The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Return,
James Tissot, c. 1882, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes
(About this Image)
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him,
and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Timothy 1:12–17
September 11, 2022
For the next month we will be reading the 1st and 2nd letters to Timothy. Together with the Letter to Titus, they form what have been called for several centuries the “Pastoral Epistles.” Scholars disagree if they were written by St. Paul, but all acknowledge that the format is different from the undisputed Pauline letters. They were addressed to individual disciples of Paul instructing them how to be a Pastor. They have more recently been called the “mentoring letters” and as we begin the synodal process again we should take them very much to heart. (Paul wrote the letter to the individual Philemon, but as we saw last week this was a very exceptional case and does not diminish the uniqueness of the mentoring letters.)
The Acts of the Apostles tell us that Paul met Timothy while on mission:
Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra,
where there was a disciple named Timothy,
the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer;
but his father was a Greek.
He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium.
Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him;
and he took him and had him circumcised
because of the Jews who were in those places,
for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
At the time of the letter, Timothy is Paul’s delegate in Ephesus. As we saw when reviewing the “Letter to the Ephesians”, Ephesus was an important city financially, culturally, and religiously. Paul was attracted to cosmopolitan locations because the people were open to the message of the Gospel. They were, however, open to every other message as well. He learned early that the major danger was not from other distinctive religions and philosophies as separate entities: the mystery religions, Stoicism and indeed Judaism; but rather from the attempt to blend Christianity with these other ways. Thus, his first instruction to Timothy is:
I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus
so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine,
and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies
that promote speculations rather than the divine training
that is known by faith.
(1 Ti 1:3–4)
Paul, and for the sake of convenience we will call the author Paul, has chosen his words carefully. The false teachers whom he is instructing Timothy to refute taught from a Jewish perspective. They
would have known the Greek myths, much like I have some idea about the various comic book universes. They would not make Jesus Zeus or Apollo, but would want the gospel stories to function as myths. That is to have them reflect a truth but to also point to a higher truth. Endless
genealogies are a particular version of this. These genealogies are not a record of births as in Matthew and Luke. They are biographies usually allegorical about the great Jewish leaders such as Abraham and Moses. They are truly endless. I tried to read one and failed. They were popular at the time and as Paul notes produced idle speculation not the work of formation in the truth of the gospels.
Paul tells Timothy that the aim of his instruction must be “love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.” (1 Ti 1:5)
Paul saw then and it is obvious now, adulterating the good news makes it seem trivial: “Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk.” (1 Ti 1:6) He understands that, although the people who teach such things may not be evil, their “wisdom” is not strong enough to transform anyone.
Paul however has been changed by
the glorious gospel of the blessed God,
with which I have been entrusted.
(1 Ti 1:11)
Our passage begins here.
Paul contests with the false teachers not by proclaiming his virtues but reminding everyone of his sinful history. “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man.” (1 Ti 1:13a)
He was not changed by reading myths or genealogies—today, we might say self-help books—but by the power of God:
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost.
(1 Ti 1:15)
He is foremost because he is the most obvious. He persecuted the church and trusted in his own righteousness. None of the false teachers had fallen so far. Yet Paul will quickly add that none had been raised so high:
But for that reason I was mercifully treated,
so that in me, as the foremost,
Christ Jesus might display all his patience
as an example for those who would come
to believe in him for everlasting life.
(1 Ti 1:16)
Paul has not dabbled in myths or genealogies. His change is exclusively by the mercy and power of Jesus. Thus, he is in himself what Timothy must preach. God alone transforms.
The ideas and practices of the false teachers may not deny Jesus in words but do so in deeds. They separate the disciple from the cross and make him dull. Paul can only respond with a song:
To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible,
the only God,
honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
(1 Ti 1:17)
Our passage for today ends here but the chapter does not. Timothy is reminded that, as we saw in the Acts of the Apostles, he was singled out and given a mission: “in accordance with the prophetic words once spoken about you (1 Ti 1:18).” His task will not be easy but “through them may
you fight a good fight by having faith and a good conscience (Ti 1:18–19).
He connects this with Hymenaeus and Alexander who are mentioned here (1 Tim 1:20) but directly addressed in 2 Timothy. Hymenaeus said that the resurrection has already taken place (in baptism). Alexander is probably the Alexander mentioned in 2 Tim 4:14 as the coppersmith who “did me a great deal of harm.” One erred in teaching the other in action but neither had the faith and good conscience with Timothy must show.
A follower of Paul, before all else, must know that everything begins and ends with knowing Jesus. As we continue along the synodal path, let us ask Jesus to show us what knowing means for why and how we live.