Getting Ready for Sunday by the Rev. Thomas Kincaid

Colossians 2:6-15

Here we find St. Paul both exceptionally clear and exceptionally vague.

On the side of clarity, Paul makes a straight forward presentation of the basics of the Gospel’s atoning message.  Verses 11-14 present the most rudimentary basics of our salvation: We are made part of God’s saved people not through a circumcision made with hands, but by the death and resurrection of our baptisms which unite us with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We were dead in our sins, Paul continues, but are made alive through the work of Christ that “cancel[s] the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (v14)

Interestingly, however, the Apostle to the Gentiles surrounds this basic and clear atonement message with a more vague set of counters to that message.  Verse 8 warns the Colossians against “philosophy,” “empty deceit,” “human tradition,” and “elemental spirits.”  On the other end of the passage in verse 15, Paul claims Christ’s atonement represents a disarming, shaming, and triumph over “rulers and authorities.”

The clear Christocentric alternative to these less-specific threats can leave us wondering what exactly Paul is trying to accomplish in this brief section.  Here Chris Seitz is helpful.  He identifies that whatever Paul is getting at, “this is [his frame of reference.  This frame of reference is far more decisive in my view, than seeking to learn what the specifics of religious practice were in the Lycus Valley and then finding a way to determine with certainty what Paul might know of that and how he might know it.”  (Christopher Seitz, Colossians (2014: Brazos Press, Grand Rapids), p 121.  In Seitz’s view, Paul is calling us to focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ’s atoning ministry contrary to whatever else human beings posit in opposition.

There are numerous ways to preach Paul’s claims.  One option is simply to develop Paul’s atonement theology with specific focus on leaving behind our past sins (both individual and communal) for the sake of living as God’s people in the world.  Implicit in this argument is call toward the mission of the church and of God’s people.

Another way of preaching this text would be to take Paul’s engagement with human customs as the focus.  In particular, the question of the role of human traditions, even those developed within the church, were a contentious question in early Anglicanism.  In fact, Richard Hooker’s work on ecclesiastical laws were developed in response to this question.  How should Anglicans regard the customs and practices within the church which had grown up over time, but which are not mandated in scripture?  This text here in particular seemed to condemn any rituals and actions as detracting from the teaching of the gospel.   However, Anglicans realized that the answer was not the rejection of all rituals devised by humans, but understanding them in their proper place and role.  The rituals do not bring salvation, but can be useful for the teaching and building up of the church.  Just as Paul wrote in Romans 14:23, Gentile Christians have been given freedom, but that freedom should be used for building up of the body.  Although Anglicans could not agree (and still have not) on exactly which customs developed in the church should be required and which let go of, even the most bitter opponents in debate were usually able to agree on these key requirements.  Brian Tierney summarizes the agreed upon points as:  (1) The customs must not be morally offensive.  (2)  “All must be done “with order and comeliness” (3)”for edification” and (4) “for the glory of God.” (Brian Tierney, Liberty and Law : The Idea of Permissive Natural Law, 1100-1800. (2014: Catholic University of America Press, Washington), p169.)

The Rev. S. Thomas Kincaid, III is Vice Rector at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas

 

 

Getting Ready for Sunday by the Rev. D.J. Griffin

Sunday, July 10th, Proper 10, Year C

The manner in which the Summary of the Law shows up in our appointed Gospel lesson for today is interesting. Unlike in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, it does not come from the lips of Jesus, but rather from the lawyer. This particular lawyer, seeking to test Jesus and to make himself look smart while doing it, asks the Lord a typical question one might pose to rabbi: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” More than likely, the lawyer probably already knows the answer (or so he thinks); he is just interested in seeing how Jesus answers it. Jesus, in typical fashion, responds to the lawyer by throwing it right back at him. In a rather Socratic manner, Jesus responds with questions of his own: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Now it is Jesus who wants to see how the lawyer responds, and the lawyer takes the bait. But the implication in Jesus’s questions is that it is walking in God’s ways that one finds eternal life.

The lawyer’s response has both Scriptural and rabbinic precedent. His two-part answer comes verbatim from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Ecclesiastes 12:13 makes a similar claim to Deuteronomy: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” A rabbi named Aquiba ben Joseph, about a century before the birth of Christ, said of Leviticus 19:18, “This is the great principle of the Torah.”[1] And another great 1st-century B.C. rabbi named Hillel is recorded to have said, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go, learn it!”[2] Having answered in the manner of such good authorities, the lawyer is probably not surprised when Jesus commends him.

But the lawyer is not done yet. Fastidious as he is, he now wants to know exactly who Jesus defines as a “neighbor.” Perhaps he has in mind the way the Babylonian Talmud interprets Leviticus 19:18: “If he does what your people do, you shall love him; but if he does not, you shall not love him.”[3]

Jesus’s answer, in the form of the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, certainly subverts such expectations. Jesus’s fellow Jews would not have considered Samaritans to be among those who “do what [their] people do.” The Samaritans were the product of mixed unions, genetic and religious, with Assyrians who had conquered the Northern Israelites. They did not worship on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, as the Jews did, but (improperly) on Mount Gerizim. And these are only the beginning of their differences. It is for this reason that, in another story, a Samaritan woman is surprised when Jesus begins a conversation with her, for, as St. John notes, at that time “Jews [did] not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).

But the funny thing is that, in the parable, it is a Samaritan – an outsider, a Gentile (in the eyes of the Jews) – who actually fulfills the law, not the priest or the Levite who (so to speak) should know better. It is a Samaritan who does what, in the lawyer’s own words, is the substance of the law. As St. Paul says to the Romans, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14-15). Furthermore, as the Protestant reformer Martin Luther points out, the Samaritan reminds us of Christ himself, who came to us in our time of need, perfectly obeys God, and offers us the healing grace flowing from the cross.[4]

With his parable, Jesus challenges the lawyer, and us, both to think less provincially and to step up our own game. He commends the example of someone who, though a Gentile, acts more like a son of the Covenant than actual sons of the Covenant. He calls to the People of God to do their job, to live out their purpose in the world of extending the compassion of the Gospel to those who are in both physical and spiritual need.

And now that we have been given our charge, now that we have been enlightened by our Lord’s glorious Gospel, we have no excuse – but we are not without help. Indeed, as Moses declares to the people in Deuteronomy 30:14, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Having the word of knowledge of God’s will for us so near at hand, and by the help of God who has written that word on our hearts, we may, in Paul’s words, “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as [we] bear fruit in every good work and as [we] grow in the knowledge of God.” To use the words of the Collect of the Day, having the “know[ledge] and understand[ing] of what things [we] ought to do,” may God give us “grace and power faithfully to accomplish them” – in other words, the grace and power to “go and do likewise.”

[1] Midrash, Siphara 19:18 (89a), accessed at http://virtualreligion.net/iho/sages.html.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a, accessed at http://virtualreligion.net/iho/sages.html.

[3] Babylonian Talmud (supplement), Aboth de R. Nathan 16.4, accessed at http://virtualreligion.net/iho/sages.html.

[4] Martin Luther, “A Sermon on the Gospel in a Parable,” accessed at http://www.lectionarycentral.com/trinity13/LutherGospel.html.

The Rev. D. J. Griffin is Curate at Annunciation in Lewisville

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This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.