The lectionary offers passages this week, which remind me of an important principle of interpretation: don’t take it at face value.
In his short letter to the church in Phillipi, the apostle Paul writes:
“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ …
this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”
Paul is focussed on the future, working for the future and running with enthusiasm into the future. Life will change, and for Paul, it is clear that God wills this change, and therefore it will take place. Change is inevitable, and divinely-authorised. So, orient yourselves to what lies ahead.
But the warning to interpreters is: don’t take it at face value! In Philippians 3, Paul speaks about his past in quite derogatory terms. In fact, he swears about his past. That might not be evident in the translation that we regularly use. But it is what is happening here.
Now, I have to confess that when I taught Greek to theological students, this was one passage that I enjoyed setting for students to translate. Because there is one word in this passage which is very rare, not often found in the Greek literature of the day. It needs investigation. And more often that not, when they work out what the word means, my students would say: Paul can’t have said that, can he?
Our English translation says that Paul wrote: “I count all these things as loss”. My Greek dictionary offers these rather polite options for translating the one critical word: “rubbish, refuse, dung”. The reason the word appears infrequently in Ancient Greek literature is that it actually was a popular, and very base, swear word. I will let your imagination take hold here. We have an equivalent in English: a four letter word that refers to the waste products of our bodily systems. Paul was not being very complimentary about his past, in this verse!
However, the irony is that when we look at the way that Paul operated, we see that he drew extensively on his own past. Raised as a Pharisee, grounded in the knowledge of Hebrew scripture, trained in the interpretation of the laws and commandments—there are signs of this way of operating in each of Paul’s letters! He quotes scripture, analyses it carefully, and argues against other views using classic Pharisaic methods—far from disposing of his Jewish past in the rubbish bin, he drew, again and again, on the resources available to him in his life, precisely because of that past.
Now, that is not to say that Paul did not orient himself to the future, and work in ways that were more developed and more mature than the ways he had learnt as he grew up. Indeed, Paul writes and speaks in Greek—not his native language, for as a Jew he would have learnt scriptures in Hebrew, and spoken Aramaic to fellow Jews. Yet, as apostle to the Gentiles, in the world that had become dominated by Hellenistic culture and customs, he learnt Greek; to the extent that his letters display many characteristics of the sophisticated, learned style of a mature Hellenistic philosopher.
Paul holds together the past and the present, as he works to bring about the future that is promised, in his understanding of God’s ways in the world. Paul’s past informs and shapes his present; just as the cultural context of those around him feeds into the way he relates to people. And that, more than just one ill-thought throwaway line, defines the way that we understand Paul, and provides us with a model for how we are to grapple with past, present and future in our own times.
On the Gospel passage for this week, from John 12, see https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/this-weeks-lectionary-reading-from-john.html