Proper 20 | Pentecost 17C
(also the text for Thanksgiving B)
Compromises in Paul's Later Letters?
One of the common criticisms of the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus) is that they domesticate the gospel we know from Paul’s earlier letters. Paul had preached that a whole new age had begun in Jesus Christ and as a result, not just humanity’s relationship with God, but also the most basic relationships among human beings—those between slaves and free people, between men and women, between Jews and everyone else—had been reconfigured. Standard ways of imagining human beings to be ranked or separated from each other were no longer valid. While Galatians 3:27-29 is the Pauline text most quoted to demonstrate how Paul’s message wiped out the usual “us/them” categories, one can find language throughout the letters about how God’s impartiality and God’s grace for all have eliminated distinctions previously taken for granted.
With that news in mind, it is possible to read the pastoral epistles and come to the conclusion that someone—either an older Paul or one of his disciples—has given up on the gospel Paul preached. In place of a whole new way of understanding ourselves in relation to our neighbors, the pastorals seem to give us back many of the old rules: they commend hierarchy as a way to order life within the Christian fellowship; they call for men and women to have separate, tightly circumscribed roles within the community of faith; they give advice to slaves and masters that leaves completely unchallenged the ownership of one Christian by another (not to mention the ownership of one human by another). In crucial ways, the argument goes, the later Pauline letters abandon the grand, alternative, egalitarian present and future that Paul had previously associated so closely with the work of God in Christ. In place of Paul’s former vision is a picture of the church well on its way to making a habit of compromising with its surrounding culture.
Prayers for Everyone
Is 1 Timothy 2:1-7 an example of that kind of compromise? Here the author urges that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2, NRSV). Do we have here the beginning of the ‘Go along to get along’ accommodation to culture that has plagued the Christian church for centuries? Does this letter encourage us to trade speaking truth to power for living in peace and quiet?
If we stopped at verse 2, these conclusions might fit with the text. When we read on through verse 7, a different picture emerges. It turns out that “a quiet and peaceable life” is only one of two reasons to pray for everyone, and alongside the second reason, “quiet and peaceable” looks less accommodating than we might have thought.
From the remaining verses of the text, we find out that we pray for everyone because God welcomes such prayer, and God welcomes such prayer because God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 NRSV).
“Everyone” is a lot of people, some of whom could hurt us, some of whom may even want to destroy our way of life. (Often I really want God to be more discerning.)
Remember how Ananias, a follower of Jesus, heard in prayer that he was supposed to go to Saul, who had traveled to Damascus for the express purpose of arresting followers of Jesus? In prayer, Ananias updates Jesus, “‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’” (Acts 9:13-16, NRSV).
Is what Ananias went through the kind of peace and quiet God has in mind for us?
In 1 Timothy 1, when Paul (or a later writer describing Paul’s experience) had spoken of being saved, he described the experience in terms of his having been changed from a persecutor of the church to one strengthened by Christ for ministry. Elsewhere I have likened this re-purposing—this salvation—to the work of fashioning swords into plowshares. 1 Timothy testifies that God wants that kind of transformation to take place not just in Paul’s life, not just in the lives of other Christians, but in everyone’s life.
By mentioning “kings and others in authority,” the author makes it clear that “everyone” for whom we offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” includes people powerful enough to hurt us and those we love. Imagine offering an intercession for the Taliban next Sunday. What might people say after church? Could you give thanks for the current president of the United States? For those in the Tea Party movement? What would happen if you offered supplication for drug dealers in your town? You don’t have to pray that God prospers their work, but you do have to pray for them. What would you say? And if you cannot pray for all these people, out loud, in church, why not?
Sometimes “everyone” is even harder as it moves closer to home: the guy who fired you, the friend who dumped you, the lover who, you see now, never cared about you at all. Intercede for that boss whose true, double-dealing colors no one else seems able to see. Pray for all of them. Pray any way you like, knowing that the One to whom you are praying desires them (even them) “to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”
From a text in one of the pastoral epistles, a risky, subversive way of being Christian starts to come into focus: we do not pray for the powerful in order to be left alone by them. We pray so that our paths may cross with these people—in Christ. If our prayers for them result in God’s deepest desire, the distinction between “we” who are saved and “they” who are not saved will disappear.
Peace and Quiet Remixed
And what of that first reason the lesson gives for why we pray, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2)? This particular quiet and peaceable life is not a life in which Christians blend so well into the surrounding culture that our lives threaten none of its values. God’s desire is (and has been for some time) bigger than that. In Hebrew, the quiet, peaceable life about which 1 Timothy speaks is called shalom. It is peace, and also safety, wholeness, even friendship—for everyone. In our world this sort of thing often appears to be a long way off. That is, of course, all the more reason to pray.