The texts for Sunday, July 21 – 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C:
OT – Amos 8.1-12; Psalm 52; NT – Colossians 1.15-28; Gospel – Luke 10.38-42 (all biblical quotations are from the NIV translation unless otherwise noted)
Colossians Remixed: Subverting Empires, Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat (IVP, 2004) – cited as CR
Texts For Preaching: Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C, eds. Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCain, James D. Newsome (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) – cited as TFP
“The Letter to the Colossians,” Andrew T. Lincoln in The New Interpreters Bible: Volume XI (Abingdon Press, 2000), pp. 551-671 – cited as TNIB
Like last week’s reading (Amos 7.1-17), the OT for today records a visionary experience of the prophet that becomes the vehicle for delivering a message of judgment from God. Accompanying this statement of judgment (vv. 1-3), however, is a powerful statement of God’s coming justice as well.
Psalm 52 is a scathing confrontation with an anonymous tyrant. God will not allow the tyrant to go unchecked. An interesting facet on this confrontation is its focus on the tyrant’s speech in vv. 2-4. In a very relevant way for us today, there is a deep concern for the way people in power use language to oppress and deceive and distort the truth in order to keep power and destroy others. This tyrant relies on his own propaganda, power, and wealth rather than on God – he does “not make God his stronghold” (v.7). This is contrasted with the one who trusts in God’s unfailing love, who is “like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God” (v.8).
The Gospel is the familiar story of Jesus’s visit to the home of Mary and Martha, in which Martha “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (v.40), while Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet” (v.39). Martha complains to Jesus about this asks him to tell Mary to help with the preparations. Jesus famously replies by saying that “only one thing is needed” and that “Mary has chosen what is better” (v.42). One might be very tempted to interpret this event on its own, and see it as a comment regarding Martha’s whining nature. However, as TFP suggests, it should be read in conjunction with the previous parable of the man who fell among thieves, which suggests that listening without doing is spiritually worthless (p. 429). “Hearing and doing the word” is an extremely important theme in Luke’s Gospel (cf. Lk 6.46-49; 8.21; 11.27-28). In light of this, Jesus is highlighting that Mary, in listening to Jesus’ word, has at least begun where faithfulness begins (TFP 437). While the Samaritan who comes to the aid of the man who fell among thieves is a model for loving one’s neighbor, Mary, with her attentive listening to Jesus, is a model of silent waiting on God. As TFP suggests, these two models belong together.
The NT reading from Colossians is where I really wish to focus this week. As almost every commentator/scholar will agree, the text for today stands out from the rest of the letter because of its distinctive literary form. It is most likely a hymn (scholars disagree whether it is a hymn that is material or whether it pre-existed the letter and is here being repeated). This hymn tells a story of Christ’s role is the cosmos from creation to consummation.
The hymn begins by declaring that Jesus Christ is the εἰκὼν (Greek: ikon) or “image” of God. That is to say, Jesus – the person, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension – is the one who supremely makes the invisible God, visible (TNIB 597). Jesus is the πρωτότοκος (Greek: prototokos) – “the firstborn” – of creation. The NETBible has a very helpful note explaining what this means:
"The Greek term πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) could refer either to first in order of time, such as a first born child, or it could refer to one who is preeminent in rank. M. J. Harris, Colossians and Philemon (EGGNT), 43, expresses the meaning of the word well: “The ‘firstborn’ was either the eldest child in a family or a person of preeminent rank. The use of this term to describe the Davidic king in Ps 88:28LXX (=Ps 89:27 EVV), ‘I will also appoint him my firstborn (πρωτότοκον), the most exalted of the kings of the earth,’ indicates that it can denote supremacy in rank as well as priority in time. But whether the πρωτό- element in the word denotes time, rank, or both, the significance of the -τοκος element as indicating birth or origin (from τίκτω, give birth to) has been virtually lost except in ref. to lit. birth.” In Col 1:15 the emphasis is on the priority of Jesus’ rank as over and above creation (cf. 1:16 and the “for” clause referring to Jesus as Creator)." NETBible n.28
The hymn continues to make the astounding attributions to Christ that “by him all things were created (v.16) and that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (v.19). Jesus is “before all things and in him all things hold together” (v.17). Jesus is “the head of the body, the church” (v.18), and is also the firstborn (protokos again) from among the dead” (v.18). To sum up the hymn: In everything Jesus has “the supremacy” (v.18).
This story of Jesus as cosmic ruler has a “totalizing” element to it, in that it is a story of everything and of Christ’s supremacy over everything (in heaven and under it). These sorts of absolute claims, TNIB notes, are understood today as inevitably oppressive and violent (609). The question, however, TNIB goes on to say, is whether this story of Jesus’s supremacy in Colossians perpetuates violence against others (609). They think not. And I agree. Here’s some notes from TNIB on this:
“[T]he cosmic reign of Christ, meant to effect not uniformity but a harmonious unity, is described [in v.22] as being accomplished through ‘the blood of his cross.’ But this violence is not perpetrated by Christ but rather the violence is perpetrated on him. This cosmic narrative has at its heart not a pantocrator’s tyranny or benevolent dictatorship but the brutal death of a victim. There can be no universal statements without at the same time focussing on someone bleeding and suffocating on a cross. Paradoxically, this victim is the cosmic ruler; his rule is achieved through the experience of suffering, and his peacemaking is accomplished through the absorption of violence” (609).
“The hymnic material’s story is oriented toward God’s purposes of shalôm for the whole creation, including reconciliation for the alienated and the marginalized and justice for the oppressed, purposes brought about through the solidarity of Christ in his death with suffering victims. The reference to his death is now set in the context of Christ’s role in creation and his cosmic rule means that it was not just one more act in a cycle of unending violence. Rather, there are grounds, through the vindication of his resurrection, for the hope that alienation and suffering throughout creation will cease. This christological narrative actually subverts violence” (609).
“[T]here can be no rehearsing or living out the hymn in any other way that the way of peace and reconciliation demonstrated in the death of its protagonist” (607). “If what happened in Christ’s death and resurrection happened to the one who is God’s unique and supreme agent in the cosmos, then the implication is that the [Colossians] have given their allegiance not to one intermediary among others, not to one cultic god among others, but to one who has a rightful, unparalleled claim on their lives” (607).
Founding stories or myths are stories that cultures, nations, peoples, organizations, etc., tell (to themselves and others) that both explain their origins and justify them. They explain who we are and why we exist. And why we should exist. Keesmat and Walsh (in CR) situate the story of Jesus in this cosmic hymn against the backdrop of the Roman founding story (myth). Rome’s founding story, as Keesmaat and Walsh note, is a good – it is summed up by Pax Romana [The Roman Peace]. It was the story or myth that gave legitimacy to Roman rule and the exercise of Roman economic and military power. It was a reference to the fact that the various nations subjected by Rome had relative “peace” because they were all under Roman Law. As Keesmaat and Walsh go on to explain, “the Roman legitimation for continued military oppression was rooted in a story of peace, proclaiming that Rome was the bearer of cosmic peace, fertility and prosperity. With the coming of the Roman empire a new age had dawned upon which rested the blessing of the gods” (CR 61). This story shaped every facet of life in the Roman Empire. “Feasts and festivals celebrated Rome’s victory over the barbarian hordes… Festivals in honor of the birthday of the emperor and in thanksgiving for Rome, its ruler and power included sacrifices that reinforced the centralization of power by emphasizing places of nobility, plebeians and slaves in the hierarchy of the empire: (CR 61-62).In other words, this story indexed every aspect of life under Rome. It captured completely their social imaginary. A key way this story exercised power over the people was through images: imperial images dominated both public and private space in the Roman empire. “The symbolism of empire became part of the daily furnishings, permeating the visual landscape and therefore the imaginations of the subjects of empire” (CR 63).
Keesmat and Walsh correlate this to Empire today – they speak of “the Pax Americana,” which can be summarized for them in terms of globalization. I, however, am not sure that that is really an adequate characterization, although globalization certainly is a core expression of the Pax Americana. Whatever may be, the most powerful myth for us today is “the progress myth.” This is the “myth that we are moving as a culture toward wealth and technological control, and that this is invariably good” (CR 62). They note that this myth provides the justification for all the economic and military policies of the North Atlantic nations. Those countries not included in this are “developing countries.” It is not that they are different than us, they are behind us; they need to catch up to us. “According to this myth, ‘development’ can only be good, and it is defined in terms of increasing industrialization and increasing technology, which will result in increased wealth” (CR 62).
Against this backdrop, then, Keesmaat and Walsh tells that, “In Colossians Paul is telling a story that is an alternative to the mythology of empire. Mythology is always about salvation, peace and prosperity. Rome found salvation in the universal peace of the age after Augustus. …Paul tells a story about salvation rooted in Christ, historical sovereignty located in a victim of the empire, and prosperity that bears fruit in the world.”