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In the Name of Jesus

Sermon - 8/08/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Colossians 3:17 - 4:1

We have been studying the letter to the Colossians for the last five weeks, and we come to one of the most problematic passages of this letter, if not the entire Bible. A text which has been terribly misunderstood and misused with disastrous results for a very large segment of the human population, and thereby grossly distorting the Christian message. In other words, it's the kind of text I love :). It makes for an inspiring, uplifting sermon, I just hope it doesn't inspire people in the wrong way :).

So, then, Colossians 3:17 through 4:1:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

18 Wives [here comes the fun part :)], be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. 22Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. 23Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, 24since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. 25For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality.

41Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.


So, what do you do with a text like this? Throw it out? If it's in the Bible, it's good enough for me. God said it, I believe it, any questions?

Yeah, I have a few. Pretty much the universal response I got when I told people what I was going to preach on this Sunday was 'Well, this should be interesting' :). It's as if I announced that I'd be preaching while juggling swords, flaming torches, and dressed in a tu-tu. Now, that would be entertaining, perhaps interesting as well :).

Well, this text is known as a 'household code', a common type of literature in antiquity. And it's the first of 4 such texts that we find in the New Testament, the other 3 being in Ephesians, Titus, and 1 Peter. Now, you may be confused because Ephesians comes before Colossians, but at any rate, that's the chronological order in which scholars thing they were written.

In the New Interpreters Bible, there's a big expensive set of commentaries, we have a set in our library, I have a set, took three years to publish (one of the best in the business) says this: to the question 'how would you preach on a household code?', one answer would be-- follow lectionary readings, and you will not have to do so! :). Oh, so tempting :).

It turns our that yeah, these 4 household codes do not appear in the revised common lectionary, which I normally use for preaching. So yes, the glutton for punishment that I am, I've departed from my normal practice in that honorable tradition in order to deal with this challenging text. Why?

Well, it's kind of like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, you know, it feels so good to stop. And, I figured being married now 30 years, maybe my wife will finally get the message to submit :).

You see, there's a problem with silence. In this case, from lectionary-bound pulpits. And it's this: that it leaves those difficult passages like this in the hands of those who readily and easily misread the text, thereby intentionally or un-intentionally abusing their listeners. Thus, I consider it essential for us, who are quite serious about the task of transforming Christianity (as well as transforming lives and transforming the world), to learn not only how best to understand and interpret the original intent of the author, but also how to appropriately apply it today.

So here's my message in a nutshell, to do just that, pay attention to these 3 things, and you can go home :):

First, the modern use of this text, sadly, often results in the exact opposite of the original intent.

Second, rather than reflecting the wisdom and the insight of Paul, who wrote in Galatians 3:38 you remember that great verse "there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, all are one in Christ Jesus", this text represents a significant retreat from Paul's concept of radical equality in the body of Christ.

Third, whatever the original intent, it cannot be removed from its original context and placed into our context today without revising it to fit accordingly. And in fact, failure to revise the content of the text threatens the integrity of the content of the Christian message and the mission of the Gospel.

So, got all that? You can go home now :).

And if you're paying attention, on the other hand, you may be asking something like 'Are you suggesting we need to change God's message in Scripture?'. And that's a good question. And I'm saying 'no', we need to update scripture if we want to keep God's message.

In fact, those who move this text from its original context to the present without changing it are the ones who change God's message. So, this may not be as entertaining as preaching in a tutu, but I hope it will be more relevant and maybe interesting as well.

So, first of all -- what was the original intent? Household codes in ancient Greek and Roman literature were a genre of literature that define the relationship and responsibilities of the members of the household, of which there were primarily three -- husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. Those codes were in essence the 'family values' of that era. And a common feature of all such codes, whether Greek, Roman, Jewish, or Christian, was that men were intended, by nature, to rule as the father, as the husband, as the master, and of course frequently served all three roles. Right.

Equally important, as noted in the New Interpreters Bible, failure to adhere to this proper hierarchy was detrimental not only to the household but also to the life of the state. So make the connection here -- failure to adhere to this hierarchy was detrimental to the life of the state, as well as the household.

In other words, the model of rule for the household was the model for rule of the Roman Empire. Hence, those who question or challenge the traditional family values were considered to be subversive and challenging the very basis of Roman society and governments.

Cesar Augustus, for instance, severely chastised Roman men who failed their duties to the Roman state by choosing a lifestyle other than that of a traditional husband and father. Any other lifestyle threatened the very fabric of society. And so he passed a number of laws to require men to perform their duty.

Does that sound familiar at all?

Now, note that the witness here is not from Scripture but from the conventional wisdom of the time, the importance of adhering to those traditional values. Now, any religion which attracted a high number of slaves and women was then treated as suspect, subversive. Judaism in particular was cited as subversive because Jewish slaves refused to recognize the Gods of their masters, contrary to the traditional family values.

Josephus, a Jewish author writing during the same period when much of the New Testament was written, emphasized subordination of children, wives and slaves precisely to show that Judaism was not subversive or a threat to Roman society. So, undoubtedly, there was considerable societal pressure on these early Christian communities to adhere to the social standard, which then explains the overall tenor of this text and the hierarchical structure of the households within it.

However, it would be a mistake to see this as simply accepting those social standards of the day, for the author of Colossians makes some significant changes to the household codes of Roman and Greek literature.

First, regarding the marriage relationship, the Greek and Roman household codes of that era make no mention of love. Whereas submission of wives to husbands was the standard of the day, the expectation that husbands should love their wives and never treat them harshly was a significant departure from the norm. The same pattern is repeated with respect to children and parents, specifically fathers. Whereas the instruction given to children is very traditional, the instruction to fathers to not provoke their children goes beyond the social norm of the time.

So even without taking the historical context into account, this text should make very clear that domestic violence has never been permissible at any time and in any place for Christian households. And those who cite the first half of the instruction ('Wives obey your husbands, children obey your parents') without the second half ('do not provoke', 'to love') as a means to enforce their will upon the other members of their household (women and children) engage in the worst kind of scriptural abuse in order to justify their own emotional and often physical abuse.

It is therefore incumbent upon us to stand up to such abusers and say 'In the name of Jesus, never again will we in this society tolerate such behavior in any household, Christian or otherwise'.

Now, regarding slaves and masters -- you know, how do we get around this? How can Christians ever accept, as acceptable, slavery? In God's world, where all humanity is created in the image of God?

Now, note three things about this portion of the text: first of all, once again the same pattern is repeated. A fairly standard treatment for the subordinate party (slaves) to do the traditional thing. Whereas the instruction given to the master goes beyond the social norm, which was, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, 'in the Roman world if the master does it, it's not illegal'. Thus, even though by definition slavery can never be justified or fair, a benevolent master would be preferable to an abusive one.

Second, whereas all other members of the household get one verse (look at the text -- wives get a verse, husbands get a verse, children get a verse, parents get a verse, masters get a verse), slaves get 4 verses. So right there it's telling you that the author is struggling here, he has to work harder to make his case, and it's probably an indication of a situation happening in Colossae -- slaves expect to get their freedom in this new community. Ha!, well why would that be?

Third, note that in the end, slaves will be treated equally, as the masters, by the Lord. No partiality. In other words, in the realm of God there is no distinction. Thus the inequalities of the present are but temporary. And once again the writer of Colossians goes beyond the social norms of the day to claim at least spiritual equality, which eventually will give way to earthly equality. And when spiritual equality is accepted, social equality is inevitable. And when spiritual equality is denied, social equality is impossible.

In sum, in Christianizing this standard household code of his day, the author has made it more consistent with the Christian ethic of love and justice and respect for the human dignity of all persons. And even if it comes up short by our standards (which it does) it likely was the best that one could do in the context of that day and still be considered acceptable within the norms.

And please note that within all three of these relationships, the responsibility is placed upon the stronger one to be just and loving and fair. Now, we may question the whole premise of this notion of stronger and weaker and so forth, especially in the marital relationship, but that's another matter.

Now, my second point: previously, I have indicated up until this point in this whole series of sermons that there is some doubt among many New Testament scholars of authorship, of whether or not Paul actually wrote this. And for the sake of simplicity, I've set those arguments aside and continued to refer to the author as Paul, which you may have noticed I have not been doing this morning. I am convinced by the argument that though this is a significant modification of the traditional family values at that time, it is also a significant step backwards from the radical equality advocated by Paul in Galatians 3:28. And I could go further into how Paul lines that out in those authentic texts of Paul, but I'll have to save that for another time.

Paul could not very well advocate for the abolition of slavery, because the economy of the time could not exist without it. Paul did advocate for the freedom of one slave, Onesimus, in this letter to Philemon. The rhetorical force of that short letter is such that Philemon could not remain within the Christian assembly if he had kept Onesimus as his slave.

Would Paul, after telling Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in the Lord, then turn around and tell Onesimus to obey Philemon no longer as his brother, but now once again as his master. You see, I don't think so.

But would someone else, seeing how Paul was executed by Nero for his subversive views, now write in Paul's name to urge the new Christian community to stay within the norms of society? Quite likely.

By the way, when you get to Titus, also supposedly written by Paul but considered by most scholars to have been written some 50 to 60 years after the death of Paul, slaves are told to be submissive and to not talk back to their masters, where masters are not given any instruction at all. And likewise, women are told to be submissive to their husbands with no reciprocal responsibility placed on the men as husbands.

Thus, the farther one gets from the authentic Paul, the more the message conforms to the traditional norms of the Roman world. And so we see already, in Scripture, how the Gospel is co-opted to the standards of the day.

My final point, then, is this: whatever the original intent and whoever the author, the authentic Gospel message is the one which leads us in the direction of greater equality and justice, where the human dignity and value of each person as a child of God is affirmed and honored.

And that requires that we do update the text -- yes, to change it. To take our current context into account, so that we, like Paul, are leading the pack, not following it. Advocating continually for greater equality, that all persons will be treated justly and fairly. Submission language may have made sense in the first century, where one third of the population lived in slavery, but is it not time that we, in the name of Jesus, talk not about submission but about consensus, about mutual acceptance, about reciprocal relationships?

Does it not make more sense, when we no longer are ruled by a King or an Emperor, that we still use that kind of language for our faith and our families? Would we not be better served in this era of democracy and equal rights to focus on mutuality rather than obedience? On relationship rather than head-ship? On equality rather than hierarchy?

But updating the gospel, I mean it is not enough for us merely to say 'no' to those who use this text to abuse others.

In the name of Jesus, we need to stand with those who have been so abused.

In the name of Jesus, we need to make clear that honoring the rights of women and children is a family value.

In the name of Jesus, we should celebrate the victory in a federal court in California this week over Proposition 8 as another step towards greater equality.

In the name of Jesus, we need to speak up for the rights of immigrants to be treated fairly, justly, and equally.

In the name of Jesus, all of our relationships, in work, and at home, in school, in the public square, should reflect the love and justice as the values of God we are called to duplicate, to emulate, to make real and present in our world.

This is the gospel.

[Applause from the congregation]


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