Lectionary Commentaries for October 9, 2011
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14

Sharon H. Ringe

Think back over the recent celebration of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. It was the event of the season!

Can you imagine those invited not attending, and even making a joke of it? Even those of us not bowled over by royal pomp and splendor caught the reruns on television, to catch a glimpse of The Dress, or simply because we were charmed by the sweet affection evident between the bride and groom.

And oh, the “wedding garments” in evidence, from the elegant and cheerful yellow ensemble worn by Queen Elizabeth, to the military uniforms covered with medals, to the extravagant hats and “fascinators” (Who had even heard the word before this event?) of other women guests!

That is the type of event evoked by the beginning of the parable, depicted as directed once again to “them”–the chief priests and elders who have been the audience of the previous two parables (21:23). It is a story of etiquette and bad manners that escalate into violence, and of an arbitrary decree by the king reminiscent of the royal folly Alice encountered in Wonderland: “Off with their heads!”

This wedding party began as convention dictates. A first invitation (a sort of “Save the date!” notice that has become common again) is followed by the summons carried by the host’s servants when the banquet is ready. Then things start to fall apart.

First, the invited guests simply refuse to come, and when the second call comes, they treat the invitation as a joke and go about their business. More than bad manners are at stake, for some invitees even assault and kill the servants. In his anger the king then escalates the confrontation by sending in his troops to destroy both the perpetrators and their city. Apparently the king has judged their bad behavior to be the opening salvo of a rebellion that must be quelled, even at the cost of a portion of the king’s own holdings.

With the party ready, the king is determined that it will go forward, and so the servants are sent out again, this time to the very limits of the territory. (That is what the term means that lies behind the “main streets” in verse 9). They are to bring in everyone, “good and bad” (verse 10), so that the hall will be filled. When he king plans a party, the party will go on!

With minor variations, the parable to this point echoes the version in Luke 14:16-24 and a similar one in the Gospel of Thomas. All three seem to go back to a common original form of the story, which each Gospel writer adapted to his own purposes. For Matthew those purposes center on the issue of the “worthiness” of the guests (verse 8). The criterion apparently is not an ethical one (for both “good and bad” are brought in), but rather a matter of eschatological insight–the ability to recognize the urgency of the invitation and to respond.

This is where the specifics of the story evoke biblical traditions and images that would have made its point clear to Matthew’s readers. For example, the parable is introduced as something to be compared to the “kingdom of heaven.”

In Matthew’s careful Jewish piety that minimized the use of the Greek word “God” (a carry-over of the refusal to pronounce the divine name in Hebrew), as well the use of “king” as a common metaphor for God, the story is evidently about a divine banquet. Further, a wedding can be a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel (Isaiah 54:5-6; 62:5; Hosea 2:16-20), and a banquet a sign of the covenant between them (Isaiah 25:6-10; 55:1-3). “Worthiness” thus involves being able to recognize the king’s “wedding banquet” for what it is and responding to it as one’s top priority.

The final invitation that will fill the banquet hall is inclusive in the extreme. In that sense it mirrors other instances of Jesus’ table community that embodied the hospitality and inclusiveness of the divine project or empire he proclaimed. Questions of social status or observance of Torah regulations, or even one’s ethical behavior are set aside in favor of the urgency of the host’s plan. That radical inclusiveness comes to a sudden halt, however, when the king encounters a guest who is not properly attired (verses 11-13).

The parable-within-the parable has no parallels outside of Matthew, so it must reflect his particular agenda. The language of the parable ranges from sarcasm, with the address of the man as “Friend” (see 20:13 and 26:50), to apocalyptic violence (verse 13). The details of ejection into the “outer darkness” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” invoke earlier declarations of judgment (for example, 8:12; 13:42; and 13:50) and require that we read this parable in an eschatological key.

Clearly the issue is not the man’s clothing, but rather something else about how he presents himself in this ultimate moment. We are left without a list of specific criteria that move a person from the list of the many “called,” to that of the few “chosen” (verse 14), but it appears that Matthew envisions further accountability beyond one’s initial response of discipleship, our “yes!” to God’s invitation to the banquet.

I am drawn to understand this double parable through the lens of James 2, and the tension between his affirmation that one’s faith can be seen in one’s “works” (by which he means deeds, especially deeds of justice and compassion), and Paul’s more famous affirmation (in Galatians and Romans) that our standing before God depends only on our acceptance of God’s grace.

My suggestion about the reason for James’ position is that Paul’s costly and radical notion of faith as the commitment of one’s entire life may have become watered down to a matter of intellectual belief or emotional trust that does not bring one’s behavior into play. It seems to me that Matthew is in the same place that we find James. He affirms the boundless generosity and inclusive reach of God’s grace, but he also affirms that for us to be “worthy” of God’s gift requires nothing less than our whole life.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 25:1-9

Fred Gaiser

Feasts, festivals, banquets, and wedding suppers abound in the Bible, and with good reason: meal fellowship represents community of the closest kind, especially perhaps in tribal cultures (then and now); and feasts give rise to abundance, even in times of distress.

When people celebrate, they are often able to share in surprising ways, welcoming others to the table. More than once, African friends gave me the equivalent of the widow’s mite, sharing graciously out of their poverty to celebrate our time together.

So, what of the banquet in our text? It becomes paradigmatic — a model or sign of all the feasts God has in store for us — precisely because of the uncertainty of its context in the book of Isaiah. Most scholars see Isaiah 24-27 (sometimes called Isaiah’s “little apocalypse”) as a unit hard to pin down to a particular time and place. The chapters announce the hope and judgment that will come “on that day” (seven times in four chapters) — and, as with all “apocalyptic” texts, attempts to determine the day and the hour will not only fail, they will get in the way of hearing the message of the text to its original hearers and to us.

Like most prophetic material, the texts are poetry, and the preacher/exegete must allow them to be just that: signs, images, metaphors, hints, and exercises in playfulness and imagination that let us in on what God is doing without requiring too exact determinations of when and where. (If, for no other reason, than that such determination will make the texts inapplicable to some times and places by claiming them too precisely for another.)

Though Isaiah’s feast lacks a clear historical context, it does have a literary context, and that matters for its meaning. If we read the text given in the pericope, we have fierce judgment on “the ruthless” (three times in verses 1-5), followed by the banquet of abundance for “all peoples” (verses 6-9).

So, law and gospel? But the text continues, even if the pericope does not, to pronounce judgment again (ugly judgment) on the “Moabites” (verses 10b-12).

So, law, gospel, law? We should not try to turn this into an exercise in the “proper relationship of law and gospel,” since the text does not mean to do that (indeed, it knows nothing of such a discussion), but it does provide a judgment/promise/judgment chiasm, where we see God’s glorious promise “surrounded” by the judgment of the wicked.

Those wicked just won’t seem to go away — not here, not in Psalm 23 (another banquet “in the presence of my enemies”), and not in Matthew’s wedding banquet, where the guest without a garment (without demonstrating the new life that should come from an encounter with divine abundance?) is unceremoniously dismissed. God’s parties (even if timeless) happen in a real world, where real people do wicked or stupid things and thus, in effect, vote themselves “off the island.”

I would certainly include verse 10a in the sermon text. It closes the section begun in verse 6 (note the parenthetical repetition of “on this mountain” in verses 6 and 10a), and it provides a theme that ties together the judgment and the promise of the chapter: “For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Yes! A quick concordance check will demonstrate that the “hand of the Lord” — that symbol of God’s active power and presence — is both positive and negative in the Bible (actually, more often the latter). It is the power that turns back the Egyptians (Exodus 9:3), that turns against a rebellious Israel (1 Samuel 12:15), that symbolizes the raw power of whatever God is up to (unfairly?) in Job (Job 12:9-10); but it is also the symbol of God’s “powerful” mercy (2 Samuel 24:14), and it will guide John the Baptist on his mission (Luke 1:66). Hebrews is right that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31); yet, so is Matthew with his assurance that the touch of Jesus’ hand will give life (Matthew 9:18).

That is the literary/theological context for Isaiah’s banquet, and it matters. Not that God is capricious (“Is the old man in a good mood today?”), but that the good world that God desires for “all peoples” means that those who behave ruthlessly to others and those who, like Moab, refuse and despise hospitality to others, will find themselves excluded (their own choice, actually).

Ah, but in the middle of that troubled world, what a banquet! Perhaps only the poor can truly appreciate the feast (just as only the downtrodden can truly appreciate the importance of defeating the oppressors). For us (most of us, anyway), who are more or less affluent and safe, God’s” judgment” becomes a problematic abstraction, and the glorious banquet (“fat things full of marrow” and “wine on the lees” RSV) becomes a terrifying threat of obesity and addiction.

Enjoying the fat, the rich marrow, and the abundant wine is beyond-their-wildest-imagination promise for those who rarely see such things. The same things can become repugnant to those who daily have the problem of too much rather than too little. To appreciate the text, we need to recognize our need — always a reality, no matter our relative wealth by the standards of the world. It will be up to the preacher to translate the text into promise for a particular congregation (which, to be sure, may include both the haves and the have nots).

For rich and poor, death remains a problem, of course, so the promise of God’s defeat of that final enemy will apply to all. This promise, too, is not merely about the afterlife (though it will move in that direction in the biblical tradition), but about the “shroud” that covers us always — the fear, the pain, the little deaths that get in the way of the abundant life God desires for us.

The lack of historical context does not make this text “timeless” in the sense that it is for an unknown future, but “timeless” as in “timely” for every generation. That is what I mean by “paradigmatic.” This is what God is up to. This is who God is. This is what God wants for us. A properly textual sermon on these verses will proclaim this God and this promise today — for “all nations.”

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14

Amy Erickson

With the golden calf narrative, preachers have an opportunity to explore with their congregations the stunning, and even surprising, character of God and God’s way with the world.

The scene in Exodus 32:1-14 is preceded by Moses going up the mountain to receive “the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment” (Exodus 24:12). As he heads up into the mountain of God, Moses tells the elders to wait for him and indicates that they should consult Aaron and Hur if there is a dispute (Exodus 24:14).

For forty days and nights, Moses remained on the mountain (Exodus 24:18), receiving instructions from Yahweh about the construction of the tabernacle as well as the vestments for and procedures for the ordination of the priesthood. Yahweh and Moses are deep into the details when the scene suddenly shifts away from the mountaintop in chapter 32. The people’s anxiety about Moses’ absence appears to have gone into overdrive because almost immediately, they propose to Aaron: “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1).

The reason the people are so anxious has to do with the absence of Moses (“the people saw that Moses had delayed to come down from the mountain,” 32:1). Instead of identifying God as the one who has liberated them from Egypt, they refer to Moses (literally, “this Moses”) as “the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt” (32:1).

Thus the idol they request is meant to replace Moses. However, they challenge God’s sovereignty as well. After casting an image of a calf, they blatantly attribute the content of God’s self revelation (Exodus 20:2) to “these gods.” The people say, “THESE are your GODS, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (32:4). These people sure do know how to push the divine buttons.

Aaron’s blunders are a bit more subtle. In fact, partly because of what Aaron says after melting down the people’s jewelry and coins to make the calf (“tomorrow will be a feast to Yahweh” [32:5]), some commentators argue that the calf is intended to function as a symbol of Yahweh, not other gods (and so this is not technically apostasy). And when the people say, “these are your gods” (32:4), because the Hebrew word for “gods” is the same as the word for “God” (both are ʾĕlōhîm), the people are merely identifying the calf as Yahweh.

Further, some argue that the calf is not meant to represent Yahweh’s image but rather a seat for God (something for God to ride atop, like the ark), so this is not apostasy or idolatry. However, the plural modifier “these” before “gods” is not easily explained by this line of thinking; and God’s reaction suggests that the people have committed more than a minor infraction.

I think this inconsistency between what the people say about the calf and what Aaron says has to do with Aaron’s style of leadership. Aaron is depicted as a practical leader; he is willing to compromise on the theological details a bit in order to appease the people. The people want tangible images of GODS (gods who are a bit more accessible than Yahweh and/or intermediaries who are less cranky than Moses), so Aaron fudges a bit.

He makes them a calf and lets them think what they want about it. Technically, he clarifies that for him, this is about Yahweh by calling a feast in honor of Yahweh. But Aaron does not disavow the people of their theological misconceptions. Maybe he thinks, “So what that the people don’t get the subtlety of the distinction, what’s the harm? At least they’re not griping at me!” Once the party begins, apparently it gets out of hand pretty quickly because the Hebrew word for “revel” in the New Revised Standard Translation (32:6) has sexual connotations. I have to wonder if Aaron is getting nervous…

If I were doing lectio divina and had to find a character to relate to in this story, it would be Aaron. Classic people pleaser! So you could preach this from Aaron’s point of view. You could talk about the messes we get ourselves into when we compromise our theology in order not to upset people.

Or you could preach about God in the story. The scene veers back to the mountain and we get Yahweh’s point of view on the events. God is enraged and tells Moses to get down there on the double (32:7) because “your people” (that is, Moses’ people) have acted perversely.

That this is a pivotally important and dangerous moment is underscored by Yahweh’s allusions to the judgment that preceded the flood. God uses the same word of the Israelites (calling them “perverse” or “corrupted” [šiḥēt], verse 7) that God used of the people just before flooding the earth (Genesis 6:12). The offer God made to Noah is similar to the one God makes Moses — a proposal to start over with the one person God approves of, after destroying everyone else (32:10). Even God’s demand for “rest” (New Revised Standard Translation has “let me alone,” verse 10) from the Hebrew word nûaḥ recalls the name of Noah (nōaḥ).1

It looks as though things are about to fall apart completely — until Moses breaks from the script. Rather than scaring up gopherwood and rounding up animals, Moses “implores” (verse 11) God to change God’s mind and not bring disaster on the people (verse 12).
That Moses readily intercedes in the midst of God’s fury suggests that already, God has cultivated a relationship that invites human dialogue and input.

Terence Fretheim says that in this story, we learn that “God is not the only one who has something important to say.”2 Indeed in God’s change of heart, we see “a genuine openness to the future.”3 (287). This turn in the narrative presents the preacher with an opportunity to reflect on the relational nature of the biblical god — one that runs counter to many Christians’ assumptions about God being thoroughly distant like Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.”

The intercessory prayer uttered by Moses, which appeals to God’s sense of justice and salvific intentions, works. With regard to the divine character, it is revealing that God has not chosen some sycophantic yes-man to be God’s right hand human. God has chosen one with the guts and the smarts to challenge God.

Surely God is angered by the actions of Israel, but God is portrayed, again, as responding to the anxieties underlying the people’s fears without compromising God’s vision for an alternative society.

Along the wilderness journey, we see God providing the people with more and more meaningful ways to access God.4 After Moses, the first intermediary God gives the people is the law (the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21-23) — a book of God’s words they can learn and consult when they are uncertain about how to proceed.

The next intermediary is the tabernacle, along with the cloud of God’s presence that rests there and the priesthood that accompanies it. At the tabernacle, the people encounter God with the safety and order of the ritual sphere, so as not to be terrified by the direct, powerful presence of God as they were on Mt. Sinai.

A major crisis threatens the relationship between God and the people, but ultimately, God refuses to give up on these sometimes-stiff-necked, former slaves.

1Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus (ECC; Winona Lake, IN: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 706-7.
2Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 285
3Ibid., 287.
4Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Moses and the Cults: The Question of Religious Leadership,” Judaism 34 (1985), 444-452.


Commentary on Psalm 23

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Everybody knows Psalm 23. In an era of increasing biblical illiteracy, this is an encouraging sign.

But what may concern us about Psalm 23 is its reputation — that is, it is known for the most part as a “funeral psalm.” To be sure, it is not a bad thing that Psalm 23 speaks palpably and powerfully to persons in situations of death and loss; and this ability of Psalm 23 coheres quite well with its appearance in the lectionary during the season of Easter. After all, in my tradition and many others, a funeral service is more properly known as a Service of Witness to the Resurrection, which is what we especially remember and affirm during the season of Easter.

But what about those days when no one that we know well has died, and there is no funeral to preside at or attend? How do we hear, appropriate, and proclaim Psalm 23 on a warm, sunny April Sunday morning when life seems quite ordinary, maybe even quite good? To begin to address these questions, it is helpful to know that Psalm 23 is not known primarily as a “funeral psalm” in other parts of the world.

Consider Philip Jenkins’s suggestion, growing out of his experience in the Global South, that we North Americans read Psalm 23 as “a political tract”:

Read Psalm 23 as a political tract, a rejection of unjust secular authority. For Africans and Asians, the psalm offers a stark rebuttal to claims by unjust states that they care lovingly for their
subjects — while they exalt themselves to the heavens. Christians reply simply, “The Lord is my shepherd — you aren’t!” Adding to the power of the psalm, the evils that it condemns are at once political and spiritual, forces of tyranny and the devil. Besides its political role, Psalm 23 is much used in services of healing, exorcism and deliverance.1

To virtually no Christian in the United States does it occur to interpret Psalm 23 “as a political tract;” and probably never do North American Christians read Psalm 23 expecting to be instructed about “the evils that it condemns.”

How might we preachers change this situation? To begin with, perhaps we can help people consider how we live daily in a context that Douglas John Hall describes as “the kingdom of death”2 — that is, we are constantly surrounded by forces that diminish the abundant life that God intends. To be sure, most North Americans will not view themselves as victims “of unjust secular authority;” and so most North Americans will need help identifying the “forces of tyranny” at work among us. Consider, for instance, Thomas Merton’s assessment of our situation:

Even though there’s a certain freedom in our society, it’s largely illusory. Again, it’s the freedom to choose your product, but not the freedom to do without it. You have to be a consumer and your identity is to a large extent determined by your choices, which are very much determined by advertising. Identity is created by ads.3

In a context in which advertising is pervasive — something like an extraordinarily well-financed educational curriculum — and in which we virtually “have to be a consumer,” it is not surprising that our society is characterized by what Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve, once called “infectious greed.”4

Indeed, it may be that greed is one of the primary “forces of tyranny” Psalm 23 condemns by way of its simple affirmation that “The LORD is my shepherd, I have everything I need” (verse 1; my translation). Notice that what the shepherd provides for the sheep are the basic necessities of life — food (“green pastures”), drink (“still waters”), and protection (“right paths”). In short, the shepherd “keeps me alive”(verse 3a, my translation). In the second section of the psalm (verses 5-6), the gracious host also provides the basic necessities of life — food (“a table”), drink (“my cup overflows”), and protection (“you anoint my head with oil”) — leading to a situation of safety and security, or in short, life as God intends.

The issue is life; and in accordance with God’s character (“see for his name’s sake” in verse 3), God wills and actively works for life (see verse 6a, which is better translated “Surely goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life”). In contrast to us busy and industrious North Americans, who are inclined to view life as an achievement — we make a living, we say — Psalm 23 affirms that life is essentially a gift.

As such, the appropriate response is not greed, but rather infectious gratitude! Such gratitude may even mean that we are free to do without, or at least free to be content with enough. It may mean that we do not have to be a consumer. Instead of being compelled to consume, we are set free to share, quite literally, for God’s sake — to share our food, our drink, our sources of security, and to share even with the enemies who are with us at the table God prepares (verse 5).

Quite appropriately, M. Douglas Meeks discerns a distinct continuity between the message of Psalm 23 and the meal that we Christians call the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” or “gratitude;” and there are implications for our daily behavior:

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is under orders from God the Economist and is a concrete instance of God’s providential oikonimia [= “the law of the household,” the root meaning of the English word “economy”] with implications for all eating and drinking everywhere. For this reason, the disciples of Jesus should pray boldly for daily bread (Luke 11:13). They should keep the command to eat and drink, recognizing that it includes the command that they should share daily bread with all God’s people. . . Psalm 23 depicts the work of God’s economy overcoming  scarcity in God’s household [= the world].5

As it turns out, then, Psalm 23 is not only “a political tract,” but also an economic manifesto! Appropriately for the Easter season, it calls us to life, lived as God intends — in humble gratitude to God and in solidarity with God’s world-encompassing household.

1 Philip Jenkins, “Liberating Word: The Power of the Bible in the Global South,” Christian Century, July 11, 2006, 26.
2 Douglas John Hall, The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), especially 33-51.
3 Thomas Merton, The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1997), 110.
4 Greenspan is quoted in Phyllis Tickle, Greed: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 18.
5 M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 180.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9

Susan Eastman

A Quiet Mind and a Hopeful Heart
In the lesson for last Sunday, Paul uses the image of a race to picture the Christian life as one of constant movement into God’s future.

Here, he begins his final exhortation to the Philippians quite differently: “Stand firm in the Lord!” Pressing forward and standing firm in one place — how are these images to be reconciled?

I think the answer is in the prepositional clause, “in the Lord.” In the Lord, our forward movement is like our constant movement on the surface of the earth; we are held fast by gravity at the center yet simultaneously spinning at tremendous speed, constantly in motion yet constantly at rest. Without this center of gravity, this grounding in the settled presence of Christ among us, the depiction of the life of faith as a race quickly becomes frenetic and destructive.

Indeed, given the pace of most contemporary life, we certainly do not need more frantic activity. We need, rather, to rest in Christ’s presence at each moment, neither nostalgic for the past nor fantasizing about a future we cannot yet see. When we do so, we find that Christ carries us forward very quickly indeed, yet at the same time there is always enough time for what truly needs to be done.

What needs to be done, in Paul’s view, is to live by the promise that Christ will transform us, and will subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:21). This promise has quite specific effects in the present. It issues in a call to reconciliation between warring church members (4:2-3). It nurtures habits of the heart (4:4-7) and habits of the mind (4:8-9) that open us to the peace of God (4:7), which is indeed the presence of the God of peace (4:9).

First, Paul pleads with two women leaders at Philippi who apparently are at odds with each other. We know nothing else about them, nor about the “loyal companion” whom Paul asks to help. What we do know is that they were valued fellow missionaries who had shared Paul’s struggles. They thus provide evidence for the leadership roles of women in Paul’s churches.

We also know that Paul’s plea for reconciliation draws on his earlier depiction of “the mind of Christ,” in Philippians 2:1-5. Just as Paul generally exhorted the Philippians to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” so now he brings it home in a specific situation of discord. He also lists Euodia and Syntyche among those “whose names are in the book of life.” This is an unusual expression in Paul’s letters, but its appearance here causes us to ponder the way the hope of eternal life encourages us to be reconciled to our fellow Christians. We will be spending a long time with them!

Second, Paul commands us to rejoice! Again, how surprising this is, coming from the horrors of a Roman prison. The reason is not difficult to find: “The Lord is near.” Paul expects the imminent return of Christ, who will put all things right. But as we have seen throughout the letter, Paul also experiences the nearness of God in Christ, even in his present captivity. So he commands us to rejoice.

And since we are beset with anxieties that get in the way of rejoicing, he tells us to pray in everything, bringing everything, no matter how trivial or how insurmountable, to the God who loves us. We cannot generate freedom from anxiety by our own efforts; the attempt only pushes the anxiety underground, where it festers and leads to secret despair. But Christ will meet us at the place of worry, because Christ has descended to the depths of human despair. Therefore God has become for us the God whose peace “guards” our minds and hearts.

Third, Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. Is this just an exercise in positive thinking? Is it a Pollyanna denial of reality? Apart from the resurrection, such would indeed be the case. But Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.

Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.

But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.

Finally, once again Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples; Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”

But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.