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7th Sunday after Trinity

22 July 2022

31 July, Proper 13: Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14; 2.18-23; Psalm 49.1-12; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21

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THE lections for this Sunday evoke Robert Frost’s vision of the road “less traveled by” (in “The Road Not Taken”, 1916). First, we have the better-worn path: a theological problem arises in one reading (usually from the Old Testament) and is “solved” in another (usually the Gospel).

In this instance, we have the Preacher (or Teacher) in Ecclesiastes, in the person of King Solomon, lamenting the pointlessness of human striving for excellence, success, or wealth, when mortals are doomed to go “the way of all flesh” (1 Kings 2.2 in the Douai-Reims Bible version). Then comes Paul, encouraging his readers to forget earthly things and set their hearts on things that are above. Last, when we hear the readings in liturgical order, the Gospel upholds Solomon’s view that self-enrichment is vanity, but, drawing on that, gives a different vision of God’s priorities.

If this is the well-worn path, it is so for a good reason. In worship, a preacher often has to explain that what the congregation are likely to take as evidence of divine approval may be nothing more than human vanity. A significant proportion of the Christian message runs counter to what most people think of as “good”. The gospel imperative outweighs family obligations, and sometimes seems downright unreasonable in the demands that it makes. Turn the other cheek! Go the extra mile! Pray for persecutors! Leave the dead unburied!

What about the “less-travelled” approach? It, too, has valuable insight to offer, although that insight may come somewhat treacled with long words and sticky theology. When we choose the grassier path, our take on the Colossians passage will have implications also for how the other two lections are read. I am thinking of the question that it raises of realised versus future eschatology.

Colossians has already revealed itself as a challenging letter to understand theologically, although rich in spiritual material. But, at some point, readers must make up their minds whether they wish to include it among letters such as Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians, which are indisputably written by Paul himself, or to consign it to a category of “deutero-Pauline” writings (with Ephesians, in particular).

One of the things that drives this division of material is a perception that a key characteristic of the undisputed letters is what is known as “future eschatology”. This portrays the fulfilment of God’s purposes as belonging in future time. We might think that future eschatology is a virtual tautology; for, if eschatology means things to do with the end time, that must by definition be in the future.

But no. There is an alternative vision, in which the fulfilment expected in the end time is perceived as having taken place, and as already being lived by the Christians to whom Paul (or A. N. Other) is writing. The label for this is “realised eschatology”. Opinion ebbs and flows between extremes of radicalism and conservatism, but many readers would agree that Colossians speaks of the end time (eschaton) as having happened. As often, proof comes in the form of the verb: “you have died”.

The question that demands an answer, then, is this: if the “end” has already happened, and if we are living the resurrection life in Christ right now, why does that resurrection life look so much like the life before Christian truth dawned on us — as we go on failing to live up to gospel ideals?

I do not find it difficult to accept that Paul wrote Colossians (or Ephesians, for that matter). Like the preacher and orator that he was, he tailored his message to the needs of the recipients. And it would be very surprising, given the depth of his wisdom and reflection in and on Christ, if his understanding had not developed and matured in the years between his conversion and his martyrdom. But fitting the two visions together is problematic.

When we turn to the Gospel, help comes in an unexpected form: we do not need to tease it out of the text; for God speaks directly, showing the rich man the error of his ways, and corroborating Solomon’s sense of irony about working for wealth that others will enjoy. The Gospel has a different take on that irony, though: the rich man was a fool because he planned to be happy tomorrow. Better to leave the future to take care of itself, and choose the road less travelled by investing our valuables with God, and being happy today.

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