Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hebrews 7

Hebrews 7:1-10: Here we being the longest discursive section of Hebrews. Exhortation will not come again until chapter 10. In this section the writer develops the image of Jesus Christ as high priest.

The writer of Hebrews comes now to an earlier delayed subject: the high-priestly ministry of Christ. Nothing in the Gospel traditions of the preacher, teacher, exorcist Jesus provided a basis adequate to support a high-priestly Christology [“Christology” is the technical word used for a theology about Jesus as the Christ]. After all, Jesus was not a Levite, and never in his visit or visits to the temple in Jerusalem is he in the role of a priest. The writer looks, then, not to those accounts but to Psalm 110:4 for an exegetical foundation. The author goes back to the priesthood of Melchizedek to ground a priestly Christology in Jewish Scriptures and, most importantly, in the plan of God before there ever was a tabernacle or a Levitical priest. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Again, what we have is an attempt to try and explain the meaning and significance of Jesus to a particular group of people – Jewish Christians, many tempted to return to some form of the Judaism they had moved away from. This is creative work on the part of a writer. We can learn from these images and be inspired by them for our own faith. We should also look to example of the writer himself and be creative in our own theological understanding of the meaning of Jesus for our lives and our relationship to God. Part of the creative genius in these chapters is the way the writer grounds the priesthood of Jesus in an image that existed before the Temple. If the Judaism to which some were tempted to return was a Judaism centered in Temple sacrifice, the writer here reminds the readers that a priesthood faithful to God preceded the Temple. He then argues that Jesus is a high priest of this type.

King Melchizedek of Salem – obscure figures of the Old Testament whose portraits are very briefly sketched or whose stories contain elements of mystery attracted great interest in subsequent generations…. The shadowy and mysterious Melchizedek belongs in this company. (People’s New Testament Commentary) If we think this strange or primitive, all we need do to remind ourselves of this continuing phenomenon is utter the name “Jabez.” His two verses in I Chronicles 4 have spawned a small cottage industry.

King Melchizidek was king of righteousness and king of peace – titles also appropriate for Christ. That we know nothing of his parents or his death makes him a mysterious forerunner of Jesus as the Christ. Because his death is not recorded, he remains a priest forever. As a priest he blesses Abraham – and the one who blesses is greater than the one who is blessed. The writer even claims that Levi, to whom all priest trace their beginning, paid a tithe to Melchizedek in the tithe given by Abraham. These are fascinating rhetorical flourishes. Jesus inspired and inspires wonderful creativity.

Hebrews 7:11-28: The writer continues to compare the Levitical/Temple priesthood with the priesthood of Melchizedek. He argues that the Levitical priesthood must have been lacking in some way for their to be another order of priests – a reference to Psalm 110. Jesus descended from Judah and not from Levi, but he is a priest in this other order, the order of Melchizedek, and became a priest not because of his genealogy but because of “the power of an indestructible life” (verse 16). This is probably a reference to the resurrection. This forever priesthood of Jesus is better than the Levitical priesthood, according to the writer – it introduces a better hope “through which we approach God” (verse 19). In Jesus we have a “better covenant.” Jesus priesthood is forever and continuous – he lives. Furthermore, he need not offer sacrifices again and again, but has already made the ultimate sacrifice in giving his own life.

Hebrews 8

Hebrews 8:1-13: The writer continues to develop the theme of Jesus as a high priest in the order of Melchizedek and continues to argue for the superiority of this priestly ministry over the Temple priesthood. Keep in mind the polemic context of these writings, where the author is encouraging Jewish Christians to continue on in their Jewish Christian faith. It is also helpful to remember that other forms of Judaism were developing forms of that faith that were significantly less focused on sacrifice and the Temple, e.g. Pharisaical Judaism which formed the basis for rabbinical Judaism.

The main point, the author says, is that in Christian faith, we have a high priest, a high priest like he has been describing. You want a high priest in your faith – it's in there with Christianity. He further argues that the tent this high priest serves is better than the earthly Temple – it is the heavenly tent made by God. This is metaphoric language, again comparing the superiority of Jesus Christ as a high priest to the Levitical priesthood. The ministry of Jesus is a more excellent ministry. Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant, one that was needed. The writer refers to prophetic literature to make this point (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The writer argues that this new covenant has made the first one obsolete – “and what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” We should be careful not to make this statement the definitive judgment of Christianity on Judaism. Much of what the writer is arguing against disappeared within rabbinic Judaism as well. The author’s point is to encourage a community of faith to keep the faith.

Hebrews 9

Hebrews 9:1-22: The author has shifted slightly from a focus on Jesus as high priest to the worship requirements of the Levitical priesthood and the Temple – elements of the “first covenant.” The writer rehearses some of the requirements of the Temple system. The writer then uses the “two tent” set up of the Temple to make an analogy. In the first tent, sacrifices and rituals take place continuously to maintain ritual purity – and this is symbol to the writer of “the present time” – an imperfect time, a not-yet time. Christ is a priest of the perfect time, of the time when the promise is fulfilled. He goes into the Holy of holies and remains there, unlike the Levitical high priest who goes in once a year. He offers his own life as the sacrifice. This is metaphoric language for trying to grasp the significance of Jesus and of his shameful and painful death. It is one lens for viewing Jesus death, but it need not be the only such lens. Too often we in the Christian community have let this language become dominant, failing to understand that this language had a context. For most moderns, the entire notion of a sacrificial system as a way to relate to God is difficult to comprehend. The most important point is that through his life and death and resurrection, Jesus has purified our conscience so that we can worship and live for the living God (verse 14).

The writer not shifts imagery again, discussing the legalities of a will. An inheritance can only be granted once it is established that the person who has issued a will has died. He makes the conceptual leap from this to argue that the eternal inheritance that belongs to those of Christian faith required a death. Could it be that this language of blood sacrifice was already losing some of its grip, so that the writer feels the need to use the analogy of a will and argue that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins”? This is not a statement of “fact” but symbolic language. In the gospels, Jesus forgave persons and there was not blood shed at that moment. Too much unfortunate use of this language has been made in the Christian tradition. We should see the creativity in the use of this language on the part of the author of Hebrews without being slavishly tied to it. Understanding Hebrews requires placing oneself within a cultus in which the above-mentioned vocabulary and actions were integral to rituals of cleansing, renewal, approaching God, and community forming. The writer presents the benefits of Christ for believers in these same images, obviously with hope for the same effects: cleansing, renewal, approaching God, and community formation. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Hebrews 9:23-28: These verses offer a summary of the argument to this point – Christ as high priest enters the ultimate sanctuary (the heavenly sanctuary) in the presence of God, and need not offer continuous sacrifice, but has already, in his life and death, given the ultimate sacrifice. Christ will come again to consummate this work of salvation, to make everything right.

Hebrews 10

Hebrews 10:1-18: The writer uses the on-going nature of the Temple sacrificial system to argue that it is deficient. If you have to keep doing something, how effective is it? The author then turns to another Psalm, Psalm 40:6-8, which he puts into the mouth of Christ. Words that were used to relativize the sacrificial system itself are now used to push it even further back in importance. Jesus life devoted to God, a life that led to death, becomes the life that gives life to others. This single offering of a life ended the need for Temple sacrifices. It is almost as if the writer were saying, “Look, you can return to a Temple-based, sacrifice-based faith, but why would you?” The author ends his argument by quoting Jeremiah 31 again.

Hebrews 10:19-39: As in other sections of this work, the writer now draws lessons for encouragement from all that has come before, beginning with chapter 7 – “therefore, my friends…”

Jesus has opened a new a living way for us in relationship to God. Enter it, enjoy it, revel in it. Hold fast. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (verse 24). “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out” (verse 24, The Message). They are encouraged to meet together – apparently some have drifted away from the meetings. Doing good and gathering together are both important aspects of Christian life.

These positive encouragements are followed by words of warning – to persist in sin willfully negates forgiveness and opens up the prospect of judgment in a fury of fire. The writer uses metaphoric language that would have been common in his milieu. At its best, this language reminds us that our lives will be judged by God – that is, all that we do either contributes to God’s dream for the world or becomes something that gets in the way of that dream and has to be overcome. What we do either gives God something good to work with or becomes something that has to be discarded as useless in building God’s dream, something for the burning garbage pit. The writer encourages a life of love and good deeds.

The appeal to threatening language is short-lived. The writer now appeals to the community memory. Remember how you have already suffered for being “enlightened.” Don’t give it up now. Endure. He does not encourage in the end but speaks with distinct hope – “We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.” The meaning of faith is explored in the next chapter.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hebrews 5

Hebrews 5:1-10: These verses continue the stream of thought from the end of chapter 4, a meditation on Jesus as a high priest, a high priest who is compassionate. Jesus as the Christ, like the high priest in Jerusalem, was called by God to this position, and as a high priest he deals gently with others. Jesus was called by God into the position of high priest by virtue of his relation to God as son. Verses 5 and 6 make use of two psalms that have their origins in the installation of the king of Israel. The language of “you are my son” is from Psalm 2 (v. 7). The language of being a high priest after the order of Melchizedek is from Psalm 110 (v. 4). Melchizedek is the traditional priest-king of Salem (Genesis 14). Jesus behavior in offering up prayers, with a particular allusion to the Garden of Gethsemane, is noted and it is akin to the priestly prayers offered for all the people by a high priest. Yet Jesus suffered, and this makes him able to be a compassionate high priest. He knows suffering. His suffering love, his priestly behavior even in life, made him “the source of eternal salvation.” God has worked through Jesus to bring new life to others. This language has the potential to be more or less moving to us today. We have not been raised on the language of the high priest and may not be as touched by some of these images as were the original hearers of these words.

Hebrews 5:11-14: Perhaps even the original hearers were not as moved by these words as the writer thought they should be. Perhaps we have some shift in thinking in these verses, for we move now to exhortation and concern that some are falling away from the faith. The language about Jesus as a priest in the mold of Melchizedek will be picked up again in chapter 7. Maybe it is a little of both. Anyway, the writer moves from his explication of Jesus as high priest to exhortation and encouragement, along with expressing a little frustration.

If the readers are finding all this a little dry and esoteric, maybe it is because they “have become dull in understanding.” The writer uses two analogies to make his point – they are like people who should be teachers but remain only students and they are like infants needing milk not yet ready for solid food. Such words, at their best, are invitations to self-reflection.

Hebrews 6

Hebrews 6:1-12: After diagnosing the readers as a little behind where they should be, the writer encourages them to “go on toward perfection.” It is interesting that the educational metaphor continues. For John Wesley, going on to perfection had to do with being made perfect in love, and such perfection fits less well with the educational metaphor. No doubt the writer has more in mind that intellectual learning – something more like perfection in love. Such perfection does have an intellectual component, however. Failing to press on to a mature understanding of their faith, the readers seem deliberately to subscribe only to those elements of Christianity that overlap with Judaism. The basic teaching about Christ consists of six items also taught by Pharisaic Judaism: repentance from dead works, faith towards God, instruction about baptisms (washings), laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (New Interpreter’s
Study Bible
). Whatever the precise meaning of all this, it is clear that the writer expects growth in faith and life, and is frustrated that such growth is slow in coming.

The writer’s frustration with the slow growth of his readers comes out even more clearly in his view that those who have begun the journey of faith in Christ – who have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come – cannot be restored if they have fallen away. It is as if they are crucifying Christ again, holding him in contempt. The description of what Christian faith offers is very moving, very powerful. It is almost as if the writer were saying, “How can you turn away from this?” The question can be raised, what does it mean to say a person cannot be restored again to repentance? Eugene Peterson renders this, “they can’t start over as if nothing happened.” The history of Christian faith has made allowance for the restoration to Christian faith and community those who have fallen away. Of course, the writer does not include his readers in the category of those who have fallen so far. His warning is rhetorical, arguing grave danger awaits those who stray too far. His concern is pastoral, not speculative. To use these verses to exclude persons from the possibility to come back to faith is to misuse them. Their point is precisely to encourage a deeper faith, a stronger growth in faith. The writer, in fact, is “confident of better things in your case.”

The rhetorical strategy shifts. The writer moves from warning the readers about grave danger to building them up. God will not overlook their work and their love. They are encouraged to keep on, to build on this good work. In my experience, this strategy to motivate people works much more effectively than grave warnings. There may be circumstances in which that strategy needs to be employed, however. Again, the point of this whole section is encouragement to keep the faith, to grow in faith and love, to continue in faith and patience so that one will inherit the promises.

Hebrews 6:13-20: Another Hebrew Scripture reference is used to elaborate on what it means to inherit the promises. God made a promise to Abraham, and Abraham inherited this promise because he patiently endured. Such behavior is encouraged. The writer wants to assure the readers that God’s promise if good, that God will continue to work for God’s dream for the world. We are to be encouraged, to keep the faith, “to seize the hope set before us.” The hope we have in God as we know God in Jesus the Christ is to be “an anchor of the soul.” The author will shift images and thus move back toward the discussion of Jesus as high priest.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hebrews 3

Hebrews 3:1-6: In 2:17, the writer has called Jesus a “merciful and faithful high priest.” In the coming sections of this work he will elaborate on these themes. Here the focus is on Jesus as a faithful one. The readers – “holy partners in a heavenly calling” (the terms are endearing as well as inviting – the writer wants to keep his readers in the partnership) – are to consider Jesus, “the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Just as Hebrews is the only work to call Jesus a high priest, so it is also the only work in which Jesus is called “apostle” (one sent).

Jesus was faithful to his calling from God, just as Moses was faithful. The writer does not denigrate the Jewish tradition, but he does argue for the superiority of Christian faith. We need to remember the context, a group of Jewish Christians who have suffered for their faith are tempted to abandon it for a more traditional understanding of Judaism than the one they adopted when they became Christian. We need to be careful, then, in our own context. I am not sure these arguments should be used to argue the absolute superiority of Christianity to Judaism. It strikes me that doing so would be to de-contextualize them dramatically. Rather, I prefer a reading which allows that the writer is encouraging people to stay true to Jesus because in Jesus that already have everything they would have by returning to a previous Judaic understanding of their relationship with God. The writer argues for the superiority of Jesus to Moses by using an analogy of a house and its builder. God is viewed as the ultimate builder of all, and Jesus is associated with this work. Moses is seen as part of that which is built. Moses was a servant and Jesus a son, to use another analogy. The primary point of these comparisons, which don’t grab me as much as they may have grabbed the original readers is found in verse 6: “if we hold firm the confidence and the pride the belong to hope” (“keep a firm grip on this bold confidence” The Message).

Hebrews 3:7-19: To make his case stronger, the writer quotes Psalm 95:7b-11 in verses 7-11. He begins by asserting that the Holy Spirit speaks through these words to the readers. That view of Scripture, that God uses its words to speak to the community of faith, remain important to all Christians. While Christians disagree on the nature of Scripture and how precisely to read it, we agree that God’s Spirit can continue to speak to us through these words. Why else spend all this time reading through the New Testament?

Psalm 95 begins as a Psalm of praise but concludes with a call to pay attention and a warning from Biblical history about the cost of not paying attention. The Psalm recalls the wilderness wandering of the Hebrew people. With verse 12, the author of Hebrews begins his sermonic commentary on the Psalm passage he has just quoted. The point remains the same as that made in verse 6 – hold firm. If the readers abandon Christianity and return to their former Judaism, they will be turning “away from the living God.” This is part of the author’s urgent admonition and does not mean that God was no longer to be found in Judaism. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible) Hold on, don’t let your heart become hard. The author refers back to the Psalm and the story behind it of the wilderness wandering. “Unbelief is here unfaithfulness rather than intellectual doubt” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)

Many Christians today were raised in homes that were Christian to one extent or another. We may find these arguments about not reverting to a previous faith a little distant from our reality. Maybe there is something to be learned even in our circumstances. Sometimes we find teachings or practices from other religious traditions attractive to some degree. I find a great deal of wisdom in certain Buddhist writings, for instance. What would happen if I were to abandon my Christian faith for Buddhism? It would mean starting over again in another tradition. I might hop from faith to faith, and in so doing never plumb the depths of any tradition’s teachings about life and relationship to God. Instead, by staying faithful to my Christian faith, and finding within it some of the things I find attractive in Buddhist writings, a different kind of growth is possible. In engaging in this thought experiment, I am not trying to be a complete religious relativist. As a Christian, I witness to the profundities of my faith and how I encounter God as a Christian. I believe there are things in my faith which commend it to others, especially to others who have not been practicing within their own tradition. So I seek to remain a faithful Christian. I witness to my faith. I exhort others.

Hebrews 4

Hebrews 4:1-11: Continuing to refer to the Psalm and the story behind the Psalm (entering the rest is a reference to the Hebrew people entering the promised land), the writer asserts that a rest is available even now. “Rest” here becomes synonymous with being a part of God’s people, a part of God’s work in the world, being a part of God’s saving work. This has both present and future dimensions. The readers are encouraged to “take care” so they do not fail to reach it. The rest, is, in part, “a deeper kind of spiritual rest intended to be the possession of Christians” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

The Israelites had received good news, but did not receive it with faith. To “take care” seems to mean to have faith, and faith is demonstrated in remaining faithful. The “rest” image is taken in a new direction, now referring to God’s rest at the conclusion of creation. The writer flips back and forth between Scripture references and images, sometimes in a confusing manner. The basic point remains – have faith, keep the faith, hold firm with bold confidence.

Hebrews 4:12-13: The writer has been interpreting the Scriptures, and pauses to make a point about these sacred writings, but also about the Spirit of God which speaks through these writings. The focus is not the writings but the activity of God’s Spirit – alive and active, penetrating to the depth of the human heart and mind. The writer is encouraging the reader to listen, to take care, to pay attention – and that includes attentiveness to the inner life. Faith and faithfulness are intended to reach deep into the human heart and mind, and God’s active Spirit reaches us there. These are justly famous words that can be Spirit words to us, as well.

Hebrews 4:14-16: The writer now returns to an image he left back in chapter 2 – Jesus as high priest. There he referred to Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest, and he has been exploring the meaning of “faithfulness.” This high priest is Son of God and has been in the presence of God, like the high priest in the Temple – but as a son. Again the message – hold on. Not only has Jesus “passed through the heavens” an allusion to the work of a priest in the Temple, but he is also sympathetic to our plight. The result of the combination of these images is not only the exhortation to keep the faith, but also an invitation to approach God boldly, to receive mercy and grace. Significant elements of the Christian faith are found in these few verses. Our faith always includes the encouragement to keep living it out, to keep at it, to let all that we do be done in love. It also always includes the invitation to find forgiveness, mercy and grace. In the fullness of the Christian faith there is rest and there is effort (v. 11: “make every effort to enter that rest”), there is doing and there is being. Combining these in the right way at the right time in our lives is the on-going adventure of living as God’s people in Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hebrews 1

Hebrews 1:1-4: The writer begins by affirming the common Judaic tradition of his recipients. He affirms that God once spoke through the prophets. However, more important to this writer is that now, “in these last days” God has spoken “to us by a Son.” The phrase “a Son” is the better translation, not “his Son.” The writer subtly begins to make a case for staying true to Christian faith, not return to the pre-Jesus Judaic faith which was their root. The “Son” is described in some detail – as one through whom God created the world, as a reflection of God’s glory, as an imprint of God being, as the sustaining force in the world. The writer ends by noting the superiority of the Son to angels.

Hebrews 1:5-14: Apparently one religious alternative being offered to the Hebrew Christians was one in which angels were held to be the primary intermediaries between God and persons. It is rather amazing how often in the religious history of the West, some kind of intermediary between God and human beings is sought. Our vision of God is frequently of a being rather removed, distant, so “other” that we have a difficult time relating to this God. Within the Christian tradition we have a long history of praying to Mary or other saints as intercessors on our behalf. Angels are another popular choice. It obviously has a long history, including the recipients of this letter. However, in this case, the author thinks that the view of angels held by some demotes Christ to an inappropriate role in genuine Christian faith.

Why all this attention to angels? We have to assume that asserting Christ’s superiority over angels is important for both writer and readers. It is not a matter of debating the existence or nonexistence of angels; these beings were common to the assumed worlds of early Judaism, Christianity, and other religions of the Near East. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The remainder of this chapter consists of quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures – seven of them, as follows: verse 5 – Psalm 2:7 and II Samuel 7:14; verse 6 – Deuteronomy 32:43; verse 7 – Psalm 104:4; verses 8-9 – Psalm 45:6-7; verses 10-12 – Psalm 102:25-27; verse 13 – Psalm 110:1. All these are used to make the case that the Son is superior to angels. If you look the verses up and there seems to be some discrepancy between the version here and the version in the Bible, that may be because the writer of Hebrews makes use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures whereas our versions are based in Hebrew versions of the text. The chapter ends with the writer asserting that angels are “in divine service.” The Son, on the other hand is enthroned with God.

Hebrews 2

Hebrews 2:1-4: This opening discourse on angels and the superiority of the Son is brought together in a practical application. “Therefore, we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” Drifting away can be as problematic to the life of faith as an outright abandonment of it. It may be more pernicious. We lose interest, we slowly move away and before long we find ourselves in a place we would rather not be. The writer again makes a case from shared Jewish tradition, what has been declared through the angels was the Law (a tradition had developed within Judaism that angels were involved in the transmission of the Law). The writer's understanding of the Law was that it demanded a penalty for every transgression – which may or may not be the best reading of the Law. In any event, a great salvation has come through “the Lord” – Jesus as the Christ. The truth of the message of Christ was confirmed by those who heard him, by the signs and wonders and miracles “God added” and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit among the followers of Jesus. Truth seems to have a very practical dimension – does it make a positive difference in people’s lives?

Hebrews 2:5-18: The writer returns to the topic of angels. He begins by making note of the status of human beings as described in Psalm 8, a marvelous piece of writing and a grand status for human beings. Human beings will somehow have great significance in the “coming world.” That world is still coming. Human beings have not attained the status intended by God – we don’t see it yet. What we see, according to the writer, is Jesus. Jesus was human, a little lower than the angels, and he suffered death. Yet he is now exalted. Part of the wonder of Christian faith is that it made a tragic and in many ways shameful death a path to significant status. The human Jesus, executed shamefully, is now crowned with glory and honor. In some way, not yet explained, God’s grace can work to make Jesus’ death a way of tasting death for everyone.

The writer elaborates. He deems it fitting that God, “for whom and through whom all things exist” (quite a grand philosophical notion of God) should make “the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” We may find this a little challenging, but recall that this community of Christians is suffering. Suffering is not an option for them, and the writer is offering a very assuring word. They suffer, but so did Jesus. Many Christians throughout history have discovered great comfort in the picture of a God who suffers with them in Jesus. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it beautifully, describing God as the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands (Process and Reality). The writer of Hebrews goes on to make even stronger the connection between Jesus and the followers of Jesus – they are brothers and sisters with a common parent in God.

Coming back to angels, the writer asserts that Jesus, in freeing persons from the fear of death, did that for human persons and not for angels. Freeing persons from the fear of death is yet another New Testament image for what salvation is all about. It is a rich concept. Consider how fear of death can be enslaving. What would Martin Luther King, Jr. have accomplished had he let threats against his person get the better of him? Not long ago, I heard the story of Gene Robinson, an Episcopal bishop – the first gay man to be consecrated a bishop in the Episcopal Church. Whatever you think about the appropriateness of that, Bishop Robinson is a courageous person in living out his convictions in the face of vicious threats to his life. Fear of death can enslave us and Jesus came to free us from such fear. Perhaps part of the fear of death for some of the recipients of this letter was fear of the judgment of God. If their religious landscape was filled with images of a judging God who would not forgive a transgression if the appropriate sacrifice were not made (and this is a distortion of Judaism, but perhaps not an uncommon one for some at the time), then they needed to hear a message of forgiveness. The writer evokes Jesus as a high priest, always on duty making the appropriate sacrifice in order that persons might be forgiven. The writer of Hebrews creatively uses images and symbols from Judaism to interpret Christian faith. Jesus is not only the high priest, but the sacrifice as well. Only in Hebrews do we find this image for Jesus, Jesus as high priest. Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with those on whose behalf he works.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Letter to the Hebrews

The title “the letter to the Hebrews” was attached to Hebrews in 2nd-century CE manuscripts, by which time it was also attributed to Paul in the Eastern church. What we know as Hebrews, however, is not really a letter, certainly not written by Paul, and some have questioned whether it was written to Hebrew Christians…. Hebrews is a sermon/treatise that was sent as a letter…. The evidence against Pauline authorship is overwhelming. Too much of what is in Hebrews is unlike what is in Paul’s letter; too much of what is typical in Paul’s letters is lacking in Hebrews…. The vocabulary and literary style are not Paul’s…. At the same time a number of similarities with Paul’s letters suggest that the author may have been a member of the larger Pauline circle.
Very probably the author was a Jewish Christian.
(New Interpreters Study Bible)

One can already see that the document we are approaching has a complicated history, and as we read it we may find it a rather complicated work. In introducing this work, we will look at questions of authorship, context, and overall content in hopes of helping us gain greater insight into the text itself. We look at these in order to let God’s Spirit speak to us through the text in new ways.

Hebrews is a sermon. In the sermon, expositions of Scripture are followed by exhortations based on the texts cited, altogether serving as fuel to keep alive a fire that seems to be flickering out. A host of literary devices and communication strategies are used in this letter-sermon. Metaphors abound, drawn from athletics, agriculture, education, architecture, seafaring, courts of law and more…. Hebrews is not simply a sermon, but a sermon containing sermons. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

What do we know of the author and context for the composition of this sermonic work? Few scholars, as already noted argue that Paul wrote this letter. The writer was probably a Jewish Christian. Both the instructions and exhortations of the letter reveal a person well educated in Greek rhetoric as well as in Judaism, especially in Hellenistic Judaism (People’s New Testament Commentary) Other than general statements, we probably need to agree with the third century theologian, Origen: “As to who wrote the epistle, only God knows.”

As for the context, it seems that the writing's recipients “had faced and continued to face severe persecution for their faith, with the result that they were tempted to abandon Christianity” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The readers have been under extreme external pressure. Some have been imprisoned, and others have suffered the confiscation of their property. They have not yet shed blood for their faith, but the writer does speak of persecution, hostility, and torture. By no means the least painful form of pressure was public abuse and ridicule. (People’s New Testament Commentary) One result of these difficult circumstances is that some have backed away from Christian faith. Some are in danger of abandoning it all together. The readers are a faith community in crisis. Some members have grown lax in their attendance at their assemblies and commitment is waning. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Such a response to external pressure should not be surprising. The author wants to encourage this Jesus community and part of the way he will do that is by arguing for the importance of the Christian faith, and for its legitimacy as an outgrowth of Judaism. “The first readers were Jews who had come to Christian faith and who were now tempted to return to their Judaism” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Many scholars argue that these Jewish Christians were in Rome. Given references to temple Judaism, and none to the destruction of the Temple, it is likely that the work was written prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, probably sometime in the mid-60s.

Within the text, there is alteration between discursive writing and exhortation based on the discourse. The overall interest of the writer is practical, to encourage a hurting community of faith. The author makes extensive use of the Hebrew Scriptures, and interprets them in a very particular way – “that Christ is the ultimate meaning and goal of the OT and thus… the OT constantly points to him” (New Interpreters Study Bible). In other words, “the author’s understanding of OT texts depends on his finding deeper meanings in them that go beyond the specific intentions of the original authors” (New Interpreters Study Bible). In searching out new meanings for these texts, the author finds himself in the company of other first-century Jews who were trying to makes sense of their faith for a new day and time.

Karen Armstrong, in her essay on Hebrews in Revelations does an exceptional job of noting this feature of the work. The author of “The Epistle to the Hebrews” was writing at a pivotal moment in religious history, when the traditional symbols of the divine in Judaism – the Law of Moses, the Jerusalem Temple, and the old covenant between God and the people of Israel – seemed increasingly unsatisfactory to a significant number of Jews who were also struggling to find new ways of being religious (345-346). Among these groups we recognize some from our New Testament – the Pharisees and the Saducees. The Pharisees sought a deeper engagement with the Law and sought to modernize it with oral interpretation. The Saducees were a more conservative group,a nd were comprised primarily of the aristocratic and priestly classes. We have also discovered more about another group seeking to reform Judaism in the first century from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls – the Essenes. “Christianity began as yet another of these Jewish sects. Until St. Paul took the new faith to the Gentile world, the original disciples of Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion” (346). The author of Hebrews was, as noted, writing to Jewish Christians. “He and the Jewish Christians to whom he was writing were in a stage of transition; they were trying to decide what Jesus had meant to them and what his function was in his religious life” (347). I share all this to have us note that what the author of Hebrews was doing was not entirely unique, reinterpreting the Hebrew Scriptures and first-century Judaism in new ways. What was unique and creative was his way of bringing the traditions about Jesus into his interpretation of the Temple, the Law and the Hebrew Scriptures. “The author of Hebrews, like other Jewish Christians, shared many of the concerns of the Pharisees and the Essenes; like them, he was trying to find a new way to be Jewish, which put Jesus, the Messiah, at the center of the picture instead of the Law and the Temple…. Where the Pharisees and the Essenes found God in the Law and the sacred community respectively, these Jewish Christians were making Jesus a symbol which brought them into the divine presence.” (348)

These struggles are not our struggles. As we read this work, and watch the writer creatively appropriate and re-imagine religious symbols to understand the meaning of Jesus, what lessons can we draw for our own lives? Again, Karen Armstrong gives us some direction in her essay. Theology should be regarded as poetry…. But, as we all know, some of our poetic symbols lose their power and immediacy, as our circumstances change…. When a particular image of the sacred loses its valency, it does not mean that religion itself must die. The old symbol is often taken up and given fresh life in a new and different system. That is what is happening in “The Epistle to the Hebrews.” (351) Such re-appropriation of symbols has continued throughout Christian history. People who call themselves Christians have had very different ideas about God and Jesus over the years. Our theology has changed dramatically in the past, and can do so again. Today the old counciliar definitions abut God or Jesus do not always speak to Christians or would-be Christians. They seem to belong to another age, and can appear to be as fabricated and arbitrary to many people as the old Temple and its liturgy had become for our author. “The Epistle to the Hebrews” reminds us that there is no need to repine if a rite, an image, or a doctrine dies on us. We can, like our author, use our imaginations to build on the past and create a symbol that will speak to us more eloquently and directly of the sacred. (344-345)

Pulling all of this together, the Letter to the Hebrews is written for a beleaguered community – beleaguered from without by those who are persecuting it, beleaguered from within by those who are losing heart and wondering if it would not be better to return to more conventional forms of Judaic religious life. Some outside the community were no doubt touting the benefits of the older forms of relating to God. The writer with creativity and daring seeks to reinterpret the tradition with Jesus at the center. It is the Prego response – you have this or that, well look at our Jesus faith – it’s in there. And sometimes, as happens frequently in such situations, the writer will not only argue for the merits of his own tradition, but will also seek to delegitimate his opponents. Within the elasticity of our own Christian symbols, how can we creatively appropriate them so they speak to our day and time, and speak more deeply to our own lives? How can we do this without feeling the need to put down others? Let’s read on.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


The letter to Philemon and the church in his house is the final authentic letter of Paul’s we have in our New Testament. There is strong scholarly agreement that this is, in fact, one of Paul’s genuine letters. What makes the letter unique is that while it begins by being addressed to a group of people, most of the letter is addressed to Philemon. “Since Paul’s letters were read aloud in the assembly of the congregation, a direct message to one in the presence of all presents an interesting dynamic” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul is writing the letter from prison, probably in Ephesus, sometime in the 50s CE.

The letter is occasioned by Onesimus, a fugitive slave from the household of Philemon, who has come to Paul and become a Christian and a helper to Paul in prison. Now he is being returned to Philemon with Paul’s request that he be received as a brother and fellow worker. In making the request, Paul presents himself to the reader and listeners as a man of wit, humor, understated authority, gentle persuasion, and not at all hesitant to call in IOUs. (People’s New Testament Commentary). This is the traditional view of the letter and I will expand on this a bit more. However, before we consider the letter itself, we will consider one other scholarly interpretation of its contents. Assuming slavery to be part of the context of the letter, it might be helpful for us to know something about this institution in that time.

Slavery was a social institution almost universally accepted in the first-century Mediterranean world…. Practically everyone accepted slavery as a given and necessary part of the social and economic order. Slavery meant that one person was owned by another; it was a matter of property and property rights…. Most slaves in the first century had been born as slaves and had a well-defined place in the household and social structure. Many slaves were well-educated and they constituted a significant element of the managerial class…. Slaves could be bought out of slavery by others or could accumulate enough money to purchase their own freedom. (People’s New Testament Commentary). The authors of this commentary note that we should not compare first century slavery to what we know of the slavery of Africans by Europeans. In the first century there was not always a wide gap between slave and free, and most slaves were educated and treated humanely. This does not justify the institution, only gives us a more helpful picture from which to work.

Again, assuming Onesimus to be a slave, here is one picture of his situation. He had, one way or another, deeply angered his owner, feared very serious punishment, and fled, as Roman law allowed, to his master’s friend, for help (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 108). Crossan and Reed go on to argue that Paul’s letter is a plea for Philemon to free Onesimus and to do so of his own free will. They argue that Paul insists on this because it is inconceivable for a Christian to own another Christian.

Here is another take on the situation prompting the letter. I imagine that Onesimus, working for Philemon in Ephesus… had been told to perform services for Paul while continuing to do his master’s business in that town. But in the course of dealing with Paul, he came in time to accept the revelation, and only then confessed that he had been defrauding Philemon. Paul now sends him back to be reconciled with Philemon, hoping that he will be released into continued service with himself. (Gary Wills, What Paul Meant, 112). Wills also notes that the name Onesimus means “useful.” Paul will play on this name in his letter.

So this is a letter written by Paul to a church community, with a focus on words to Philemon about his slave Onesimus. At least one scholar disputes part of that scenario. He argues that Philemon and Onesimus are brothers, and that Paul has dispatched Onesimus to the church meeting in Philemon’s home to serve as his surrogate. Paul seems well aware that the two brothers are estranged, perhaps due to some past wrong-doing or debt, for which Onesimus has failed to compensate Philemon. Knowing that the estrangement threatens Paul’s attempt to minister to Philemon and his congregation, Paul writes a diplomatic letter that presents Onesimus as his proxy. Paul writes that he loves Onesimus, and he insists that Philemon receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul himself. This scholar argues that the language of slavery used in verse 16 is metaphoric. He traces the traditional interpretation of the letter as a reconciliation between master and slave to the fourth century theologian John Chrysostom who was concerned that Christians were being viewed as people who challenged the institution of slavery. Chrysostom used this letter to argue that Paul was not averse to slavery, seeking reconciliation between slave and master. (Chrysostom seems to have missed the fact that Paul argues for the freedom of Onesimus). The Letter to Philemon thus became, in the subsequent history of its interpretation, a legal brief in support of slavery. In early 19th century America, pro-slavery advocates referred to Philemon as “the Pauline mandate,” a biblical sanction of American slavery. This scholar goes on to argue that the letter is about justice and “a radical and perhaps expensive experiment in peacemaking.” Paul “offers to subsidize the cost of justice, because without justice there is no peace, and without peace between brethren there can be no ministry. Unless and until justice is served, God cannot be served.” (all quotes from New Interpreter’s Study Bible).

Whether or not this letter is about a slave or a brother, it is about reconciliation and justice, and about their importance in the ministry of God’s kingdom. That a text focused on justice and reconciliation has been used to perpetuate gross injustice should give us all pause as we read the Bible and as we hear others read and interpret it. We should be suspicious of interpretations of Biblical texts that leave people feeling perpetually left out of God’s dream for the world, left out of God’s love.

Philemon 1-3: Paul, in prison, writes to Philemon, Apphia (Philemon’s wife?) and Archippus, another member of the household and of the Jesus community meeting there. Philemon is a dear friend, literally a loved one. Grace and peace are extended to all.

Philemon 4-7: In contrast to other thanksgiving sections of Paul’s letters, this one shifts into the singular. Paul is addressing Philemon directly here. He is grateful for Philemon’s love for others and for his faith in Jesus Christ. Philemon’s love has been a source of joy and encouragement to Paul and has refreshed the hearts of the saints – what a nice phrase.

Philemon 8-22: Paul has complimented Philemon on being a loving person of faith, and now he wants to build on who he knows Philemon to be to ask Philemon to be even more who he is in Christ. Paul begins by saying he could command Philemon to do the right thing. Most of us know experientially that this method of encouraging right behavior has its limits, though we are often brought back to it as if by default. “Just tell them they need to do this!” Why, when we often find such tactics heavy-handed, are we so willing to resort to them where others are concerned?

So Paul encourages Philemon to live out his faith and love in a new way. Paul is also not above using some sympathy as he appeals to Philemon – Paul is aging and in prison! Paul is making an appeal to Philemon for Onesimus. Paul has led Onesimus to faith while he has been imprisoned. Onesimus, whether a slave or a brother, has wronged Philemon in some way, rendering himself useless, but his life has changed. He can be useful in God’s work, something of concern to both Paul and Philemon. While Paul might have wanted Onesimus to stay with him, he sends him back to Philemon. It seems he wants there to be a reconciliation, and then wants Philemon to send Onesimus back. This seems to be the voluntary good deed he asks of Philemon. Is he asking that Onesimus be given his freedom? Perhaps, and in doing so Philemon will have Onesimus forever as a brother in Christ.

Paul asks that when Onesimus arrives, Philemon welcome his as warmly as if he were welcoming Paul himself. Onesimus is Paul’s own heart (v. 12). Paul willingly takes on whatever debt Onesimus may have owed Philemon. He does this in the abstract, leaving the questions open as to whether there was a debt or not – though there seems to have been some kind of debt owed to Philemon. Whatever it is, Paul offers to repay it, and then not so subtly suggests that whatever the debt might be, and while he is willing to pay it, that debt is nothing compared to having life in Jesus Christ. Philemon owes that new life to Paul. Just as Philemon was know to refresh the hearts of others, so Paul asks him to refresh Paul’s heart in this matter. Paul is asking him to apply his faith and love in a new situation. Paul is convinced that Philemon will respond, another great rhetorical move in this letter. Paul reminds Philemon that he expects to be coming soon himself.

Philemon 23-25: While Paul’s letter is directed toward Philemon, it was addressed to others in Philemon’s faith community and it comes with greetings from a host of others. This situation between Onesimus and Philemon has a public dimension to it. The closing good wishes are to the entire community – the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your (plural) spirit.

This letter demonstrates that our faith and love are to touch every area of life. Reconciled relationships are a sign that God’s Spirit is at work in one’s life. We seek reconciliation and justice as we live in faith and love. This affects our politics and our personal relationships.

The letter also has something to say about how we invite others to live their faith and love more deeply. It takes real faith – in others and in God – to state your case and then trust that whatever happens will be okay. Are you involved in urging an individual or group to make a particular decision? Ask God to give you the wisdom to present your opinion well and the courage to allow others the freedom to decide for themselves. (The Spiritual Formation Bible)

Sunday, March 16, 2008


This is the third of the so-called “pastoral epistles” – letters written in the name of Paul to early spiritual leaders in the emerging Jesus community. Titus was a Gentile co-worker of Paul’s mentioned in Galatians chapter 2, and in Second Corinthians.

Like the other Pastoral Letters… the letter to Titus insists on sound doctrine, combats false teaching, revels in traditional hymns and ideas, and expresses a strong interest in making converts. Repeatedly, this letter emphasizes a concern for the unsaved and sees the good work of believers as a part of God’s redemptive plan for the entire world. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)

This document represents Paul writing to Titus, whom he has left on Crete to organize new churches in the Pauline mission. This situation fits neither the chronology inferred from the undisputed Pauline letters nor that of Acts (which never mentions Titus or a mission to Crete). In order to fit this situation into the life of Paul as we otherwise know it, one must postulate that Paul was released from his “first” Roman imprisonment… and established churches on Crete. It is more likely that Titus, like 1-2 Timothy, was written in Paul’s name by a disciple of the second or third Christian generation, and that the situation projected by the letter belongs to the literary world projected by the letter rather than to the actual life of Paul. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Titus 1

Titus 1:1-4: This greeting provides the longest explanation of Paul’s apostleship in the New Testament. It is the writers attempt to distinguish the Christian faith as taught by Paul from other versions of that faith. The entire letter “sets forth the apostolic faith in opposition to the seductive false teachings that threatened the church in the postapostolic period” (People’s New Testament Commentary). In the apostolic faith, truth and godliness are linked together. Truth is not merely abstract teaching, but transformative teaching. The term “faith” in the Pastoral Letters has come to mean “teachings” more than “trust.” It is helpful to see “faith” in both ways, with the element of “trust” being the more essential. Christian faith is a deep trust in the God of Jesus Christ about whom Christian faith teaches. There are those who want to place the content of certain teaching in the center of Christian faith, so that being Christian is to think or believe certain doctrines. They would gain some footing in the Pastoral Letters. I would argue that at the center of Christian faith is a trust relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ, and that the content of Christian teaching has a certain elasticity to it. Of course, it is much easier to explore the elasticity of Christian teaching when your very existence is not under threat, as it was when the Pastoral Letter were being written.

Titus 1:5-16: Titus was left in Crete, in the narrative of this letter, to put some things in order in the Christian communities there. Among the things he should do included appointing leaders – elders and bishops (though the distinction between them is not clear here). Spiritual leaders must be hospitable, lovers of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, self-controlled. They must also be firmly grounded of the trustworthy word of the gospel. One must be able to preach it and to question those who teach differently.

Competing teachings rear their ugly head again. The teaching that is identified as askew here has something to do with circumcision. This is not meant as a condemnation of Jewish people, but a concern for Christian teachers who have an undue fascination with the Jewish Scriptures and traditions. That they were probably Gentile is reflected in verse 14 where “their prophet” is referenced prior to citing a Greek proverb. Their teaching is disturbing whole families in the community, and their teaching seemed primarily for the purpose of making money. The author is not above using gross stereotypes against these “false teachers.” It obviously worked – have you ever heard “cretan” used as a compliment?

These false teachers taught a certain asceticism, a certain denigration of bodily life based on their unique interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures. To counter their teaching, the author writes, “to the pure all things are pure.” He then characterizes these teachers as corrupt. “They profess to know God, but they deny God by their actions.” “They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” This is very strong language and should not be encouraged in our day and time (given the history of abuse of power in the name of the Christian faith), but look at the focus of the criticism – not so much the content of their teaching, but the lives produced by that teaching. This teaching is not transformative teaching, teaching that moves persons toward good works. It is always a little difficult to interpret a passage when you just get one side of the argument, but the focus on the life lived is clear. Whatever the content of the teaching of these false teachers, even if one might accommodate certain elements of what they had to say into the broad elasticity of Christian teaching, the lives produced by that teaching were deficient according to the writer.

Titus 2

Titus 2:1-10: In this section the Pastor adapts the traditional form of the household code in order to present instructions to various groups in the Christian household, the church…. While in the Pastor’s context he believed it was appropriate that only authorized men serve in teaching roles, every Christian of whatever status in any social situation can serve as a teacher of the faith by the way he or she reflects the faith in daily life. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

In contrast to the false teachers, Titus is to “teach what is consistent with sound doctrine.” Christians would agree on the principle, but might disagree about the content of such doctrine. Again, a certain elasticity seems consistent with the New Testament and Christian tradition. Where one goes beyond that elasticity is a matter for on-going discussion within the church.

Different categories of people are given some particular instructions. The language of the instructions reflects some of the social norms of the time, and we might want to rephrase these instructions in certain instances. Many of the injunctions should be observed by all people. One message the author tries to convey that remains important is that our faith is to be lived out in the whole of our lives, including our family life and the life of the community of faith. It was not just the teachings of the false teachers that was troublesome, but the way of life promoted by such teachings. Christian faith retains credibility by the kind of life it produces in its followers. The author is concerned that the Christian faith not be discredited. As followers of the Jesus way, we, too, want to present a credible way of life to others. Again, we would use some very different language to describe this way of life from some of the language used here.

Titus 2:11-15: The way of life described is rooted in the grace of God – a grace intended for all. As people touched by this grace, Christians are to live lives that are “self-controlled, upright and godly.” Such lives are lived in hope. The complete fulfillment of God’s dream for the world will come, and we should live now in ways that reflect that dream. “Our great God and Savior” was a phrase used of Caesar. Here it is used of Jesus as the Christ. “Redeem” meant to pay the cost of a prisoner’s release or a captive’s freedom. It is another image for how God’s grace in Jesus Christ works in human lives. We are free from stifling patterns of life, and set free for a new kind of life, one that is “energetic in goodness” (The Message).

Titus 3

Titus 3:1-11: The Christian faith is to be lived not only in family and church relationships, but also in relationships to the wider society. Part of the writer’s understanding of what it meant to be ready for every good work was to be subject to the ruling authorities. In modern democracies we might translate this into the language of citizenship. As citizens of a democracy, one of our central tasks is to shape the government that provides the structures and laws under which we live. Beyond relationship with authorities, the writer encourages an open and gentle attitude toward all others. “God’s people should be bighearted and courteous” (The Message).

The writer reminds the readers that they once lived another way, but all that changed “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared.” What a striking phrase. It is not that we were good ahead of time, but that God’s grace and love freed us in new ways to be God’s good and gracious people. This new life is marked by baptism and is a life lived by the renewing power of God’s Spirit. This Spirit has been lavishly poured into our lives. This writer makes good use of water imagery, connecting baptism and the pouring out of God’s Spirit. We are heirs of God’s dream for the world, a people of hope.

Life lived in a new way because of God’s grace and in the power of the Spirit is to be insisted upon. Believers in God are to devote themselves to good works. On the other hand, they ought to avoid certain controversies – about genealogies or the law. The false teachers which seemed to be a threat to this community had tied their teachings to some obscure points in the Jewish Scriptures. The writer finds energy expended on such matters to be unprofitable. There seems to be a limit to how long those who cause trouble can remain a part of the community. Great care should be taken in trying to apply these verses. The history of the church is littered with examples of people sent out of the community who were later exonerated.

Titus 3:12-15: The letter ends as do other New Testament letters. The theme of good works is present once again, as it has been throughout the letter. “Grace be with you all.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

II Timothy 3

II Timothy 3:1-9: “In the last days” – In the typical apocalyptic scheme, the final victory of God at the end of history is preceded by a period in which evil is intensified. The Pastor shares this worldview, according to which there will be a moral decline and appearance of false teachers just before the end. The opponents “predicted” are in fact already present in the author’s own time. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Christian faith has a deep hope that one day the world will be set right – that justice and peace and beauty will all embrace, that God’s dream for the world will be fully realized. This is a powerful hope and is meant to encourage Christians to live in a way consistent with the dream for the world and to keep on in the face of adversity. The dark side of this hope is that persons have become focused on questions about when such events might happen and some become enamored with revenge scenarios – God will make the world right in such a way that many will be punished. Such feelings are understandable among a persecuted people, but I think they should be resisted. The basic message of Christian hope, even in apocalyptic garb, is to keep on living the way God would have you live, even when it is difficult.

The kind of moral decline depicted can be seen in most ages in humanity. Was there ever a time when people did not bemoan the moral decline occurring? What is most interesting are the kinds of attitudes and actions that are considered suspect – love of money, arrogance, abusive behavior, lack of gratitude. Some of these people will maintain a veneer of religion, but it will not be a religion that transforms in the direction of God’s dream for the world. Here is how Eugene Peterson renders part of this passage in The Message: There are difficult times ahead. As the end approaches, people are going to be self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. They’ll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they’re animals. These folks are to be avoided, though this advice needs to be held in tension with other passages in the Bible that ask people to reach out to all others. While lists of vices were a common literary device of the first century, and the writer certainly makes use of this tradition here, we can learn from the list. Some of the things that have become a part of the prevailing culture in our day and time are on this list (cynicism, desire gone wild, hunger for wealthy). How do we live a different way in our day and time?

The strategies of false teachers are elaborated, though in language that is filled with unfortunate stereotypes from the first century. Who might not be, at times, overwhelmed by their own shortcomings or potentially led astray by their desires? The author is critical of those who are always seeking teaching but never seem to get nearer the truth. The negative aspect to the kind of spiritual seeking that happens in our day and time is that it might let people simply flit from one religious tradition or community to another without ever really digging deeply enough to have their lives transformed. The writer is convinced that spiritual teachers who seek to take advantage of the spiritual searching of others will be exposed.

II Timothy 3:10-17: Paul’s life is lifted up as an example to be followed, especially by leaders in the Jesus tradition. His sufferings are particularly noted and sometimes this has been misunderstood. Christians should not go out of their way to seek difficulty. The writer is convinced that simply living the Christian life will lead to conflict with the prevailing values of the surrounding culture. In addition, there will be spiritual teachers willing to lead people in a different direction, away from the important values of God’s transforming dream for the world.

Keep on, continue in the way – that is the advice the writer gives the readers. If one wants to know more about the Jesus way, there are “the sacred writings.” This refers to the Jewish Scriptures for as of yet there were no Christian Scriptures. However, in time, verses 16 and 17 were applied to what developed as the Christian canon, the New Testament. One should note what these verse actually say, however, for they have been used to promote views of the Bible that are not found in the verses themselves. Scriptures are held up as “inspired” – literally “God-breathed.” This does not assume an inerrant Scripture, one without mistakes, contradictions, human elements. It assumes that God’s Spirit uses the words of Scripture to transform human lives in the direction of God’s hopes and dreams for them. Spirit breathed words are useful – useful for “training in righteousness.” The biblical texts are not scientific textbooks, but are intended to help form people’s lives so that they are ready to do good. “Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us” (The Message).

II Timothy 4

II Timothy 4:1-8: The writer continues to encourage the Jesus community spiritual leaders – proclaim the message persistently. Convince, rebuke (lead those who are going off in the wrong direction back), encourage with patience. Even as this is being done, some simply choose to follow those whose words only confirm what they want to hear. Human desire is not a bad thing, but needs to be questioned, needs to be challenged and channeled. To be sober means, literally, to keep your head.

The writer, using the situation of Paul, celebrates what Paul gave to the early church, encouraging others to do the same – fight the good fight, keep the faith.

II Timothy 4:9-22: While the details in this section of the letter are sometimes used to argue for Paul’s authorship, their presence does not make that case. Letters written by others in the Pauline tradition use details of his life and ministry to raise Paul up as a model for others. Here we are given a picture of a person who struggled to remain faithful to the task of leadership even when it became difficult. Friends left him (Demas) or were at work in other places. People betrayed him (Alexander the coppersmith). Still Paul seeks to be a learning leaders (bring the books and parchments!). He trusts his life to the God he knows in Jesus Christ. He ends the letter praying that God would be with the spirits of the readers, and that they might know grace.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Thought on Reading the Scriptures: The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church

II Timothy 1

II Timothy 1:1-2: The greeting follows patterns we have already seen, though some of the language adds a special touch. Paul’s ministry was seen as “for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.” That should be the point of all our ministry, all our work through the church – to bring life that is in Jesus to others. Timothy is a leader, but also a “beloved child.” It is important for spiritual leaders to claim that part of themselves, too.

II Timothy 1:3-18: As with other Pauline letter, whether written by Paul or by a disciple of Paul’s, that greeting is followed by a thanksgiving. “Timothy” is portrayed as a third generation Christian, which would have been the situation of many in the church at the time of this letter. It is interesting that while in I Timothy women are to be silent, here the role of women in shaping the life of Timothy is extolled! Whatever qualms the authors of the Pastoral may have had about the public teaching role of women, it is clear that they are an important part of passing on the faith. This does not mean we ignore the earlier passage and the damage it has done, only that we not that the news about women is not all bad in the Pastoral letters.

Timothy has a sincere faith, one he learned from his mother and grandmother. He is encouraged to “rekindle the gift of God that is within.” These are sound words of advise for all spiritual leaders – rekindle! Sometimes following that gift leads to suffering, but this should not be a cause of shame for leaders. “The author, along with the whole New Testament, assumes that Christian faith always brings one into conflict with the dominant values of the culture” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The writer invokes the memory of Paul’s suffering. In suffering, one might experience the grace and power of God in fresh ways.

Verses 9-10 seem a fragment of early Christian liturgy celebrating the grace of God in Jesus. In Christ, death has been overcome, and life is made possible. This life may involve suffering. It did for Paul. But again, suffering should not bring shame. We know the God in whom we trust, and we trust God to keep the good we do safe.

Timothy is encouraged to hold to sound teaching and to “guard the good treasure” that has been given to him. He is to do this with the help of the Holy Spirit. The sound teaching, which is the good treasure entrusted to the spiritual leader, is the Christian faith in the Pauline tradition. The term “guard” can have a very defensive quality about it, and can imply that the faith is a set of non-changing teachings and doctrines. I am not sure that this is the best way to discuss Christian faith. It was helpful in that time given the difficult context of the faith communities to which the letter was written. They were besieged by other interpretations of Christian faith, some of which stretched the elasticity of the faith too far. Yes, boundaries need to be drawn and sometimes guarding the treasure one has been given might be an apt metaphor, but it should not be our only metaphor for considering the Christian faith and how we live it and share it with others. The task and challenge of the church’s ministry in every generation is to adapt and reinterpret the traditional faith so that it is relevant to changing needs and times, without losing it or letting it simply become an echo or reflection of current values and ideologies (People’s New Testament Commentary).

In contrast to the encouragement offered to Timothy, the writer cites two examples of people who have abandoned the faith, at least in the author’s eyes. Then he cites the example of one who has remained faithful – eager to help and not ashamed of the difficulties that may come with being faithful.

II Timothy 2

II Timothy 2:1-13: “Timothy” as a representative Christian spiritual leader, is encouraged to stay “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Good advice for any Christian spiritual leader. He is also encouraged to pass the faith on through reliable teachers, faithful people. For the writer, the Christian faith is transmittable from generation to generation, and it is important to pass it on. The sense of receiving and passing on is strong in this letter. The writer uses a variety of images to encourage persistence in this work of faith – the soldier, the athlete, the farmer.

Verse 8 is another creedal hymn fragment. The gospel is about Jesus Christ, a Jew in the lineage of David, raised from the dead. This gospel combines affirmations about the specific human person Jesus and God’s resurrection power at work in his life. Proclaiming this gospel and living this gospel can lead to suffering, and endurance is enjoined. Even in the midst of suffering, the power of God continues to be at work in the world – “the word of God is not chained.”

Verses 11-13 seem to be a series of proverbial sayings linked together, and with a surprising twist. The encouragement throughout is to remain faithful. Failure to do so is a betrayal, but then the last statement says that even then, God remains faithful. God never gives up on us or on the world.

II Timothy 2:14-26: Timothy as spiritual leader is advised to continue his teaching and leading work. His work is contrasted with false teachers who only want to wrangle over words. Timothy is to keep on keeping on, to be a faithful worker in the work of God. “Rightly explaining” literally means “cutting straight” - - - the image again contrasts truthful Christian teaching which aims to transform human lives from teaching that is nothing more than wrangling over words, profane chatter which spreads like gangrene. Two teachers, in particular are named and the objectionable part of their teaching is that “the resurrection has already taken place.” They are not speaking about the resurrection of Jesus, but of the more general resurrection of all persons at that point in time when God makes the world right. “In the Gnosticizing Christianity opposed by the Pastor, the false teachers had reduced the resurrection hope entirely to present experience, and resurrection language became simply a metaphor for what happened at conversion” (People’s New Testament Commentary). This is not to say that the language of resurrection cannot be used metaphorically, for it is used this way in the New Testament itself. At the same time, the New Testament trusts that there is also a future hope for the world, one to which we contribute as we live out God’s purposes, live in a way that builds on “God’s firm foundation.”

The writer introduces another image for staying true to the faith, following the teachings of the faith, living the life of faith and passing it on. A person who does this is like a special utensil in the kitchen available to do good. Being such a person involves turning from “youthful passions” – perhaps a reference to faddish thinking as may have been represented by the false teachers. It involves pursuing righteousness, faith, love and peace in community with others who seek God with a pure heart. Again, this is a nice way to discuss some of the essence of the Jesus way of life. Other qualities in this life are kindness, patience and gentleness. The Jesus way is passed on by “apt teachers” who know how to correct others gently. The phrase apt teacher reminds me of a Buddhist phrase – “skillful means” which refers to the ability of a spiritual teacher and leader to adapt ones methods to one’s audience. One hopes that gentle correction will help those in danger of wandering return.

Monday, March 3, 2008

I Timothy 6

I Timothy 6:1-2b: These verses continue the line of thought from the previous chapter. This time, the behavior of slaves is discussed. As already noted, the early church took the institution of slavery for granted, though its theology pointed in a direction inimical to slavery. Even within that acceptance of this social institution, many of the passages about the behavior of slaves also addressed the behavior of slave owners. This passage is an exception to that, focusing only on the behavior of slaves. The writer’s primary concern is social peace and the reputation of the church. He does not seem to comprehend some of the larger issues – just like us sometimes!

I Timothy 6:2c-10: The writer now returns to discuss his opponents, picking up from chapter 4, verse 5. Those who teach other than in the Pauline understanding of the faith, and those who teach a way of life other than the one written about here, are spoken of rather harshly. When the writer speaks of the teaching of Jesus Christ, the phrase can also be translated “about Jesus Christ” and that is probably the better translation. The author is not referring to the Gospels or to a collection of Jesus’ saying available in his church. The author’s theology, like Paul’s, does not function by citing stories and sayings from the life of Jesus, but by drawing out the meaning of the Christ event as a whole. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Sometimes people contrast the faith of Jesus and the faith about Jesus. I don’t think making a hard and fast distinction between these is warranted, but the early church spoke in a variety of ways about its faith, some of which were later determined to be outside the bounds of Christian faith. Even within, the language of faith is elastic, and it can be illuminating to think about the differences between the emphases of the Jesus of the Gospels and the emphases in the epistles, and in the different epistles. Doing so can enrich our faith.

The other teachers are viewed in terms used in the sometimes rancorous philosophical debates of the time. “The vice list, crafted with conventional philosophical slurs, shows the negative influences of the conceited (or deluded) false teachers on others in contrast to Timothy’s profitable teachings” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). Perhaps worst of all, they consider spiritual teaching and godliness a potential source of profit. The writer, in an ingenious turn of phrase, notes that godliness is profitable, but not in the way imagined.

This entire section is a wonderful piece of writing, combining a number of proverbial phrases into an argument for living simply. “Godliness” is a term never used by Paul, but for this writer it signifies the Jesus way, the Christian way of life, lived in response to God’s love and grace. To live in this way leads to contentment, and such a life avoids the potential perils of the search for riches. Verse 7 is a proverbial saying, as is verse 8. Verse nine seems self-evident in our own time – that relentless search for wealth can entrap people in harmful ways. Later verses indicate that this is not intended to be a condemnation of wealth, but a warning about its dangers. The first part of verse 10 is also a proverbial saying, to which the writer adds a concern for the effect that the love of money has on the life of faith.

These verses are powerful in our context. We take for granted that the search for material well-being is mostly benign or even positive. Capitalism has a philosophical base in a view that human persons acting in their own self-interest will promote a common good. Often that has been the case. However, the kind of growth needed to keep a capitalist economy healthy has led to the development of products that become needs, which can often be a mixed blessing, and to the increasing need for raw materials from the earth, and we may be stretching the earth’s capacity. An uninterrupted capitalist growth economy may require some tempering if we are to keep our planet healthy. Godliness with contentment may be an appropriate counter-cultural faith for our day and time.

I Timothy 6:11-19: The person of God, the leader, is to turn away from this excessive pursuit of money and from teachings which are just disputations over words and not transformative. The Jesus way of life is a life of: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. The Messsage: Pursue a righteous life – a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. This way of life is to be pursued with the dedication and discipline of an athlete – a familiar image in the Pastoral Epistles. One is to keep on in the faith until the work of God is complete at “the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This will happen at “the right time.” The fervent expectation of a quick end to history has gone away by the time of the Pastoral Letters. In anti-imperial language, God is proclaimed the only Sovereign, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. Though the writer has often been concerned with social peace, he cannot completely escape some of the anti-imperial import of the Christian gospel. In the middle of these verses of instruction, the writer engages in a moment of worship – an interesting metaphor for the Christian life, centered in worship (the subject of this week’s upcoming sermon).

The writer now returns to the subject of wealth. They are not to set too much store in their wealth. Instead, while they enjoy the good things of life, they should also be rich in good works, generous and ready to share. This is “the life that is really life” – what a wonderful phrase. For all his shortcomings, this writer is full of insight and often knows how to turn a memorable phrase.

I Timothy 6:20-21: Timothy as a leader is encouraged to keep the faith and avoid false knowledge – talk which distracts from faith.

Second Timothy

II Timothy is the second in the series of Pastoral Letters. Like I Timothy and Titus, this letter is likely the work of a disciple of Paul’s written well after Paul’s death. Again, it is an attempt to interpret Paul’s understanding of the Christian faith for a later generation. The letter represents Paul writing from prison, presumably in Rome shortly before his death. This letter thus belongs to the category of testamentary literature, in which a religious hero of the past blesses and exhorts his followers, preparing them to continue his work without him. (People’s New Testament Commentary) We know little more about the circumstances in which the letter was written, though we suppose the Pastorals were written about the same time.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thought on reading the Scriptures: The Bible is true… because reading the Bible enlightens the reader…. The Bible illumines our path, so that we can live our lives with hope and integrity. Reading the Bible in a changed world can still change our world and fill it with meaning and purpose…. When truth is understood in this way, it serves to connect the Bible with other sacred texts which… have the same function: to make available to the conscious mind, through the use of symbolic imagery, the transformative energy of the affections. Schuyler Brown, Text and Psyche, 29

I Timothy 2

I Timothy 2:1-15: The body of the typical Pauline letter is composed of two parts, the first of which provides the theological foundations for the second part dealing with practical instructions for the Christian life…. In contrast, the Pastor’s letters [the pastoral epistles] are composed throughout of practical, ethical instructions, with theological material and rationale woven in from time to time. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

Pray for everyone, that sounds like a pretty good request to be made. The writer goes on to specify prayers for “kings and all who are in high positions.” One prayed for the governing authorities so that one might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Such language has both an attractive side and a troubling side. We want to pray for all people, including and sometimes especially for those who have power. “The appeals here on behalf of everyone likely reflect the Pastoral’s vision of God as Savior of everyone” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Yet the language seems to encourage a certain quietist social ethic that does not seem in keeping with some of the challenges to imperial theology we have encountered.

The government was pagan and often made divine claims for itself. Nonetheless, it is God’s world they administer. The early Christians were often thought to be a disruptive influence, a threat to community decency and order. The Pastor wants his readers to see themselves, and to be seen by others, as good constructive citizens, even in a pagan state. This was a continuation of the Jewish practice; prayers were offered daily in the synagogue for the emperor, though Jews had resisted to the death the practice of praying to the emperor as a deity. Though they cannot participate in state-sponsored worship of the emperor and the pagan gods, the readers are instructed to pray for rulers so that the church may live peaceably and fulfill its mission. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

I find these words particularly helpful. We live within certain polarities. We seek to change the world, and yet should not be seen simply as disrupters of the social order. We pray for the governing authorities, but there are limits to loyalty to any government. What those limits may be needs to be discerned within one’s context.

Right after this encouragement to pray for the governing authorities comes a slightly anti-imperial word. “God our Savior” contrasts with the imperial theology wherein the emperor was often called “savior.” Only God is Savior, and this saving God desires that all should be saved “and come to the knowledge of truth.” This is interesting language, another way of talking about what it means to be “saved” – to have certain knowledge. The knowledge that saves is reiterated through the use of an early Christian liturgical piece. “There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.” Knowing, here, could be seen, and should be seen, as something more than intellectual assent to certain propositions. It should be seen as transformative knowing, something that shapes our hearts and lives deeply. One can recite the words of a creed and even believe them to be true intellectually without being transformed by the God of which the creed speaks. One can struggle with the ideas of the creed and yet be transformed in the midst of that struggle by the Spirit of God.

Notice that this creed/liturgy emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. By this time in the history of Christian faith, there seemed to be developments that would have cast Jesus as more than human but less than divine. This author will have none of that. The death of the human Jesus, his self-giving, is seen, metaphorically, as a ransom – a liberation of slaves by buying their freedom. This is poetic language, analogic language, comparing what it means to be “saved” with what it means for a slave to be freed. If pressed too far in a literal direction the language becomes unhelpful – did God really have to pay someone for the release of humanity, and was the death of Jesus that payment?

The writer returns to the topic of prayer and then to the topic of appropriate behavior for women in the Christian community. Men should pray by lifting up holy hands – the typical posture for prayer in the ancient world was to stand with palms open and upraised. That poses little trouble, something that cannot be said for the verses that follow.

This writer argues that women should be silent in the church. They should dress modestly, be most concerned with good works. They will be saved through childbearing if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. The call for silence is different from other Pauline Jesus communities where women were in leadership. Clearly, of course, pseudo-Paul would not bother to forbid what never happened. That prohibition therefore tells us that women were praying and teaching within the community’s catechetical practice and liturgical worship. But this text dismisses women from those functions and relegates them to home, silence, and childbearing. Augustus… would have been particularly pleased with those injunctions. (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 119) To take these verses out of their context is a gross mistake, one the church made early and often. In my own denominational tradition, women were not ordained until 1956. This writer is attempting to accommodate the practices of the Christian community to the surrounding culture and seems to overdo it. In every situation, the church must decide when to accommodate to and when to resist the dominant cultural ethos. Whichever decision is made must be on the basis of the church’s mission, not lethargy or a desire to fit in, but also not on the basis of individual personal feelings and “rights.” (People’s New Testament Commentary)

These disturbing verses… are influenced by the household codes, or codes of proper domestic behavior, in antiquity’s popular moral treatises. The author supports the command for women to learn in silence with a certain, and somewhat forced reading of Genesis 2:15-22 and 3:13. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)

While we can appreciate the struggle of the author to try and figure out appropriate behavior for the Jesus community in that time, there seems little here to commend itself to us, except the idea that we, too, need to struggle with the ethos of our culture. That said, there is something positive in the remark about women and childbearing. It is not that women should be relegated to childbearing, but the author is probably arguing with certain emerging elements in the Christianity of the time that denigrated normal family life. Some teachers taught that “marrying and generating come from Satan” (cited in Irenaeus, Against Heresies, an early Christian treatise). Family life, if lived with faith, love and holiness, is a faithful way to live as a Christian.

I Timothy 3

I Timothy 3:1-7: One argument for dating the Pastoral Epistles after the death of Paul was the development in them of particular roles within the church. In Paul’s time, congregational leadership was relatively unstructured, dependent on the spontaneous guidance of the Spirit. Here, we see stages of development toward ministerial offices, as charismatic leadership becomes more structured. (People’s New Testament Commentary) In these verses, the writer describes the qualifications of a bishop. The term bishop means one who oversees or supervises or looks after others. While this text addresses the qualities desired for a more specific role, many of the qualities are applicable to spiritual leaders more generally.

A bishop is to be above reproach and married only once. This last phrase probably refers to the ideal in antiquity for a person to remain unmarried if their spouse were to die. The qualities desired are a combination of personal and professional. We may find some of this overlap uncomfortable. We have known good pastors, for instance, whose personal lives were more difficult. Yet for spiritual leaders, there needs to be some congruence between the personal and professional. For spiritual leaders to succeed they need to develop trust and the components of trust, according to Lovett Weams, are competence, character and relationships – personal and professional qualities.

I Timothy 3:8-13: The word “deacon” means server or minister (not clergy, but minister as one who ministers to others). Obviously this is distinct from “bishop” but this is all developing and not yet finally determined. While the roles may be distinct, the qualifications are very similar, and again, they apply to church leaders more generally. Interestingly, the writer seems to suggest that women can be leaders in the church by being deacons.

I Timothy 3:14-16: These verses serve as something of a summary to this point. The writer has been concerned that those to whom he is writing “know how one ought to behave in the household of God.” This household, an image, by the way, not found in the undisputed letters of Paul, is seen as a place of truth. The writer reiterates the truth of the faith by citing another liturgical piece from the time, a celebration of the mystery of our religion. The central truth celebrated is that the living God “was revealed in the flesh.” God touched the earth is a special and unique way in Jesus – this is central to Christian faith. This God-made-flesh was vindicated by the Spirit and the message about him has spread throughout the world.

I Timothy 4

I Timothy 4:1-5: Having celebrated the mystery of faith, the writer now argues against those he thinks have strayed from that faith. He characterizes his opponents as people who have being paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, who have been affected by liars, hypocrites - persons of little conscience. What do these false teachers teach? They teach abstinence from marriage and foods. In contrast, the writer affirms the goodness of God’s creation. This is in keeping with the creed/hymn/liturgy cited at the end of chapter 3. God’s touching the world in the flesh is a strong affirmation of the goodness of creation.

I Timothy 4:6-16: One antidote to false teachers and teachings is to have solid leaders who exercise their leadership wisely. In these verses, and continuing through the next chapter, the writer discusses the responsibilities for “Timothy” as a spiritual leader. Interwoven with this are hints at the false teachings that are problematic.

Good leaders are nourished in the faith and avoid “profane myths and old wives’ tales.” This phrase was a familiar philosophical slur of the time. Instead, a leader trains herself or himself in the faith – the writer alludes to athletic training here. Leaders toil and struggle, but with hope in God – who is the Savior of all. The statements here are ambiguous – God saves all, “especially those who believe.” In the end, the reach of God’s saving work is up to God. As believers our task is to remain faithful to our way of life in Jesus, trusting that God will indeed save us.

Leaders are to be examples. Again, this can be difficult. Pastors sometimes struggle with the idea that they need to be examples. We are human beings, and that is important to remember – and it is. Yet we have a responsibility to live our very human lives in ways that say something about the faith we teach and preach. So we strive to be examples in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity. Leaders have a story to tell, a story found in scripture and teaching. Leaders lead from the gift of God within. Leaders pay attention to what is going on in their lives.

I Timothy 5

I Timothy 5:1-16: Instruction for “Timothy” as a spiritual leader continues, here focused on relationships with certain groups of people – younger men, older men, younger women, older women, widows. The writer again makes a case for the importance of family life, arguing that those who do not provide for their families have denied the faith. “The real widow” may refer to an emerging group of widows in the church who have decided to devote themselves fully to prayer and service to God and the church. Verses 9 and following may be qualifications for persons seeking to be a part of this group. The other interpretation is that this is a discussion of who is to become a part of the church’s social welfare program. Widows were often persons in great need in the context of that time. Some of the words about widows seem to appeal to unthinking stereotypes and should not be perpetuated.

I Timothy 5:17-25: Besides bishops and deacons, there was an emerging group of “elders.” These seem to be people who are earning a part of their living from their work of preaching and teaching. They should be people of good character and that character should not be easily vilified. Those who fail to live up to the demands of their role are to be publicly rebuked. In the midst of this word about elders, the writer invites leaders to “take a little wine.” Some of the teachers who were disturbing the community advised a very ascetic life, excluding a little wine. For Christians, this is not prohibited, though the writer has already cautioned against excessive use of wine.

Good works are conspicuous, and will come to light – they will not remain hidden and are thereby encouraged.