The Good Shepherd, c. 300–350, at the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome (Wikipedia)
Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:20B–25
May 3, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the entire world to a standstill. This has caused considerable dislocation in every area of every society and has provided an opportunity to re-evaluate attitudes and world views. With the Internet, spokespeople for every philosophy and religion, new and old, have emerged to take advantage of this situation. Many of these are charlatans and huskers, but some intelligent and reasonable views have been raised. One of these is about the oldest: Stoicism.
We looked at the Stoics by comparing their view of fate with that of the great Jewish sage Ben Sirach. Fate was irresistible and unchangeable and the question for the Stoic is how to approach the inevitable. A Stoics facing the pandemic first ask, “Is what is happening to me under my control?” The Stoic answer is that the existence or non-existence of the disease, who will or will not contract it, and who will or will not die is simply not under our control. In the words of the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “I should be indifferent to things beyond my control. They are nothing to me. —Discourses 1.29.24.”
This does not mean however that the Stoic will be completely passive. She will do what is necessary to ensure safety: washing hands, wearing a mask, etc. She would urge us to do what is in our control but not to worry about what is not. What the president does or does not do is beyond our control. The great insight of the Stoics is in handling fear and panic. It is the fear of contracting the virus that will cause the most panic. It is our attitude which matters even in the worst case. To again quote Epictetus: “Remind yourself what is in your power and what is not. I should die; should I die groaning too? … what keeps me from going with a smile on my face? —Discourses 1.1.22.”
There is more to this of course and an interesting article may be found here.
There is much in Stoicism that is worthy and true. It seeks to give guidance for every life at every time. Interestingly, the two great Stoic philosophers were Epictetus, who was born a slave, and Marcus Aurelius, who became emperor. Both saw the world as ruled by fate and ultimately one’s position and title were literally incidental. Both would tell us that not only position, but circumstances are matters of chance. (We are seeing questions of race and class emerging with COVID-19, which raises some questions about this, and Peter will address in a future passage) Stoics offer a strategy to develop detachment and conquer fear. This is a profound insight, but it is not a Christian one. It is without hope. Hope as we saw the first time we examined 1 Peter is not optimism.
It is in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1817)
In today’s reading Peter applies the Christian view of new life to its most difficult situation: slavery. Christians hold that we have new life through Jesus’ resurrection; the world literally changed. Yet the structures of the world did not. The most demeaning of them was slavery. This was Peter’s COVID-19, the opportunity to limit, much less end, slavery was centuries away. But he did not romanticize the institution or minimize its evil. He assumed that the slave would be mistreated:
Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence,
not only to those who are good and equitable
but also to those who are perverse.
(1 Pt. 2:18)
The first key issue is “with all reverence:”
Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake,
whether it be to the king as supreme
or to governors as sent by him for the punishment
of evildoers and the approval of those who do good.
(1 Pt 2:13–14)
“Be subject to” means participate in. There are Christian thinkers then as now who believe that Christians must separate themselves from the world. The book of Revelation is the clearest example, but Peter and Paul are not among them. They hold that, as we saw last week, we must get our hands dirty with charity and that the civil authorities can provide much that is good.
His basic rule however is to:
Give honor to all
love the community
honor the king
(1 Pt. 2:17)
The king must be honored but only God is to be feared, which could be translated better as “worshipped.” This must be upmost in the Christian’s mind. He can thus say to the slave:
For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering
because of consciousness of God, that is a grace.
(1 Pt. 2:19)
Consciousness of God means the awareness that God is present in the situation. Sufferings are born not merely because we can’t do anything to stop them, but for the positive purpose of connecting us to God. Today’s passage explains why this is so and what can be done with it.
It is through Jesus and Jesus as the suffering servant. The suffering servant appears in several passages in the book of Isaiah. The most famous, pertinent, and mysterious is Isaiah 53:1–12. It is a peculiarity of Biblical interpretation that we have a far better understanding of how Jesus and the early disciples understood this passage than what Isaiah originally meant. (The entire passage may be found here.)
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.
(1 Pt. 2:21)
As Jesus is the God who created the world as well as redeemed it and is all powerful, his sufferings were by choice and with a purpose “for us.” They lead to new life, a stronger relationship to him, and to the Father.
He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth
(1 Pt. 2:22)
This is a direct quote from Isaiah 53:9B. The section that follows is paraphrase of other lines from Isaiah 53. It reflects Jesus’ attitude but reveals more than merely how he accepted his treatment.
Jesus’ exemplary life and example are inspiring but do not bind us to him.
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,
so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.
(1 Pt. 2:24)
Compare Isaiah 53:5:
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins,
Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed,
For both Isaiah and for Peter, this meant that because of the relationship with God, the shepherd, those healed by the suffering servant’s wounds would act better, more Christ like, here and now:
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way
For you had gone astray like sheep,
but you have now returned to the shepherd
and guardian of your souls.
(1 Pt. 2:25)
It is unlikely that the people who received Peter’s letter were Stoics but the ideas were in the air. They would have known that, although in some ways so similar, Christianity and Stoicism have different ends. The Stoic wishes to master his emotions— in more modern terms—determine how to process reality; the Christian wishes to have a deeper relationship with Jesus.
The Stoic seeks to attain tranquility from the perils that are without; the Christian seeks to realize the hope that is within.