15-28

Brian J. Walsh

Paul begins this epistle with a typical salutation, identifying first the author and then the community to whom the letter is addressed: “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Colossians 1:2).

The recipients of this correspondence are first and foremost in Christ. This is their most foundational identity. And we would do well, as preachers, to encourage our communities to embrace their identity in Christ as more crucial than family, race, ethnicity, class, and nationality. But we are always in Christ somewhere. And surely the task of preaching includes addressing the question of what it means to live out a radically Christian identity where we are.

These folks are “in Christ, in Colossae.” And there are two key things to consider when talking about Colossae. The first is that this is a church that meets in the home of Philemon, Apphia and Archippus (Philemon 1-2), from which the slave Onesimus has run away (Colossians 4:9, Philemon 8-21). We need to read Colossians with both Philemon and Onesimus in the room.

Secondly, the socio-economic institution of slavery reminds us that we must read Colossians in the context of the Roman Empire. Indeed, this suggests another hermeneutical principle. Always read scripture in the shadow of empire. And this is nowhere more crucial than in today’s passage.

Having left us gasping for breath from the depth and breadth of his opening run-on sentence, Paul now changes genre and offers a poem of jaw-dropping audacity and sedition (Colossians 1:15-20).

Yes, sedition.

If you read this magnificent poem about Jesus in the context of the Roman imperial imagination you will see that it engenders a seditious imagination.

In a world in which images of Caesar were ubiquitous Paul writes of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15)

In an imperial mythology in which the emperor is nothing less than a ‘son of god’ by virtue of his lineage, Paul says that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15).

In a culture in which the emperor’s preeminence is embedded, legitimated and defended by socio-economic, political, and military structures, Paul has the audacity to proclaim not only that “all things in heaven and on earth were created … through him and for him … ” but specifically that all “thrones,” “dominions,” “rulers,” and “powers” are subject to his rule (Colossians 1:16)! Because of his resurrection, he is the one who will come to “have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18).

In the face of an ideology that assumes the exceptionality of Rome as a force of good and order against the barbarian, terrorist chaos that lies at the edges of the empire, Paul says that Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

The demythologizing of the empire couldn’t be clearer. If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, then Caesar isn’t. If Jesus is Lord, then the “throne” of Caesar, the “dominion” of the emperor, the “rulers” that keep the imperial order in place, and the very “power” with which they do so, all become subject to the “beloved Son” (Colossians 1:14) to whom this little community in Colossae have pledged their allegiance. And if it all hangs together — indeed, if all of creation hangs together! — in Jesus, then Caesar is a pretentious usurper!

But Paul isn’t finished yet. The sedition is not yet complete.

In an empire that views Rome (or sometimes the emperor himself) as the “head” of the body-politic Paul tells this little community of Jesus followers that Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). Christ, not Rome, not the emperor, is the head, the source, the ruler of the body. But the body isn’t the empire, it is the church! Just as Jesus replaces Caesar, so in this exercise of subversive imagination, does the church (this little community in Colossae and other such marginal communities throughout the empire) replace the empire! I can only imagine how their heads were spinning as they heard this.

Pray that our preaching on this revolutionary poem would engender such a holy sedition in our own time.

And it all happens on a cross.

The Pax Romana was always proclaimed as the great accomplishment of the empire. But we know how Rome maintained the peace, don’t we? On crosses littering the landscape, the peace was established and secured through the eradication of all opposition. So Paul turns the imperial cruelty on its head and says that Jesus achieves his Lordship, demonstrates that he is the one in whom the very fullness of God dwells, and indeed “reconciles to himself all things” by “making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Here is a sovereignty, here is a kingdom born of blood, but instead of this being the blood of its victims, it is the blood of its Lord.

It is into such a kingdom that we have been invited in Jesus, and the apostle calls the community to faithfulness (Colossians 1:21-23). Then the apostle pushes the cosmic scope of this kingdom, this reconciliation of “all things” (Colossians 1:20), to its limit when he says that this gospel “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). And he meant it. All of creation has heard the gospel, all of creation recognizes the Redeemer. It is only humans who have a hard time seeing what is before their faces.

And so Paul again makes clear that his intention is to “present everyone mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28; cf. 1:9-10)

A seditious maturity that says that if Jesus is Lord then Caesar (and all of his contemporary imitators) is a fraud.

A subversive maturity that knows that subjects of the kingdom are not slaves of the empire.

A holistic maturity that confesses that the scope of redemption is as wide as creation.

A grown-up maturity for the long haul of Christian discipleship in the shadow of empire.