The judgment of God can mean national death, though God’s true will is for the practical compassion of the Good Samaritan.
After four weeks on Elijah and Elisha, the Lectionary selections from the prophets move to Amos and Hosea. These prophets spoke judgment against Israel about a hundred years later than the times of Elijah and Elisha, both of them prophesying the fall of the northern kingdom, with little or no chance to escape destruction.
This Sunday’s Amos reading begins with an announcement of doom on the kingdom of Israel, and specifically on the dynasty of Jehu, now headed by Jehu’s great-grandson, Jeroboam II (reigned over the northern kingdom approximately 786-746 BCE). This announcement of doom is delivered at a major sanctuary of the northern kingdom, Bethel, called “the king’s sanctuary” (verse 13), and was probably delivered at the time of a great festival-assembly at that ancient holy place. The result, and undoubtedly Amos’ intention, was to get the attention of masses of people from all over the kingdom. The head priest of Bethel, Amaziah, came to feel that “the land is not able to bear all [Amos’s] words” (verse 10, NRSV). He reported Amos’ treasonable oracles to the king.
Our narrative does not describe King Jeroboam’s answer, but Amaziah’s actions are almost certainly with the king’s approval, if not his direct orders. Amaziah says to Amos, “Seer, go back home to Judah and earn your bread by making your speeches there. Never utter a word again in Bethel” (verses 12-13, my paraphrase). Amos replies by predicting a terrible disaster on the priest and his immediate family members (verse 17). Nevertheless, the likelihood is that Amos went back to his home town, Tekoa, twelve miles south of Jerusalem.
So, Amos had delivered God’s condemnation of Israel. If there is a prophet anywhere who is truly a doom prophet, with only words of condemnation and disaster, it is Amos. The one add-on passage about God eventually restoring the empire of David (Amos 9:11-12, followed by a utopian vision of the good land, 9:13-15) is the later inspiration of a prophetic disciple meditating on the disasters that had long since fallen on the southern kingdom of Judah. Amos in his own time, announced, in several powerful speeches, the death of Israel. (We will look more closely at this death announcement next week.)
Two points of enormous importance may be simply stated, without development.
First, Amos itemizes at length the reasons for God’s condemning Israel to death. The reasons are the repeated and ingrained violations of social justice. Israel will die because they “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6). It is a time of prosperity and the well-to-do are engrossed in luxuries, busy denying justice to the less powerful and ignoring the plight of the truly poor. The existence of a nation is weighed in the divine scales of justice and found wanting. The nation will go.
Second, Amos is the earliest voice in a world-wide development of human spirituality. By insisting that Yahweh, the God of Israel, can cast away this chosen people, the God who spoke through Amos rose above the foundation of religious life in racial, ethnic, and geographical roots. Amos delivers the first affirmation of a God who transcends the tribal and national orders of the human world. He delivers the first word of what some historians and philosophers call “the Axial Age,” the historical period (roughly 800 to 200 BCE) in which there emerged the great universalist religions and wisdom traditions that still define the main global communities of faith. (See more in the discussion of the Gospel below.)
This is not Amos’ way of expressing it. He was a man who, in the wilderness of Tekoa, saw visions, heard words, and found himself sent from behind the flock to deliver God’s overwhelming word of justice to Israel (verses 14-15). But his intensity for justice was driving toward a vaster vision for humankind.
The Psalm reading also has to do with divine judgment. Psalm 82 is set in the heavenly council of the gods, the standard religious cosmos of Mesopotamian and Canaanite religious institutions and traditions. God the Lord is in fact delivering judgment upon the divine council itself! (Later Jewish and Christian traditions understood these to be angels, or even earthly princes and judges.)
God indicts the lesser divinities, the members of the Cabinet, if you will.
How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
How should they be using their heavenly powers instead?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (verses 2-4, NRSV)
The word of judgment that Amos delivered to the prosperous in Bethel, God delivers in person to the other mighty powers of the heavenly world, who are understood to influence and direct the affairs of their favorites on earth.
And what is the conclusion of this judgment?
You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince. (verses 6-7)
Just as the elect people Israel may be condemned to death on earth, so God the Lord can do without these unreliable heavenly beings. This psalm virtually announces the death of all heavenly powers except God the Lord. (These powers would, of course, return later as various kinds of angels and those “elemental spirits” to be heard of in this month’s Epistle reading.)
The absolute scale in which heavenly beings also would be weighed was justice and compassion, for the poor and powerless. These are truly the people of God.
As the prophetic readings have shifted to different books, so the Epistle readings for the next four weeks are from a different letter of Paul – or a letter written under Paul’s name.
Colossians begins, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae…” (verses 1-2, NRSV). The chances are, nevertheless, that the living, breathing Paul of Tarsus did not write this letter. Differences in style and thought from the main seven letters of Paul have led the majority of New Testament critics and historians to believe that Colossians comes from someone in the Paul Movement speaking in Paul’s voice. The author of this letter was the spirit of “Paul” as carried on by his faithful companions and followers. On this question, see the Special Note below on Letters from Paul’s Movement.
This question of the authorship of the letter is of great importance only if one supposes that divine inspiration was confined to Paul himself, that Timothy, Epaphras, or Nympha (Colossians 4:15) could not also have written words of wisdom from God just as Paul did.
In our reading we have a thanksgiving (verses 3-8) and a report of prayer on behalf of the Colossian community (verses 9-14). The writer thinks easily in terms of the Pauline faith-love-hope trilogy. Thanks are given for “your faith in Christ Jesus,” for “the love that you have for all the saints,” and for “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (verses 4-5). The Colossians are given a sense of being a part of a vast world movement. “Just as [the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it” (verse 6).
The Colossians were won to the faith by Epaphras, one of their own people, “our beloved fellow servant…a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf” (verse 7). Epaphras also did jail-time with Paul (“my fellow prisoner,” 4:10), and is only one of a handful of associates of Paul mentioned in this letter.
Many of these associates in Paul’s Asian ministry are mentioned in a long and chatty closing section. (Because the Lectionary never assigns Colossians 4, with its many “greetings,” for reading, we will take notice of it here.)
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. …[H]e is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. [Onesimus is the “slave” in the letter to Philemon, who lived in Colossae.] They will tell you about everything here.
Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, …if he comes to you, welcome him. And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision [that is, the only Jews] among my co-workers for the kingdom of God.
Epaphras…greets you… For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis [three neighboring cities in the prosperous, though earthquake-prone, Lycus Valley]. Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. Give my greetings to my brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house…. And say to Archippus, “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord [of which we know nothing else].” (Colossians 4:7-17, NRSV.)
This introduction and conclusion of the letter portray the Colossian community as a new but eager and loyal assembly of the faithful (“saints” in verse 2). In the form of giving thanks and reporting how he prays for them, this apostle to the nations reinforces the faith, mutual love, and new-born hope of these Asian Christians.
The Gospel reading continues Jesus’ “journey” toward fulfilling the Reign of God. Luke gives us early in this journey an incident that Mark and Matthew place in the controversies in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week. It is the question about the greatest commandment. Luke develops the discussion beyond the formal interrogation reported in the other two Gospels: Jesus and the lawyer reach a common mind about the two great commandments, but then Luke adds the lawyer’s question, Who is the neighbor? This addition gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The parable is too well known to go over here. Let us focus on two phrases. The Samaritan comes down the road and sees the victim of the mugging, and “he was moved with pity” (NRSV) or “he was moved with compassion” (New Jerusalem Bible). And after the parable is complete, the lawyer says that the neighbor was “the one who showed him mercy” (NRSV). The God whose reign Jesus is preparing for in his journey to Jerusalem is a God of compassion and mercy.
Karen Armstrong has characterized the Axial Age in human history as turning decisively on a heightened sense of compassion in the development of the great religious and wisdom traditions. Here is one of her summary statements of that theme.
In the cities and empires of the Axial Age, citizens were acquiring a wider perspective and broader horizons, which made the old local cults seem limited and parochial. Instead of seeing the divine as embodied in a number of different deities, people increasingly began to worship a single, universal transcendence and source of sacredness….The most sensitive [people] were troubled by the social injustice that seemed built into this agrarian society, depending as it did on the labor of peasants [usually 80 per cent of the society] who never had the chance to benefit from the high culture. Consequently, prophets and reformers arose who insisted that the virtue of compassion was crucial to the spiritual life: an ability to see sacredness in every single human being, and a willingness to take practical care of the more vulnerable members of society, became the test of authentic piety.
In this way, during the Axial Age, the great confessional faiths that have continued to guide human beings sprang up in the civilized world: Buddhism and Hinduism in India, Confucianism and Taoism in the Far East; monotheism in the Middle East; and rationalism in Europe. Despite their major differences, these Axial Age religions had much in common: they all built on the old traditions to evolve the idea of a single, universal transcendence; they cultivated an internalized spirituality, and stressed the importance of practical compassion.
(This quote is from The Battle for God, 2000, p. xii [p. xiv in paperback ed.]. Ms. Armstrong has elaborated this perspective at greater length in The Great Transformation, 2006.)
The Good Samaritan – the neighbor – was a person who practiced practical compassion.
Special Note on Letters from Paul’s Movement
Jesus began a movement in Galilee (with some covert allies in Judea) that was at most only roughly shaped by the time of his death. Then the Jesus Movement, transformed by experiences of the risen Jesus, went on in different directions, some in Semitic speaking environments, some in Greek speaking environments. Paul gave shape to one of the directions in which the Jesus Movement developed, moving into Greek-speaking settings stretching from Antioch in Syria northwestward through Asia Minor, Macedonia, and into the heartland of Greece. Over a twenty-five to thirty year period (roughly 35 to 64 CE) there grew up a Paul Movement also, a growing chain of local assemblies (ekklesia-s) with followers maintaining and promoting Paul’s understanding of the gospel and practical guidance based on it.
In Paul’s lifetime it seems clear that he expected the transformation of the world by Jesus’ return in power at any time (seen early in I Thessalonians 4:17). As time passed, more enduring and practical arrangements for the life of the assemblies were required, and these were provided – presumably with a lot of prayer and discernment of the Spirit – by Paul’s followers after his death. Thus, as the Gospels contain collections of traditions from the Jesus movements made well after the time of Jesus, so the whole collection of Paul’s letters contains several items written in Paul’s name but actually coming from Timothy, Titus, Phoebe, Tychicus, Epaphras, or others – with Mark and Luke somewhere in the mix (Colossians 4:10 and 14).
The Paul Movement was certainly a historical fact, starting with Paul himself but extending several decades after his death. Eventually it produced the collection of Paul’s letters – all of them – that went into the New Testament. That probably did not happen much before 100 CE.
Any defense of the older tradition of Paul’s authorship of these later letters – Colossians, Ephesians, Timothy and Titus – must at least assume that Paul changed his style of writing and thinking as new situations required. This often assumes that Paul was acquitted in a first trial in Rome (continuing from the end of the book of Acts) and spent some years doing more missionary work before another imprisonment in Rome (during which Timothy and Titus, at least, were written) led finally to his death around 67 CE. Thus, there was, in effect, a whole additional stage of Paul’s life beyond that reported in Acts. In such a period of change, Paul might have developed quite different emphases and styles of expression. Unfortunately, all that is quite hypothetical and unconvincing to critical scholars.
If Paul himself wrote only the seven main letters (Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon) the Movement nevertheless went on, and his now mature pupils and co-workers wrote additional letters to Paul’s churches, putting on record what they were certain he would have said in their later circumstances. They gave us what Paul was not around to write – except in spirit.
It is worth adding that Luke, the writer of Luke-Acts, was at least on the periphery of this movement. On the assumption that the “we” sections in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:12-28:16) are a modest way of his saying he was there along with Paul, that would have been early in his life (around 55-60 CE). He wrote Acts about thirty years later (80 to 90 CE). To repeat: Acts was written after thirty more years of pastoral work by the Paul Movement had transpired. Thus, when Luke-Acts was written the second generation of Paul’s followers were growing old, and needed to pass on the heritage to a coming generation. Luke-Acts and the letters to Timothy and Titus concluded the second stage of the long Paul Movement. Clearly Luke’s impressive work about the founding of Paul’s churches was intended, among other things, to reinforce the sense of identify and unity of those churches in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece. Acts does not show any trace of knowing the letters of Paul, so the Movement had yet to consolidate its heritage from the great Apostle to the nations. The collection and circulation of the whole letter corpus was probably the work of the third generation of the Paul Movement.
Besides the issue of Paul as writer, there is a curious issue about the city of Colossae and its church. In the case of Colossians, not only is “Paul” a literary stretch, the Colossians themselves, by the time this letter was written, may be fictional. Turkey (Asia Minor) has been subject to truly violent earthquakes through the millennia, and around the year 61 CE the whole Lycus valley, an extended area that prospered from several woolen industries, was devastated by a great earthquake. Colossae is not heard of again, outside our letter, for two hundred years. Her more prestigious neighbors, Laodicea and Hierapolis, however, were soon rebuilt after the earthquake and again had flourishing Christian assemblies in them – one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation (3:14-22) is addressed to Laodicea, ten miles down river from Colossae.
Most likely there had been a blossoming Colossian church before the earthquake, with Epaphras, already a disciple of Paul, as its first evangelist. Other people prominent in that church were the well-established householder Philemon, his former slave Onesimus (Colossians 4:9 and the letter to Philemon), and the rest of the church that met in Philemon’s house (Philemon 1-2).
We may understand that in later years Epaphras sought devotedly to carry on the tradition and practice of Paul in the Lycus valley. That means the letter addressed in name to the Colossians was really meant for the churches in Laodicea (who are instructed in 4:16 to read it) and Hierapolis. The emerging challenges to Pauline faith, discussed in the rest of this letter, concerned all the churches of the Lycus valley, and it is all of them who are addressed in this letter to the once-and-future Colossians.