17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Christ’s Call for Our Entire Being

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread, Rudolf Eickemeyer,
c. 1906, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

“Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test.”
(Luke 11:1–4)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Colossians 2:12–14
July 24, 2022

Despite the fall in regular participation in Sunday services, most Americans still want Jesus to be a part of our lives. Jesus, however, wants to be the totality of our lives. This is a problem and, as we will see in today’s reading from the “Letter to the Colossians,” an ancient one.

Epaphras, a leader in the church of Colossae and its surrounding towns, has come to Paul or his successor to help him combat the corrupting influence of false teachings. He refers to these as “philosophy.” By philosophy he did not mean an academic subject but a way of life. It is hard to discover what the actual beliefs and practices are from the letter. Paul does not seek to be mysterious and his readers no doubt knew exactly what he meant, but there is much assumed and shared knowledge. This is not surprising. Two thousand years from now an article about a burning issue of our day, no matter how clearly written and well translated, will lose the subtleties of the discussion. We will find with this passage from Colossians however that, although we might not be able to define who the false teachers were or the details of their teaching, we can see why Paul and Epaphras were concerned. There are disturbing parallels with today.

Paul begins this section with a clear warning:

See to it that no one captivate you
with an empty, seductive philosophy
according to human tradition,
according to the elemental powers of the world
and not according to Christ.

(Col 2:8)

Captivate is an interesting choice. It means to carry off as booty. This way of life will pull someone away from Christ. It not only that they will believe untrue things, but they will live a life that will separate them from Jesus.

Empty, seductive philosophy most likely means that these beliefs sounded Christian but seemed to offer more than what Paul preached for less stress. Christianity light: all the pomp and none of the circumstances. Last week, Paul spoke of the sufferings he had to endure for the gospel and contrasts this with the lack of sufferings of the false teachers. This is a litmus test: which do we see as more authentic for a disciple, prosperity or suffering? Paul realizes that prosperity is more immediately attractive but as Jesus was a sign that would be contradicted (Luke 2:34, Acts 28:22) we can expect hostility as well.

Human tradition: Their beliefs were not rooted in revelation. Scripture can never be an ornamental but must be the source and structure of all we believe. New ideas and concepts can help to illuminate and make scripture more understandable for a new time and place but must never be the primary source of knowledge. Paul is accusing the false teachers of putting something before the word of God.

Elemental powers of the world (Stoicheia) are open to numerous interpretations. They are most likely the “thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” mentioned in 1:16. We saw then that the ancient Jews believed in spiritual beings who were not gods and perhaps not demons but were not to be worshiped. The LORD himself may have given them their roles:

When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods

(Dt 32:8)

These were at best the ruling spirits of nations and peoples. The false teachers most likely gave them a greater prominence than they deserved perhaps as mediators between God and humanity. Paul’s answer is quick and unambiguous:

For in him dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily,
and you share in this fullness in him,
who is the head of every principality and power.

(Col 2:9–10)

As the church will come to proclaim in more technical terms later, Jesus Christ is completely divine and completely human –the fullness of God is in his body. He is not only superior to every principality and power, but they are subject to him. We share in this fullness and power and are not to be enthralled by them.

This is where we begin today’s reading.

You were buried with him in baptism,
in which you were also raised with him
through faith in the power of God,
who raised him from the dead.

(Col 2:12)

Paul speaks of baptism as once and final. We have seen in last week’s commentary that there were mystery religions which had many steps and grades of belonging. The false teachers may have used the language of Baptism but meant something different. Through baptism, the LORD raised us from the dead with Jesus. There were no intermediaries—principalities, powers or the like—nor was there any greater mystery to experience.

Among the effects of this baptism is that we are freed from sin. People were usually baptized as adults and had accumulated sins.

And even when you were dead
in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
he brought you to life along with him,
having forgiven us all our transgressions;

(Col 2:13)

These were mostly Gentiles—the uncircumcised—whose sins were forgiven through baptism, but Paul continues with “having forgiven us all our transgressions.” Both Jew and Gentile needed forgiveness and received it through Jesus’ death and resurrection in which we participate at baptism. Baptism is non-negotiable for everyone.

Obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims,
which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst,
nailing it to the cross

(Col 2:14)

The Jewish people considered themselves indebted to the LORD for restoring them as a people after the exile in Babylon in 538 BC. This was the bond. The intimacy that we receive though Jesus’ death and resurrection voids this bond. We owe Jesus everything but in love. Tellingly this bond is removed though the cross of Jesus.

The belief that spirits influence our behavior is no longer popular. This is unfortunate, Satan is real, and he wants us. We may accept that there are instances of demonic possession of individuals but the ancient insight that Satan can become involved in wars and other socially destabilizing acts has been virtually abandoned. We see demonic possession in movies but demonic principalities and powers on the nightly news. This requires a more nuanced examination for another time.

For now, let us look at principalities and powers sociologically as the preexisting conditions that influence our behaviors. The culture wars have brought this to life. It is painfully apparent that in America our political beliefs are more predictive of our behavior than our religious ones and that the latter will be made to conform to the former. Recent surveys have shown that parents are less likely to object to a child marrying a person of another religion than another political party. This is true of the right and the left and perhaps one reason why Christianity is receding as a factor in our nation is that as it becomes an ornament to politics it will eventually be seen as unnecessary.

Paul saw this 2,000 years ago. Jesus’ demand for our entire being is scary. Placing a principally or power, whether a spirit or a political or social theory, between ourselves and Jesus can be comforting but damming. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that no matter what we ask for he will give us what we really need. But we must ask him, not the principalities and powers of our day.