Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (9 November 2014)



  • Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 & Psalm 78:1-7 (or WisSol 6:12-16) [or Amos 5:18-24 & WisdSol 6:17-20, or Psalm 70]
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
  • Matthew 25:1-13

First Reading: Renewing the covenant

The OT reading from the RCL invites us to reflect on the theme of covenant renewal, and specifically renewal of the covenant as the people of God near the end of the beginning.

As the biblical narrative of Israel’s origins tells the story, the 12 tribes of Israel (under the leadership of Joshua/Jesus) have now taken possession of the land. They have worked together for the common good, and they have overcome great obstacles (with the assistance of their god, Yahweh). All they hoped for is now in their grasp. The land of promise is theirs.

All of us familiar with the story know it was too good to be true, and the ensuing narratives will show a never-ending struggle to retain the land and sustain anything like a viable sense of being the covenant people.

Even the collective promise to put away (finally? after all these years?) the pagan gods of their ancestors has no substance. Later episodes in Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings—not to mention the testimomy of the prophetic literature—show that ancient Israel and Judah were attached to their plethora of deities (as well as their sacred images) until at least the time of the Exile.

Even so, the story in Joshua 24 is a classic scene in which the essence of Israel’s faith is proclaimed:

  • gratitude to Yahweh for past and present blessings
  • a sense of collective vocation/identity
  • a rejection of other gods, and their sacred paraphernalia
  • commitment to serve Yahweh and no other gods

1 Thessalonans 4: Facing death as Easter people

Despite considerable diversity in making their selections from 1 Thessalonians over the past three weeks, all the major lectionaries agree in their choice of 1 Thess 4:13-18 this week:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This passage is well know from its use in Christian funerals, but it may be helpful to consider the significance of this first Christian attempt to offer an interpretation of death and to address the dilemma caused by physical death within a new religious movement that promised its followers “eternal life” as they participated in the resurrection life of the risen Lord Jesus.

The fact that Paul found it necessary to deal directly with the question of the status of dead Christians reminds us that a “Christian funeral” was not yet a familiar experience.

It is not possible tell whether there had been a death within the Thessalonian community, or whether Paul is addressing a more general question coming out of the millenarian tendencies of the Thessalonian community.

This raises the question of what kind of message Paul had proclaimed when he established the Thessalonian “assembly of our divine patron and Jesus our anointed ruler.”

That translation of 1Thess 1:1 – “church in God the father and the Lord Jesus Christ” – is deliberately radical, but takes up the point that “God the father” (theos patros) refers not to the first person of the Trinity (a formulation not yet developed by the primitive Christian movement in the 30s and 40s), but to the “patron god” worshipped by the Thessalonian Christ cult created by Paul some weeks, or at most months, prior to this letter. We need to set aside our traditional trinitarian filters and imagine how these phrases would have been heard in a Thessalonian private religious association devoted to the worship of Jesus as a dying and rising “anointed Lord” in the year 49.

Does “the Lord Jesus Christ” (perhaps better translated as “Jesus our anointed ruler”) refer to a second divine person alongside the patron god of the community, or is it a naming of the patron god (theos patros) in whose honor the voluntary associations gathers as an assembly (ekklesia)? If we interpret Paul’s choice of words in the way that I am suggesting, then we have a very early affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. Paul would be asserting that Jesus is the patron god of the Christ cult that he has established in Thessalonica, rather than a secondary figure alongside “God the Father.”

This once-dead-but-now-risen Jesus was worshipped as patron deity of the Christ cult and even understood to be a rival to the emperor, as the “anointed Lord” (kyrios christos). Paul’s terminology represents an early form of the explicit struggle between “Christ” and “Caesar” that we find in the Revelation to John, and also in Gospel traditions such as the question about paying taxes to Caesar — not to mention the charges on which Jesus was crucified.

Whatever the precise relationship between Jesus and God in Paul’s mind, the question remains as to precisely what his gospel offered potential converts at this very early stage in his career as an apostle and church founder.

It seems safe to assume that Paul proclaimed Jesus (or perhaps “Christ”) as a dying and rising savior god, not all that dissimilar to the gods worshipped in many of the mystery religions as well as the private religious associations devoted to foreign gods such as Serapis and Isis. In particular, the popularity of the Cabiru cult across the region and especially in Thessalonica suggests that Paul taught his converts that the blessings previously anticipated from Cabiru would now be theirs as gifts from the Lord Jesus Christ.

In particular, how was the promise of eternal life presented to those who gathered to form the “assembly of the Thessalonians in God” in response to Paul’s message?

Scholars have tried to press behind the words of 1 Thess 4:13-18 with varying degrees of plausibility.

Robert Jewett

Jewett (The Thessalonian Correspondence, 1986:94) gives this summary:

The discussion in 1 Thess 4:13-18 indicates the congregation was in a state of shocked dismay at the death of some of the members. Paul spoke of their grief as if they had lost hope that they would ever see the deceased again (4:13) and his emphasis was that while the dead would rise first at the parousia, those who remained alive would be “caught up with them at the same time that they shall be caught up.” Given the thrust of this argument, it appears that the congregation had not only discounted the possibility of mortal death for members of the new age, but also lacked the typical early Christian hope that death would be resolved by resurrection. For some reason they were assuming the separation of death would be permanent.

Willi Marxsen

Marxsen (Der erste Brief an die Thessalonicher, 1979) had connected their grief with an excessive spiritual enthusiasm. Jewett describes Marxen’s proposals as follows:

Assuming that Paul’s intense expectation of the parousia would have obviated the need for for a traditional resurrection teaching during his founding mission in Thessalonica, Marxsen contends that the problem for the congregation was not the death of members as such, but their death “before the parousia” which seemed to imply that they had “believed in vain.” The prospect of death prior to the parousia would also have threatened the faith of those still alive, a threat that Paul counters with his argument that the dead will not be disadvantaged because they will rejoin the living Christians at the sound of the last trumpet.

Joseph Plevnik

Jewett prefers the solution proposed by Joseph Plevnik (“The Taking Up” CBQ 46, 1984:274-83). Jewett outlines that solution as follows:

Joseph Plevnik has provided the basis for an alternative view by showing that Paul’s language concerning resurrection in 1 Thess 4:13-18 indicates he had taught a doctrine of assumption into paradise. This apocalyptic doctrine involves the translation of the whole person from this world to the next, but it only functions for persons who have not experienced death. As Lohfink has shown in his definitive study of heavenly ascension and assumption narratives, “the one who is assumed does not have to taste death, and conversely, the one who is really dead cannot be assumed.” This could help explain the confusion of the Thessalonians, according to Plevnik: “If … Paul had already taught the Thessalonians that at the parousia of Christ they would all be assumed and gathered around the risen Lord forever, then the death of some of the faithful would obviously cause consternation in the community. They would naturally think that the dead could not participate in the assumption — one had to be alive to be assumed.” To draw out the implications of this doctrine in a manner congruent with the evidence in 1 Thessalonians 4, it appears that the Thessalonians believed that the presence of the new age should have eliminated the possibility of death for true believers, so that when deaths occurred they fell into despair about their eschatological faith, discounting the possibility of ever seeing their loved ones again.

Karl P. Donfried

Donfried has continued to work on the problems posed by the Thessalonian letters since the earlier work of Jewett. His article on 1 Thessalonians in Harper’s Bible Dictionary offers this more moderate proposal:

Despite Paul’s affection and high regard for these Christians whose faith served as “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1:7), he must correct and clarify one major area of misunderstanding: the status of those who have already died in Christ since the end has not yet come. In 4:13 Paul shifts from the repetitious “you know” language (1:5; 2:1,2,5,9,10,11; 3:3b-4; 4:1,2,6,10,11; 5:2) to the phrase “we would not have you ignorant …” … This problem surfaced when some in the community died prior to the eagerly expected imminent Parousia and this anxiety may well have been fueled by those outside the church who mocked what seemed to them the absurdity of Christian eschatological claims. Paul assures his audience that the dead in Christ will not suffer disadvantage, they will not be overlooked, and that they “will rise first” (4:16) on the last day. Paul then reiterates the imminence of the Parousia (5:1-3) and then only in 5:10 does he give his final answer concerning the dead in Christ: “our Lord Jesus Christ … died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.”

John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed

Crossan and Reed (In Search of Paul, 2004) suggest that the death among Christians in Thessalonica may have been due to martyrdom rather than natural causes:

The Thessalonian question concerns the relative status of those dead and those alive at the Lord’s parousia, or coming from heaven to earth. The Thessalonians were worried that those who had already died might somehow be disadvantaged at the parousia. Had those Thessalonians died natural deaths or had they been martyred during that persecution because of Paul? The latter alternative seems most likely for two reasons. One is that Paul us extremely defensive about himself in this letter, for example, “You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers” (1 Thess. 2:10). That tone would be very understandable if he had escaped Thessalonica by flight while others had died there as martyrs. Another is that it may have been martyrdom that made them “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia,” so that “not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it” (1:7-8).

Crossan and Reed contrast the answer proposed by Paul to the answer offered around 50 years later in the Jewish apocalypse, 4 Ezra, written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem (and its temple) but attributed to the biblical character, Ezra:

I said, “Yet, O Lord, you have charge of those who are alive at the end,
but what will those do who were before me, or we ourselves, or those who come after us?”
He said to me, “I shall liken my judgment to a circle;
just as for those who are last there is no slowness,
so for those who are first there is no haste. (4 Ezra 5:41-42 NRSV)

Paul, the apocalyptic Jewish preacher and the anonymous Jewish apocalyptic author who penned 4 Ezra, were both dealing the dilemma of how the righteous dead will participate in the blessings of the messianic era. While 4 Ezra does not presume that the present generation will still be alive at the End, Paul does assume that the parousia is so imminent that “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” Consequently, 4 Ezra teaches the idea of simultaneity in eternity rather than addressing the question of precedence, as Paul needed to do.

While Paul himself claims that this teaching (that the dead in Christ will rise first and then the living faithful will be taken up as well) comes an authoritative word from the Lord (en logo kyrio), Crossan and Reed suggest Paul’s response involved “a brilliant use of metaphor.”

First of all, the metaphor of a formal urban visitation gives Paul a powerful visual answer to the question of the Thessalonians. Any important visitor coming along the major road to an ancient city would first meet the dead before they were greeted by the living. Take for example the city of Hierapolis … if you walk out along the northern road, for example, you find yourself today in absolute jumble of broken sarcophagi, shattered tombs, and wrecked mausoleums. But if you put that destroyed and quarried necropolis back in its original format, you can easily imagine an imperial visitor meeting first the elite dead before any meeting with the elite living. And, of course, says Paul, dancing fast and fancy on his theological feet, that is how things will be at the parousia of Christ. We will not all go up together, but first the dead and then the living.

Crossan and Reed continue with an insight that challenges most of the older interpretations of this passage:

Second, the parousia metaphor means that Christians do not ascend to the stay with Christ in heaven, but to return with him to this transformed world. Paul says nothing about an eschatological world or utopian earth here below, but simply that all believers “will be caught up in the clouds … to meet the Lord in the air; so we shall be with the Lord forever.” The metaphor of parousia as state visit would presume that those going out to greet the approaching ruler would return with him for festive rejoicing within their city. So also with Christ. Paul probably took it for granted that all together would then descend to dwell upon a purified earth. The parousia of the Lord was not about destruction of earth and relocation to heaven, but about a world in which violence and injustice are transformed into purity and holiness. And, of course, as mentioned above, a transformed world would demand not just spiritual souls, but renewed bodies.

Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13

The International Q Project reconstructs an original Q saying behind Matthew and Luke as follows:

When the [householder has arisen] and locked the door,
[and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door,] saying:
Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you.

The Jesus Seminar (The Five Gospels, 347) notes that Luke’s brief saying is reminiscent of the longer parable of the ten maidens in Matthew 25. On the Matthean parable, the commentary observes:

This story does not have any of the earmarks of Jesus’ authentic parables. it does not cut against the religious and social grain. Rather, it confirms common wisdom: those who are prepared succeed, those not prepared will fail. Consequently, it does not surprise or shock; there is no unexpected twist in the story; it comes out as one expects, given the opening statement that five of the maidens were wise and five foolish. The story lacks humor, exaggeration, and paradox: it is straightforward, unimaginative, and moralizing …

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

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