Saturday, September 29, 2007

Abolishing or eroding social evils?

I've been preparing to preach on Colossians 3:18-4:1 - the dreaded household code - and I've realised why I am less than enamoured of the Walsh and Keesmaat approach to Colossians.

To put it rather crudely, I think they want Paul to be a classic modern - or maybe post-modern - left winger because only those on the political left have any idea about justice, equality and the need to build a better society. And so they quote a whole load of authors from the political left in defence of their position.

Now, I blog as a person with left-ish tendencies but I don't think these categories apply to the Roman empire. I found Walsh and Keesmaat's approach to the household code to be convoluted in the extreme and certainly to require the original Colossian hearers to know far more about a certain way of reading the Old Testament than most of them would.

It seems to me that what Paul is arguing is pretty straight forward and rather more down to earth. And it's the same as he argues in 1 Timothy and Titus. Of course, it means that Paul has to have written all these letters which most of the commentators don't think, but that's for another blog.

I reckon that lots of people in the empire wanted life to be better, fairer, more just; they had a concept of the good life that centred on piety, justice and self control/sobriety - the cardinal virtues. The trouble is that they had no means of realising this because of human nature. The various schools of philosophy laid out their ideas of the ideal society and they called their followers to commit themselves to them.

And along came Paul. The reason why scholars debate whether he was more of a stoic or a cynic or an epicurean or whatever was that he weighed into these debates and expressed robust opinions. But he didn't call for the abolition of slavery or the creation of a property-less state. Rather he argued that the cardinal virtues could only be realised through faith in Jesus because only through faith in the recreating power of God unleashed in the cross could human nature be changed.

And having established that something sly (to borrow Harry O Maier's phrase from his excellent paper on Colossians in JSNT) happens to human communities. That sly thing is that people's commitment to old ways of relating based on money, social status, gender, slavery and slave owning begin to erode as people are left to work out the implications of his message. In Colossians that included the truth that all are one in Christ because we are each being remade in his image (3:10-11). This in turn led to slave owners treating their slaves 'with equality' (4:1 where Paul uses the same word that he uses in 2 Corinthians 8 to speak of economic equality among believers as part of the justification for the offering he was gathering from the Gentile churches for the Judean believers).

We live in a very different social and political dispensation to Paul. We can meet injustices head-on, call and campaign for their abolition, express our opinion freely without fear of reprisal. That doesn't apply everywhere, of course, just ask the people of Burma or Saudi Arabia how easy it is to make statements about freedom...

I think we need to be very cautious when reading the New Testament that we don't apply our standards of political discussion and debate to its world. For doing that risks missing its subtlety and brilliance.

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