First Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Love epitomizes all social obligations.

November 29, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Love epitomizes all social obligations.

This may be the “take away” lesson from today’s epistle reading. Still, the organization of the reading is somewhat odd because 3:9-13 has two parts and comes at a transition in the letter to the Thessalonians. The first part, 3:9-10, represents the closing of an earlier part of the letter (i.e., 2:17-3:10). The second part, 3:11-13, is a prayer that moves the hearers toward the topics addressed in the remainder of the correspondence.

The occasion for the letter appears to be a response to Paul’s concern that the Thessalonians may have turned their backs on him, especially since they appear to have suffered some hardship after Paul preached the Gospel to them (see 1:6). In order to find out how the Thessalonians were faring, and to determine whether they still esteemed him as their founder, the apostle sent Timothy to Thessalonica. Timothy returns with a very positive report (possibly even a letter from the congregation), and Paul writes this letter to the church.1 

It was common in Paul’s day to thank the gods upon receipt of a letter. Here the thanksgiving is in the form of a rhetorical question, “How can we thank God enough for you . . . ?” Timothy’s report has gladdened Paul’s heart, reaffirmed the love of the Thessalonian congregation for him, and further stimulated his desire to visit them. Notice that Paul says that the Thessalonians were the ground for his comfort (3:7), but it is God whom the apostle thanks. The implication is that he could never thank God enough. In fact, the language here is deeply personal as Paul’s focus intensifies. For example, the pronoun “you” appears ten times in 3:6-10 (e.g., 3:7: “because of you,” “your faith;” 3:8: “if you stand fast;” 3:9: “for you,” “on your account”). This is underscored by what follows.

The language here becomes very intense. “Night and day we pray most earnestly,” he says, “to see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith” (3:10). The Greek verb deomenoi, translated in the NRSV as “we pray,” is a gentler and more elegant rendition of the term than its potentially cruder translation, “begging.” It is the same verb found in Romans 1:10 used in a similar context. It conveys a sense of personal need.

The intensity of Paul’s statement is further illustrated by the phrase “night and day” and the adverb “earnestly.” Paul’s invocation of prayer language — his petition — is to see the Thessalonians and to complete what is lacking in their faith. Timothy’s visit stabilized them in their faith (3:3). Now Paul wants to visit them to augment it. He indicates there is some deficiency present. The meaning of the apostle’s statement has been made difficult because the verbs katartizein (“to restore”) and hysterēma (“whatever is lacking”) are infrequent. Moreover, it is a somewhat challenging to determine how these verbs are related to the Thessalonians’ faith.

Faith here means one’s total response to God, something that can be deemed inadequate or deficient (e.g., Romans 14:1; 2 Corinthians 10:15). The term hysterēma was rarely used in ancient literature, and it is used only once outside of Paul’s letters (Luke 2:14). When it is found in Paul’s letters, it often has the sense of an inadequacy that can be corrected (e.g., 1 Corinthians 16:17; 2 Corinthians 9:12; 11:9; Philippians 2:30; Colossians 1:24).

Likewise, katartizein on its surface means to mend something, such as a net (e.g., Mark 1:19). Yet, Paul uses it here in a pastoral sense (as he does in Galatians 6:1). And so, the petitions for love and holiness in 3:12-13 and the fact that Paul pursues these topics in chapters four and five must be taken into consideration when we try to figure out what this deficiency might be. It could be that this pastoral letter was part of Paul’s attempt to correct “whatever is lacking in [their] faith.”

The second part of today’s reading is an extended prayer, although some scholars have called it a “benediction” and others a “prayer wish.” It may be useful to point out that this is the only place where Paul adds a prayer of this kind after a thanksgiving. Paul’s separation from the believers in Thessalonica and his desire to see them, which is the major thrust of 2:17-3:10, is repeated in 3:11. His interest in stabilizing the Thessalonians appears in 3:13. Likewise, the major topics of the remainder of the letter are already anticipated in the prayer. The holiness for which the apostle prays in 3:13 comes up again in 4:3-8. Love “for one another and for all” (3:12) is discussed in 4:9-12. The “coming of the Lord” is treated at some length in 4:13-5:10. And so, the prayer is both pastoral and paraenetic (i.e., instructive).

The two verbs pleonasai (“to increase”) and perisseuai (“to abound”) are synonyms and are used together here for the sake of emphasis (also in Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 4:15). Love is one of the triad of endowments — faith, love, hope — that appears in 1:3 and 5:8 as bookends to the major part of the letter. Immediately prior to today’s reading, Paul expresses his relief at Timothy’s report that the Thessalonians still love him (3:6).

What is interesting is that Paul holds up his own love as a standard for them to imitate. It is the model for their love for others. He had already reminded them of his love (2:8), but now the emphasis is on the communal dimension, “for one another and for all.” Thus, it is love, according to the apostle, that summarizes all social obligations (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:12-15). It is the cement that bonds the relations between members, as well as the larger society. Paul prays for a dramatic increase in their love with the goal of it contributing to their holiness.

1Note: The only use of the verb “preach the gospel” in this letter describes Timothy’s report on their faith.