“Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich,
one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Colossians 3:1–5, 9–11
July 31, 2022
Today, we complete our examination of the “Letter to the Colossians.” It is not the end of the letter, but it is convenient for us because it gives pointed teaching on three areas of contemporary concern. He does this in a typically Pauline manner, first outlying a doctrine and then showing the practical consequences of accepting it.
The doctrine is that we have joined Jesus in his resurrection, this must change our lives and we must change our world.
If then you were raised with Christ,
seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth
“If” here is better translated as: ‘since.’ Because of this we share God’s life, and our actions must show this. The things which are above as a scripture scholar has perceptively stated reflect “orientation not location.” We are to act with the virtues that we have found in Jesus. It is not that we can be spiritual beings if we mean bodiless by this. We live in the world of matter, which as it is created by God is good, but we cannot be swallowed up by and in it. As Paul said in Romans:
For those who live according to the flesh
set their minds on the things of the flesh,
but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds
on the things of the Spirit
As we have seen before it is Jesus, seen as sitting at the Father’s right hand—thus his equal, therefore no other power can help us in this life.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe,
why do you live as if you still belonged to the world
This is a lifelong process. As we see throughout the New Testament, Christ’s kingdom is already here but not yet completed. Paul continues:
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ your life appears,
then you too will appear with him in glory
As throughout the letter to the Colossians, Paul reminds us of the importance of baptism. The letter was written to confront false teachers who perhaps saw “water baptism” as only a first step into full initiation. Other ceremonies and rituals might be rewritten to be a full Christian. Paul takes great pains as we have seen to show that one is a full and complete Christian through baptism; one has truly died and rose and there is nothing greater or better is possible.
Christians have the divine glory but, to be a bit crude, we do not glow in the dark. Paul is speaking of the consequences of the resurrection. Resurrection means that we are not immortal, we do not naturally continue in being. The afterlife that we receive is a gift from God and is bodily. When the Lord returns, we will be with him and all will see the faithful in glory, the good and the bad separated from one another.
Paul will now show us some of the consequences of this:
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly:
immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and the greed that is idolatry.
Paul is not speaking here of self-mutilation, either physical or spiritual. He is reminding his mostly Gentile converts that they must leave sexual promiscuity behind. He provides such lists in several other letters including the oldest letter we have from him, 1 Thess (4:3–8).
He shares a Jewish insight that disordered sexuality is based on greed. A belief that another person, usually a woman or child, is a commodity which can be used as careless as any other is shockingly common. The Jews saw this perceptively as a form of idolatry. Our own desires become our God.
The British wit and Catholic convert Malcolm Muggeridge said that “Sex is the mysticism of materialism and the only possible religion in a materialistic society.” If the resurrection, the world above, does not motivate us then we will be slaves to our own passions.
The sex abuse scandals in our own church and the revelations of the Me Too movement have shown the power imbalances this reveals and their awful consequences.
But now you must put them all away:
anger, fury, malice, slander, and
obscene language out of your mouths.
These are the sins of the tongue. We must always remember this letter was written to a divided community. People are angry with each other and express themselves intemperately. The sins of the tongue are particularly deadly. They can take away a person’s good name and reputation which can never be repaired or replaced.
With social media, this has become even more pressing. We have means of character assassination unimagined by previous generations and we should pay even greater attention to Paul’s admonition:
Stop lying to one another,
since you have taken off the old self with its practices
and have put on the new self, which is being renewed,
for knowledge, in the image of its creator
Paul is aware that people have intentionally made false statements about others. Truth is to be found in the new life that one accepted at baptism. He uses explicitly baptismal language here. “Taken off” and “put on” reflect that people were usually baptized as adults and had to be undressed—their clothes taken off—before being dunked in the water and then redressed, usually by “putting on” a white garment. This was a sign that the newly baptized accepted a new life.
Our aim is to return to what our creator desired and be in his image.
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them
This is a lifelong process, although we are joined to Christ once and for all at our Baptisms, we are still “being renewed” with and by Christ who as we have seen is “in the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15–16).
The sins of the tongue are always tempting but never more dangerous than now. We, particularly now, will know if we have accepted the consequences of baptism is if we stop lying and speak the truth.
The final area for us to show our connection with Jesus is how our church reflects his Body:
Here there is not Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all
Paul wants to show in as clear a way as possible that Christ died for all, and we must accept all. He first speaks to the Jews. They would see the world in terms of Jew and non-Jew, thus he tells them that there are no real differences between Jew or Greek. The Greek-born members of the Colossian community would have seen the world in social and political terms: barbarians were any non-Greeks and thus considered not fully civilized, Scythians were a tribe that was considered particularly savage, slaves were not even reckoned persons. Yet because of Jesus all are loved by God and equal in his sight.
This is particularly important for us. With the growth of identity politics, we can find our natural connection to affinity groups hardening into political and social tribes. Paul is saying that we must leave this at the church door. We are one in Christ. But he realized that these interests must often be picked up again when we leave the church and re-enter the world. Some people are not functionally free. How free is the person who has lost his or her home and is forced to live on the streets? An effect of the new life of the resurrection in baptism is that we see more in everyone because we find Christ in them and must treat them as we would treat him.
Paul says “here” there is no winners or losers; are we in St. Charles here with Paul and Jesus?