Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16 are individually so very preachable, and surprisingly of one mind thematically – as I outlined in my blog on these from our last time around. I’ll refer you there, and I would add that my thinking there, derived from Amy-Jill Levine’s provocative thought, that Jesus actually meant every worker should be paid the same, feels more confirmed the more I ponder it. And Flannery O’Connor’s musing (also in that blog) about what is sufficient: this theme is even more important to me these days. Our church’s theme last Fall was “Enough,” asking How much is enough? When do we say Enough! (as in this is not of God and we won’t have it!)? and Am I enough? All are interrelated, of course.
Philippians 1:21-30 is a text I don’t recall preaching on – but here’s a promising angle. Paul’s “dying is gain” I can parse. My mother was so miserable leading up to her death she longed to be liberated from her body. And I think of Thérèse of Lisieux’s longing to die to be totally intimate with Jesus. “Living is Christ” is tougher to parse. It’s not live for Christ, or leaning sometimes on Christ. Living is Christ. How to get beyond the trite here?
George Hunsinger, in his new Brazos commentary, calls this “one of the greatest declarations in all of Pauline literature, indeed in all of Holy Scripture,” suggesting Paul has found “the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field.” Picking up on Gordon Fee’s suggestion that this is a “reflective soliloquy” from Paul, Hunsinger lays Paul’s words side by side with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be.” Google it or look it up: Act 3, Scene 1.
Fascinating. Both Paul and Hamlet are weighing whether to die or live, Hamlet wanting to execute justice on the man who killed his father, Paul for speaking out boldly against Rome for Christ. The contrasts are telling: Hamlet is lonely, isolated, while Paul, even in jail, enjoys a network of close relationships. Paul had been a violent man, when he was hounding Christians; Hunsinger says “Paul then was not unlike Hamlet now.” Paul’s hunger for violence has been “aborted by a power not his own.” God intervened, and showed this one mercy. So Hamlet is an outraged victim; Paul is a forgiven sinner. Hamlet agonizes over what happens if he dies (“the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns”); Paul is utterly at peace, knowing the Traveler who has returned! In short, while Hamlet is “self-absorbed,” Paul’s soul is Christocentric. We tend toward Hamlet, don't we?
It is this Paul who urges all of us to lead a life “worthy of the gospel.” Not being nice, or using God to help us. Certainly not smug judgmentalism. It is a radical life of service the world will not recognize, or will fear as too out of the box. Hunsinger again: Christians who cannot confess that Caesar is Lord “are viewed with suspicion – not just in high places but also in the highways and byways of local neighborhoods. They are regarded as a potential danger to social stability and political cohesion.” Without dinging people too hard, I think Stephen Fowl’s wry observation is on target: “I suspect that… the common life of most churches is so inadequate to the gospel and our disunity so debilitating that the state has nothing to fear from us.” What might the Christian do, what might a church be about, that would raise suspicion in a local neighborhood?
Verse 28 might be a word to us clergy: “Don’t be intimidated by your opponents.” Would that they were out in the world, but they often are in the church. It’s so easy to get intimidated, and to feel vengeful or flat out lonely – like Hamlet himself.
If you're looking for a book to prod your thoughts for Advent, or for a study for your church people, take a look at my Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections on the Songs of the Season. I put my best homiletical thoughts on Advent and Christmas in there!