First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 20

William Loader

Pentecost 20: 30 October  1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

The sensitivities continue in Paul's letter to the Thessalonians. It would be interesting to know how much they knew. Paul keeps referring to it. "As you know" comes again in 2:11. From what we know we can sense what Paul is probably doing. People at Corinth and elsewhere criticised Paul for working to earn his keep instead of obeying Jesus' command to let himself be funded and resourced like a proper apostle by those who he served (most graphically evident in 2 Cor 10-13). The snipers could point to disobedience - but then Paul never treated the words of scripture nor the words of Jesus in such an inflexible way. They could also accuse him of failure to trust God. There was more: it was as offensive not to receive hospitality as it was not to give it. Paul was dishonouring the people whom he served. Worse still, some suggested it was all a sham. Paul did collect money everywhere. What did he do with it!?

Little wonder that Paul wants to head off with the Thessalonians any such accusations. It is serious. So in 2:10 Paul uses the language of an oath to swear by God that his behaviour was above reproof. If a few verses earlier he uses the image of mothering, here he uses the image of fathering. He is making the point that his ministry comes from love, not from self interest. They should recognise that this was the reason why he worked on the side. Compassion calls for flexibility, not playing it by the rules and protecting one's rights and status.

We might imagine Paul sitting down regularly with his congregations to ensure issues are clear and people know where he stands, what he is doing and why. He cannot do that. He is too far away. But his commitment to people means he makes the effort to communicate. Paul does not model the ministry of a loner or martyr or depressive who withdraws and blames. Ongoing open communication is essential in ministry. We are the beneficiaries through his letters.

When in 2:13 Paul's turns to thanksgiving, it is also his attempt to have them join him. It is also how he often began his letters, with praise meant to endear. It can be slightly manipulative, but there is no reason to doubt Paul's genuineness despite the obvious agenda of endearment. Our passage stops short of further attempts on Paul's part to build solidarity in verses which have been quite dangerous and, for some, encouraged antisemitism. While opposition from fellow citizens is a common experience for many in Christian congregations of Paul's day, he extends the solidarity to a sense of oneness with Christ being killed by his fellow Jews (2:14-16).

Paul's language is unfortunate and reflects, or perhaps only generates, negative Jewish stereotypes about Jews as the enemies of humanity. Paul would be the first to counter abuse of his statements. His attack is not on Jews as a people. He is one of them and proud of it. Then those who killed were not all Jews, nor even all Judeans, but only some and certainly not without Roman collaboration who actually carried out the execution. Still, Paul bears resentment and seems happy to see them suffer at the time of writing, a regrettable slip from the logic of his gospel.

I suspect that the motivation for such resentment has less to do with the history of Jesus and his countrymen and more to do with Paul's own anger about the Christian Jews, including those from Judea, who have been hounding him. In that conflict, as in most conflicts, there are positives and negatives on both sides. The Christianity of New Testament times is far from a model to be emulated, but it is one from which we can learn.

Gospel  Pentecost 20: 30 October Matthew 23:1-12

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