Written by Pastor Ed.
I Peter 2:11 – 3:9
What a strange passage to read on Mothers’ Day in 2014! It’s one of those unusual things that happens sometimes when you are following the lectionary of prescribed readings for the day, and suddenly there seems to be a strange incongruence between the passage and the day. Sometimes it’s a marvelous circumstance, and sometimes it feels awkward, as does today. And yet, this is a part of the letter of I Peter, so what shall we do with it?
Well, one solution is to say, as some do, that the instructions to wives to accept the authority of their husbands should be taken literally, and practiced. These verses were used in the church I grew up in to forbid women from wearing jewelry, since it says women were not supposed to adorn themselves with gold or fine clothes. So when my mother got a wedding ring, long after her wedding, she got a visit from the preacher telling her she couldn’t wear it if she wanted to be admitted to communion.
The problem with that approach is that it tends to be selective, and so ignores the verses just before those dealing with wives that talk about slaves needing to accept the authority of their masters. I don’t think there are many people now days who would condone slavery, which this passage seems to do. You can’t just pick and choose what parts of a passage you want to follow, and what parts you can ignore.
Another approach is to simply ignore passages such as this and say they are from a different time and place and have nothing to say to us today. It is true that they are from a different time and place, and that’s important, but again picking and choosing what is relevant and what isn’t takes us down a rather arbitrary road. If you recall the “paths and ditches” document we looked at a year or so ago, you will recall that’s not a good bible study method.
So how do we approach texts such as this today, in 21st century Canada, when life is so much different than it was in 1st century Asia Minor, what is now Turkey? Well, the first thing we need to do is understand a bit about life for the Christians in that setting.
We have noticed previously that the recipients of the letter are referred to as “exiles” and that there was some kind of persecution happening. As one commentator noted,
The recipients of 1 Peter lived a thousand miles east of Rome, in what is now north-central Turkey. Like the author, they had “broken with the social fabric of their community” (OSB).Three times Peter refers to the believers as “strangers and aliens” to Rome’s paganism. They belonged to their own peculiar “people and nation” (1:9). They didn’t conform to the social conventions of the day. Their social marginalization, observes the author, earned them abuse, scorn, slander, and malicious gossip from pagan critics. Even “the name” Christian was offensive to their detractors (4:14, 16).
While at first the Christians in society went largely unnoticed, over time they began to be seen as a threat. Some of the writings against the Christians consider them fanatics and even defiant. One writer, Tacitus, who died in 117, called Christians “haters of mankind.” They didn’t attend the pagan feasts and didn’t participate in civic activities, and for the most part also refused military service. And they met in secret gatherings that only Christians could attend, where they were accused of cannibalism, eating someone’s flesh and blood.
In short, they were at best viewed with suspicion by the society around them and at worst, declared traitors and worthy of punishment, even death. So how were they to live in such circumstances? They had been told by Paul and others that as Christians they had been set free from the rules and regulations of their past religions, whether Jewish or pagan. And they certainly had been encourage to live as followers of Jesus, which meant not engaging in many of the practices of the society around them.
Peter says, “Live as free people.” But he goes on, “do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (2:16-17) And then he addresses two specific instances that people were dealing with, slaves and masters, and wives and husbands. Now it is clear, if you read the text, that in both cases he is speaking to Christians who were dealing with non-believers. How should a slave who has become a Christian respond to a non-believing master who treats him badly? If as a Christian the slave is now free, what does that mean? Does it mean the slave no longer has to obey the master, which is sure to bring not only punishment for the slave, but also a bad name for Christians? How should a Christian wife respond to a non-Christian husband? If she is free from the social conventions of the day, should she now feel free to wear whatever she wants, put up her hair and live in defiance of her husband’s wishes?
And Peter’s answer is clearly, no. Acting in such a way will clearly add to the bad reputation of Christians, bringing even more scorn and persecution upon them. Again, as one commentator noted, “There was enough trouble in the world without looking for more. To make the best of a bad situation, sometimes compromise is necessary and wise.” Rather, Peter says, lead an exemplary life so that you can “silence the ignorance of the foolish.” (2:15) For Christians of that day, it could be a matter of survival!
Believing husbands were also to treat their wives with respect and consideration, not like the non-Christian husbands who saw their wives as little more than property. In everything, Christians were supposed to act as Jesus did. As he goes on to say in the verses just following those we read, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary repay with a blessing.” (3:9) Again and again, Peter refers back to the example of Jesus who suffered all kinds of ridicule and abuse without retaliation or fighting back.
The Christian, Peter argues, should be a model of doing good. They should lead an exemplary life so as to quiet their critics and show that they were not a threat to the society around them. Origen, an early church father who wrote in the early 200’s noted much the same thing when he answered those who said the Christians didn’t contribute to the nation because they refused to fight. He wrote:
And as we — by our prayers —
vanquish all the demons that stir up war,
and lead to the violation of oaths,
and disturb the peace,
we in this service
are much more helpful to the kings
than those who go into the field
to fight for them.
And we do take our part in public affairs,
when along with righteous prayers,
we practice self-denying disciplines and meditations,
which teach us to despise pleasures,
and not to be lead astray by them.
And none fight better for the king
[and his role of preserving justice]
than we do.
We do not indeed fight under him,
although he demands it;
but we fight on his behalf,
forming a special army of piety
by offering our prayers to God.
So how do we take what Pater says to those early Christians and apply it to today? We no longer live in a society where Christians are persecuted. Certainly slavery and wifely submission to husbands are not appropriate in our modern society, although Peter’s words to husbands can still apply.
But the principle that Peter outlines is as relevant today as it was in the 1st century. How do we respond in a world that is sometimes hostile to us and our beliefs? Perhaps we are not persecuted or ridiculed as openly as they were, and certainly don’t face death because of our beliefs, but if we follow the way of Jesus we may, indeed, find ourselves out of step with society around us.
Do we respond in kind if someone confronts us? It was interesting to read the comments about P.K. Suppan after racist slurs were directed at him following his performance against Boston. I don’t know what his faith is, but his not responding in kind certainly made as much print as did the initial slurs. Unfortunately, too often so called Christians act in ways that not only up the rhetoric and lead to more name-calling, but also put Christians in general in a bad light.
And, yes, sometimes we have to decide if some things are worth making a fuss over. When do we need to speak up, and when is it better to keep silent and not respond in kind? And even if we do respond, or if we do feel it is important to follow our principles rather than follow the crowd around us, how do we do that? Do we use the same tactics as everyone else? Or do we respond in a spirit of humility, returning good and blessing for evil?
I’m not advocating that we keep quiet about being Christian, or that sometimes standing up for what we believe, even if it is different than those around us isn’t called for at times. But I also think we need to be aware that how we act reflects, not just on us, but on the entire Christian community. I have heard people who say, I don’t want anything to do with Christians. I dealt with one once and it was not a good experience.
A number of weeks ago I followed a truck that had emblazoned on it, The Christian Contractor. Besides being a bit presumptuous, I also had to think about the responsibility that carried. Now I hope that contractor always acts in a truly Christian way, because if not, there will be more people who are turned away from Christianity because of him.
Our passage today begins with this admonition, “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they may malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.” (2:12) While it may apply to different circumstances for us, that’s as timely a word today as it was then. And if that means sometimes we have to suffer for Jesus’ sake, so be it, for our example is Jesus, who was obedient, even unto death.