Sunday, September 29, 2013

The trouble with Timothy

Texts: 1 Timothy 2:1-7 (pray for kings); Luke 16:1-13 (parable of the shrewd manager)

How should Christians relate to sources of authority in a sinful world? Today, I use our Scripture readings to discuss two sources of authority in the life of the church: money and the Bible.

In 1964 when the Beatles first came to North America, they released "Can't Buy Me Love." I identify with the song's lyrics -- "I don't care too much for money; money can't buy me love." I have been often been oblivious or careless about money. For this reason, I might also be foolish enough to feel smug when hearing today's Gospel reading in which Jesus says "you cannot serve both God and money."

But other than this final sentence from this reading, I am confused by it. Who are the characters in the parable supposed to represent? Why does the rich man commend his manager for cheating him? Why does Jesus urge us to "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth?" Commentaries on the parable that I read this week discussed the difficulties people have in understanding what it means.

I suspect that the rich man represents forces opposed to the kingdom of God. Jesus may be urging his listeners to subvert the economic system in which we find ourselves trapped. Don't worry, he says, about acting with honesty inside a dishonest and unequal economic system. Focus on relationships and helping one another rather than on obeying the rules of the rich people who own our companies and control our governments.

While this is not the sort of thing I was taught in Sunday School, it is one way to read this parable.

Then there is today's reading from First Timothy. First Timothy is one of 13 letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by the Apostle Paul. Today, however, Bible scholars believe that First and Second Timothy were not written by Paul, despite what the letters themselves say.

Given the fact that early Church fathers included these letters in the New Testament precisely because they were written by Paul, one could now argue that First and Second Timothy are in the Bible by mistake! Such a conclusion is also far from what I was taught in Sunday School.

There are other reasons to disregard these letters besides the false claim that they were written by Paul. Many of the ideas in them are opposite to the heart and mind of the real Paul.

The most notorious passage in First Timothy follows immediately upon the one read here today. At the risk of offense, I will now read it. It says, "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing." (1 Tim 2: 11-15)

Not only is this viewpoint not shared today by people in our church, it also runs counter to the life and work of Jesus. Women were among Jesus' closest friends and co-workers. After his arrest, all of Jesus' male friends deserted him while many of the women stood by him till the end. It was to women such as Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appeared on Easter Sunday. It was these women who first proclaimed the Good News that Jesus has been raised.

Paul is similar. Paul's authentic letters show that, like Jesus, many of his friends and co-workers were women. And the real Paul stands for equality between men and women. For instance, in Galatians Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Paul preaches against the Roman Empire and for equality. The fake Paul, on the other hand, often has a different message.

Today's reading includes one of those differences. In it, the author urges the Church to pray and give thanks for kings and all who are in high positions. But in the First Century, the kings were Roman emperors whose empire executed Jesus. Jesus stands in opposition to worldly kings and their unjust rule. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God in which the first will be last and the last first. That message is probably a key reason why Jesus was executed by Rome.

Later in the letter, the author writes that "all who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect." Really? Support kings and slavery and oppose equality for women? Not only are these messages opposite to those of the real Paul, they are opposite to what any follower of Jesus should proclaim, I believe.

The easy reason to disregard First Timothy is the conclusion by scholars that it is not actually written by Paul. The more difficult reason to do so is that it contains ideas which many Christians find incompatible with Jesus' mission.

The Bible is like a hearth around which the church gathers for warmth, inspiration and illumination. However, some passages in the Bible confuse us and others say things with which we cannot agree.

When I was in Sunday School, life seemed simpler. We were taught to be good citizens at home and at work. We were taught to obey authority figures in church and government. We were taught to believe the passage which says "all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

But truth be told, this passage is from Second Timothy (2 Tim 3:16), another of the letters that was included in the Bible based upon the false claim that it was written by Paul. In our reading from First Timothy this morning, the author says " I am telling the truth, I am not lying." Today, we are not so sure of this claim or of others.

To help with confusions and contradictions in the Bible, we follow the  light of Jesus' love as revealed to us in his life, ministry, death and resurrection. We treat the Bible with respect, but we do not worship it.

Money is similar. A column in the September issue of the United Church's magazine "The Observer" argued that ministry involves being aware of the financial situation of the church and taking it seriously.

I agree with this argument, and feel rebuked by it. In the future, I pledge to pay more attention to money both at home and at the church. The challenge, I believe, is to not worship money, but instead to let it serve the God who is Love.

Life might have seemed easier when I was in Sunday School, and we could mindlessly bow down to authority, whether of emperors, rich men, or church leaders. I prefer today, though. By questioning the authority of both rich men and the Bible, we can better hear Jesus, who stands with the poor against the rich, with slaves against their owners, and with ordinary people against their kings.

When church tradition or Bible passages confuse us, we use Christ as God's Word Incarnate to help us become clearer. We use the Bible, but we try not worship it, just as we use money but try not worship it.

The God revealed to us by Christ is the God who is Love. With God's grace, Jesus calls us to worship neither kings, rich men, or the Bible. He calls us to worship the source of Love, which is also our salvation.

Thanks be to God.


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