Sunday, June 26, 2011

Philippians 4:14-19

Read the Text

14In spite of past circumstances, you have performed well as partners in my difficulty. 15You are aware, residents of Philippi, that during the beginning of my spreading the gospel message, when I had gone out from Macedonia, no communities partnered with me in the relationship of give and take except you alone. 16As a matter of fact, even when I was [still in Macedonia] in Thessalonica, once or twice you dispatched funds to me. 17I don’t say this to imply I’m expecting a donation. Rather, I am expecting the ever increasing effect shown in your lives, which is credited to your heavenly account. 18I have been reimbursed for all I’ve done and I am overwhelmed by your generosity. I continue to be completely satisfied ever since I received from Epaproditus your compensation, like the savory aroma of roasting meat on an altar, an acceptable sacrifice, satisfactory to God. 19The God to whom I am committed will provide fully for all of your necessities of life through the splendid wealth made available through participation in the divine life of Christ Jesus.

Think about the Text

Paul’s language in this section is filled with allusions to financial relationships and a social contract of giving and receiving. Some scholars take this to mean a formal contract referred to as societas. Much of Paul’s language, however, can be simply understand within the relationship of friendship rather than patronage and reciprocity. To whatever degree we might find these formal relationships in this section, Paul seems to modify the reciprocity to something more intimate than payment for services rendered.
“Rather, I am expecting the ever increasing effect shown in your lives, which is credited to your heavenly account.” (Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.) - Paul takes the language of economic reciprocity and uses it as a metaphor in verse 17. The question is what kind of “fruit” does Paul expect. Is it “profit” Paul expects that will be credited to their account? I take it to refer to the accounting Paul expects to take place at the final judgment. According to Paul, everyone will be judged according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). The standard is “doing good” (Rom 2:7) or being “self-seeking” (Rom 2:8) or doing evil (Rom 2:9). Each one of us, Paul says, “will give an account” (Rom 14:12) before God’s (Rom 14:10) or Christ’s (2 Cor 5:10) place of judgment for what we do in life.
In verse 19 Paul clarifies that God provides for what humans need rather than for what they desire. Self-sufficiency is possible because humans can have all they need to fulfill the goal of human existence without satisfying all their desires.

Meditate on the Text

Imagine a balance sheet that lists what others have done for you and then what you have done for others. Do you think you are in the red or in the black?
Do you think the quality of your life and the effect your life has on other people is balancing God’s accounting of your life in your favor?

Live the Text

Remember people who have had a positive impact on your life. Is there a way to respond to them and repay them for what they did for you?
Show reciprocity by doing good to others for the good that has been shown to you. Then start a new cycle of good deeds by doing something good without any sense of indebtedness or expectation of returning the favor. When you do, imagine you smell a pleasant odor like steak on a grill or sweet incense.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Philippians 4:10-13

Read the Text

10I’m very glad through God’s providence that finally you have arisen to the occasion to be attentive to my circumstances. You were attentive in the past but not at an opportune occasion.
11Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t have all I need. Personally, I have schooled myself to be self-sufficient in my present circumstances. 12I am experienced in living in abject poverty and abundant wealth. Into each and every circumstance I have been initiated: feasting and fasting; sufficiency and deficiency. 13I can handle all these circumstances because God empowers me.

Think about the Text

Throughout Paul’s letters he expresses a concern about the kind of support he receives from the Christian communities. On the one hand, he defends the right of people to receive an exchange of goods for ministry they perform. On the other hand, he adamantly opposes any suggestion that he is only performing his work because people are paying him to do it. A common theme is the salaried philosopher who is not legitimate but a sophist, charlatan, or parasite.
Paul is quick to say that he is not discussing financial obligations the Philippians might have to him because he has something lacking in his ability to cope with life’s circumstances. He takes this opportunity to discuss another essential aspect of the philosophical life, what is commonly referred to by the technical term self-sufficiency (autarkÄ“s). This is not a solely humanistic concept, but one in which the person is dependent on God’s providential care in the world. The person is not dependent on the circumstances of life for virtue, freedom, or happiness. Seneca emphasizes that this self-sufficiency – he uses the Latin term from which we get our word contentment -- does not mean we are emotionless: “our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them” (Letters, 9). The self-sufficient person also is not a loner but desires friendship for the purpose of supporting the other in virtue. The mature person lacks nothing even though “the sage may love his friends dearly, often comparing them with himself, and putting them ahead of himself” (Letters, 9).
Paul’s language about self-sufficiency is in line with that of the Greco-Roman moral philosophers. Wealth itself is something indifferent to progress in virtue. Being poor in itself is not virtuous, nor is having wealth evil. No matter what the circumstances, Paul can say he has taught himself how to maintain his spiritual equilibrium in spite of poverty or wealth. In a work titled, “On Self-Sufficiency,” preserved from the third century BCE Cynic philosopher, Teles of Megara, we get one of the earliest descriptions of this essential component to the philosophical life. He discusses this issue of how to handle both poverty and wealth. He concludes that “both situations possess the same character, and whoever can handle much reasonably can also do the same with the opposite” (p. 15).

Meditate on the Text

Think about the people we see on the news who have lost homes to tornadoes, whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the economy or natural disasters, or who lose family members to disease, accidents, or violence. How prepared are you mentally and spiritually to handle whatever may happen in your life?
Imagine winning a million dollars. Could you handle the consequences of having wealth and the power it brings with it? How would it change you?

Live the Text

Examine your financial situation and see if you are fairly supporting those who minister to you.
Take stock of your life. What would you do differently if you had great wealth or if you went bankrupt? How different is the way you live, think, and feel depending on whether your bank account is full or empty?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Philippians 4:4-9

Read the Text

4Be glad as people of God continually. Let me say again, be glad!
5Let everyone take notice of your amiability.
Our Sovereign is close.
6Don’t fret about anything. Instead, in every situation tell God your needs in prayer and petition with gratefulness. 7When you do this, God’s serenity, which overpowers every mental state, will protect your feelings and thoughts as those who participate in the divine life of Christ Jesus.
8Consequently, friends, make it a practice to contemplate these moral qualities: whatever is true, decent, just, sacred, pleasant, auspicious; if something has moral excellence and if it is deserving of praise.
9Make a spiritual practice of those things you learned, accepted, heard, and observed in my life. If you do this, the God of serenity will be with you.

Think about the Text

A type of letter in Greco-Roman antiquity was a type of hortatory letter that might list brief sentences of moral advice or admonition. The technical term, broadly defined, is paraenesis. Often in Paul’s letters we find, especially near the end, this sort of miscellaneous paraenesis. It’s often difficult to interpret each concise statement within a larger context. These few verses have that rhetorical function. Verse four doesn’t seem to have anything particularly to do with verse five, and the first part of verse five may not have anything to do with the concluding phrase.
“Let everyone take notice of your amiability.” The term I’ve translated as “amiability” (other trans. read “gentleness, moderation”) only occurs here in Paul’s undisputed letters and only a few times elsewhere (1 Tim 3:3; Titus 3:2; James 3:17; 1 Pet 2:18). We can compare Paul’s usage to those writings within a similar context. Musonius Rufus, for example, in a discussion on exile says that a person who has this quality should not consider moving one’s residence to live elsewhere as banishment. This kind of person, Rufus goes on to say, “does not value or despise any place as the cause of his happiness or unhappiness, but he makes the whole matter depend upon himself and considers himself a citizen of the city of God which is made up of men and gods” (Rufus, Diss. 9.16; Lutz, Musonius Rufus, "the Roman Socrates," p. 69). In a similar way, Epictetus notes that an ill-tempered person does us a favor by exercising our good-nature and amiability, our capacity for coping with such a person. Even disease is not a reason to lose one’s composure, but instead Epictetus depicts the amiable person as saying, “I will be firm, I will be happy, I will not flatter the physician, I will not wish to die.” The same goes for any circumstances of life: “Whatever you shall give me, I will make it happy, fortunate, honored, a thing which a man shall seek” (Discourses 3.20.11).
“Our Sovereign is close.” (The Lord is near.) Because this phrase is part of the same verse as what precedes, it’s easy to think Paul must mean, “be a certain way because Jesus is coming soon and he’ll punish you for misbehaving.” Instead, the phrase is probably a separate, unrelated word of encouragement. Paul may not even be referring here to the imminent second coming of Christ. Although the expression “the day of the Lord is near” occurs in the OT, there are other instances where the expression is intended to give comfort by the close presence of God (Ps 34:18; 119:151; 145:18). In this case, the phrase may have more to do with the context that follows.
The disturbed state of mind Paul writes about in verse six and following is not a particular concern of Hebrew literature. The tranquility of the soul or mind is of paramount importance to the philosophers of Paul’s day. Plutarch, for example, writes of this in his work “On Tranquility of Mind.” Every day, he says, is as much a day for celebration as a festival day, “For the universe is a most holy temple and most worthy of a god. ... Since life is a most perfect initiation into these things and a ritual celebration of them, it should be full of tranquility and joy.” While some people only take delight in the celebrations of a festival and otherwise live in sadness due to the burdensome and unending cares of life, they ought to receive admonition and “remember the past with thankfulness, and meet the future without fear or suspicion, with their hopes cheerful and bright” (477.C-477.E).
Verses six and seven are grammatically one sentence. (Our earliest Greek texts show virtually no word or sentence divisions either by spacing or punctuation.) The reasoning is, rather than being overly concerned about our circumstances, we should trust in God’s providential care. The result is a tranquility or serenity that overcomes the mind’s natural inclination to imagine the negative potential consequences of our circumstances.
“overpowers every mental state” (surpasses all understanding) – Our translations seem to suggest the meaning that God’s peace is something humans cannot understand. The point of the sentence is that God’s peace prevails over our minds (nous) and protects our way of feeling and thinking so that we are not perturbed by bad emotions.
In verse eight, Paul refers to the philosophical practice of daily meditation. He uses the same term as Epictetus for making a rational account of one’s thoughts and actions. A standard for meditation, which Epictetus quotes in part, was the Golden Verses of Pythagoras:
“Never suffer sleep to close thy eyelids, after thy going to bed, Till thou hast examined by thy reason all thy actions of the day. Wherein have I done amiss? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done? If in this examination thou find that thou hast done amiss, reprimand thyself severely for it; And if thou hast done any good, rejoice. Practise thoroughly all these things; meditate on them well; thou oughtest to love them with all thy heart. 'Tis they that will put thee in the way of divine virtue” (40-46).
Epictetus suggests this form of meditation.
[A]s soon as you have risen in the morning reflect, “What do I want in order to be free from passion, and free from perturbation? What am I? Am I a poor body, a piece of property, a thing of which something is said? I am none of these. But what am I? I am a rational animal. What then is required of me?” Reflect on your acts. “Where have I omitted the things which conduce to happiness? What have I done which is either unfriendly or unsocial? what have I not done as to these things which I ought to have done?” (Discourses 4.6).
Seneca refers to this form of meditation on virtue: “Hence, you must be continually brought to remember these facts; for they should not be in storage, but ready for use. And whatever is wholesome should be often discussed and often brought before the mind, so that it may be not only familiar to us, but also ready to hand” (Letter 94).
Note that among Paul’s virtue list is the standard word for virtue, which refers to the highest standard of human potential (aretÄ“).
Verse nine is the language of a teacher with a pupil. They learned from Paul through his teaching, through what he passed along to them, and through observing his life. They were then to put that example into their own daily practice. The result is the tranquility or serenity that is a divine quality of life.
In Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, he summarizes the philosophical practice that achieves the goal.
It is right then for a man to consider the things which produce happiness, since, if happiness is present, we have everything, and when it is absent, we do everything with a view to possess it. Now, what I have constantly recommended to you, these things I would have you do and practice, considering them to be the elements of living well.

Meditate on the Text

How amiable and unflappable are you? Do you lose your temper easily? Do you instantly despair at bad news? Does your sense of well-being fluctuate with your bank account?
Think about Paul’s virtue list in verse eight and ask yourself these questions:
Am I connected to reality in what I'm thinking, or am I imagining things falsely? For example, ask yourself, “Is that really what that person said or did, or am I not being honest with myself and not thinking truthfully?”
Is this thought something that a wise, mature person would think?
Am I thinking fairly? Does that person deserve me thinking in that way?
Is what I'm thinking worthy of being put on a plaque and hung on the wall of a church?
Is what I'm thinking worthy of being painted and hung in an art gallery for people to admire?
Is what I'm thinking worthy of being emblazoned on a placard and marched in a ceremony before a royal court?
If my thoughts were entered into a contest, would they win first prize for being the best possible thoughts?
Are my prize-winning thoughts one's that crowds would cheer for?

Live the Text

Anticipate circumstances that will test your character. Think, “I am unflappable.”
Take time to think about what’s weighing the most on your mind. Pray about those things and trust each day to God’s care.
Put into practice each day the best of what you’ve learned from others.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Philippians 4:1-3

Read the Text

4:1So then, my dear and missed friends, my source of cheer and crowning achievement, this is how you are to be staying steadfast in your allegiance to our Sovereign, dear ones.
2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to form the same moral judgments with regard to life in the Lord. 3Yes, I request also that you, dedicated companion, give them your assistance. These women have cooperated with me in the gospel mission, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are listed in God’s heavenly roll call.

Think about the Text

“my source of cheer and crowning achievement” (my joy and crown) – The metaphor here seems to be the winner of a race who is cheered and whose head is wreathed with a garland. Paul’s frequent reference to the judgment of Christ suggests he held the belief that in some way the achievement of those to whom he ministered would bring him a great reward in heaven.
“staying steadfast in your allegiance to our Sovereign” (stand firm in the Lord) - Perhaps the metaphor of the race continues with the image of not falling down during the race (Rom 14:4). It’s also possible that there is a military metaphor here with the victorious soldier, the one who stands and does not fall in battle, is crowned with garland.
The situation of Euodia and Syntyche has traditionally been taken to be one of disharmony. The literal expression “to think the same thing” refers to being in agreement, but more aptly means “forming the same moral judgment.” Josephus, for example, uses this exact idiom to refer to the Essenes’ ethical judgment regarding marriage (Wars of the Jews, 2.160). It is only “mirror reading” that causes us to jump to the conclusion that the women must not be getting along with each other. But nothing in the context suggests they have conflict between them. Paul has used this expression in Philippians to encourage the community to have unanimity in the moral life with regard to seeking the benefit of the other (Phil 2:2-3). This climaxes in the plea for them to think (or form the same moral judgment) as Christ Jesus did when he debased himself for the benefit of others (Phil 2:5ff). The most we could say is these two women, who have served so faithfully, have a difference of opinion regarding some aspect of the moral life. My speculation is that they are wealthy women who have shown some sense of superiority over others in the assembly by their actions.
Paul addresses a single person in verse three as a “dedicated companion.” Since the term here is literally “co-yoked one” and when used in the feminine can refer to a wife, some ancient authorities speculated that Paul is here addressing his wife, perhaps Lydia in whose home the church was founded. The argument against this is a problem of grammar. The expression is grammatically masculine. Why this was not a problem for Greek scholars of the second and third centuries C.E. is baffling.
Paul makes reference to some of the many people who were very active with Paul in the task of spreading this message about Jesus to the Roman empire.

Meditate on the Text

Think of someone who is your spiritual guide, someone like a pastor or elder. Does the quality of your spiritual maturity bring that person joy? If that person were being evaluated based on your “performance,” would s/he be rewarded in some way?
Imagine that you have to walk through an ocean surf to reach your destination. Every wave that comes threatens to knock you down and even push you back. You prepare yourself for the next wave and stand firm. Withstanding that wave, you continue your journey, wondering when the next wave will come and whether you will be able to hold your ground. If the goal is your spiritual maturity and the waves are circumstances of life that can cause fear, worry, anger, selfishness, jealousy, or craving, then what are you doing to anticipate the next wave and stand against it?
If you were to create a survey that would tell you whether you think the same way as others on the issues that are important to the work of ministry, what sorts of questions would be asked on the survey?

Live the Text

Make contact with someone dear to you and tell them how much you appreciate the positive effect s/he has had on your life.
See difficult circumstances as a momentary wave of resistance to your progress. Determine that you will not give in to the temptation to wallow in unhealthy emotions and their inevitable consequences.
See each person for what you share in common with them. Figure out how to work with people to achieve virtuous outcomes even though you might have disagreements on peripheral issues.