outside view


Counterbalance: Colossians 4.

Mark 10: 41 – 45; Colossians 3:18 – 4: 1

People talk about having a balanced life. Sometimes to achieve this you need counterbalance: a force or influence equalling and countering another. We find many examples in life. A counterweight is an equivalent counterbalancing weight that balances a load. The counterweight’s purpose is to make lifting a load more efficient. A counterweight is used in elevators and cranes. The same applies to motor engines. We drive cars that have finely balanced engines. This is achieved by placing counterweights on the crankshaft. Counterbalancing also happens in human history. The Jesuit movement in the Roman Catholic Church counterbalanced the German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, who was successfully attacking the power of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. I am sure we could go on and find many more examples of the usefulness of a counterbalance.

Understanding the importance of counterbalancing helps us understand how we can apply the truths of the Gospel to our daily living. Many feel more comfortable with a simple code of what is right and wrong, but unfortunately life is more complicated. What might be right in one context may be wrong in another. There is the classic case of the commander of a British naval vessel. He had survivors from a torpedoed merchant ship in the water and underneath was the enemy submarine, which had sunk the merchant ship. What does the commander do? Does he let the submarine get away and destroy more ships and lives, or does he destroy the submarine and in the action kill the British sailors in the water? If we trawled through history we might find a few examples of how a few have been sacrificed for the greater good. That’s is not an ethic we should easily adopt. It is a very dangerous ethic.

We don’t have to face such dilemmas, but how we apply the Gospel’s ethical principles of love and justice is not always straightforward. There is some adaptation required. Paul in writing to the Colossian Christians is presented with a difficulty. Paul has commended the Colossians for their faith demonstrated by their love, which is grounded in the hope they have in God’s future. He has argued that as created beings made in the ‘image of God’ they bare the stamp of God upon them, albeit that the image is tarnished. That is true for all of us. It is equally true to say that in some of us ‘the image of God’ is so tarnished we hardly recognise God’s image. If I take the metaphor a little further and say that sometimes the silver is so tarnished that the object looks black, leaving you in doubt if it is silver! I had a case like that the other day. I ended up boiling the object, a beautiful silver Arabian knife and sheaf in water with bicarbonate of soda and a little vinegar. It came up beautifully. I sometimes think some humans could do with a little treatment like that!

Paul reminds us that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we have a pathway to God. Along the road with Jesus the tarnished ‘image of God’ is being cleaned up. The love of God in Christ Jesus transforms us so that once more we bear a restored ‘image of God’. One of the consequences of becoming more like Christ Jesus is that we transcend all differences. No longer do our differences of social status, race and gender matter. This is a wonderful thing that liberates us from our prejudices and fears. I was brought up to believe that black people were dirty and should be kept separate. I don’t think my parents said so and certainly my father said the opposite, but stepping outside the door of our house I witnessed the separation of races and the unequal treatment. I acquired the attendant fears and prejudices. I remember clearly the occasion when my primary school principal said to us grade 5s that we had to work hard so black people didn’t take our jobs. I inherently knew this was wrong, but I couldn’t articulate my feelings. I just knew it was wrong. The obvious application of the Gospel was that a black person was my equal, but the law of the land said the opposite. It took a while for me to get my head and heart around that. There came a point in time when I deliberately and purposefully broke some of the laws of the country through my relationships with Africans.

I wonder what Paul thought? He ended up saying that in Christ Jesus there are no boundaries between us humans, but Christians had to deal with the common ‘household rules’ of the Roman society. Those rules recognised the hierarchical structure of society. The Emperor at the top followed by Senators, the officers of state and finally the household, which was under the husband who ruled over his wife, children and slaves. How did Paul apply the ethic that in Christ Jesus there is no male or female or slave and free? Paul has to help his fellow Christian brothers and sisters apply the Gospel ‘household rules’. Roman society’s ‘household rules’ were commonly found in non-Christian writings of that period. They basically named the husband or man as the head of home whom others must obey.

Paul had no power to change this structure in society, yet he believed that there no difference existed between male and female, slave and free. Christian had to live in their world. How did they do it?

What Paul does in the letter to the Colossians is to counterbalance the hierarchical power-structure of the ‘household rules’ with the lordship of Christ Jesus. Jesus, the Lord of life, balances out the lordship of humanity. Secondly, empowering the female, children and slaves to take responsibility for their own actions counterbalances the patriarchal power of the male. Thirdly, but not least, the coercive power of the male is now counterbalanced by the power of Christ’s love for all people.

Paul makes the point that everything we do comes under the supremacy of the Lord Christ Jesus. What we do is not for ourselves or for the approval of others but for the honour of God our creator. That in itself is an illuminating truth. What a difference we would make if we did this consistently.

Paul recognises that the wife, the children and the slaves have an ethical responsibility. You may say, of course that is so. But I tell you that in the Greco-Roman world women, children and slaves were not seen as having the ability to make such choices. Therefore they were not given the chance. However the Gospel truth says to all marginalised persons that you can choose to behave in a certain positive Christian manner. By giving thanks to God you will end up being joyful in your life. This is a surprising addition to the ‘household rules’ of the time that the marginalised have an ethical choice.

Let me demonstrate these points by concentrating on the ‘household rules’ for slaves.

Slaves are asked to do their best at all times, not only when their master observes them, because God is the final arbiter of our lives. God will reward us according to our responsible behaviour. Therefore God will not commend the slave who obeys only when supervised. Ultimately when the slave comes before the judgement seat of God, like their master, their mistress and even the Emperor, they will be judged by the love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, kindness, humility and patience they have exhibited in this life. Remember Paul has named five virtues with which we should clothe ourselves – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience [3:12]. The fact that the slave did her/his duty when forced to does not count for much. Remember God looks upon our heart and what we do in secret Jesus says. So the slave learns that their true Lord is the Lord Christ Jesus. And it is to Jesus that they are answerable. In fact Paul makes it quite clear in 3:25 that God will judge us all according to our faithfulness and our love to God and our neighbour. Faith and love lead to a peaceful, just and fulfilling life.

If the hearer, remember most people in Paul’s day would first hear this letter read to them, does not fully comprehend that Paul is offering a radical counterbalance to the status quo then the final statement will make it abundantly clear. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven. [4:1]


Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 01/08/2016


/ www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org.au

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