The ‘word of truth’, according to Colossians 1 (Pentecost 5C)

This coming Sunday, we turn from a letter written in the name of Paul, which few interpreters doubt is an authentic letter of Paul, to a slightly shorter letter which also claims to be written by Paul—but about which there is quite some debate as to whether Paul did write it. We will hear the opening section of the letter this Sunday (Col 1:1–14).

The letter begins with a clear claim to be a letter from “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:1-2). Despite this claim, there are signs that Paul may not be the author.

A more complex grammatical structure at some points, and some unusual vocabulary when compared with the vocabulary of the authentic letters of Paul, suggest a different hand in the creation of this letter. Some theological motifs are developed further than is found in the authentic letters of Paul, while the situation addressed appears to be different from—and probably later than—any situation envisaged in the lifetime of Paul.

(On the authorship of the various letters attributed to Paul, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/)

It is typical of Paul’s letters that the opening “prayer of thanksgiving” sets out some of the key contenders which will be addressed in the body of the letter. (This is the case in many other letters from the time that survive to today; whether Christian, or Jewish, or pagan, letters invariably flag key issues in the opening sentences.) Here, the key concerns seem to be about “the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” which will enable the readers and hearers of this letter to “lead lives worthy of the Lord” and “be prepared to endure everything with patience”.

The letter refers to Onesimus (Col 4:9), the slave about whom Paul wrote to Philemon (Phlm 10), as well as one of the addressees of that letter, Archippus (Col 4:17; Phlm 1). The greetings at the end of the letter contain a number of names also found in the greetings of Philemon 23–24: Epaphras (Col 4:12), Mark and Aristarchus (Col 4:10), and Demas and Luke (Col 4:14).

This suggests that the two letters might have originated at the same time in the ministry of Paul—when he was in prison (Col 4:3, 8; Phlm 10, 13), perhaps in Rome towards the end of his life. However, there is little else to connect Colossians with Philemon. The content of each letter is quite different.

Alternatively, the Colossian references to Paul’s imprisonment might link the letter with Philippians, written similarly during an imprisonment (Phil 1:7, 12– 14, 17). This would be so if Epaphroditus in Philippians (2:25; 4:18) was the same person as Paul’s associate, Epaphras, noted in Colossians (1:7–8; 4:12– 13). That possibility suggests a common origin; but no further links between these letters are evident.

A more fruitful connection is found between Colossians and Ephesians, where there are a number of similarities in theological development as well as a significant overlap of text. Eph 6:21b–22 replicates almost exactly the underlined phrases in Col 4:7–9. The most persuasive theory is that Ephesians, written well after the death of Paul by a follower of Paul’s teachings, drew on that section of Colossians, believing it to be the words of Paul.

Returning to Colossians itself, we note that it follows the traditional form of a letter, with opening greetings (1:1–2) and thanksgiving (1:3–8) leading into a further prayer for the Colossians (1:9–14) before the body of the letter (1:15–2:23) and a series of exhortations (3:1–4:6). The closing greetings (4:7–17) and grace (4:18) bring the letter to a close in conventional fashion.

There are a number of indications of the distinctive situation to which the letter is addressed, although these insights are mediated through the perspective of the writer of the letter. The Colossians, although believers in Christ, continue to recognise the “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8, 20). They are “deceived with plausible arguments” (2:4) and thus are captive to a “philosophy and empty deceit” (2:8) which is contradictory to Christian belief. They take part in “festivals … new moons … sabbaths” (2:16), engage in “self-abasement and worship of angels” (2:18) and adhere to strict regulations (2:20–22).

These terms seem to be describing people who are Gentiles (elemental spirits) who have adopted some Jewish practices (new moons, sabbaths, worship of angels) yet have an ascetic flavour (self-a basement) with rhetorical interests (plausible arguments) mediated through their philosophical interests. That’s quite a thick description of the presumed recipients, and not like others who received authentic letters from Paul.

Along with clear evidence for syncretism amongst the Colossians, there is a thought that the believers in Colossae were proto-Gnostics—that is, precursors of the kind of Christianity that emerged fully in the second century onwards, and which we know about most directly through the documents collected in the Nag Hammadi library (discovered in Egypt in 1945). See http://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html

Over against this cluster of beliefs, the letter-writer advocates the gospel, which is described as “the word of truth” (1:5) and “the faith” (1:23; 2:7), and exhorts the readers to be “mature in Christ” (1:28; 4:12). The opening thanksgiving (1:9–10) contains key terms which express the writer’s hopes for the readers: understanding (2:2) and growth (2:19), and especially wisdom (1:28; 2:3, 23; 3:16; 4:5) and knowledge (2:2, 3; 3:10). These last terms, particularly, point in the direction of the developing Gnostic movement which held sway in some parts of the developing Jesus movement.

Some of these terms do appear in Paul’s authentic letters; some others appear less frequently, if at all. They do appear, however, in the Pastoral Epistles (written “in the name of Paul” some decades after his death) and then in various documents, not part of the New Testament, which demonstrate the growing Gnostic and speculative-philosophical tendencies in some parts of Christianity in the late first century and on into the second and third centuries.

The positive qualities which are highlighted in this letter, noted above, are especially related to Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells” (2:9–10), a doctrine which sits at the core of a distinctive hymn in which Christ is portrayed as an all-encompassing cosmic figure (1:15–20). This is one key point where the letter moves beyond what is found in Paul’s authentic letters to the formulation of a post-Pauline doctrine. This, it seems, is central to “the word of truth” that is highlighted from the start of the letter.

My own conclusion is that Colossians was most likely written by a follower of Paul, writing in his teacher’s name in order to claim his authority as he addressed a situation different from, and some time after, Paul’s own time. Paul’s theological and ethical positions are known by the author. However, the problematic situation addressed, the theological ideas expressed, and the ethical instructions offered, each point to an origin after the lifetime of Paul.

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part Two (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: why is this happening?

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us? Or, to be more theological about it: why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

The question is acute for us each personally, during this time of restrictions because of a global pandemic. After all, we had nothing to do with the cause of the pandemic. Why should we suffer the frustrations of lockdowns, if we are innocent of causing the virus to spread? Why should we endure the hardships of reduced interpersonal interactions, if we have been behaving with due care? Why should we not be able to gather for worship, since we have not been in places where infections have been found?

The question is also pertinent and pressing in our current global context. For a start, the pandemic has inflicted suffering and death on millions of people around the world—suffering far more invasive than what we are experiencing in the current lockdown. How many millions of people have died? And how many millions of family members have suffered the grief and despair of not being able to say farewell to their loved ones as they die in hospital wards? And how many medical and nursing professionals have been stressed beyond limit by the incessant demands they have faced during the pandemic? And how fair is all of this?

The question also presses in terms of the climate. We have long known that the climate is changing, the high temperature averages are claiming, the arctic glaciers are melting, the sea levels are rising, the intensity and frequency of catastrophic weather events are climbing—and people around the globe are suffering. All of this presents a challenge to the way we live. We may even think that we are suffering unfairly in such a scenario.

It is clear that the science has come to a conclusive decision: we human beings have been contributing in a major way to the changes in the climate for over two centuries, now. We actually can’t lament that we are suffering unfairly, since our comfortable lifestyles in the well-to-do Western world undoubtedly mean that our carbon footprints are much larger than they should be. We are contributing to climate change, so can’t expect to be exempt from its ravages.

But what of those whose carbon footprint is minuscule, in comparison to our own? There are 16 African countries whose CO2 emissions per year are 0.15 tons per person or less. As you trace the names of countries as the figure rises, there are many more African and Asian countries, long before any European countries are noted.

By contrast, the figure is 17.10 tons per person for Australia, 15.52 for the USA, and 18.58 for Canada. That is a completely inequitable output. Should we not be suffering more deeply, in the western world, than people in Africa and Asia are? And yet the reality is that the comfortable, even extravagant, lifestyle of the western world is what is driving the incessant rate of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. And the whole world—humans, animals, fish and bird, and vegetation—suffers as a result. The questions raised by Job are acutely relevant to this issue.

(The figures come from https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-per-capita/)

And the question remains hanging as we reflect on levels of malnutrition and access to food in the current world. The World Food Programme of the United Nations estimates that one in three people around the world. Even before the current pandemic, each and every day of the year, 820 million people were seriously underfed and hungry.

Children bear the brunt of this inequity. 149 million children under 5 are estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million are estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 38.9 million are overweight or obese. That is a situation that is utterly unjust. The questions press even harder on us.

(See https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition)

We have the means, we are told, to distribute food equitably around the world. And yet up to one third of food is dumped everyday in the USA—a shocking waste of resources and a completely inequitable state of affairs. So those who happen to have been born in certain areas of the world where circumstances beyond their control mean that they are suffering far more than is warranted. Injustice abounds. The questions from Job resonate—how is that fair?

And then, there are survivors of domestic violence, and—still—survivors of child sexual abuse, and those suddenly facing homelessness, and those in the long enduring grip of mental illness, and those fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, seeking refuge and asylum in a welcoming place … and many other situations where the innocent are suffering unjustly. The list could be very long, indeed, if we give careful thought to it.

So, reflecting on these matters, in the light of the discussions that are recorded in the story of Job, we have much pause for thought. How do we reconcile our faith in God—God who is loving, God who is just, God who is overseeing all that takes place—given these terrible realities? Is the image of God that we have accurate? If God can act to change any of these terrible situations that we are facing, why does God not so act? Is God uncaring? Is God unable to act? Is God not concerned with justice?

These are the questions that Job explores. It is a book which provides us with deep resources for thinking about such matters. It is a tale that resonates with so much in the experience of contemporary people. It is a take for our times.

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part One (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

“Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (Job 3:20–23). Why? is the question that Job asks incessantly, as he ruminates on what fate has befallen him.

Job, the righteous, upright person, struck with tragedy and blighted with grief, laments his situation. His story provides a good tale for us to consider during this time of global pandemic. It is a tale that explores the questions that we may be pondering.

As the story begins, we learn that Job had a good, prosperous life; but through no fault of his own, his life is turned upside down; he lost stock—500 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7,000 sheep, and 3,000 camels—and all of his children—seven sons and three daughters (1:13–19). His life, once blessed and enjoyable, was utterly destroyed.

Yet “in all this”, we are told, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22). Indeed, after each round of festivities enjoyed by his children, his practice was to sanctify all his family. He would “rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (1:5). He was indeed “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).

Job came under attack, he felt. Through no fault of his own, his life was turned upside down. He was deeply distressed. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?”, he cried (3:11). “Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck?” (3:12). “Why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light?” (3:16). The joy at the prosperity which he had enjoyed had crumbled, his very being was pierced with deep grief and despair.

He turns, in his anguish, to God, whom he accuses of having brought this suffering upon him. “Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:20–21) “Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave”, he laments (10:17–18).

Job berates God, whom he sees as being negligent in not intervening to save him from his fate. “Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?” (13:24), he asks. Then, some time later, he presses the point: “Why should I not be impatient? Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh.” (21:4–6). He lays the blame at God’s feet: “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?” (24:1)

Why? Why?? Why??? is Job’s constant question.

Job reflects on the quest for Wisdom, which is what is advocated in Proverbs (Prov 1:2–7; 2:1–5; 3:13–18; 4:5–9; 9:10; 15:32–33; 16:16; 17:24; 19:20; etc) and sought by The Teacher (Eccles 1:13; 7:25). Yet the search for Wisdom, who is more precious than jewels (Prov 3:15; 8:10–11), is much more difficult than mining for those precious jewels (Job 28:1–11).

Where shall Wisdom be found? Job asks (28:12). “Where does Wisdom come form?” (28:20). The answer is, “it is hidden from the eyes of all and concealed from the birds of the air” (28:21). Job despairs of ever finding Wisdom. God knows the way to Wisdom (28:23–27), but direct access to Wisdom remains elusive. All that is offered is “the fear of the Lord” (28:28–a verse attributed to Job, but which many scholars consider to be an authorial gloss on the whole speech).

Elihu rebukes Job, turning his incessant questioning back on him: “God is greater than any mortal. Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of my words’? For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it.” (33:12–14). “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong”, Elihu contends (34:10). “Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it”, he maintains (35:13).

The claim that God is not just is an outrage to Elihu. He turns to the inscrutable nature of God: “Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable” (36:26). “The Almighty—we cannot find him”, Elihu maintains; “he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate” (37:23).

Yet Job will not budge. Finally, after a blistering speech from the Lord himself, out of the whirlwind (38:1–41:34), in which the deity makes it clear that Job cannot pretend to have any comprehension of the ways that God operates, Job backs down. He responds, sarcastically: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:2), and then delivers his coup-de-grace: “therefore I despise myself, and repent of dust and ashes” (42:6).

It should be noted that the common rendering of these final words of Job in so many translations have inevitably mistranslated a crucial word. The Hebrew here clearly states, “I repent OF dust and ashes”. The twist to repenting IN dust and ashes, found in most translations, portrays Job as meekly withdrawing his complaint and submitting to the inscrutable mysteries of God.

But he does not. In fact, his final word is another sarcastic barb, aimed directly at God: “I will give up on playing the meek-and-humble supplicant”. He has not had his questions of Why? Why?? Why???answered in any satisfactory way. So he remains defiant. He repents of repenting. He will not be sorry.

It should also be noted that the “happy ever after” ending we have in 42:7–17, in which Job is vindicated and his fortunes are restored twofold, is widely recognised as a later ending which was not part of the original saga. In the original story, Job’s probing questions remain relentlessly unresolved.

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: Why is this happening? That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us?

Or, to be more theological about it: Why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? Do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? Why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

I’ll explore these questions further in part II of this reflection in the next blogpost.

******

See also this series of sermons on Job by Elizabeth:

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

Come to me, take my yoke, I will give you rest (Matt 11; Pentecost 6A)

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

The book of origins, the first of four accounts of Jesus in the New Testament (known to us as the Gospel according to Matthew), locates Jesus firmly within his historical context, as a teacher and prophet within Israel. He is the one who has come to renew the covenant, to restore Israel, to instruct them in the ways of righteous-justice. He is the one who brings the Law to fulfilment and establishes the way into the kingdom.

This book has a high view of Jesus within that Jewish context. It positions Jesus as the most authoritative teacher in his community, the one who guides, directs, and inspires those who listen to him.

It is to the words of Jesus that believers are to look for guidance in their lives (7:24–27). In this Gospel, Jesus is the one and only teacher (23:8), the one and only instructor (23:10). Whilst “heaven and earth will pass away”, the words spoken by Jesus will endure (24:35). The last words of Jesus reported in this book are the instructions from Jesus, to his disciples, to go to the nations, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20). His teachings stand supreme.

In the lectionary for this coming Sunday, we find a striking passage from Matthew’s Gospel (11:25–30) which depends this understanding of Jesus the Teacher. In this passage, Jesus offers a prayer to God in which he lays claim to this distinct, even unique, place.

The first part of this passage (11:25-27) is often nicknamed “the Johannine Thunderbolt from a Synoptic Sky”, because it seems so out of place in this Gospel; the language used (“Father” and “Son”, amongst other things) invites comparison with the Fourth Gospel, as does the insistence on Jesus as the one who “knows the will of the Father” and thus reveals “the gracious will” of the Father (11:26-27). How these verses found there way into this particular Gospel is an intriguing question. (If you have a compelling answer to this question, I would love to hear it!)

As this prayer continues (11:28-30), Jesus is depicted as laying claim to be the authoritative teacher; his words claim an absolute authority to interpret the Law, which is here portrayed as “the yoke”, a term for the Law which is found in rabbinic writings (Mishnah, Aboth 3:5, Berakoth 2:5; see also 2 Enoch 34:1 and 2 Baruch 41:3).

Jesus here is portrayed as claiming this high authority for himself; his yoke provides a sure understanding of the Law. His language is filled with scriptural words; he speaks in a way that is strongly evocative of certain passages in Sirach concerning Wisdom (Sirach 6:18–33; 24:19–22; 51:23–28). In this book (dating from around 200-250 years before the time of Jesus), Wisdom commands attention (“draw near to me”, “come to me”), offers instruction, commands submission to the yoke of her teaching, and offers rest.

A hymn on the values of Wisdom concludes that book, with the invitation to “acquire wisdom for yourself … put your neck under her yoke and let your souls receive instruction” (Sir 51:25-26). Earlier in the book, this invitation to learn from Wisdom had been issued by Wisdom herself: “come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits” (Sir 24:19).

And in the opening chapters of this book, an extended poem in praise of wisdom includes the invitation to “come to her like one who plots and sows … put your feet into her fetter and your neck into her collar, bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds … come to her with all your soul … search out and seek … when you get hold of her, do not let her go, for at last you will find the rest she gives, and you will be changed into joy for you” (Sir 6:19, 24-28).

The poem continues, “then her fetters will become for you a strong defence and her collar a glorious robe; her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord; you will wear her like a glorious robe and put her on like a splendid crown” (Sir 6:29-31).

So many of these phrases resonate in the words attributed to Jesus in the book of origins (Matt 11:28-30). As he speaks, he claims the authority of Wisdom. His words provide insight, guidance, direction, as do the words of Wisdom in earlier Jewish traditions. Indeed, just a few verses earlier, the voice of Wisdom has been invoked by Jesus as he reflects on the criticisms he has received, as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19). The proof of the pudding is in the eating—“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”, is what Jesus responds.

Wisdom appears in the book of Proverbs, where she is portrayed as a teacher of “good advice and sound wisdom” who offers insight and strength (Prov 8:14), leading people along “the way of righteousness, the paths of justice” (8:20). She is also portrayed as the one who worked beside God to bring the created world into being (8:22-31).

Wisdom then appears in later Jewish literature, including Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), always as the teacher, instructing people in God’s ways, instructing and guiding people of faith through their journeys in life.

We have noted in earlier blogs that this Gospel, the book of origins, came into being in a community which found itself in competition with regard to other streams of Judaism. (See the blog posts listed below.) This Gospel, it would seem, seeks to validate the interpretation of scripture promoted by the followers of Jesus over and above other understandings and interpretations of the Law.

Who better to call upon for such validating support than the master exegete, the authoritative teacher, Jesus, the one to whom “all things have been revealed by the heavenly Father”, the one who speaks with the voice of Wisdom herself?

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/