Yes, it’s been a while since I wrote one of these Bible posts. No promises about how many weeks in a row I’ll write new ones, but one should start somewhere, no?
Whether one insists that 1 Timothy is “authentic Paul” or whether one denies the same vehemently, 1 Timothy 2 reads like a great Pauline paragraph: tying together the ministry of Christ, the life of the disciple, and the big cosmic picture together, it sets forth a way to imagine the world and the ways we live in the world that make no sense unless Christ is in fact Lord.
To pray for the powerful might seem just the sort of thing that “establishment” Christianity would call for, unless one remembers that in Paul’s lifetime and for a few generations after, the Church was at best a barely-tolerated marginal cult and at worst an actively persecuted faith. To ask such people to pray for those in high places is nothing less than to echo Jesus, who calls for disciples to pray for those to persecute, and to render such people categorically as “the powerful” also brings to mind Jacob/Israel’s prayers for Pharaoh at the end of Genesis, one of the paradigm moments when political and military power find themselves asking favors of the forgotten and soon-to-be-oppressed.
Those, like myself, who face the urge to imagine discipleship as agitation also have a bit to hear from 1 Timothy. We pray for rulers, according to Paul, for the sake of quiet and dignity. Once again, to imagine such prayers in the mouths of the persecuted is vital: this is not the entreaty of the exploiter to have the guilt of exploitation silenced, and it’s not the prayer asking that difficult and perhaps deadly moments of witness-bearing might pass away. It is, for those who are interested in such things, the same thing that Paul wants the women of Timothy’s gathering to seek later in this chapter. (In other words, it’s not a double standard for women and men, at least not in this passage.) So the life of quiet and dignity is itself a practice of imagining otherwise: when the forces that define one’s world would push the faithful either to surrender or to violence, the life of dignity insists that the persecutors strike the cheek that brings the attack into the light of public law, and the life of quiet insists that God’s ultimate fate does not rest with the strength of our weapons.
If the call to quiet and dignity offends the revolutionary, then the offense isn’t remotely over. Paul has the audacity to claim in the next verse (echoing the Sermon on the Mount, one would do well to note) that God’s desire is not only for the oppressed, not only for the Christian, not only for the “good people” of the world, but for everyone. To write about such a verse necessarily brings one into tense conversation with all sorts of faithful folks: to some, it’s offensive because a God who desires fellowship with oppressors does terrible things to teachings about God’s preferential option for the poor. For others, God’s indiscriminate desire means that the corrupt and the unjust are just as much objects of God’s gaze as the folks who try hardest to do what’s right. To others still it presents a philosophical problem in which a God who has the potential to do all things (think of the constituent parts of the adjective “omnipotent”) should desire one thing but end up with another, namely with souls who, in the end, do not become saved. Now certainly I’ve never shied away from conversations about divine justice, universalism, liberation theology, or any of those. But I have a hunch that Paul here has a simpler agenda, namely to echo the Sermon on the Mount (whichever oral version came to him, since he was dead before the composition of Matthew), in which Jesus says that the Father sends rain on the righteous and the wicked. Because Paul is a disciple of Jesus, he wants to maintain that scandalous yet central teaching of our Lord. That bears out, of course, in the death and resurrection, to which Paul turns next.
Paul always considers his own work as an extension of Jesus’s work, and in this passage the work of Jesus is that of ransom. In ancient warfare, to capture a high-ranking enemy was a stroke of luck: whereas a low-ranking prisoner of war had to be processed for the slave markets or executed, the high-ranking prisoner could be exchanged to the prisoner’s family for a ransom, usually a large sum of money. Paul knows that his readers know that practice, and so once again echoing Jesus (this time at the last supper), he reverses the order of things, not calling for a ransom to rescue the Messianic commander but making Messiah himself the ransom. Such a reversal would have been jarring; after all, to ransom just anybody, irrespective of social rank and family wealth, ignores the purpose of ransom in the first place. But in a gesture that brings the beginning of the passage back into view, Paul asserts the dignity of all those for whom Christ died by saying that every one of us deserves a ransom.
So in the end, if one seeks the Kingdom and its particular sort of justice, the revolution will be added as well: dignity is no longer something only for dignitaries but for all whom Christ loves, and if the desires of Messiah and the desires of God coincide (and there’s good reason to reckon that they do), then the Father’s desire that all be saved, and the sending of the mediator to effect just that, means that the special dignity of the aristocrat now extends to all, rich and poor, friend and enemy, clean and unclean, just and unjust. Such is the radical reversal of 1 Timothy, and such is the Kingdom.
May our dignity always find its roots in the love of God, which reached out to us irrespective of what the foolish powers regard as dignified.