09/7/17 10:47 pm
*This title is inspired by a popular Winnipeg ’70s call-in radio show called “Beefs and Bouquets.” For 30 seconds, callers could air a praise or complaint about someone or something in the community.
Dear Apostle Paul,
Greetings from the 21st century! Bet you didn’t expect to hear from someone so distant in time or geography. I’d love to catch you up on all that has happened since you wrote to the Philippians, but as one of your New Testament co-writers once said, “The world could not contain the books!” (John 21:25)
Instead, I will share my impressions of your relationship to that small group of believers in Philippi. I have read everything that our generation has managed to preserve of your writings, and realize that each letter has a whole backstory. Some read like horror, others full of wise advice, but Philippians has to be the friendliest and most affirming of all. I could palpably sense the deep affection you have developed between yourself and your friends at Philippi. The mutual prayers, the gift giving, the self-extension on both sides is a genuine testimony to the heartbeat of your letter, Christ crucified and resurrected.
Little did you know that thousands of trained individuals have poured over the four chapter letter (oh yeah, we carve your letters into chapters for convenience) which you wrote to your brothers and sisters. We have made all kinds of speculations about what you were trying to communicate. Don’t forget, Paul, we only hear one side of your conversation. We are only guessing about what is going on from the other side. What is not speculation, and is virtually unanimous in our modern opinion, is that you are a gifted communicator, even a trained rhetorician.
However, sometimes your rhetoric leaves us dumbfounded because our values and assumptions and especially the way we interact socially are so different from your culture. We have two sticking points that have rattled our interpretation and, for some, even their opinion of you.
First, your colorful vocabulary concerning people you are in conflict with, and who are vying for the allegiance of the community in chapter 3:1-7 [full text below]. You call them dogs, evildoers, and mutilators and you warn the community not to follow their example. In our 21st century world, use of these labels suggests a rude person, intolerant and unwilling to listen to his opponent. This will likely go over your head, but if we heard someone using such language now, we might associate it with a Donald Trump rally or a hate speech. Some of us think you were directing the canine imagery to Jewish people in particular. The word we have coined for it is anti-Semitism.
Along the same line, our next beef concerns how you compare yourself to these other people. Boasting, unless you are an overly self-confident ‘winner’ in our culture, is not a virtue. You apparently find it convincing in your letter to outdo your opponents in the very character traits they cherish: heredity, zeal and achievement. We call that “blowing your own horn.” From our point of view, not only do you name-call, but you brag about your ethnic origins (even the particular faithful Benjamin tribe that you belong to), you are proud of your meticulous ritual circumcision, your language dialect, and you seem to bolster your argument by deeming yourself a Pharisee ’blameless’ before the law. To top it all off, you appeal to your persecution of those you deem less pure than yourself as a sign of zeal, like the righteous Phineas who persecuted less than orthodox Jews.
Just gotta say, Paul, these are not things that warm the cockles of our hearts! I have to ask what you are getting up to here. However, I want you to know that, as opposed as I feel to the way I hear your letter, I am more than open, in fact, hoping that there is another way of overhearing your letter.
Trying to grasp what you were saying, I performed an experiment. Noticing that from verse 7 onward, there is a massive change of tone, I tried to replicate your argument, from my experience, and follow you into the new perspective that emerges.
You seemed to have gone from bragging about these religious and cultural values, to relativizing them against something that overshadows them completely. If I might say so, this reestablishes your ‘ethos’ as a speaker.
21st Century Gains and Losses
While pondering the kinds of things that I once counted as gains (or assets), I remembered an experience from as far back as 1980. I was an applicant for a leadership position with Youth For Christ, heading up the education of staff for Canada. YFC decided to test my proficiencies and see if they fit the job description. At great expense to them, they sent me by plane to Toronto to meet with an employment consultant, Richard Hagstrom from Maryland.
Strictly from the point of view of job readiness, I was at least as qualified as the next person. More than most by some standards, since I did snag the job. I received a brief summary of what they considered my qualifications, and they reminded me of your list of religious credentials in Philippians 3:5-6.
The first category of evaluation discussed what I was good at and liked to do. I still enjoy and do well at these tasks: study, research, extracting, mastering, examining, imagining, fantasizing, contemplating, creating, conceiving, synthesizing, writing, empathizing, advising, teaching and influencing. Each of these qualities threw light on my life achievements from early childhood till my late 20’s.
Richard recorded that I read at a grade 8 level while in grade 4; won the catechism award at a Catholic school; co-ordinated a fundraising drive for challenged adults while a Baptist teen; received school awards in history and social studies; won the Western Canadian shot-put championship; wrote poetry; received undergraduate scholarships for history and ministry; and founded a counseling centre for mentally disturbed adults and street people.
It feels embarrassing and self-referential to put these competencies together without balancing them with my flaws. You didn’t seem embarrassed, so I will just leave them here and try not to soak in them. That is the point — in your letter to the Philippians you didn’t soak in your capabilities. Instead, you flushed them out of your system by disregarding them in the light of a superlative value, that of participating in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Or to use your own words, “The things that I used to consider to be assets, I now, because of Christ, consider to be losses” (3:7).
The scholars in our era say that you transvalued (or re-evaluated) your capabilities in the light of Christ. As you say, you ‘considered' these things as rubbish, rotten garbage and excrement in comparison to your knowledge and participation in Christ.
I had to read your letter over several times before I realized you didn’t say they are garbage but that you ‘considered’ them such, in light of the treasure you discovered in your new life. You were not dissing your Jewish people, or your early conception of the covenant; you were declaring it irrelevant in comparison to your new life.
I suppose that you are suggesting that the people of your day and those of us Jesus followers today do the same. To acknowledge that at one time the qualities in my skills profile mattered deeply to me, and then to realize instead that knowing Christ makes these abilities utterly irrelevant would be quite a moral and spiritual task.
I know from reading your letters that your life was cross-shaped or cruciform. Later, you say that you boast not in your strengths but weaknesses, because these display the power of Christ’s resurrection in you. After performing my experiment, I want to join you and re-evaluate my capabilities in a different way, transvaluing them by the powerful work that Christ has done. I can stand in the shade of that love without the self-congratulation or arrogance toward which my talents tempt me. I can point to the way Christ has worked through my weaknesses, and without shame, suggest that others follow this way because God alone sets us on this path.
I want to end with a word of gratitude. I am thankful that you wrote Philippians in the style you did, because it drove me to dig deeper into my life to see what I truly value, “Knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and participation in his suffering.” Your testimony is parallel to that of the other exemplars in your letter — Timothy, Epaphroditus and more importantly Jesus the Christ.
Oh, one last word about those dogs. It is not so much that they are unworthy or that their capabilities are less than yours, but they have skewed values. They are barking up the wrong tree, asking us to value outward signs rather than inward graces. You were right, we ought not to follow their example.
Under the Mercy,
Paul of the 21st century
Avoid "the dogs," evil workers, and "mutilators," for we are the circumcision, who serve by the Spirit of God, who boast in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh. If there are some who think they have reasons to have confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel and of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. With respect to the Law, I was a Pharisee; with respect to my zeal, I was a persecutor of the church; with respect to the righteousness found in the Law, I was blameless. But these things that I used to consider to be assets, I now, because of Christ, consider to be losses. (Philippians 3:2-7)
Paul: In Fresh Perspective by NT Wright — If you’re looking for a good overview to understand Paul the Apostle, NT Wright is always reliable. Each page is filled with nuggets of information. The book is rich without being overwhelming.
Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography by Bruce Chilton — A compelling, highly readable biography on the Apostle Paul.
Listen to Michael J. Gorman speak about his book Reading Paul in this short video introduction
Question of the Week
How have you come to re-evaluate the assets and losses of your life because of your relationship with Christ?