Matt Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary began his commentary on the lectionary passages for the week this way: “Once, when I was an M.Div. student, my teacher Beverly Roberts Gaventa told the class, “You’ll write a better exegetical paper if you choose a passage that confuses you or makes you angry.” Dr. Skinner was talking about the gospel parable, but I certainly could include 1 Timothy chapter 2 as one of my least favorite parts of the Bible. You can judge whether having to struggle with it makes for a better sermon!
The writer of the letter starts out exhorting us to pray (with “supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings”). To pray for all people. To pray for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may live a quiet and peaceable life … This seems somewhat odd coming from an apostle who followed a renowned trouble-maker. All one has to do is take a look at one of Jesus’ parables and you know that living a quiet and peaceable life might not be in the cards.
By the time the First letter to Timothy was written, had the early Christians backed away from going up against the powerful empire in which they lived? Is this letter in the “mild mannered” speak of an abused person, trying not to set off someone (or something) that could lead to their destruction? Are we seeing the manifestation of acting out an internalization of the culture in which one lives? (A problem not just for 1st century Christians but for ALL of us.) I was reminded this week (at a production of “Gloria: A Life,” a play about Gloria Steinem) of the feminist, womanist, civil rights declaration that although changing the structures of our society is so important—we also have to change the parts of those manipulating structures that we have allowed into our very being.
But before we condemn this letter too much, I was glad to notice that maybe this was written in a way to “hide” the true meaning. The words look like exactly what the empire wants Christians to say. And yet, there is a glint of something else going on. It was so subtle that you may have missed it. I did.
“I urge that … prayers … be made for everyone, for kings and for all who are in high positions.” Did you catch it? FOR kings. That is revolutionary. Why? Because these Christians lived under Roman rule. And since the time of Julius Caesar the Emperor was considered a god. You didn’t pray “for” a king—you prayed “to” a king. (Christian Eberhardt, Working Preacher.)
And just a few sentences later, we hear “For there is one God” (pointing to the most important prayer for the Jewish people, the Shema and, by the way, dissing the whole idea of the Emperor being god), and adding to it the Christian belief “there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus …” If there is only one God, if there is only one mediator between the heavens and us, there is no room for bowing to the emperor, there is no serving two masters—be they God and wealth or God and the emperor.
But just as I had convinced myself that this was a Pauline fake-out, like using the fish symbol to identify where Christians gathered, or in our history, using certain quilts, hung on the line, as a marker for being part of the Underground Railroad—just as I thought maybe I had misjudged this letter to Timothy all these years—I read a little more.
As I listened to the commentaries on this passage, it seemed clear that this is a deeply ambiguous message. On the one hand it lifts up the Christian world view—where we are all equal brothers and sisters in Christ, together children in the family of the one God (pushing toward that vision from Galatians about in Christ we are not Jew or Greek, we are not slave or free, we are not male and female); yet, on the other hand, we are urged to not rock the boat, to “get along” with everyone, so that we might lead a quiet and peaceable life.
And one only has to read the verses following our reading today (that have been deliberately left out of the lectionary readings) to see how easy it is to leave behind the “in Christ” vision of equality. Because the rest of 1 Timothy chapter 2 is where the image of social hierarchy overwhelms the possible image of a unified human community. (I am indebted to Dr. Eric Barreto of Princeton Theological Seminary for nudging me in this direction.) For in this passage we hear of king as highest, and then man as head, and then, of course, way down the totem pole, woman. This is where men are told to pray, and women are told to “dress themselves modestly.” This is where we hear: “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.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12) Tell me where is the idea of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus as having chosen the better portion in that? Where is the beautiful vision of “what we become in Christ”?
And do we really believe that living a quiet and peaceable life is always useful? Is it even Christian? I know it is easier to “go with the flow.” But somehow “take up your cross,” and “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (which we heard Jesus say in the gospel of Luke last Sunday) doesn’t sound very quiet, or peaceable. What the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr preached wasn’t very quiet and peaceable. What Greta Thunberg has been saying on climate crisis, “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic.” doesn’t sound very quiet and peaceable. The prophets of the Old Testament would not have scored very high on the “being quiet and peaceable” scale. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t speaking truth.
So what do we do with passage? Like the letter to Philemon, I think it is a cautionary tale. It lifts up the possibility that we can get derailed in our quest of following Jesus. We have to be vigilant to make sure that we are operating from the whisper of God, not from living a quiet and peaceable life in our culture. For a life of prayer, which we are urged to live in this letter and which Jesus called us to, does not mean a life outside of dealing with our world.
It means praying for all people, even those we despise. It means praying for leaders and well as friends. It means always praying with the Shema echoing in the background—
praying so that we remember who we are and whose we are;
praying so that we constantly lift up before our eyes the vision of what being in Christ looks like;
praying as a way of linking ourselves to all those who have gone before who have had to step outside of what was expected, what was the cultural norm, what was the “easy way” to live.
We need to hold onto that tiniest glimmer of Christian fortitude and strength in the phrase “for kings” instead of “to kings.” We need to be wily like the dishonest manager of our gospel parable—who was knowledgeable about how the world worked, and therefore could “play the game” to his own advantage. We just need to have a bigger and better goal in mind.
A life of prayer. Not prayer as a sedating action, keeping us focused on ourselves and not on the earth we were given to steward.
Not prayer as quieting submission, where we hand off everything to God in a forsaking of our own responsibility for ourselves and our world.
Not prayer as reinforcing the already entrenched status quo of power over other people giving meaning and status.
But prayer as the connecting link between ourselves and everyone else on this planet.
Prayer as the mantra of us made in God’s image, providing strength for the journey and partners in the work of being God’s people in God’s world.
Prayer as the trumpet sound, calling us into action, calling us out of our comfort zones and our siloes. Calling us to get back on the righteous path, to follow in the footsteps of the one we call our Lord Jesus. Calling us to our mission; to do our part in creating the Kingdom of God.
Maybe it be so, Alleluia, Amen.