Easter 4: 11 May 1 Peter 2:19-25
We slip into this passage without hearing 2:18 which gives it its context, probably because our verses lend themselves to generalisation and return us to think about Christ. 2:18 exhorts slaves to be subject to their masters, cruel or otherwise. 2:17 had commended honouring the emperor. For slaves there is a reward of some kind for suffering unjustly; none, however, for suffering what they deserve (2:20). 1 Peter lives within a structure of authorities, including abusive authorities, and obviously sees no way out except to remain faithful and at most shame or silence the abusers, as 2:15 suggests.
2:20 indicates perhaps that more is entailed than simply doing good in a passive way - not doing evil. The comparison with Christ which follows may also invite us to think more widely about this goodness, but the focus is not on action but endurance. There are times when the only alternative is to endure. Few of us know such experiences, but they happen and are happening. When we are not facing such situations we have little idea of what such courageous tenacity means. Imprisonment, torture, abuse are still up to date in the arsenal of oppressive regimes. Christ's endurance is a central model.
1 Peter sees the event of Jesus' suffering primarily against the background of vicarious atonement interpreted from Isaiah 53 and probably reflecting earlier Christian tradition. The passage from Isaiah allows the author to reinforce sinlessness, an echo of 1:20. It also reinforces non retaliation. History shows that it is hard for oppressed people not to hate their oppressors during times of oppression and, when they are over and they assume power, not, themselves to become oppressors. Hate has no place for those imitating Christ nor for those seeking to be in solidarity with them. When anger at injustice and the need to confront abuse and abusers takes the further step and hates or kills, then something terrible happens to the vision: it ceases to be a vision of justice and hope, because it has sown the seeds of death. It is, perhaps, too easy to reflect wisely about loving enemies. We need to meet those who have. 1:24 reminds us that all that God did in Christ was that we might live - not that any should die or be deemed unworthy of life.
Isaiah 53 also stimulates the imagery of sheep and shepherds, taking off from the negative comment about going astray to celebrate Christ as the shepherd and overseer (episkopos; the Greek word for bishop, supervisor, superintendent, overseer). In such adversity this is something to hold onto and in which to hope.
Taken into other contexts this passage can serve the interests of oppressive regimes, however well dressed in piety. Then it teaches people to be doormats, to put up with abuse, be brave, and not to raise questions. It misreads the text to see it as a general call to passivity. Part of the "doing good" alluded to in 2:20 must also have echoes of "doing justice". We often find ourselves in situations where passivity is collusion, where we can speak out and become active and need to do so. The more we come to understand how oppression and exploitation work, the more we need to address them, whether in the interests of those being oppressed or in our own. Jesus ended up facing his passion only because before that he had the courage to alert people by word and deed to an alternative vision, an alternative kingdom (regime), creating enough confusion and trouble for the authorities to tidy him away. He did not get there by being a doormat. We must also see Jesus' death in the light of his life; otherwise we will have no idea what this life is for which he died and think it some kind of promise of escape to bliss.
Perhaps it spoils the passage to read it from 2:18. But then that should alert us to the limited (yet valid) application of the passage and remind us that in many contexts such submission is not at all in harmony with the way of Jesus.
First Reading:: Easter 4: 11 May Acts 2:42-47
Gospel: Easter 4: 11 May John 10:1-10