Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The “Pauline” biography continues this week.

Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace
Unidentified Flemish painter. Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

September 18, 2016

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:1-7

The “Pauline” biography continues this week.

Last week, the author of 1 Timothy drew upon Paul’s call as an introduction to the letter. Now, he will once again draw upon Paul’s story to conclude a point rather than introduce it. In addition, 1 Timothy draws us to the heights of power in a world dominated by Roman imperial might to see what true power looks like and to observe how the powerful and the lowly are wrapped up together in God’s embrace.

The beginning of 1 Timothy 2 begins the listing of instructions the author seeks to propound. The decision to start with “kings and all who are in high positions” is consequential. First, because it may indicate how wedded the author is to a view of the world that centers on a particular construction of power; he may imagine that power descends from the empire down to the households that make up that empire. That is, it seems likely that the author of 1 Timothy is here participating in a hierarchical vision of the world, one in which order is found in observing how the state and the household are inextricably linked and mirrors of one another. 1 Timothy may be advocating that Christian faithfulness resembles imperial values of the day in some significant sense. Within such a perspective, it makes good sense to exhort prayers for the powerful, for the very order of the world depends on them. And there may be an important lesson for us in this political season, a reminder to pray for those who would be our leaders no matter our feelings toward them and our political leanings. At least, we have some choice in the matter. Most of us can only begin to imagine the tension a Christian subject of Rome would have felt, knowing that emperors are not elected by the people and thus not likely leaving office anytime soon.

Now, notice why 1 Timothy exhorts us to pray for the powerful and the high: “ … so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Certainly, we can all appreciate such an aim. A world riven by discord could use some peace and quiet sometimes. As the author affirms in verse 3, this is both “right” and “acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”

But also here, we encounter a significant preaching challenge, especially in recent days characterized by protest and demands for change in pursuit of justice. Is the “quiet and peaceable life” always the ideal avenue for Christian faith? Haven’t we heard so often the call from preachers for protesters to be patient, for the oppressed to wait for justice? Too easily, we might preach a call to a quiescence that denies injustice, a peace that belies an underlying violence. Lest we become enablers of continued oppression, we ought to bring a critical eye to this text.

Verses 3-6 contain the theological heart of this exhortation: the oneness of God and the precision of God’s plan and mercy. God is singular. God alone can bridge the divine and the human. God does so precisely through Jesus who is “himself human” and who pays a ransom to save us from our travails. And all this happens on a divine timeline, perfect in its execution.

Notice then the underlying tension coursing through this text. If such is God, then why start with the powerful and the high? If God is so singular and distinctive in God’s exercise of true power, why start with mere shadows of such divine power?

Is the author of 1 Timothy playing up these tensions for a larger theological reason? Is he starting with those of high position later to remind us that their high position is merely an illusion next to the scale of God’s work in the world? Is this a realistic acknowledgement of the world’s power structures even as it questions that very sense of order in narrating God’s delivery of the world God created?

There is another possibility. Does the author of 1 Timothy stumble into a tension only we can see because we are distant from his context? That is, is he too close to the cultural air that has nurtured him to notice the potential contradictions in what he has written? In imagining this is so, we should be careful to avoid any sense of arrogance; those from without our own cultures would certainly and incisively lay open the many contradictions we live in every day.

We can’t say for sure which might be the case, but this wrestling with the text is a key step in my mind for preaching 1 Timothy. After all, right after 1 Timothy juxtaposes the powerful of the world to the one true God, he then goes on to move down this great chain of being into the household. See 1 Timothy 2:8-15, verses the lectionary avoids. In the household, the hierarchy of power continues. Men ought to pray. Women ought to dress modestly, learn in silence. And why? Because of Eve, of course! (see verses. 13-14). Never mind that Paul seems to tell a very different account of the garden in Romans 5:12-21 where Adam’s sin, not Eve’s, dooms us all.

One temptation for the preacher might be to focus on the assigned verses at the beginning of 1 Timothy 2, reminding us of the importance of prayer for the powerful. We could turn our eyes to the “one mediator” and the “human” Jesus who intercedes on our behalf “at the right time.” Yet, I think we must deal with the rest of 1 Timothy 2.

I wonder if the preacher here might put a mirror before us. A preacher might help us see that we stand in judgment of the author of 1 Timothy and ultimately judge someone who does the very same things: ourselves (see also Romans 2:1). Might a preacher help us see that our unconditional commitments to certain cultural constructions of identity and power stand in direct contrast to the gospel, but our embrace of the very same keeps us from understanding how these contingent constructions are obstacles to the good news?

That is, we are right, I think, to condemn the vision of women and men propounded in 1 Timothy 2. And we are right to notice how this view of women and men are inextricable with the beginning of the chapter’s vision of power. But we would be mistaken if we stop in the midst of that condemnation, refusing to take the next, much harder, step. We too are heirs of cultures that both reflect God’s grace and stand against it. Seeing the latter proves so much more difficult than the former. Perhaps 1 Timothy can help us do so.