bible blog 593

This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:


1 Peter 2:11-25

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. 12Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.

18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

22 ‘He committed no sin,

and no deceit was found in his mouth.’

23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

It’s always good to come up against a piece of scripture with which I disagree. The author of this letter argues that submission even to unjust worldly authorities, such a harsh slave owners, is preferable to outward rebellion because a) it lets others see the Christian community as law-abiding and honourable and b) it imitates Jesus Christ in his submission to a Roman cross.

sketch by Peter Howson

Living quietly within the Roman Empire and accepting its laws is a tactic that allowed the Christian community time and space to grow. There were times when the community was persecuted because it wouldn’t treat the Emperor as a God. Christians prayed for the Emperor not to him. The courage of believers in being prepared to suffer for their faith made converts within the Empire. The assumption of the writer is that there is no point in challenging Roman justice other than by one’s willingness to suffer injustice in the spirit of Christ.

When the same argument is used to tell slaves not to oppose a harsh master, its limits are more evident. Why should the community not unite to expose the evil and demand humane treatment? Does the writer, who is presumably not being harshly treated, have any right to lecture abused slaves on what they should or shouldn’t do? Should the cross of Christ be used to urge submission to injustice? If these questions suggest that Christian people may rightly oppose the harsh treatment of slaves, they may also lead to an examination of slavery as such, and therefore of the “human institutions” to which the author urges submission.

I make these points lest a plea for patience, forbearance and non-violence issued to small groups of believers in a mighty empire, be used by comfy people to justify the suffering they impose on others. The author’s use of the example of Jesus, however, cannot be lightly dismissed; He was abused and treated unjustly and he did not reply in kind but trusted the just judgment of God. “He himself bore our sins in his own body on the cross,”-Christ’s example is beautifully rendered, and even those readers who may be suffering under sinful masters are reminded that they too are sinners. Nevertheless, this writer’s view of how the Christian community should respond to injustice needs to be challenged by other views found in scripture.

Matthew 20:1-16

20‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Scholars have solemnly misused this story, refusing to recognise its humour. Jesus may have enjoyed the behaviour of the landowner, but he wouldn’t have bet on his having any labourers at nine the next day. 

scandalous: Jesus with sinners

The main points are:

  1. The landowner rewards all workers with the means of life, an average daily wage. After all, the worker still has to live all day even if he doesn’t work all day.
  2. If there is a point of comparison with God’s behaviour, it’s not in the details  transaction between workers and landowner but rather in the question, “are you envious because I’m generous?” as that’s the very question Jesus wants to ask the “righteous” in respect of his friendship with “sinners”, and which Matthew wants to ask Jews in respect of Gentiles.
  3. The odd detail, that the landowner almost provokes outrage by making the first workers witness the payment of the last, must be meant to mirror the public nature of Jesus’ ministry to sinners and the poor, and the public existence of the young churches as assemblies of Jews and Gentiles. God doesn’t hide the scandalous things he’s doing through Jesus.


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