December 2, 2016 Friday after the First Sunday of Advent
1 Th 4.1–12
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
The thing about a lectionary is that it takes you places you don’t expect. I did not intend to spend yesterday musing about celibacy as a subversive act of faith challenging the role of marriage in a patriarchal society, but that’s where the readings seemed to lead me. And today is similar. In the second reading we find, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you knows how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter . . .”. So, we’re back to sex, again. So why is Paul saying this?
When I was studying Divinity in 1987 I saw a course in the calendar listed with the name: “Ante-Nicene Anthropology, Part Two” It was such a bizarre title I had to take it. It was taught by Father John Egan SJ at Regis College, the Jesuit college within the Toronto School of Theology. The subject matter was really the theological writings of Origin of Alexandria, who worked in the early party of the Third Century. One of the things that became very clear in this course is that how we think about God has implications for how we think about human beings, and vice versa. Genesis 1.27 reads: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” As a result of this theologians have reflected over thirty centuries about what this might mean. Some saw it in rationality, others in complementary masculine and feminine aspects, some in creativity, and still others in the ability to control the environment. So our anthropology says something about how we understand God, and our theology always has implications for how we understand humanity. Origin of Alexandria had some rather interesting ideas – the pre-existence of souls, and a double creation of the invisible and visible, for example – and these were all derived from his Neoplatonic conception of God.
Human beings are inherently sexual creatures. We don’t see God as sexual, but what is common to both human sexuality and the human relation to God is desire. Sarah Coakley in her recent book God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity makes this point, and according to Tina Beattie in a recent review, “Coakley turns Freud “on his head” by insisting that God rather than sex is the source and focus of erotic desire: “Instead of ‘God’ language ‘really’ being about sex, sex is really about God” (316). If genital sex occupies a less central role in this than it does in our sex-obsessed culture, the eroticism associated with sexual desire is inseparable from our experience of desire for God.”
This puts today’s passage from 1 Thessalonians into perspective. Paul knows that in the past the recipients of his letters have been pagans and worshiped idols, and either knows or assumes that they followed a sexual morality at odds with what he knew of in Judaism. To his mind this kind of lustful passion is out of control, and I find it interesting that he wants his readers to avoid wronging or exploiting another member of the church. What that suggests is that he is fully aware of both the power and the danger that comes with sexual relations, and that there is always the possibility of harming another person through sexual assault or exploitation. In the rigidly hierarchical society of the ancient Roman Empire a woman or a slave had no rights over their bodies, and their “superiors” regularly used them for their own sexual gratification. Paul, as imperfect an egalitarian as he was, had a more non-hierarchical understanding of relations, in which in Christ there was no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. In Paul’s view uncontrolled lust that led to exploitation came from worshiping idols, whereas a focus on the true God leads to the desire to be holy and honourable, with the expectation that one will not assault another person or sexually exploit them. The admonition against fornication is not prudery as such, it is about not harming another person, and about rightly using desire.
Let’s see where tomorrow takes us, eh? God be with you.
For Jerusalem has stumbled
and Judah has fallen,
because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord,
defying his glorious presence.
The look on their faces bears witness against them;
they proclaim their sin like Sodom,
they do not hide it.
Woe to them!
For they have brought evil on themselves.
Tell the innocent how fortunate they are,
for they shall eat the fruit of their labours.
Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are,
for what their hands have done shall be done to them.
My people—children are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
O my people, your leaders mislead you,
and confuse the course of your paths.
The Lord rises to argue his case;
he stands to judge the peoples.
The Lord enters into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard;
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.
1 Thessalonians 4.1–12
Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you knows how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrongs or exploits a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one.
Then he said to them, ‘How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ”
David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’
In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’