Colossians

JMJ

THE ASSIGNMENT was to read a selected book of the New Testament (in my case, The Epistle to the Colossians) and answer selected questions. A five-page paper was assigned as well as a 10-12 mins presentation.

What Problem is Being Addressed?

This depends on who is writing and when. Is this letter written by Paul (mid-50s to early-60s), by a disciple of Paul but in Paul’s name (50s – 70s), or is it “in a Pauline style” but much later (-90s?)? If it is by Paul or a disciple the issue could well be the same. If it is from a later date the content and reasons are different. Please note that sources are listed at the end of the paper.

Those who say the letter is pseudonymous point out that there are multiple terms used in this letter not used in other letters. Additionally, it does not fit into the accepted chronology of Paul’s writing: “This means Paul would have written Colossians sometime before his Letter to the Romans, creating the difficulty that Romans often betrays less development than Colossians with regard to some key concepts such as “body of Christ,” the relation of baptism to resurrection, and emphasis on Christ’s future coming.” If this text is from a later period then all of what follows is to be seen as didactic (here are some rules to follow) rather than pastoral (there are some problems so let’s talk). The author is creating a “Pauline slapdown” for their community rather than helping any local Christians deal with issues. Thus the argument seems to be, “Paul already had to deal with stuff like this 20 years ago and he did this… so y’all fall in line.” The unknown author seems to be making claims in support of some specific parties in a local church over other parties. (All the preceding is summarized from Havener.) Our class text indicates that the author wants to “… respond to the challenge presented by ‘the philosophy’ (2:8), and… to provide some support for Epaphras (1:7)…” 

Considered as actually from St Paul, though, this letter is very interesting! It is traditionally paired with Philemon. The text does respond to some cultural challenges and a good bit of encouragement for a congregation of new Christians.  The text is also part of a one-two punch delivered to Philemon and addresses issues on interpersonal relationships in the new community.

Assuming the text to be what it claims to be, the issue is one of how to live as Christians in the culture. Kreeft and our textbook both think that the issue is some sort of Jewish legalism and proto-Gnosticism. Other scholars suggest that there is more a sort of two-way pressure: from the Pagan side there was Epicurean philosophy as well as the normal Roman Paganism (worship of the Roman gods). From the Jewish side, there is legalism – a pressure to follow the full scope of Jewish religious laws. 

I find these two sides pushing images makes more sense to me than thinking most (all?) of the pushback was from the Jewish community: certainly as Catholics that we are challenged both by the culture of the secular world (our local Paganism) as well as by other religions. We are also challenged by the legalism within our own tradition. More on that in a few moments though! 

Main Message

God is in control; that is to say, “Christ is in Control.” The opening passages of this letter (Colossians 1:12-20) are a hymn from the early Church. We also sing this at Vespers on Wednesdays. Christ is described in a great number of titles, each listing Christ as the top of some theological category. All of the sources refer to this hymn as describing the Cosmic Christ. 

This Cosmic Christ is presented as a counter to “philosophy” as well as to local paganism, on the one hand, and, on the other, as in opposition to adherence to the law itself. It is our being (through baptism) in Christ that means we are no longer subject to the Jewish law or the superstitions of the Pagan world. We no longer need to dig into mysterious/occult ways, since Christ is the culmination of all mysteries.

Theological Insights

1) The Cosmic Christ

The hymn in 1:15-20 gives a number of titles and descriptions to Christ that are very much beyond the “carpenter’s son of Nazareth”:

He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers- all things were created through him and for him. Before anything was created, he existed, and he holds all things in unity. (etc)

“The hymn… makes clear that Christ is the ruler of the cosmos;… [and]has a very high view of the divinity of Christ, but it is a step in the development of doctrine, not its completion…” (Smiles)

2) In Christ (ἐν Χριστῷ) 

The expressions “in Christ” and the variations “in him/ whom” and “in the Lord” appear extensively in Paul’s writings, some two hundred times… In Colossians, in Christ (and the variations) occurs nineteen times. …Paul used (in all of his writings – DHR) fourteen compound words beginning with sun, the preposition translated “with.” Three of them are found in Colossians, co-­buried (2:12), co-raised (2:12; 3:1), and co­-quickened (2:13). (Martin)

One could be tempted to read “in Christ” as a mere psychological or spiritual “identification” with Christ, but the Catholic understanding of “in Christ” implies the doctrine of theosis or divinization and it means that the believer participates in Christ fully by Grace. There is a mystical way in which the believer is being Christ or mediating Christ in the present situation. 

¶1691 “Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.”

¶1692 The Symbol of the faith confesses the greatness of God’s gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become “children of God,” “partakers of the divine nature.” Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section III “Life in Christ”

Kreeft points out that the main argument is “(1) Christ is divine. (2) And you are in Christ. (3) Therefore, ‘if then you have been raised with Christ… set your minds on the things that are above not on the things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (3:1-3).” Paul spends most of chapters 2 and 3 walking the reader through the implications.

3) Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers

Jesus is cited as head over all things, therefore we do not need to submit ourselves to any spiritual “others” such as angels, elemental powers, etc. Is Paul addressing worship of local deities or some proto-Gnosticism? Most of the sources think there’s something like Gnosticism going on here. Paul uses the term “Philosophy” (love of wisdom) in 2:8. Greco-Roman paganism had “taboo” days where certain things could not be done. Many superstitions command “do not touch” and “do not eat” so the contents in the Epistle do not need to refer to Judaism alone. What, exactly,  is Paul referring to? At this great remove, we might be unable to know for certain, but there are many examples today of people who make Christ one of a “pantheon” in their spiritual-but-not-religious way.  Paul is saying that’s not following Jesus who is higher than all other beings. This is the prime insight, really, of the entire letter. In Christ is our Hope, and our action, our life, our one true religion.

4) Relationships in the Home in theory and practice.

Jesus’ primacy is not only a theological or spiritual claim: we must act as if it’s really real. Paul points out that the Cosmic Christ has implications in the home noting that contrary to the abusive family structures common in the Roman world, the Lordship of Christ requires our families to change. The Bible Project makes it clear that the way a Roman Pater Familias ran his home was nothing like a Christian Father exercising his headship in Christ.  What Paul describes would not be very recognizable to the “secular” Roman world.

Then Paul gives an example in the relationship between Philemon and his slave Onesimus. Paul does not demand the political overthrow of a system, but the change he makes in the relationship between a Roman Master and a Roman Slave will, eventually, change even our country. But we know the laws are only part of the work: it is still hearts that must be changed. 

5) Comments on Legalism

Legalism (which will not save us) is part superstition and part politics. The legalism mentioned in the Epistles is usually referring to circumcision, dietary laws, and the sabbath, but as I noted Roman Paganism has such rules as well. Today we practice a sort of reverse legalism rather than evangelism. Paul wants us to change hearts and relationships, to win souls for Christ. He doesn’t give us new rules for the household, he shows us how love plays out. Paul wants the Colossians and – especially? – Philemon to do the hard work of changing hearts – their own hearts and others. Following rules does not save us. 

How often in our modern world do we try to change laws to make people comply with Christian morality rather than doing the hard work of changing hearts?


Further Notes (for speaking)

Paul is writing a letter of encouragement. He has been visited in prison by his friend Epaphras – who founded this community – and he has sent a letter to them by the hands of Tychicus and Onesimus. Now, Onesimus is the slave of one Philemon, a member of the Colossian community. Paul is also sending a personal letter to Philemon to ask for some special favors.

The church in Colossae may meet in Philemon’s house.

The Colossians are facing cultural pressure to conform from two different directions: the Pagans in Colossae as well as from the Jewish Community. Are these Jewish Christians or Jewish Jews? Well, at a certain point in time there was no division here. If this letter is written by Paul in the middle of the 1st Century the Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah are worshipping in the Synagogue along with the Jews who do not believe. The practice seems to have been for Jews to meet on Friday night and Saturday for Sabbath and then, after the Havdala service, marking the end of Sabbath, Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah gathered with Gentiles for the Eucharistic supper. (Keonig)

I would like to suggest that Jews outside the community may have wondered at Jews eating with Pagans. We can imagine the conversation being something like this:

Why do you eat with them late Saturdays?
Um…
Are they righteous Gentiles?
Oh yes!
Oh, then they should come to synagogue, at least. They can sit in the back. You know they should keep Kosher, though…
Hey, you know… brothers… if you tried to blend in more, it would be easier for all of us. Just pretend you’re Jews…

Additionally, Paul was addressing a Church arising in a pagan culture and needed to move Christians from their own cultural assumptions towards a more Christ-centered life. Paul believes that, in baptism and through the Holy Spirit, the Christians are endowed with the grace to make this change in their lives.

There are mystery religions as well as normal Roman paganism (worship of Jupiter/Zeus, etc). In this world, they would imagine Jesus to be just another deity. One Anglican scholar has noted that while there were miracle-working Rabbis in Jewish tradition, there were no such cases in Pagan culture. That Jesus was a miracle worker would, in Pagan eyes, imply that he was divine. He would be in danger of just getting added to “the list”. (Dix.)

Paul’s letter of encouragement says Jesus is more than all that. Jesus is everything.

Legalism was (at one time) the idea that following the law would save us. Paul says it is Christ who saves us and urges us to live into that (to act in trust – fideo – on our beliefs – credo). What do we do to “outsiders” though? We could evangelize them, but we often take the shortcut: to pass laws that make them obey our morality even if they are not part of the faith. We feel much safer in a society with a veneer of Christian uniformity. Integralism is legalism in reverse: sure, we have faith. We save the law for the outsiders.


Sources:

Jerusalem Bible,  1968, Doubleday.

The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission. John Koenig, 2000.

Jew and Greek, a Study in the Primitive Church, Dom Gregory Dix, 1953.

New Testament (New Collegeville Bible Commentary) Daniel Durken, series editor. Article on Colossians, Vincent M Smiles; article on Philemon, Terence J. Keegan, OP.

New Testament (Collegeville Bible Commentary) Robert Karris, OFM, general editor. Article on Colossians and Philemon, Ivan Havener, OSB.

You Can Understand the Bible, Peter Kreeft.

Bible Project. Video introductions to Colossians and Philemon.
Poster Summary for Colossians.
Poster Summary for Philemon.

Colossians, Philemon, by Ernest D. Martin (Believers Church Bible Commentary). Retrieved on 3 Mar 22.

A Burning Faith

Reflection Paper on Hebrews. Dancing with Jesus from Fear, through Faith, to Fire.

banner image become all flame

JMJ

The Assignment was a Reflection Paper on an assigned text, to be an oral presentation of around 7 mins. From all of the Epistle to the Hebrews I selected 10-12, the portion “on faith”. By way of process, I started with a five page paper that was (mostly) scholarly and was, in no way, reflection or tied to personal experience. A trial run was 12 mins. I trimmed it back to 8ish an then it was still not reflective. Adding in a thread about vocation and recent events in that sphere seemed to tie it all together and require yet another edit to get it down to 8 mins.

GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE. (Hebrews 12:39). It sounds like a threat for the sinners. It is rather a promise of love for us, and of salvation. In our vocational journey, we must move with Christ from fear, in faith, to fire. 

Last year we read Pope Benedict’s Introduction to Christianity. He said the Christian faith is a description of the world as it really is: how God designed and intended things to run. To say Credo is not (only) to say something about God, but also to say something definitive about how the world actually is. Having made the foundational move to Credo, having given our assent to the doctrines, we must live (act) as if they are true. 

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb 10:31). Who has so fallen? “The Lord will judge his people” (v 30). The writer speaks of us. It is we who have fallen into the hands of God! And it’s fearful to be here. 

You here in this room know that you can try and run away from God, but he will find you anyway. God waits for you to respond in faith.

Faith is the important word. In Greek, it’s pistis. This is how the Greeks begin the Creed at liturgy: “Pisteo”.  In Latin we say “Credo”. Pistis is also used to say “by faith” here in Hebrews. In Latin, though, the translation uses a form of “Fideo”. We’ve broken this Greek “Pistis” thing into two Latin parts: a credo or “I believe” – I assent to this teaching – and a fideo or “I trust”. Picture the Greek word Pistis as breathing. Then we can imagine the Latin words breathing in at “Credo” and then breathing out at “Fideo”.

Has anyone pushed you away from your vocation? Has anyone tried to derail your process or tell you you’re not really worthy? 10:36 says “For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.” We don’t receive the promise unless we endure unless we push to do the will of God! In fear we are tempted to become “those who shrink back and are destroyed, but” by God’s grace we can be found among “those who have pistis and keep their souls.” (v 37). Our faith calls us beyond fear,  deeper into God. 

You all feel this call. You KNOW we must do something! Doing is our Fideo. We must act as if our hope is real – even when we cannot see it.  Discernment is an action verb!

Everyone listed in Chapter 11 of Hebrews is acting by pistis: even though they are not getting what God promised in the future, they are acting as if they had it already. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. 

Rahab… Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets… And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised… (11:31ff)

Faith is this action. Acting as if the world really is what God says it is even when it seems otherwise. 

Remember how Cardinal Ratzinger described faith (he means both the “fideo” as well as the “credo”): we cling to the cross but the cross is not tethered to anything: we are floating over the abyss of unbelief on a plank of wood.

God is doing something in our life and we must (in pistis) not only assent to  let him do as he wills (Credo) but we must also participate in it (Fideo). He has given us what we need to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). JUST DO IT.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God: but Christians assert that God is love. We also know love hurts like the Cross. We don’t know why, yet we struggle forward. And Chapter 12 now brings this all home: we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses (12:1b). Every action in the arena of life, in the arena of our vocation, is watched and cheered on. 

Hebrews urges us not to reject hard struggles, but to act in pistis even so, assent and push forward to the God of love. From the saints and angels around us, we can hear a great deafening roar as the Race Set before us begins “CREDO! (YES!) FIDEO! (YES!) GO!” (And the crowd goes wild!) COME ON! AGAIN!

And, rushing forward we find at the end of 12 what we saw at beginning of my talk: here is why it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God: he is a consuming fire! 

We will not arrive at Ordination Day on a sea of clouds and golden sunbeams, but rather Paradise is only in the eternal wildfire of Divine Love that burns away our dross, that purges away our sins, that leaves us free and clear to embrace God as fully as he wishes to embrace us. How do we dance in Pistis to this end? How do we prepare? 

The Fathers use the image of metal in a forge: as it heats up, the metal never burns as such, but we can see the fire take root, filling the metal with itself, glowing. The Eucharist is the fire. Prayer. Our actions of Credo and Fideo. We commune with God and, little by little, we begin to take on his fire.

Here’s a story from the Desert: 

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, insofar as I can, I say my prayers, I keep my little fast, and I pray and meditate… Now what more shall I do?” The elder stood up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame, and he said to him, “If you wish, become all fire.”

We have fallen into the hands of our God. He is a consuming fire – for all of us – for the sinners and the saints. He is nothing but love, forever embracing, forming, sustaining, enfolding. 

We can dive right in – in pistis – and we will live forever in the fire. He is love: both our source and our proper end. Having set out for him as the end of our race we dare not turn back. That would be to act without pistis.

 Or we can try standing outside the fire in fear, always running away from God. In which latter case we will burn out in that omnipresent conflagration of love. Forever.

Rather, Love, brothers and sisters. Love now & here. 

Be ready for Love to come. Be Love to others.

Become all fire.

St John Application Questions

JMJ

THE ASSIGNMENT WAS to do one of several application questions from the Ignatius Study Bible for the Gospel of John for the assigned chapters (2, 7, 12, 17). The study questions for the Ignatius Study Bible are amazing. The study guides can be downloaded for free in PDF format here.

2:15–16. What attachments do you have that Jesus might want to drive out of your heart (his Father’s house)?

The therapist, my spiritual director, and I are working on my attachment to “being liked” or, rather, my attachment to the fear of being disliked. I write it negatively like that because it’s actually an attachment to the fear: you know, the adrenaline, the safety of being secretive, the chance to blame others (who have done nothing) for my own inaction. Yes, being liked is nice, but it’s not really what I want: the safety of being disliked is much better. 

When I was in High School then-President Regan reinstated the Draft and we all had to register for the draft, even though it wasn’t yet being used. I was obligated to register when I became 18 and I was required to register or else I would not qualify for any federal student aid or loans. (Back in those days such aid made college actually possible.) I had intended to register as a Conscientious Objector but the reason was not one of pacifism: rather just cowardliness. I didn’t want to go into the army. As much as I can (now) construct an argument for Christian Pacifism, it was only my attachment to fear that made sense out of this in High School. This is a passion I live with and, with God’s grace and the help of more than a few mentors I’m learning to drive this out of the Temple. This is not to say God can’t use even this for a blessing: if I hadn’t chickened out of some vocational process along the line I might, even now, be a Methodist minister somewhere. God can use even my fear of follow-through. But better to make an offering wholeheartedly than to set hands to the plough and then back away.

7:24. What does Jesus mean by judging here? How does he want you to judge? What should you be judging?

“Never deny, seldom affirm, but always distinguish.” So runs a Dominican saying which I’ve heard from my spiritual director as well as from the late Bishop Robert Christian, OP. The Greek for “distinguish” here is “krino” and Jesus is saying we should “distinguish by righteous distinguishing”. Between Augustine and Aquinas we come to think that no one (usually) does evil because it’s evil but rather because they believe it to be good. The working definition of evil, then, in many of the western Fathers of the Church is to prefer a lesser good to a greater one. Yes, it’s good – perhaps even good enough – but it’s not the highest good that can be achieved here. When I hear Jesus asking us for some “righteous distinguishing” he’s commanding us to go for the highest good. Yes, it’s good to obey the Sabbath, but making a man whole is better, right? Righteous! This seems to apply to many of our “cultural war” discussions and might teach us something. Yes, someone outside of the Church might prefer X to Catholic Teaching – but the Church should bring them to the higher good. At the same time we, as Catholics, should understand that (at the moment) the “outsider” is doing what they think is the highest possible good: they need to have their sights raised ever higher.  This is the same for me: taking 20+ years to apply certain parts of Orthodoxy /Catholicism to my life because I thought I was good enough rather than striving to be as perfect as God is perfect, for the Highest Good.

12:3–5. What does Judas’ question imply about Mary’s generosity? When have you criticized (or been criticized by) someone for being generous? What was the outcome of the criticism?

Judas says Mary’s generosity is misplaced. The implication is that she should have given the money for a “better use”. My job as Director of Outreach at St Dominic’s includes the function of Parochial Almoner: this process of “be critical re:generosity” is a daily part of my life! The questioning goes both ways: because parishioners can both give uncritically and also be critical of my disbursements. The constant process of confusing “getting rid of my junk” with “generously giving to the poor” is hard to work with and yet – even though I have to try and redirect the junk to other places – it also must be discerned as their own sincere actions.

The other side of this equation is folks who want to keep better track of our generosity to others. Now, to be fair, I’m not giving away my money. I’m here to facilitate the charity of others. So, they have some right to ask questions about where the money goes. So, again, I have to assume they are doing the best they can: my own charity is in how I act to them. 

The rest of this question is “What was the outcome ?” and it’s a learning curve for me: my boss has asked me to be transparent with the whole process so I’m finding ways to provide education and to not-judge at the same time. 

17:14–17. How does the saying “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” apply to your own relation with the world?  To which of the two do you—in your heart of hearts—belong? How do you know that?

While I hope that one day there will be a final answer to this, it is not – yet- “unwordly” enough for me. Two weekends ago a mutual friend introduced me to someone from St Louis whom I had previously known only online. Within a few moments, we were small talking very well in what – I realized later – should probably be categorized as “near occasion of sin”.  For someone who could read the code, we were using it might have been heard as scandal, but it all sounded normal and polite with a good bit of laughter. I found myself wondering why there was always this meaningless and yet near-sinful patter like that just beneath the surface. 

One of my (American) Eastern Orthodox heroes is the late Fr Seraphim Rose (1934-82). He was raised as a member of the Methodist church and drifted into atheism and vaguely eastern “spirituality” but, eventually, joined the Russian Orthodox Church in 1962. By the time of his death 20 years later he had become a monk and was recognized as an Elder in that tradition, a spiritual father or “Staretz”. A story is told of one night a youth retreat at his monastery (in Platina) played a trick on him: serving vanilla ice cream as a special treat to the monks, the kids gave Father Seraphim a scoop of mashed potatoes. He ate the potatoes as thankfully as the other monks eating the ice cream. Although this is sometimes recounted as proof that he had “no attachment to food”. I think it embodies other Christian virtues: unwillingness to accuse others, joy in what one is given, and the blessing celebrated by a simple act of thanksgiving for all that is. I’m not there yet: I’d still complain. To cycle back to the first question, I’m still inclined to enjoy the ice cream more (eat dessert first) out of fear that I might miss out on something good. This is something to keep working on and pray gets set right in time.

Textual Echos of Priesthood

The assignment was to discuss the ways that “priesthood” is echoed in the Gospel of Luke. I didn’t quite buy it. I was left either writing a paper I could not support or, else, ranting a bit. I tried to do a middle course and follow Thomas Aquinas: take the opposing position seriously and then state my objections and my own argument for my position.

JMJ

The Church has traditionally seen in Christ a threefold ministry or office. These functions, prophet, priest, and king, are called the “three munera” from the Latin munus which means “office”. These roles can be seen beginning in Adam and recurring through the Old Testament until they are fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. In 1 Corinthians 15:45, Jesus is called the “Last Adam”. As the new Adam, we should see Jesus fulfilling the functions traditionally assigned to Adam but lost in the Sin of Eden. “Fulfilled” here means not only that they were prophesied in the past, but also that they are “filled up” in Jesus in a way that they were not previously. The Messiah fulfills (to a superfluity) all that is needed. When we see Adam and what he is described as doing in Eden, before the Fall, we see Man as we were intended to be. Christ is that man.

A comment in The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture sidebar notes that “modern biblical scholarship has generally been skeptical that Christ is portrayed as a priest in this and other Gospel passages”, although recent scholarship has opened up some to this reading. The present writer numbers himself among the former, “modern” group that does not see. In this paper, we will be concerned with the munera of priest, but there will be more of a struggle than an exploration. Hebrews, especially in Chapter 7, presents a full argument on the priesthood of Jesus (“after the Order of Melchizedek” v.17, etc). Does the Gospel of St Luke (and all the Gospels generally) contain textual echoes of Christ in the role of priest in the way that, primarily, we see him most clearly in the book of Hebrews?

A book we referred to often in the previous class is of some help here. Bible Basics for Catholics by John Bergsma helps us trace the role of priest, prophet, and king through the different covenants in the scriptures.

Bergsma sees priesthood in the verbs used to describe what Adam does: “What else does the Bible tell us about Adam? Genesis 2 tells us that God planted a garden in Eden and placed Adam there “to till it and keep it”. There’s a bit of a word play going on here. In the Hebrew language, this phrase is literally “to serve (it) and guard (it).” It is uncommon to find these two verbs together in the Bible. We will not find them together again until much later, in Numbers 3:7-8 where are the two verbs – “serve” and “guard” – together describe what the priests do in the place of worship. For the ancient reader, Adam’s commission “to serve and guard” in the garden would have had a priestly sound to it.” (p 20-21.)

Adam is appointed by God to name the animals, which Bergsma sees as part of Adam’s Kingly function. Orthodox theologian, the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, sees this naming as also part of Adam’s priesthood also. Like Bergsma, Schmemann understands naming as a revelation of the very essence of the thing. Naming, then, is a eucharistic act: when Adam says, “this is an elephant” or “you are a dog” it is as constitutive as when Jesus or our pastors say, “This is my body.”

“The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973, p15.)

In these two descriptions, we can see three different priestly functions – speaking (to bless, to name), serving, and guarding (or keeping). Blessing and naming is, in fact, one of the things Jesus does most – not only in Luke but in all the Gospels. If one includes healing and exorcism under the rubric of “blessing” then almost the entire record of Jesus work is, by this light, priestly. This abundance of blessing seems to be a primary argument for these echoes of priesthood in the text.

While blessing, serving, and guarding are functions of priesthood in the Church, are these three verbs an argument for priesthood of Christ?

Bergsma notes that priesthood is a bit harder to find (p. 128). “Jesus’ role as priest is harder to see, but he says it is there. For example, he cites the Pharisees challenge Jesus for breaking their Sabbath rules about rest. Jesus replies, “Have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Mt 12:5) Jesus points out that priests are allowed to work on the holy days; in fact, they have to. The implication is that Jesus himself is a priest and has priestly rights.” In the footnote to this section (p. 175) the reader is directed to p. 108 of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: from the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Finding nothing on that page, I read the entire section (pp 106-112) entitled, “The Dispute Concerning the Sabbath”.

The passage is a sort of dialogue with another text, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (1993), by the late Rabbi Jacob Neusner. The Pope Emeritus is analyzing the Rabbi’s response to Matthew 12:1-8 where Jesus is questioned about his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. This event is also recorded in Luke 6:1-5. At issue is the question of violating the Sabbath by work. In Luke, Jesus says that David and his companions ate the bread reserved for priests so – sometimes – situations may require that laws change (or be broken). “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. In Matthew, Jesus’ reply notes also that priests work on the Sabbath without actually breaking the Sabbath. Both readings can seem to indicate that Jesus is claiming priestly dignity (either to eat the bread of the presence or to work on the Sabbath) for himself and his disciples. The Rabbi thinks the issue of violating the Sabbath is not the point. “What troubles me, therefore, is not that the disciples do not obey one of the rules of the Sabbath. That is trivial and beside the point” (p.107). The issue is one of authority, but not priestly authority.

Over the course of the textual conversation, though, Rabbi Neusner and Pope Benedict come to the conclusion not that Jesus is a priest, but something altogether more than a priest. As the conversation between the Pope and the Rabbi continues the Rabbi comes to the conclusion that Christ is putting himself the place of the Torah itself and then asks, “Is your master God?” (p. 110). Christians would reply to that question with a strong affirmation. Indeed there is something more than a priest here. In one sentence on p. 108 of the Razinger text the Rabbi is quoted as saying that Jesus and his disciples now “stand in the place of the priests” but it is not as priests that they stand there rather it is replacing the priests. I think that’s why Bergsma and others find “Jesus’ role as priest is harder to see”: he is so much more than a priest or a prophet that those are eclipsed. While these functions are present in the Messiah, it’s as God-Man that he moves through the text. He is fulfilling the older priesthood – making it something more by the fact that he is not a priest, but God.

We – as his church, as human beings, need the munera all broken out. The Catechism, in ¶871-913, gives a full description of the priesthood of Christ and how the Laity participates in all of its functions. Ordained ministers are called specific types within this general class. Thus Jesus, as God, offers us (his Church) participation in his Divine-Human Messiahship in the form of the munera in the Church. To see the fullness of Christ in liturgy, one would want to see a Mass served in the presence of a Bishop (“pontifical” Mass) by presbyters and deacons together with the fullness of participation from the laity. There are all the baptized orders of the Church (laity, bishops, priests, and deacons) present the fullness of Christ’s body in action. So Christ, in the Gospel, does something more than priests do. In his Sacrifice on the Cross or giving us the gift of His own Body and Blood at the Last Supper we see Christ as a king (Bishop), as a leader (Presbyter), and also as a servant (Deacon). He’s not a priest as 1st Century Jews understood this – or at least I do not see it – but he is God doing these things.

This leads to one other issue with such a reading, especially in the context of St Luke: Why would Luke be using a typography from the Jewish Scriptures? Luke is generally seen pointing to Christ as a Gentile writing for other Gentiles. If the Messiah is presented as “filling up” the role of a priest, would it not make more sense for him to use the typography of Greco-Roman sources? Making references to obscure Jewish hints (even ones available in Greek) seems to miss the mark. Mind you, it would be very surprising to see them, but if the argument is for Jesus to be a priest, wouldn’t the evangelist take the culture of the intended audience into account? Are those hints even there in the Greek, though?

To go back to Genesis and the command to Adam in the garden, the Hebrew words cited by Bergsma from Genesis 2:15 are to work/serve עָבַד avad – Strong’s #5647 and to keep שָׁמַר shamar – Strong’s #8104. (I’m citing Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible which numbers each Greek and Hebrew root word used in the Bible and makes it possible to find other occurrences of the same word or words.) In the Septuagint they are translated into Greek. They are to work ἐργάζομαι ergazomai – Strong’s #2038 – and to keep/guard φυλάσσω phulasso – Strong’s #5442. These two Greek words are not found together at all in the New Testament. There is a whole rabbit warren of interesting verses linked with each of those words individually, but none of them tie to priesthood or directly to Jesus.

What might be going on with the arguments that some make, seeing priesthood for Christ in the Gospels? One possibility may be the perceived need to see everything Catholics do in the text. “Where is that in the Bible?” is a common question addressed to Catholics by both Protestants and non-Christians. We must remember ¶108 in the Catechism.

Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living”. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.”

We do not follow the letter of the text. We do not need to find “our stuff” in the literal content nor are we under obligation to do so! That said, the present writer is not willing to dismiss the argument entirely: only to say it’s not textual. There are other arguments based on “textual echoes” as was presented in our last class (viz taxes). Is it possible to “hear” what might be in the mind of a 1st Century Jewish or Gentile listener? Or only possible to suggest it? It seems only the latter – even though it might be a great support for one’s argument. Yet this is not infallible: there is a “textual echo” argument, for example, which implies the story of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5–13, Luke 7:1–10) indicates blessing a same-sex relationship. Such textual echoes seem, to this writer, to depend less on the text and more on the ears of the hearer.

Another – and to this writer’s mind better – argument might be the Holy Spirit and the Catholic practice of contemplating on the scriptures. Again, in ¶108, “the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.’” As a reader prays in the Spirit and meditates on the scriptures, by God’s grace things may unfold in the mind to help further understand the content. Although these are perfectly valid – coming from the same Spirit that wrote the scriptures and formed the mind of the contemplator – they are not in the text but are rather the fruit of contemplation which may be passed on for the edification of others if they find it useful. In that light, while the present writer doesn’t find this material useful, others may be blessed by it.

There are places in the New Testament where Jesus is described as a priest: the Epistle to the Hebrews is foremost. But the Gospels seem to be concerned with proclaiming him as God. Jesus spends much of his time blessing and naming: exorcising, healing, and pronouncing clean. While these are the actions of a priest, they are also the actions of the Incarnate God in his person. He doesn’t need a priest to mediate the actions and doesn’t need to be a priest in himself. This enriches the prayer life also, but – perhaps – in a way more akin to Occam’s razor, it is the “more simple” reading here. Why is Jesus not subject to the purity laws or to restrictions around Sabbath? Because he replaces the Torah by fulfilling it – as Rabbi Neusner asks (Ratzinger, op cit p.110), “I ask again – is your master God?” Yes.

In closing, Pope Benedict’s book cited this meditation/dialogue from the Rabbi on pages 104-5. He cites the Talmudic tradition that there are 613 commandments in on Sinai (the Talmud says there are 365 “do not’s” or negative ones, coinciding with the number of days in the solar year, and there are 248 positive commandments or “do’s”, a number ascribed to the parts of the body). These were condensed, in various steps, down to the greatest commandments. The rabbi then notes that Jesus reported all this. He did not subtract anything but – Rabbi Neusner adds, perhaps saying more than he knows or wishes to say – Jesus did add something: “Himself.”

Whose Image is This?

The assignment was to present answers to some study questions for Matthew Chapter 22 (RSVCE – 2nd Edition) in the Ignatius Study Bible. The Study Guides can be downloaded free here. Since this wasn’t a written paper, this text is more the general idea of my presentation, which went over my 20 allotted minutes. The questions are in bold below.

JMJ

If politics are allowed play into my online discourse – social media or blogging – often it can cause distress for friends on left and right: traditional Christians who try to live out the faith (as Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants) can seem too far to the right for some secular liberals and yet – at the same time – too far to the left for secular conservatives. 

Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world – as the Christian is called to be in this world but not of it. This does not mean Jesus kingdom is not here, active and now: only  that it’s a different pattern than the worldly ideas of rule.

Jesus walks us through several of these sorts of oppositions in Matthew’s 22nd Chapter. 

He takes on Jew and Gentile, Pharisee and Sadducee, and sacred vrs secular. None of these are “the right way” to view the Tax Question. Let’s take a look at that passage (Matthew 22:15-22)

The Study Bible asks

What is the malice in the collaboration between Pharisees and Herodians in asking Jesus the question about paying taxes?

To get the answer (What was the malice?) we need to answer these questions first: who were the Pharisees? who were the Herodians?

The Pharisees were the “rabbinic” party of Judaism. It might surprise you to hear me say that on our modern “liberal/conservative” spectrum they were the liberals. The reason I say this is because they believed that man could – with God’s help – interpret the scriptures. That is to say that one did not need to take the scriptures literally, at face value. One could read into them for meaning, looking beneath the literal meaning of the words for greater clarity. 

The Oven of Akhnai

The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

It’s that last part that is important. The “liberalism” is that humans can “triumph” over God and tell God what the law should be. The Pharisees were among those who practiced this process of interpretation. There are several places in the New Testament where Jesus is debating with various Jewish leaders and says their interpretation is not the correct one and then – as God – he offers the truth. 

However, in our later chapter here (34-40) Jesus, being asked about the greatest commandment takes sides with one Pharisee over another! For there were two great schools of thought in interpretation, each named for a prominent rabbi, the “house of shammai” and the “house of hillel”. Rabbi Shammai (50BC-30AD) said the greatest commandment was to Love God (etc) and the second commandment was to keep the Sabbath. Rabbi Hillel (110 BC-10AD) said the same about the first commandment, but the second was to love your neighbor. Jesus – that is God – side with Hillel here. 

(Think about those who questioned Jesus repeatedly about Keeping the Sabbath! Perhaps they are from the school of Shammai?)

On the other hand, Jesus sided with Shammai on the question of divorce: Hillel said it could be for anything, even burning the dinner. Shammai said only for infidelity.

Anyway, the Pharisees were the party of “interpretation”. Remember that. It’s not that interpretation is wrong – it’s part of our tradition! But one still must have the right interpretation. 

The Pharisees are (generally) in opposition to the Sadducees, not only on theological matters, but also in terms of politics: the Sadducees have the temple priesthood and are the upper class. While the Pharisees are educated, solidly established in society, they are (generally) closer to the people, they are the Rabbis in the local synagogues, the teachers that are “on the street” as it were.

The Pharisees were looking for the Messiah to come and liberate the people of Israel. As we have discussed here in Class they were expecting political liberation from the Son of David: another king, another leader (perhaps like the Maccabees?) that might move them into their own political sphere. 

But who were the Herodians? Here I tripped up a lot in my research. To be honest I thought I knew who they were (the party supporting the line of the Herods) but that was not exactly right. I mean, it was, but yet…

So first off they were pro-Herod. Yes. Herod the Great and his children were the client kings under the Romans. They were Jew-ish… but they were not Judeans. They were from Idumea.  

 You may remember from the OT class that Judas Maccabee led a campaign against the Idumeans (and others) in 163 BC.  Josephus reports the Idumaeans were forcibly circumcised. (A.J. 13.257–258)

So.. they are Jew-ish, but they are not, perhaps, quite as fullheartedy faithful as more-willing converts.

Some of the sources I looked up indicated that some Herodians wanted the King to establish a theocracy in Israel. The Wiki cites Tertullian (Adversis Omnes Haereses [1,1)) saying that some even thought Herod was the Messiah!

Since Herod is the Roman Client King, they support the Romans (at least indirectly) and so they are what we would call Hellenists, although we’re not talking about Greeks now. They are “secularists” who want to get along with the secular power to protect their self-interest.

So here’s some folks claiming the Messiah has already come – from outside of Israel. They have reason to not like Jesus. 

And they are aligning with the Pharisees – who clearly don’t think Herod is the Messiah! And the Pharisees have no reason to align with the Romans… or their supporters. But “politics makes strange bedfellows” yes? Or even religious politics. 

So the question… Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is set up so that Jesus can offend the one party by saying no – whilst pleasing the other. Or, reversing the parties – by saying yes. The pro-Rome party wants you to say yes… but the pro-People party wants you to say no. This would be rather like the SSPX signing up with “Catholics for Choice” to oppose the Pope…

That’s the real malice: their alliance shows they hate Jesus more than they adhere to their own theo-political points. Hypocrites (v 18) is the exact right word here.

Jesus answer, as our NT textbook lets us know, can mean either:

  • One should pay nothing to Cesar because everything belongs to God
  • one should pay the emperor because he is God’s representative
  • one can pay Caesar but recognize that his authority is relative and that loyalty to God takes precedence.

The Dominican Sister who wrote our text thinks it’s the last one, but I think it’s more like a combination of the first two: 

In the Greek Jesus looks at the coin and asks “whose icon is this?” He uses the Greek word eikon which is used in the LXX in Genesis 1:26 to describe man made in God’s image. So… whose icon is on the coin? Yes, it’s Caesar, but whose icon is Caesar? Gods. 

Render to God… how?

I was disturbed by the “application question” the Study Bible asked here. Or, rather, I was disturbed by what seem to be the assumptions behind the question:

How honest are you in paying taxes to the local, state, and federal governments? ( a good question, but then….) What excuses do you make to yourself to avoid paying taxes? 

The Study Bible seems to think everyone is going to have excuses to make? Why make that assumption?

After working in the tech industry for most of the last 25 years, I’m over exposed to “libertarian” ideas. But our current situation, viz a vis covid, leaves us with a more-pertinent ongoing meditation on how our individual actions can effect the common good. This was the gist of the article Dcn Fred sent us just before Christmas. 

Taxes fit into this category: there are some who would object to taxes because of immoral uses crafted by government, but Jesus doesn’t seem to question the morality of the Caesar’s gov’t at all. 

There’s a prayer offered at every Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox tradition, for “our rulers and our God-protected army.” This phrase is also used in daily personal prayers.

Even under Stalin. There’s some mystery there, somehow, we get the Gov’t God wants us to have for the working out of our salvation.

Whose icon is this? This is something about everything belongs to God… and so we render everything to God. Yet somehow, through the mystery of Mediation, even this pagan emperor oppressing us is participating in God’s exercise of Authority.  We pay taxes to Caesar, but to God – and so our roads are built, the army maintains the peace… and we can continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come.

How generous are you in contributing to the financial support of the Church?

I don’t believe in claiming my donations to the Church on my  taxes. That feels like bragging. But I believe that the scriptures teach us to start at 10% and give until you’re not doing things you’d otherwise want to do. 

But it’s not all going to the Church. The Church Fathers suggest that it’s better to give to the poor directly… John Chrysostom suggests setting up a room in your  house to let the poor sleep in. He calls it a “Christ Room” since that’s who is really sleeping there. He says, “You have a place set apart for your wagon, but none for Christ who is wandering by? Abraham received strangers in his own home (Gn 18); his wife took the place of a servant, the guests the place of masters. They did not know that they were receiving Christ, that they were receiving angels.”

THIS sort of charity is what Jesus is talking about in the Parable 

What is the “wedding garment” that the guest has failed to wear? We’re all in the feast, right? I mean that’s the point of the first section: we are at the banquet because God sent his agents (evangelists) out to grace everyone. 

St Theophylact of Ochrid says, “The entry into the wedding takes place without distinction of persons, for by grace alone we have all been called, good and bad alike; but…

Now that we’re in… what do we do with the grace of God? How do we change our lives and the lives of those around us?

The Saint continues…  “the life thereafter of those who enter shall not be without examination, for indeed the king makes an exceedingly careful examination of those found to be sullied after entering into the faith. Let us tremble, then, when we understand that if one does not lead a pure life, faith alone benefits him not at all. For not only is he cast out of the wedding feast, but he is sent away into the fire. Who is he that is wearing filthy garments? It is he who is not clothed with compassion, goodness, and brotherly love. “

Finally, this points us to the kind of Love Jesus is talking about at the end of Chapter 22.

What does it mean to you to love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind? What do you do to demonstrate that love?

What does it mean to love your neighbor as you do yourself? How do you love yourself? How does that apply to the way you love your neighbor?

I mentioned that, among the Pharisees, this twofold reply indicates Jesus siding with Rabbi Hillel, that loving one’s neighbor is the second greatest commandment as opposing Rabbi Shammai. 

There is a story about a gentile who was exploring religion and he went to Shammai and said, “I am interested in the God of Israel. If you can explain the Torah to me while standing on one foot, I will consider this…” and Shammai beat him with his cane and chased him away.  Then the man went to Hillel and asked the same question. The elder stood up and, holding his foot in his hand, said, “What you would not have done to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go study.”

In this reply, he not only showed the heart of God’s law – love of neighbor – but he also reproved the other Rabbi – who, even as annoying as this question was should not have beat the man coming to him for wisdom.

So Jesus and Hillel, together, saying love of neighbor is the heart of the Law of God. And loving God taken as – somehow – the outcome of this love of neighbor. There’s some element of mystery here that we cannot understand in this life. But in some way, my loving service to my neighbor is loving service to God. And, likewise, my loving service to my neighbor is God’s serving them. 

The charitable man is both God’s action in service and – at that same moment – serving God.

I’m least likely to succeed at this. And daily this fact comes to me. Some of you know that over the summer I took a new job, leaving the word of tech after so long and becoming the Director of Community Services at St Dominics. The old-school title of “the guy who does the charity stuff” is “Almoner” from the word “alms”. I’m the Parochial Almoner, thus. 

Even with other people’s money, I cannot love fully. I spend my days wondering if I’m being lied to and who might be trying to pull one over on me. It’s only in our food ministry – and in the ministry at Most Holy Redeemer where I volunteer – that I can fully give myself over. It is such a blessing to feed people – even the people who may already have food! But to be open in hospitality, to know that somehow in feeding the poor at the door, I’m feeding God who feeds me… who enables me to feed the poor! This great exchange of God for God, this feeding of those who need food, the care of the smallest sparrow that God has – through me! Through me! His most unworthy servant – through me nonetheless – this is God’s grace in my life. 

So in loving you I am loving God and loving myself – it all becomes one process, one action, one outpouring of God’s love. (For, certainly, it is God who is loving here, not me.) To the conservative, giving away all this money makes us too liberal. C.S. Lewis once gave a pound coin to a beggar and his companion remarked, “You know he’s just going to buy a beer with that.” And Lewis replied, “Funny, so was I.”  We love without expecting a return. That’s how God loves us.

And yet – and yet – it’s not only the poor that need love, or, more to the point, not only the fiscally and physically poor who need loving. There are other types of poverty and we must show charity to them as well. This is where we are too conservative to our liberal friends. It is not love to let someone do whatever they want if what they want it to damn themselves. How do you love in a way that leads people to God – and away from their sins?

Here is another place where I am not yet mature enough in my faith, but our Holy Father calls us to accompany folks to God.