bible blog 1464

The readings are from the atholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headlines are meant to keep my thinking real:


the cost of building a tower...

the cost of building a tower…

First reading
Philippians 2:12-18 ©
My dear friends, continue to do as I tell you, as you always have; not only as you did when I was there with you, but even more now that I am no longer there; and work for your salvation ‘in fear and trembling.’ It is God, for his own loving purpose, who puts both the will and the action into you. Do all that has to be done without complaining or arguing and then you will be innocent and genuine, perfect children of God among a deceitful and underhand brood, and you will shine in the world like bright stars because you are offering it the word of life. This would give me something to be proud of for the Day of Christ, and would mean that I had not run in the race and exhausted myself for nothing. And then, if my blood has to be shed as part of your own sacrifice and offering-which is your faith I shall still be happy and rejoice with all of you, and you must be just as happy and rejoice with me.

It’s easy at times to think of Paul as a bit of a prat with his reminders to people of his own efforts and sacrifices. I think that on the contrary he is unusually courageous and committed, but finds that the discipline required grates on him- so now and then he mentions it, as here.

I guess that most protestant scholars would find fault with this translation of the last cluase of the first sentence “work for our salvation” which allows the reader to think that salvation can and must be earned. Paul’s authentic teaching is that salvation (the definitive rescue of a human life) cannot be earned but is a gift of God, a gift however that is not given fully in this life. “We are saved; but only in hope”, he says. So the best translation is “work out your salvation”, which allows the reader to feel that it is a gift which she can make her own. Indeed as Paul says, the very will to make it one’s own is a gift of God. Paul always insists on the priority of God’s love in human lives, while at the same time insisting that it must be appreciated, appropriated and applied in the recipient’s life. There is no “cheap grace” in Paul’s gospel but rather a balance between divine initiative and human responsibility. 

The word of life that his converts offer to the world is not merely verbal but is, as it is with Paul, an offering of the whole person. The reader gets the sense of Paul’s pleasure that he is able to offer his life in the service of love, just as he had before offered it in the service of religious hatred, in his fierce persecution of believers in Jesus Messiah. He is a good witness to the truth that even very great human qualities can be used for good or evil. As Bob Dylan sings, “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you gotta serve somebody.”  dylan

In this passage he encourages his readers to allow their whole selves to be inspired by God’s rescuing love. He adds that because they share the same inspiration, their different lives are mingled in a single offering and a single joy.

Luke 14:25-33 ©
Great crowds accompanied Jesus on his way and he turned and spoke to them. ‘If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

‘And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers would all start making fun of him and saying, “Here is a man who started to build and was unable to finish.” Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who advanced against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace. So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.’

Yes, this passage can be neatly aligned with the words of Paul above. Jesus also preached that human beings had to work out their salvation. He taught that God’s was rescuing the world through his kindly rule, of which his own ministry was the definitive announcement; even though, or perhaps because, it would lead to his own suffering and death. For that reason he was ever ready to warn potential disciples that no half-hearted commitment would cut the mustard. There was no point in people starting to work out this salvation without counting the cost. That sort of kind of commitment could only lead to mockery when it was abandoned once the costs became evident. unfinished

The nature of those costs is summed up by the reference to the cross. Of course early in the Christian era the cross became simply a reference to Jesus’ sacrificial death. But if Jesus ever mentioned it in his teaching, and I would argue that it’s probable he did, then it would be a precise reference to the Roman punishment for slaves and rebels. If Jesus was announcing the “rule of God” in a province under the rule of god-emperors, he and his disciples were likely to be in danger no matter how non-violent their “rebellion”. In many different states, the claim that there is a king by whom all worldly rulers can be judged, and whose rule can be represented in the lives of citizens, has aroused persecution. 

For that reason, Jesus asked his disciples to “hate” their dear ones, because their dangerous allegiance might bring suffering on them all. We might ask why anyone would want to work out this divine rescue that could seriously mess up your life. The contrast berween Jesus’ honesty and the saccharine salvation so often offered in his name, could not be starker.

The true working out of God’s goodness requires wholehearted commitment and readiness for sacrifice. As someone who wants to be wholehearted but would rather give sacrifice a body-swerve, I can bear witness to how often I’ve started to build mighty life-projects without the necessary resources or got myself into battles with insufficient troops. But perhaps I can also bear witness that the derision aroused, not least in myself, by such failures,  has pushed me towards small sacrifices which were painful but also joyful. Perhaps eventually I’ll learn how to work out my salvation and become a decent disciple.

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