Lectionary Commentaries for October 2, 2022
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 17:5-10

Francisco J. García

“Increase our faith!” plead the disciples. Only in retreating to the first five verses of chapter 17 can we better understand the context that leads them to make this petition. In these first few verses (1-4), Jesus issues some heavy requirements for discipleship: he warns against causing the “little ones” (in other words, the most marginalized members of society, new disciples, children) to stumble, and emphasizes the need to both rebuke fellow followers that falter while also offering radical forgiveness to each other. It’s worth noting that Jesus has already dealt with the difficult and life-altering demands of discipleship in a significant way earlier in Luke 14:25-33 (challenging family norms, carrying the cross, giving up all possessions), making the verses in Luke 17 a not-so-subtle reminder. 

Jesus’ loaded response to the disciple’s request for more faith—telling them that all they required was the faith of a tiny mustard seed to do the impossible—tells us that they are asking for the wrong thing. But what’s wrong with wanting just a little more faith to meet the urgent call of their fearless leader? 

Jesus, ever the teacher, creatively shares the essentials for cultivating a strong faith. Faith can’t be quantified on a line graph, as if saying “I have 25% more faith this year than last year!” Faith does not increase like magic. It is felt and known through lived experience. This can only come through practice, in those challenging moments when faith is put to the test. I don’t mean “test” in the sense that you pass or fail, but that you move forward with a concrete step in the justice-seeking and peacemaking way of Jesus, with a discerning heart, regardless of uncertainty, worry, or fear. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplified this when he described the fear that overcame him when he began receiving death threats during the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s. One night after a particularly troubling phone call, King found himself exasperated, unable to sleep, and ready to quit. While offering a humble, desperate prayer, King says that he felt the presence of God like never before and heard the words speaking to him in the depth of his soul, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” As King notes, “the outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”1 

While my experience does not compare to what King and the Black community in Montgomery faced in challenging longstanding Jim Crow racism in the South, I resonate with the feelings of worry and fear during my first act of civil disobedience. Alongside fellow faith leaders, I joined a group of workers facing discrimination and retaliation after organizing for improved working conditions. Would we be mistreated by the police? Would I have to spend a night in jail? As we gathered and heard testimonies from the workers who were risking arrest to bring some dignity and justice to their workplaces, and as we all shared stories about what compelled us to show up that day, my agitation was transformed into a peaceful inner knowing that whatever took place, all would be well. After twelve hours of fellowship in a cold, tiny jail cell with fellow dissidents and a few other arrestees, we were released, and I felt imbued with a faith that could truly uproot a tree and plant it in a sea!    

Jesus’ outrageous and disproportionate example of how only a seemingly small amount of the right kind of faith—Jesus is talking quality, not quantity—is needed to do incredible things speaks to the simple truths of a gospel faith. Faith is most powerfully expressed and tangibly felt when it is keyed into an action that draws awareness of the basileia tou theou (the kingdom, kin-dom, commonwealth of God2) that is among/within us (Jesus says this in Luke 17:20-21), imminent and breaking through in the world. According to Jesus and the gospel that is articulated in the inseparably political, economic, and religious world of Luke-Acts, this basileia prioritizes the poor and the marginalized, critiques the rich and their wealth, and calls for a cooperative, egalitarian, and even utopian re-ordering of society.3 For a refresher on this, revisit the blessings and woes that Jesus offers in Luke 6:20-26 (“Blessed are you who are poor … you who hunger now … you who weep now; woe to you who are rich … who are well fed now, et cetera), and descriptions of the earliest Christian communities in Acts 2:44-46 and 4:32-35 (“All believers … had everything in common; there were no needy persons among them).

Everything in this passage—even the troubling verses in Luke 17:7-10 that employ the master-slave motif to speak of the requirements of discipleship—as well as the overall tenor of the gospel of Luke, points to faith as a praxis, an ongoing spiral-like process of reflection, action, and grace that only “increases” as the process itself unfolds and expands in breadth and depth. If we can understand the overall vision of Luke as highlighted above, knowing that Luke drew upon the often unjust but entrenched social and economic structures of the ancient world such as slavery to make a point, then we can uncover the kernel of importance in these verses. With faith as a praxis, much like the servants who are expected to do their jobs and not be thanked for it, it is a given that we must be actively engaged in prayerful, reflective action for our own self-transformation and to tap into the collective basileia. Faith enacted in a lived struggle for greater justice and compassion in the world then becomes what theologian Johann Baptist Metz calls “a solidaristic hope in the God of Jesus as the God of the living and the dead, who calls all to be subjects in God’s presence.”4 


Notes

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Strength to Love,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986), 508-509.
  2. For discussions about the kin-dom or commonwealth of God, see Ada María Isasi-Díaz, “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal,” in In Our Own Voices: Latino/a Renditions of Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010), 181; and David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb Jr., Richard A Falk, and Catherine Keller, The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God: A Political, Economic, Religious Statement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
  3. Luise Schottroff and Wolfgang Stegemann, Jesus and the Hope of the Poor (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990), 67-68, 82-83, 116-118.
  4. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, translated and edited by J. Matthew Ashley (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 2007), 81.

First Reading

Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Rachel Wrenn

Sermon-writing fingers might get itchy at Habakkuk 2:4—”Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” 

Extracting this verse from its surroundings, however, and lifting it onto a preaching pedestal would be a mistake. Habakkuk invites us to dwell on what righteous faith actually looks like: a person speaking in anger at their God.

Habakkuk contains no direct address to the listener.1 Every other biblical prophetic book speaks, at some point, directly to a human audience. Not so for Habakkuk. The entire book records a conversation between a prophet and God. We as the listeners simply lurk in the comments, and the comments section in this book is fire, to borrow some modern terminology. The prophet is angry at God, and they are not afraid to let God know.2

The meat and heat of Habakkuk’s anger at God start in Habakkuk 1:2-4. Habakkuk begins the oracle (against God!) with a phrase that signals a particular type of speaking: ‘ad-’anah, or, “how long!” This phrase signals to the listeners that Habakkuk is using the lament genre. (For example, “Once upon a time” signals the fairy tale genre. This phrase marks what follows as a fanciful tale, often geared toward children. Listeners expect the story to have a moral and a happy ending.) Listeners in Habakkuk’s time could expect within a lament some kind of testimony to pain that the speaker is experiencing, along with a request for God to do something about that pain. Habakkuk is not just asking a question of God; Habakkuk is saying, “I not only want to know how long, I want to signal to you, God, that I am wholly and heartily sick of what is happening, and I think it is beyond time that you do something about it.”

Laments are sometimes desperate. Laments are sometimes sorrowful. And laments, such as Habakkuk’s, are sometimes angry. Habakkuk blames God for the violence running rampant: verse 2 reads “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, / and you will not listen? / Or cry to you “Violence!” / and you will not save?” (NRSV). The prophet cries; God ignores. Violence rages; no divine being engages. Verse 3b describes the dire nature of the situation: “Desolation and carnage are before me! Strife and struggles are surging!” (my translation). Habakkuk is choking on the violence all around him, dumbfounded by the fact that God seems inexplicably absent. 

The prophet is so sick and tired of the bloodshed that, in verse 4, they make one of the most radical, transgressive statements in the Bible. Most English translations soften the blasphemous nature of this verse, translating the Hebrew into something like, “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails” (NRSV). “Becomes slack” is a Hebrew word that can also be translated as “fails.” “Law” here is not the Hebrew word for statutes and ordinances; it is a word that is heavy with connotation and fraught with meaning: Torah. Torah, the boundaries of a loving covenant. Torah, the most holy and gracious gift of God. Torah, the means by which God can be in relationship with God’s people. Some use the word Teaching (capital-T) instead of law. “Teaching” is a close synonym to “Word.” So hear the text again: “Your Word, God, has failed.” Now we Christians start to feel the gut-punch of what Habakkuk is actually saying: violence is rampant, and you, God, have failed.

Habakkuk is so overwhelmed with violence that he lashes out—at God. This prophet has the audacity to say that which we might only admit in our deepest of hearts: sometimes, with the violence of the world raging around us, it feels like God has failed. And Habakkuk not only says this audacious thought; he says it out loud to God!

The most remarkable part of the book of Habakkuk is that God talks back. In Habakkuk 2:1, Habakkuk stations himself at a watchpost, a rampart, claiming that he will not back down until he hears God’s response to his anger. One might picture the prophet with his chest heaving, hands on hips, legs akimbo, just daring God to make a divine response. 

Verse 2 reads, “Then the LORD answered me and said: / ‘Write the vision; / make it plain on tablets, / so that a runner may read it.’” God does not rebuke Habakkuk! God does not even chastise the prophet! There is a generosity to this divine response, a willingness to not only hear the shouts of this puny human but to include in a memorial that could be read and sent throughout the land. 

The vision of the world to come that is being offered to God’s people in the rest of the book has somehow been wrestled out of God by Habakkuk’s angry accusations —and God honors those accusations in perpetuity! The fact that the Holy Scriptures preserve Habakkuk’s words testifies to the nature of our God: God not only entertains human laments but makes room for human anger—even anger at God. Speaking our anger at God is part of what it means to be righteous, the book of Habakkuk suggests. How might you invite your people to engage with their anger at God as an integral part of the righteous faith by which they live (Habakkuk 2:4)?


Notes

  1. Richard W. Nysse, “Background of Habakkuk,” enterthebible.org https://enterthebible.org/courses/habakkuk/lessons/background-of-habakkuk.
  2. Habakkuk resists attempts to locate the book historically. The book describes no datable events. It depicts a situation that could fit any number of time periods. Whenever this conversation took place, the heat of the prophet’s accusations against God that the made directly to God would surely have caused any bystanders to duck their heads and wish they were anywhere else but there.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6

Timothy J. Sandoval

Alone, weeping bitterly, without a comforter, betrayed, her people in exile, finding no resting place. Her roads mourn, her priests groan, her young girls grieve. Her foes have become her masters.

So is the description of “daughter Zion” in the first lines of the book of Lamentations. They are poetic words uttered in the aftermath of the great tragedy that befell Judah and Jerusalem—“daughter Zion”—in 586 BCE. It was then that King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians destroyed the city with its temple, exiling a good portion of its population to Babylon. The poet expresses the pain and desolation of one who likely experienced firsthand the destruction and death that characterized those (for most of us) barely imaginable days of suffering, loss, and despondency.

The poet’s words also strive to explain the tragedy. How could this happen? Why did this happen to us? The answer the text offers is unsettling: It was because of the “multitude of her transgressions” that “the LORD has made her suffer”(verse 5). 

The sentiment represents well a version of “Deuteronomic” theology by which much of the Bible seeks to understand not only the disaster of 586, but the consequences of sin more generally. Daughter Zion—Jerusalem and Judah—was paying for her sins, and paying dearly. To understand their pain and suffering the Judahites needed to look no further than their failure to abide by their covenant obligations with the LORD.

The moral-theological logic at work in that sort of Deuteronomistic thinking entails a profound concern for the seriousness of religious infidelity and social injustice. Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah regularly preached against such sin. And in good Deuteronomic fashion he predicted disaster would soon arrive—and this at the hand of the Babylonians (for example, Jeremiah 25:9)—if the Judahites did not repent and change their ways. Indeed, Jeremiah himself experienced the Babylonian assault and its aftermath.

The sort of Deuteronomic theology that Lamentations (and Jeremiah) proffer, however, is also a profoundly dangerous ideology. It can all too easily be carelessly and wrongly deployed as a diagnostic tool to explain any sort of disaster or suffering as caused by a person or group’s sinfulness. It can too easily be taken up to blame all sorts of victims, as when the Rev. Franklin Graham suggested that Hurricane Katrina targeted New Orleans because of that city’s iniquities!

What, then, is there to do with the sort of moral-theological logic that seems to be at work in a passage like Lamentations 1:1-6? Because such a view is found in Scripture, most of us will feel obligated to deal with it seriously. Indeed, it should not be left uncommented upon. It should not be ignored, but engaged. The Hebrew Scriptures represent ancient Israel’s testimony regarding how that people understood their lives and experiences in God’s light. We, today, are invited to engage that testimony in light of our own experiences and understandings of God. 

Subsequently, preachers and others might well affirm the serious manner in which Lamentations understood the nature and consequences of sin and injustice—not just the moral failings of individuals but the character and actions of nations too. Ought not we today also be so seriously concerned with such matters, taking seriously the theological impulses of the scriptures, even if not reproducing them identically? 

For example, alongside the well-known Deuteronomistic verdict might one not also constructively imagine other sorts of moral-theological responses both to the disaster that befell Jerusalem in 586, and to the range of difficult situations facing our communities and the world today? Indeed, if the poet of Lamentations—and other biblical Deuteronomistic theologians—imagined death, destruction, and exile ultimately to be the result of the divine will—“for the Lord has made her suffer”—must we too? Might we not, for instance, wonder more fully whether the punishment extracted was not too much? Did such severe chastisement “fit the crime” or was it too harsh? Consequently, might we not wonder, too, whether the testimony the Deuteronomist theologians offered was the only correct interpretation of the political and military events of their day? 

Should we today focus only on the sin and injustice of the Judahites, which the Deuteronomists believed brought the wrath of the divine? Might not the disaster that befell Judah in 586 (and a host of other smaller and larger city-states in West Asia) at the hands of the Babylonians also be interpreted simply as the result of the wicked and violent imperial strivings of the Babylonians? Indeed, the Bible seems to want to suggest it was both at the same time. Jeremiah, for instance, insisted that although God used the Babylonians to punish “daughter Zion,” the Lord would eventually punish the Babylonians for their obvious wickedness too (Jeremiah 25:12; 50:18).

Lamentations itself might warrant asking the above sorts of questions. The book at points seems to accept the Deuteronomistic moral-theological interpretation of the events of 586, certainly. However, it also seems to contest it somewhat. On the one hand, daughter Zion herself often speaks in the book, poignantly lamenting what has befallen her; and her words can leave a reader thinking that, yes, the punishment Jerusalem received in fact did not fit the crime. As daughter Zion says in 2:20,

Look, O Lord, and consider!

To whom have you done this?

Should women eat their offspring,

The children they have borne?

Should priest and prophet be killed 

In the sanctuary of the Lord?

In her appeals to God, daughter Zion also sounds a distinct theological note, emphasizing not God’s anger at sin, but divine mercy. 

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

His mercies never come to an end;

They are new every morning;

Great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)

Post hoc ergo propter hoc—“after it therefore because of it.” That’s a well-known saying, articulating a logical fallacy. The expression claims that because one thing follows another, the first was the cause of the second. But it is regularly not true; real life tends to be much more complicated than that. If Judah sinned and then the Babylonians destroyed the nation, the Deuteronomists like the prophet Jeremiah concluded the one caused the other. They were surely right about Judah’s covenant failures; and no one could deny the destruction the Babylonians wrought. But were they right that God sent such terrible destruction on Judah because of their sin? Certainly, earthly kings who are betrayed have and do act with such punishing vengeance. But the divine king, too? 

The confident discernment of any causal relationship between a person or community’s relative state of well-being and their moral status is best left to prophets! The rest of us would do well simply to learn from Lamentations that sin and faithlessness are serious matters that demand serious attention—of course. But instead of being tempted to discern through a consideration of other people’s circumstances any iniquity and moral shortcomings that might have produced such a state, we would do better to cling to—and preach—daughter Zion’s confidence that the Lord’s “mercies never come to an end.”


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 37:1-9

Kelly J. Murphy

From its opening lines, Psalm 37 closely resembles the didactic tone of the book of Proverbs.1

For example, Proverbs 23:17 counsels, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always continue in the fear of the LORD.” Similarly, Psalm 37 begins by declaring, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,” continuing “for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb” (verses 1-2).

The psalmist then encourages that listeners “Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security” (verse 3) and to “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (verse 4). Verse 4, perhaps unsurprisingly, is sometimes invoked by proponents of the prosperity gospel. As Costi Hinn, a nephew of the famous prosperity teacher Benny Hinn, writes:

By an early age, as part of the Hinn family, I viewed Jesus Christ as our magic jenie—rub him right, and he’ll give you whatever your heart desires. I quoted verses from the Bible like Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart,” and John 14:14,  where Jesus says, “If you ask Me anything in My Name, I will do it.” The meaning of these Scriptures was so obvious to me; believe in Jesus Christ, ask for things by saying, “In Jesus’ name” and you’ll have whatever you want. Seriously—that simple. Not difficult to understand.2

But, as Hinn outlines in his story of how he abandoned the prosperity gospel, life is rarely as simple as saying certain words in order to receive material gain. Read alone, Psalm 37:4 might suggest as much, but a careful reading of the entire psalm illustrates that it addresses an age-old question: Why do good things happen to people who act badly—and what should we do when we witness this play out?

Though not part of the lectionary reading, Psalm 37:25-26 suggests that its author’s answer to this question is that God will ensure that nothing good shall come to the wicked and to wrongdoers, but that those who trust in God will find that good things do come to them eventually: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” If the God’s people hold on, the psalmist insists again and again, good things will happen to them. Here we might be tempted to see how the psalm could be used by proponents of the prosperity gospel; after all, as Ellen F. Davis writes, this psalm can be “taken to be the worst kind of ‘wisdom literature’: a somewhat random collection of truisms that may not be so true after all.”3 Just wait, be good, and good things will happen. For this reason, Walter Brueggemann argues that Psalm 37 “reflects a community for whom most things work out.”4 Of course, life is rarely so simple.

Yet as Davis notes, there is another way to understand Psalm 37. A theme of inheriting the land in the future runs throughout the psalm: “you will live in the land, and enjoy security” (verse 3); “those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land” (verse 9); “the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity” (verse 11); “for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off” (verse 22); “the righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever” (verse 29); “wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked” (verse 34).

When Davis reads Psalm 37, she understands it as a poem that “speaks to and for the ‘vulnerable,’ who, it seems, are currently landless,” and as a text that “looks toward changes in matters of land tenure.” While the wicked might “prosper in their way” and “carry out evil devices” (verse 7) or “draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy” (verse 14), readers of the psalm do not need to understand this as “contentment with the status quo.” Instead, “far from being sanguine, the poem acknowledges that there is reason for apprehension and even mourning.”5 Though the audience of this psalm might have lived in an “extractive” economy—which Davis sees in verse 21, where “the wicked borrow, and do not pay back”— the psalm also records how “the righteous are generous and keep giving” (verse 21). Communities that are generous and keep giving, Davis writes, are “communities that endure … they cultivate modest habits of use and accumulation.”6

If read piecemeal, as Hinn notes above—“Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (verse 4)—Psalm 37 provides aphorisms that most of us know are not always true. But if we read the psalm in its entirety, we might find it more satisfying.

This is especially the case as we read Psalm 37 in the years following increased recognition of our contemporary land crisis, in the days after climate activist Greta Thunberg’s 2019 speech to the United Nations, in the wake of multiple reports that climate change is happening faster and with more ferocity than we thought it was even a year ago, and with scientific evidence suggesting that much of the damage done is irreversible. Reading this way, might we turn to Psalm 37 and find in it what Davis sees—a “tone of … encouragement for the dispirited”?7

After all, this psalm encourages patience and trust in God, but also reminds readers that God “will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday” (verse 6), that “the righteous are generous and keep giving” (verse 21), and “are ever giving liberally and lending” (verse 26). All of this requires action on the part of the psalm’s audience: to have a cause, to give, to lend to others. Rather than simply shrugging our shoulders or giving up in the face of what seems like a battle we have already lost, we can—with the psalmist—focus on “do[ing] good” (verse 3) with an eye toward the future. With Davis, we might use Psalm 37 as a text that encourages us to become a community that “cultivate[s] modest habits of use and accumulation.”8 And in this way, we can endeavor to create a world where future generations might “live in the land, and enjoy security.”


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 6, 2019.
  2. Costin W. Hinn, God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 38.
  3. Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 115.
  4. Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Edited by Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 239. Cited in Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, 115.
  5. Davis, 114.
  6. Davis, 116.
  7. Davis, 114.
  8. Davis, 116.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Sunggu Yang

While in 1 Timothy Paul appears as a free man, in 2 Timothy he is assumed to be in a prison (1:8; 2:9), probably in Rome (1:16-17; see also Acts 28:16). Besides, he seems to be abandoned by most of his inner circle of colleagues and friends (4:9-16), with imminent death pending (4:6-8).1 That is very likely why 2 Timothy is more filled with personal exhortations addressed to Timothy than concerns or teachings for the church. In particular, Paul’s endurance in the midst of suffering is used to provide an example of faithful Christian life, which is “a holy calling” and can be overcome with the ultimate Christian hope in the savior Christ and eternal life (1:8-14). 

The overall spiritual tone and ethical ethos of the given passage (and of course, the whole of 2 Timothy) may remind diligent readers of the Bible of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-17, which is the final and personal account of exhortations of Jesus for his beloved disciples, just like the personal relation between Paul and Timothy. In the speech, the first words of Jesus are, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” as if his disciples are now distressed or facing certain suffering (Of course, they are! Soon they will all be persecuted, imprisoned, and even led to death). But they shouldn’t utterly despair as the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is firmly promised (John 14:26 and other places), just as Timothy is told the same in 1:14, “the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” Last, like Timothy is exhorted, the disciples of Jesus will be able to find their unceasing joy and peace in Christ even in the midst of pain (John 16:22), more importantly because they have their hope in eternal life (John 17:16). 

This historical and scriptural background information sheds considerable illumination on understanding this week’s three-part passage: 1:1-2 (salutation), 1:3-7 (thanksgiving and personal remarks), and 1:8-14 (encouragement).

The salutation, full of confidence, opens this personal letter. Paul’s apostleship is confirmed, rooted in no other than Christ Jesus and even “by the will of God.” “The promise of life” seems to assume Paul’s impending death (according to the church’s history, Paul was beheaded near Rome). As aforementioned, this promised life is eternal life beyond this world, full of joy and peace, which must be the ultimate source of courage and encouragement in overcoming continuing pain and suffering as discussed further in the third part. 

In the second part, like in 1 Timothy, the intimate spiritual-parental relation between Paul and Timothy is recounted, along with the introduction of Timothy’s own matrilineal life of faith. What is intriguing—probably by intention—is the reference to the “ancestors” of faith and Timothy’s grandmother, Lois. As Romans had a suspicion of new religious cults but put high esteem on ancient religions, this reference may have served as a fine apologetic tactic vis-à-vis the anti-Christian, hostile environment. Now equipped with full confidence in Christ, the eternal savior, and a persuasive defense strategy, the passage moves on to its last part, that is, encouragement for the continued courageous missional life in the Holy Spirit, in the midst of persecution. 

It cannot be overemphasized that this third part, like many other similar messages found in Pauline letters, considers pain or suffering encountered in the life of faith not to be the unfortunate result of unattractive, forced or illegitimate religious life, but the true mark of faithful, grace-filled living in Christ. In other words, the letter seems to say suffering is a natural part of faithful living and since Christ has already overcome it so can we! 

What a paradox, however. If Christ has already “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (1:10), why do we still have suffering in life, particularly persecution due to faithful living? The passage itself does not provide a quick answer for it. In 1 and 2 Timothy taken as a whole, we may sense that these letters see suffering or defeat of it from a cosmic kairos perspective. That is, in the eyes of Christ who lives through eternity now, all the suffering or pain lose their control and are already crushed in his dominion. As humans living through chronos time, however, it is inevitable that we may still encounter severe suffering and persecution, which most Pauline letters, if not all, acknowledge. But those same letters, including this week’s passage, emphasize that there is another very important way of looking at the same reality—kairos!—which has become clearer in the life of Christ and surely will culminate at the eventual moment of eschaton. 

It should be, finally, good to know that the given passage does not propagate any (bad) form of spiritual triumphalism or heroism, things like “Yes, there is pain in faithful living, but it is simply nothing compared to the grace of Christ (thus, get over it easily!),” or “If you cannot shout out your triumph in the midst of suffering and persecution, your faith itself is in serious trouble.” No. That does not seem to be the case of the passage or any Pauline letters. Rather, all those letters and this passage seem to solemnly state that pain is real pain, shame is shame, and suffering is so very real, which could be very devastating for those going through these things; Paul found himself in distress and agony on many occasions. Yet, no pain or persecution will have its final victory over the faithful who endure it. The kairos time and events are also real. And it is already happening. If only we have eyes to see it with the help of the Holy Spirit, the passage finally seems to say, all should be well even in the midst of all the chaos and mishaps—which are, by the way, always normal in any type of ministry. 

This young fellow and rising minister, Timothy, seems to have a fine mentor who knows the multilayered dynamics of ministry really well. He is quite lucky; and, I think, so are we, reading this same letter today.


Notes

  1. The Harper Collins Study Bible, Fully Revised and Updated (2006), 2023