October 20, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Back to the beginning.
That might be a good way to understand this passage in Matthew 22. Because in a couple of ways, these verses hark back to how Matthew began Jesus’ story in this Gospel.
First there is the genealogy in Matthew 1. In that “family tree” of Jesus Matthew inserts something into the otherwise regular pattern of “So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, who was the father of so-and-so . . .” Matthew inserts what some have called “a holy irregularity” when at the very end of the genealogy he does not list Joseph as “the father of Jesus” but instead tells us that Joseph was “Mary’s husband.”
Tucked inside that little genealogical irregularity is an explosive theological truth: Matthew is telling us that although Jesus has a distinct lineage in the line of David, he was and is finally more than his ancestry could produce. Jesus may have been the grandson and the great-grandson and the great-great-great . . . –grandson of all those people but in the end he surpassed them all, too. He was more than David’s son. He was the Son of God, he was Yahweh in flesh, he was the Lord of all lords and the King of all kings.
Matthew told us this right off the bat here. And now as the public ministry of Jesus comes in for its bumpy landing on the road to Golgotha, Jesus himself circles back to this. He asks the Pharisees a question as to the lineage of the Messiah. They claim the Messiah is David’s son, to which Jesus then replies that if he was only David’s son, then why would David himself have shown him the deference of calling him his very Lord?
We are told that no one could give a word of reply, but the reason for this silence was not because they did not know the answer. They just did not much like the answer. The answer is that the true Messiah is more than his ancestry could produce because the true Messiah was God himself. And as commentator Dale Bruner points out, if that is true, then that means that the answers Jesus had just given to the clever questions of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was no less than the Word of God himself and their opposition to that Word—and to the Word made flesh, while we’re at it—pointed to the fact that these folks were on the wrong side of history.
Jesus did not make many very overt claims to being divine or to being the Messiah. But for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, he did so here.
Second, commentator Dale Bruner thinks that Matthew 22 contributes to a kind of frame around the ministry of Jesus as Matthew has presented it. Jesus’ ministry began when he faced three temptations from Satan in the wilderness. Now, as Jesus is only a day or two away from being arrested and killed, the ministry concludes with three other tests that come in the form of three questions.
They bookend Jesus’ public ministry.
The Pharisees first ask about paying taxes to Caesar, hoping to get Jesus in trouble with the Roman IRS in case Jesus comes out and says something treasonous. They strike out with that question, and so next the Sadducees come up with a clever question about marriage in heaven. Jesus neatly sidesteps also this trap. So then it’s the Pharisees’ turn again and so they ask him about the Law of God. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?”
It’s an innocent-looking question but really it is a stealth attempt to make Jesus look like a theological liberal. If Jesus picked out any of the Bible’s commandments and elevated it to the status of #1, that would imply that he was treating everything else as second-class. If you are the father of five children and one of them asks you who your favorite kid is, a wise father says, “I love you all the same.” No good parent wants any child to feel like he or she plays second fiddle to the other siblings.
So also here: if they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite commandment, he’ll be guilty of downplaying other commandments. But since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical.
By way of analogy: Imagine your congregation’s reaction if some Sunday you informed them that although you really enjoy Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel of John just doesn’t do much for you! When it comes to God’s Word, we’re not supposed to play favorites. God’s Word is God’s Word. Period!
Jesus knows what is going on. An easy way to get off this hook would have been for Jesus to say, “Every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord is great. Each commandment is great.” That would have been an effective way out of this, a theological version of the “I love you all the same” answer a wise parent might give to the question of which child is the parent’s favorite. But instead Jesus begins to quote a Bible verse, and at first the Pharisees maybe thought they had him. They didn’t. Because Jesus says that love of God is the greatest of all commandments.
After all, if you don’t love God, you won’t be much inclined to keep any commandment. If, however, you do love God, then the rest follows naturally. And just to make the point, Jesus throws in the second commandment about neighbor- love. Between these two loves, Jesus manages to catch every single commandment you could ever name. Every commandment in the book has something to do with either God or neighbor.
But Jesus’ reply was actually more clever than even that. Because in Jewish circles the single most famous verse is the so-called Shema from Deuteronomy 6. “Shema” is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen” and it comes from that verse, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema was traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start of each day and at the conclusion of each day. In other words, there was no single verse from the entire Torah that the average Jew knew better than this one.
So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ tricky question by quoting a portion of the Shema, he was throwing back in their faces something they took to be exceedingly basic, something that was second-nature to even the youngest Jewish child. It reminds you of the time Karl Barth is said to have been asked what he thought was the most profound of all theological truths. But instead of giving some jargon-laden, academic answer that used words like perichoresis, kenosis, or the insuperable transcendence of God’s prevenient grace as it comes through the vicarious supererogation of the Son, Barth simply said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That answer was charming and disarming. Barth said, “The greatest truth is the one you already know, the one all Christians know, the one a three-year old can sing about.” In Jesus’ case, he was slyly insulting the Pharisees, demonstrating to everyone there that the Pharisees were not really interested in seeing if Jesus could answer their question since even the youngest person there knew that answer already. This was not a difficult question. It was like asking Albert Einstein, “Do you know what 2+2 is?” This was basic, elementary.
And in this case Jesus makes it clear that just asking that question makes the ones posing the question look like the ignorant and foolish ones.
Frederick Dale Bruner points out that some textual scholars of the Psalms have many doubts whether the various psalms attributed to David were really written by King David, including Psalm 110 that Jesus here quotes. Theologically, however, it’s probably not vital whether or not David wrote Psalm 110. In the tradition it was attributed to him and that was more than enough warrant for Jesus to make his point about the way in which the Messiah—a Son of David—was nonetheless superior to David (and/or to any other figure in the line of David or any other human leader in Israel ever).
An additional textual point: the original Hebrew of Psalm 110 does have “Yahweh” first and then adonai second in the line “The Lord (Yahweh) said to my Lord (adonai . . .). This would have been obscured in the Hebrew reading of Psalm 110 (devout Hebrews would not have spoken the word “Yahweh” but would have inserted the vocalization of adonai) but it is obscured a bit in the Greek as well where the text of Matthew 22 uses kyrios both times. But it is important to remember that this is the Great I Am of Israel elevating the Messiah to a place superior to David or anyone else on earth.
Matthew’s version of this encounter with the Pharisees shows Jesus subtly changing the original version of the Shema. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6 asks us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Jesus alters it to heart, soul, and mind, and surely the Pharisees and everyone else there noticed the change. As Neal Plantinga once observed, if some night at bedtime your child prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my brain to keep,” well, you’d notice!
It’s difficult to say why Jesus made this substitution. Just possibly, however, this also was a none-too-subtle rebuke of the Pharisees. They were good at using their minds to do legalistic hair-splitting of all kinds. They had just now focused their mental faculties on coming up with clever questions with which to trip Jesus up. Maybe this was Jesus’ way of telling them that being tricky was not the reason God had given them brains in the first place! We are supposed to honor God in how we think and reason just as surely in how well we live in terms of other areas of morality. God, in short, has something to do with everything. Or at least God should.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sample Sermon: “Unfinished Lives?”
I once heard presidential historian and biographer Robert Dallek give a lecture that was particularly focused on this then-latest book, a biography of John F. Kennedy titled An Unfinished Life. Not surprisingly, in the question-and-answer time following the lecture, a few people inquired about Dallek’s opinions related to the bevy of conspiracy theories that surround JFK’s assassination. Dallek stated his own opinion that the Warren Commission Report, though not perfect, largely got it right. John Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, who acted alone out of a deep pathology and rage.
That appeared to be the simple and straightforward fact of the matter from almost the very beginning. So why is there to this day an ever-burgeoning cottage industry promoting any number of conspiracy theories that claim it was the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, Castro, the Soviets, or even Vice-President Lyndon Johnson that actually used Oswald as their fall guy?
Dallek said he is convinced that it is because we simply will not accept that the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States, could be cut down by no more than a sawed off little two-bit moron. John F. Kennedy had been so very full of life and vigor. The image of Camelot he and Jackie presented charmed people as did the Kennedy confidence. So it was simply inconceivable that he could be killed by a nobody. The same phenomenon happened in Britain when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident. Diana was too lofty, too beautiful, to die in so ordinary a way. And so conspiracy theories abounded for a time.
Leaders hold great sway over our imaginations. When they die, we seek to imbue their lives, and even their very deaths, with something more, something that will make the leader’s passing seem finally different than what happens to all those ordinary folks whose names you can see in the Obituary section of the newspaper every single day.
Something like that happened surrounding the death of Moses, too. There had never been anyone like Moses. Nevermind that the Bible is honest about Moses’ faults, foibles, and weaknesses. Even despite the things that made him utterly human, Moses’ stature in Israel was unassailable. The story of his rescue from the Nile River by Pharaoh’s daughter has charmed children and adults alike for three millennia now. His epic battles with Pharaoh, and those amazing ten plagues God worked through the hand of Moses, are the stuff of high drama. When Moses held forth his hand, the Red Sea split open. When Moses withdrew his hand, the waters rushed back overtop of the horse and rider of Egypt. It was Moses’ voice that spoke to the people the very words of God. It was Moses who did all the amazing things that happened in the wilderness for four whole decades.
Of course, and upon reflection, the people knew that it was Yahweh their God who actually did everything (well, on good days they knew that!). Moses was just a conduit, just the pipeline that channeled God’s power, and Moses would have been the first to make that clear. Had Moses detected even a whiff of hero worship being directed his way, he would have fallen flat on his face and begged God to forgive the people for their foolishness even as he would have told the people in shrill tones to worship the Lord their God and serve him alone!
Still, the human heart cannot but help esteem the leader through whom God works. Even when you were finished tossing out all the necessary caveats and theological nuances, the fact is that it was Moses’ face the people had grown accustomed to seeing. When Moses looked calm, they could be calm. When Moses looked troubled, they got nervous. When Moses looked angry, they shook in their sandals awaiting the judgment of God. It was Moses’ voice that had been the voice of Yahweh. And what’s more, the people knew that Moses was that rarest of persons whom God himself loved so much as to speak to him directly. And afterwards, when Moses’ face shined like the sun, it was the afterglow of God’s own glory they saw. How could the people not reverence Moses the man?
But then one day he was just gone. He went up into the mountains and never came back. It was obvious he was dead, but there could be no funeral, no burial rites. Apparently God himself had buried Moses, and Deuteronomy 34 makes clear that no one ever did find out where. Maybe it was a good thing because had the site of Moses’ grave been known, it would have been mighty tempting to establish a shrine there.
But even as the human heart resists believing that a strong and dashing figure like JFK could be mowed down by a scrawny thug, so Israel eventually could not resist the urge to imbue Moses’ death with something more epic. And so in the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, we read the story of what is called “The Assumption of Moses.” This is one of the very few apocryphal stories to which a reference is made in the canonical Scripture. If you look in the New Testament at Jude 9-10, you will read a cryptic reference to the story. After Moses died on Mount Nebo, the archangel Michael was given the task of spiriting away Moses’ body and then burying it. But the devil made some kind of challenge to Michael and attempted to steal Moses away. According to the story, Michael rebuked the devil in the name of Yahweh and that was the end of that.
Well, that’s quite a story, and I think we can guess why someone came up with it. Someone as grand, glorious, holy, and famous as Moses could not simply disappear into the mountain mists one day, never to be seen or heard from again. If the people could not hold a proper funeral for Moses, if they could not have a sacred gravesite to venerate in future generations, then at the very least they would imbue his death with even more drama than what you can find in Deuteronomy 34.
After all, this is a pretty short chapter. It is the end of the Pentateuch, which is hands-down the most seminal set of Scriptures for Jews past and present (and which has gone on to be held in the highest regard by Christians as well). Yet from what we get in chapter 34, the whole thing just kind of fizzles out. It ends with a whimper, not a bang.
And so at some point in history, some well-meaning author rounded the tale out with a bit more angelic and demonic razzle-dazzle–some taut drama worthy of Moses. But if we are not going to believe that particular story, then we are indeed left with this rather short story in which Moses does not speak a single word. He was just gone. He died like any other. He died like we all must die one day. Yet there may well be something very instructive about that fact, too.
As Frederick Buechner has written, whenever Hollywood wants to make a movie involving Moses, they inevitably cast someone like Charlton Heston for the part (and now in late 2014 we have Christian Bale—the Batman!!—coming in the role of Moses in a new movie). They glue some fake whiskers on the strapping actor’s face and then have him deliver all his lines in a big, booming voice that sounds like the living inner sanctum itself. But, Buechner mused, probably the real Moses looked less like a bronzed southern California type with sculpted muscles and rugged good looks and more like Tevye, the corner grocer who looked like he had gone fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson. From the start Moses had been weak of voice, a stutterer. There is no indication he was very good looking.
But no matter how he looked when he went nose-to-nose with Pharaoh way back when, after forty years of wilderness wanderings, Moses surely looked beat up a bit. Deuteronomy 34 tells us his eyes remained clear and his strength was still good, but if that was so at the age of 120, you wonder why he died at all! Maybe Moses was still comparatively strong even at the end, but then again, maybe that comment in verse 7 is right up there with those folks who look into a casket and say, “She looks so good.” Perhaps she does, but I warrant if you had seen that person ever look like that on any day when she was still alive, you would have said, “What’s wrong? You look like death!”
After all, for four decades Moses had been running himself ragged. The Israelite complaint box was always stuffed with notes. Mrs. Klein wants new recipes for how to prepare manna. They are sick to death of the same old, same old every day. Mr. Reubens wonders if even Moses occasionally finds himself wishing for a little onion and green pepper to spice up their diet the way they had done back in good old Egypt, and so what was Moses going to do about it.
On and on it went, and as if that all were not bad enough, every once in a while something so bad happened, that Moses had to engage in some serious spiritual brinkmanship to keep God from wiping out the whole lot of the Israelites and just starting from scratch with Moses. It’s not that Moses couldn’t sympathize with God’s rage, but frankly he was too tired even to consider the notion that he would have to become the father of an entire new nation of folks. So if he wasn’t holding and patting the hands of his perpetually whiny people, he was staying the hand of no less than the Almighty himself.
And he got tired. Yet in the end, for reasons we’re never completely clear about, the man who was more tired than anyone was told he would not enter the very land of rest toward which he had been leading the people from the get-go. Oh sure, there was that incident when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, but there is nothing in that incident that really explains why a singular lapse was enough to wipe out a lifetime of spiritual merit and holy obedience. But sometimes that’s just the way it goes: the leader cannot arrive at the destination to which he had led the people. Abraham didn’t either.
Something similar would happen to David. To his mind, the piece-de-resistance, the coup-de-grace, the crowning achievement of all he had accomplished as king over Israel would have been building God a grand and glorious Temple. And God said no, leave that to your boy Solomon. Abraham, Moses, David, and so many others never quite made it to the place toward which they had been trekking their whole lives long. As Hebrews 11 so eloquently put it, they could only at best see from a distance that city, that undiscovered country, that God had prepared for them. In the end, they died in faith the same as they had lived by faith, on a wing and a prayer and a promise, all their live-long days.
But that’s frustrating. Maybe it was frustrating for those people themselves but it is also now frustrating to us as readers of their stories. So, perhaps like the Israelite who invented the story about the archangel and the devil disputing over Moses’ body, we also try to fill in the gaps, round out the narratives, create more of a Hollywood-esque happy ending. But mostly those attempts end up with fiction, not fact.
In the long run, it took something more for anyone to make it to what had been all along the end destination. It took something more, or better said, it took Someone more. It took the One whose own life seemed to come to a dead end. If ever someone appeared to die as a failure, it was Jesus. To this day there are scholars who claim that after all his glowing talk about a kingdom, Jesus himself must have died with an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Talk about missing the mark and not fulfilling your career goals! In the end Jesus was literally crossed-out by the Romans. A giant black X got scrawled over top of his name. “Jesus of Nazareth.” Swish-swish, and with that double-stroke of the quill, he was eliminated from the census rolls. Like so many before him–like Moses himself–Jesus had had a good run of it for a while there but in the end he simply fell short. Too bad. Such a shame. It’s always heartbreaking to see dreams shattered and hopes deferred.
Yet we don’t look at the cross and say that Jesus had an unfinished life, that the cross spells the end of anything worthwhile he might have done. If your favorite team loses the Super Bowl or if the stock into which you invested a lot of capital tanks, you angrily snap your fingers, hang your head, and in disappointment blurt out “Shoot! Nuts!” But that is not what Good Friday is about?
Instead we look at Jesus and see the only one who ever really did make it. Paradoxically and against all odds and expectations, Jesus is the One who made it to that far country, and Easter morning is not only the proof that this is so, it also demonstrates that the way for us to follow him is now wide open. Of course, critics and cynics say that the tale of the resurrection is right up there with conspiracy theories about JFK or the apocryphal story about Moses and Michael: we just can’t deal with the death of our messianic leader and so we invented a story to round things out in a happier way.
Without the gift of faith, you can understand why people say that. But by faith we see something very different in the entire run of Jesus’ life, and not merely at the end. We see in Christ Jesus our Lord the fitting ending for all our stories, including all those lives that seemed so unfinished, that seemed to fall short of the goal and just shy of the visions of glory that so many people had harbored in their heart of hearts all along. Truth is, without Jesus we would all lead unfinished lives. But with Jesus, things are very different.
Moses never shows up again in the Bible after Deuteronomy 34 until that luminous and yet profoundly mysterious day of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop. Suddenly there was Moses again standing right next to Jesus and apparently having a nice chat. Peter was so happy about it all that he blurted out, “This must be the living end! Can we just stop everything and stay here forever?!” Jesus understood what Peter was getting at, but his unwillingness to let Peter hit history’s “Pause” button at just that point was a way for Jesus to as much as say, “No, Peter, this is not the end. Not yet. Keep following a bit more.”
And so they did until, a little while later, Jesus was on a cross. It looked very unhopeful but then Jesus himself rasped out, “It is finished!” He didn’t say, “I am finished.” Because what he meant is that the whole story of all creation, from first to last, was accomplished, completed, wrapped up in fine fashion. And so when Jesus said, “It is finished,” what the rest of us can now hear is that we are finished, too. Our very lives are no longer unfinished but finished off in the sense of crossing the finish line. In Christ, Abraham, Moses, David, and every one of us no longer falls short of the goal but is whisked along by grace to that heavenly city whose light is the Lamb. We ourselves don’t need to round out Moses’ story or Jesus’ story or anyone’s story.
It is already finished.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
The psalmist’s words may seem terribly depressing: You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning – though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered (5-6). Worshipers may be even more depressed to remember that the poet isn’t just talking about west African victims of Ebola, Middle Eastern victims of war or the Horn of Africa’s victims of famine. He’s talking about all who join him in worshiping the Lord.
Few people want to be reminded that life is so temporary, so fragile. However, such reminders are most honest and highly relevant to the human situation. Augustine once said we’re like the very sick person over whom the doctor leans, shakes her head and says, “He is dying. He won’t make it out of this alive.” He added that someone might look over into a baby’s bed on the first day of life and also say, “She’s dying. She won’t make it out of this alive.”
So we can see why the psalmist sings that life is short. We can see why she compares people to the grass of the Middle East. It flourishes in the morning, but then fades and withers by evening. Our days pass, before God’s eyes, she adds, like a sigh.
While even Christians try to hide our aging, our fragility, as Will Willimon notes, neither oceans of Grecian Formula nor hours of face-lifts and tummy tucks will make the grass that is our lives survive any longer. A healthy lifestyle, including good eating and exercise, may prolong our lives a bit. So we care for God’s temple that is our bodies. Our lives, however, remain very, very short.
Of course, we prefer not to think about life’s brevity. Think, after all, of movies and TV shows that depict dead people coming back for “encore performances.” In Ghost Patrick Swayze returns from the dead to warn his wife, Demi Moore, about the dangers lurking around her. Even Titanic, a movie that took three hours to sink, ends with Jack and Rose happy, even after Jack has drowned, because they’re reunited on the grand staircase.
But it’s all a lie. Only God is eternal. We are very temporary. God is “from everlasting to everlasting.” Our lives are very short. Before God created grass, mountains or anything else, God was. Our lives are like grass God created that flourishes in the morning but withers and dies by evening. Time, even as much as a thousand years, is like yesterday to God. “Time like an ever-rolling stream,” we sing, “soon bears us all away.”
Each and every one of us will die, unless Jesus Christ comes back first. So how do we respond to this finitude, to this quick passing of our days? Author Paul Ramsey mentions two possible responses. He talks about “play persons” who cram all the fun and pleasure they can into their lives. “Play persons” know they won’t live forever, so they live as close to the edge as they’re able, willing to try almost anything. “Play persons’” only yardstick for life is enjoyment and adventure.
However, Ramsey also mentions a quite different response to our knowledge that our lives are short. It’s the response of the psalmist. After reciting a fairly depressing litany about life’s fragility and hardship, he offers a most memorable prayer. Teach us to number our days aright, he prays in verse 12, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
It’s regrettable that the Lectionary omits verse 12 from its appointed text for this Sunday. That verse, after all, teaches the proper response to our awareness of life’s brevity. Teach us, O God, we pray there, that our days are relatively short. Remind us that we are finite, that even now we’re, in one sense, dying. Help us, O Lord, get used to the fact that we’re so fragile.
The Buddha advised people to think of always carrying a little bird on their shoulder. That bird periodically would whisper in their ear, “Is this the day? Is this the last day of your days?” The psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” God challenges us to face what our culture so vehemently denies, our God-given limits. For then alone do we gain “a heart of wisdom.”
Once upon a time, first-rate colleges and universities tried to give their students wisdom. That is, they tried to instill knowledge about how to live a good and prudent life. Now, however, they seem to mostly teach data, endless facts. Wisdom, in the biblical sense, is far more precious and dear. Wisdom, suggests the poet in our psalm, comes from honestly looking at life, especially its limits. Wisdom comes from taking stock and living creatively in the light of those limits.
So much forces us to look ahead. We’re almost always thinking about tomorrow, next week and next year. We’ve got lunches and lesson plans to make tonight. People have deadlines and meetings tomorrow. We have people to see, things to do and, games, hopefully, to play and places to go this week. We have college and retirement to plan for.
Willimon suggests that biblical wisdom helps us to, rather than always looking ahead instead savor the moment. Wisdom teaches us to treasure cool fall evenings, the changing of the leaves and the onset of winter. Wisdom teaches us to cherish our times of singing, praying and listening to God’s Word together. It teaches us to cherish apparently little things like rides home from church and meals with family and friends.
Yet only God knows what these few moments really mean. Only God knows the ultimate significance of what we do. Only God, finally, lends any lasting value to what we say and do. So the poet ends our psalm by praying, in verse 17, “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.”
The poet ends by praying to God because he understands that it’s finally all up to God. During our short lives, we may work hard. People may even hope that work amounts to something that will last longer than we do. Yet truly wise people remember that it’s up to God to gather up that work and make it mean something.
Perhaps, however, it’s wise for us also to take a step back. Maybe it would be wise for worshipers to take stock before stepping up and stepping out into a new week. Life, as God graciously gives us to us, can be beautiful, perhaps particularly because of its fragility and brevity. So wise people learn to live with our limits rather than deny or grieve them. Having wisely numbered our days, Christians go to enjoy the gifts God has graciously given us.
We say our thanks and praise to the people whom God has put in our lives today, for tomorrow may never come. You and I forgive and seek forgiveness today, for tomorrow may never come. Christians show people mercy and compassion, kindness and gentleness today, for tomorrow may never come. People, after all, including you and I are, are so fragile. So as we move forward into all the tomorrows God gives us, we leave with this prayer on our lips and in our hearts. “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.”
I had a cousin who meant a great deal to me when I was a child. We did a lot of things together that made me feel very welcome and accepted. As we grew older, we slowly drifted apart. Yet I never forgot his kindness to me. Often I’d tell myself, “I need to tell David thanks for all the things he did for me when we were kids.” But David died very suddenly in a farming accident. I never got a chance to tell him how much I appreciated what he’d done for me.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 90 may want to reflect on their own missed opportunities to say important things to people who died. They may want to reflect on life’s brevity that spurs us, whose lives are short and unpredictable, to say thanks now to people whose lives are also short and unpredictable.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Just the other day a young minister emailed me to ask if he could meet with me to talk about his preaching. It seems that after planting a church and nurturing its growth for 12 difficult years, he had been attacked by his now independent adolescent church. “Your preaching is the reason we aren’t growing more,” said one. “I’m not being spiritually fed,” said another. He was blindsided. After 12 years of loving labor, he was being criticized and he didn’t know how to react.
It didn’t take nearly that long for the criticism to begin in Paul’s ministry. If I Thessalonians is Paul’s first letter (as most scholars think it is), we have here an insight into the early church that ought to encourage my disheartened young friend, and any minister who has ever been the main course for Sunday dinner. As long as there have been preachers and congregations, there have been critics. It’s nothing new. But that doesn’t dull the pain.
How should we react? The reptilian response is “fight or flight,” fight back or run away. What is the Gospel response? That’s what we find in I Thessalonians 2. Paul reacts not by attacking his critics or by threatening to abandon his church, but by defending himself in no uncertain terms. Why does Paul make such a big deal of self-defense? Isn’t that a self-defeating response? Doesn’t such a response dignify or even empower the critics?
There is definitely a risk in self-defense, and my young friend needs to be careful that he doesn’t spend so much time and energy on defending himself that he misses the opportunity to learn from his critics. Maybe he does need to grow in his preaching. But Paul leaps to his own defense because his critics were saying that he was nothing but a deluded heretic who for selfish reasons and with trickery was trying to exploit the congregation. That sort of attack puts the whole Gospel at risk. So for the sake of the Gospel itself, Paul had to defend himself. If his (probably Judaizing) critics could discredit Paul, they could silence his Gospel of grace. And that would be a tragedy. So Paul leaps into the fray with a stirring self-defense.
This text raises the whole issue of the connection between the message and the messenger. Early in the life of the church, the Donatist movement claimed that the character of the priest affected the efficacy of the sacraments. They were reacting to a terrible chapter in church history. Under intense persecution, some ministers had betrayed the faith. When the persecution was over, they came back into the church and began to minister as usual. The Donatists said that their apostasy disqualified them from administering the sacraments. Indeed, the sacraments were ineffective if administered by such men. After great controversy, the church decreed that the efficacy of the sacraments was independent of the character of the priests.
When it comes to preaching, the Gospel is the Gospel, no matter who is preaching it. BUT, in this text Paul acknowledges that the character of the preacher can greatly impact the efficacy of the preaching. So preachers must take great care with not only the message itself, but also with their motives and methods. Who we are, why we preach, and how we do it matters a great deal.
The great problem with this text is that it seems irrelevant to most of the people in our congregations. It would be the perfect text for a preaching conference, in which the audience was composed of practicing preachers. It provides what one commentator called a “Manual for Ministers.” But what does it have to say to the ordinary man or woman or, even more implausibly, the ordinary child in the congregation? Well, perhaps it would be helpful for congregations that are unhappy with their preachers. Those wounded preachers could use this text to defend themselves. “Maybe you don’t like my sermons, but at least I preach the Gospel with the purest motives and the most straightforward methods.” Such a sermon would require more wisdom and pastoral sensitivity than most besieged preachers could muster, so I would advise against such an approach to this text.
A better approach to this text would take off from Paul’s words in I Thessalonians 1:5 and 6. “You became imitators of us and of the Lord…. And so you became a model to all believers….” Though ordinary Christians aren’t “preachers” in the strict sense, all believers are prophets, priests, and kings who represent/model/embody Christ in the world. And even as the character of the preacher is important, so is the character of the average congregant. Though some of what Paul says in his self-defense is uniquely relevant to the missionary/preacher, a great deal of his message has application to the church as a whole. We can preach this, then, as a call to imitate Paul as we speak and live out the Gospel in the world. As the worship bulletin of my last church proclaimed every week, “Every member is a minister.”
A key to understanding Paul’s self-defense is to remember that we are reading someone else’s mail here. We are listening to one side of a conversation conducted in print. In other words, Paul is responding to what someone else (his critics) said about him. Remembering that will help us understand why Paul says things as he does.
So he begins by appealing to what the Thessalonians already know. “You know that our visit to you was not a failure.” They would know that, of course, because his visit resulted in the birth of a thriving little church. So, they have this hard piece of evidence of the effectiveness of Paul’s ministry. Clearly, his opponents were saying that Paul’s ministry wasn’t effective. It was a joke, a bad joke, a crooked attempt to take advantage of these new Christians.
A little textual note may help us understand the accusation of the critics better. The word failure is kene in the Greek, which can mean failure, but also vain or empty or, better yet, empty handed. If that last meaning is legitimate, then Paul is saying that he did not come to them empty handed, that is, looking to receive something from them. Rather, he came to them with something to give them. He did not come to take advantage of them, but to offer them something precious.
Paul then reminds them of how his ministry among them began. He had come from Philippi where he had been shamefully and brutally treated. But instead of limping into town licking his wounds and looking for sympathy, he boldly proclaimed the Gospel in spite of strong opposition there in Thessalonica. The word translated “dared to tell” is almost a technical word; the rhetoricians of Paul’s day used it to refer to speaking with freedom, openness, and fearlessness. The word for “strong opposition” is the Greek word agoni, which could also mean that Paul spoke with strenuous exertion and deep concern. There was agoni/agony in Paul. In other words, Paul reminds them that he didn’t come to them looking for an easy time. He sure wasn’t in it for the rewards. The message for our congregations is that doing ministry is often a tough, thankless, agonizing thing. Don’t expect immediate rewards.
The only way we can do ministry is “with the help of our God.” Paul puts it even stronger than that in the Greek. It isn’t just that we need a little help from God to be Christ’s body in the world. We must be united with God. The Greek is en to Theo, in God. Or as Christ put it in John 15, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
In verses 3-6a, Paul speaks directly to the criticism he had received, point by point. Long ago, John Calvin noticed that Paul is talking here about the content of his Gospel, the affections of his heart, and the manner of his conduct. “For the appeal we make does not spring (as his opponents said) from error (content) or impure motives (affections), nor were we trying to trick you (manner).”
Paul’s critics accused Paul of preaching error. If these were the Judaizers who dogged his steps all over the Mediterranean basin, they were saying that his Gospel undercut centuries of Jewish custom and traditions and, worse, God’s own law, the Torah. In doing that, they said, Paul is opposing God himself. Not so, says Paul. “On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel.” This Gospel we preach comes directly from God. We didn’t make it up; it is a sacred trust for which God will hold us responsible.
The message here for our congregations is that we must be good stewards of the Gospel. Though it is culturally conditioned in that it was originally written in Greek and Hebrew and was addressed to 1st century Jews and Romans and Greeks, it is not a product of human cultural invention. And however we preach it to a contemporary audience, we must keep the trust and not change the Gospel to fit the times. The desire to be relevant must not alter what God has entrusted once for all to the church.
Paul continues to reply to this accusation that he is preaching humanly devised error. His critics were saying that he was preaching this Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in order to make it easier for the Gentiles to fit into the church. He is removing God given rules and regulations so that Gentiles will have an easier time becoming God’s people. (Think of the furor over circumcision resulting in the Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15.) In response Paul says, “We are not trying to please men, but God who tests our hearts.”
I can vividly recall the day one of my friends in my third church accused me of being a “people pleaser.” He said that I was soft pedaling the hard parts of the Gospel in order to be popular. I protested that I was trying to be pastoral, trying to take account of people’s weaknesses and wounds as I applied the Gospel to real lives. Who was right? Obviously, I was. (Just kidding.) But he laid his finger on a sore spot for every preacher. We want to be liked, loved, adored by our congregations, and respected by an increasingly hostile world. We must be very careful that we don’t blur the clarity of the Gospel in our efforts to reach a world that loves 50 shades of grey. We do well to remember that “God tests our hearts,” and it is finally God we need to please.
Closely connected to this last thought is Paul insistence that he didn’t act from impure motives. His heart was right. Some scholars think Paul had been accused of improper sexual motives. (“Why is it that so many members of this single preacher’s churches are female?”). But the evidence in this text points rather in the direction of a desire for fame or fortune. “He’s in it for the money. That offering for the poor in Jerusalem is a cover for his greed.” “He’s just trying to make a name for himself. He’ll say anything to be popular.”
Paul’s critics were well aware of the travelling preachers of that day who knew how to take advantage of a congregation with their “love offerings” and their finely honed messages designed to garner the maximum “offering of praise to God.” And they knew the human heart very well. John Calvin summed it up very well. “Human cunning has so many labyrinthine recesses that greed and ambition are often concealed in it.” It is frightfully difficult to ferret out our own greed and ambition, but we must because “from these two sources comes the corruption of the whole of ministry.” (Calvin again)
Here’s another touch point for our congregations. The power of ambition and greed can absolutely ruin the witness of the Gospel. And we are not talking only here about sleazy TV evangelists. I can’t count the number of times I have heard unbelievers dismiss the gospel because they had business dealings with greedy Christians or because they had witnessed the ambition of allegedly Christian celebrities? Paul takes an oath that he never has and never will allow greed and ambition to damage the Gospel. “You know we never used flattery nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness.” Yes, he is. God is our witness as we try to witness.
Then Paul speaks about the manner of his ministry, countering the claim that he uses trickery to sell his erroneous gospel. The word “trick” in verse 3 referred to the way fishermen use bait to catch a fish. That image made me think of the “bait and switch” tactics of crooked businesses. You get customers in the door with the bait of something really good for a cheap price, and then you switch and get them to buy something else at a higher price. How often do the church’s promotional strategies and public relations campaigns violate the spirit of the gospel? We must be careful that our desire to “sell” the gospel to a reluctant world doesn’t distort the plain truth of it.
Finally, Paul speaks directly to the accusation that he was a cold hearted manipulator who used his ministry to get rich. As an apostle, I could have asked you for pay. I had that right and authority, but I didn’t do it, because I didn’t want to burden you. Instead, I was “gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
There are a number of delightful and difficult exegetical points in these words. For example, “gentle” is the Greek epioi, but some ancient manuscripts have nepioi, which means “infants.” Was Paul claiming to be a baby among them, and thus harmless, or demanding, or what? And how do we relate that to the metaphor of a nursing mother? Further, the word “delighted” is often translated “being affectionately desirous of you.” And “lives” is psyche, or souls. Each of these little points makes the larger point with great poignancy. Rather than hardheartedly taking advantage of them, Paul had spared no expense in giving himself to them.
This serves as a helpful reminder to our congregations about the cost of effective ministry. It’s not enough to communicate the message clearly and winsomely and intelligently. We must give ourselves completely. This raises all kinds of questions about boundaries in ministry and self-care. But Paul’s over-riding point is that the cause of the Gospel is so important that it demands “my soul, my life, my all” (from “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.)
This text calls to mind memorable portraits of duplicitous ministers, as in the novel, Elmer Gantry, or the movie, “The Apostle,” starring Robert Duval. On a morning TV news show the other day, I saw one of the stars of a new reality series called “Preachers of LA.” That “star” preacher was asked if he felt guilty about being rich. He replied that he certainly didn’t, because most of his money comes from “alternative income streams,” like selling luxury cars. I wondered what tent-maker Paul would think about that.