Being Thankful - Session 2
WHAT IS AN EPISTLE
Before we dive into our gratitude passage for the week, let’s first take a look at the entirety of the work it comes from.
Epistles are letters, simple as that. The epistles in the New (or Christian) Testament are written by an author to either a group of people (usually a church community), an individual or the wider church in general.
Thirteen of the epistles are attributed to the Apostle Paul, who is also known as “Saint Paul” and “the Evangelist.” Biblical scholars pretty much agree that seven of the letters truly were written by Paul.
The other six are disputed; some scholars believe them to be written by Paul because the letter itself states that Paul is the author. Other scholars believe these six letters are pseudonymous, meaning that they were written in the name of Paul. Pseudonymity was relatively common in antiquity as a way to claim the authority of the supposed writer. The practice was accepted by some as a legitimate way to extend the thought of the supposed author into a new time and place. 1
The passage we are studying today comes from one of those disputed letters.
THE FIRST LETTER TO TIMOTHY
First Timothy is one of the three “Pastoral Letters” that claim to be letters from Paul to two of his colleagues, Timothy and Titus; however, they appear instead to be handbooks for church administration written in the early 2nd century, decades after Paul’s death, by an unknown author. 2
The letters are concerned with these overall matters:
Regulating the conduct of the congregation through a hierarchical structure.
Claiming for the church the responsibility of setting and guarding doctrine.
Instructing the faithful in how to live as ideal Christians.
The letters have been used for millennia to subjugate women and diminish their role as leaders in the church. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:9-15 instructs that women “dress modestly,” “learn in silence with full submission,” and are forbidden from teaching or having any authority over a man.
TODAY’S PASSAGE: 1 TIMOTHY 4:4-5
4 Everything that has been created by God is good, and nothing that is received with
thanksgiving should be rejected. 5 These things are made holy by God’s word and
prayer. (Common English Bible)
THE PASSAGE IN ITS ORIGINAL TIME
The early church often struggled with what to do with the dietary laws set out in the Old (or Hebrew) Testament. Admonishments against eating shellfish, pork and other foods were followed — strictly by some followers of Judaism, less so by others. (Remember, the earliest “Christians” were still Jews; they did not set out to begin a new religion but rather to reform the one that they already were a part of.)
Several passages in the Christian Testament addressed the issue of whether all foods were acceptable or whether Jesus-followers needed to continue to follow the Jewish dietary laws. This session’s text is one of those passages.
The author lands squarely on the side of those who considered the food laws to have been superseded by Jesus. The author tells his audience: Everything is good because God made it good. We must merely receive these gifts with gratitude.
THE PASSAGE TODAY
Many Progressive Christians view the Pastoral Letters with some suspicion. Nowhere is it recorded that Jesus told women they should be silent. On the contrary, there are several stories in the Christian Testament about Jesus engaging with female characters in ways that would have been, at the very least, unusual for the time.
Even so, there are nuggets of truth to be found in these epistles, and this session’s passage is one of them. While the intent was to address Jewish dietary law, the words themselves are much more general: “Everything that has been created by God is good.”
This is certainly good news for people who have been mistreated, shunned and worse because of misuse of the Bible: LGBTQIA+ people, those who are divorced, women and girls in general. If everything that God has created is good, then we all were created “good.” Are we perfect? No. Do we always behave in “good” ways? No. But everyone is in the same boat in that respect, none more than others.
All of God’s creation is good, the epistle implies, a sentiment backed up in the creation story: “God saw everything [God] had made: it was extremely good” (Genesis 1:31). The way humanity has treated God’s good creation should give us pause to consider how we might act toward the earth as if we really thought, like God, that it is good. This goes beyond climate change (although that is the most crucial aspect of environmentalism now). It reaches into our daily use of fossil fuels and plastics, the degradation of wild places like national parks and the Amazon forest, the millions of tons of food we waste and so on.
If we truly give thanks for the earth, for all people and for all creatures, then we are more likely to treat these creations of God with more respect and love. Even people who behave in ways that are abhorrent to us should not be rejected (and here the meaning is not to reject them as people; it is certainly within the teachings of Jesus to resist any oppression and injustice they perpetrate). Even creatures who do us harm — cancer cells, deadly animals, dangerous weather events — are considered “good” in that they are not intrinsically evil (still, we should protect ourselves from harm because we, too, are good!).
Finally, notice that the passage states that “these things are made holy by God’s word and prayer.” That means we have something to do with the goodness of all things. We are called to pray for those creatures and things whether we like them or not. We are called to pray the goodness of everyone and everything.
READING THROUGH THE LENS OF MUSIC
Michael Franti’s “Hey World (Don’t’ Give Up)” laments humanity’s treatment of the world and one another but also lifts up gratitude and hope for a better future.
How do you handle passages in the Bible that conflict with your deepest beliefs?
What should individuals do with contradictions they find in it? How about churches?
What could possibly be the “good” in things like cancer and hurricanes?
To whom could you pray today who is not, in your opinion, a “good” person?
God, what you made is good, even if I am unable to understand all of it. May I treat your good creation and creatures with honor and respect. Amen.
1 Dewey, Joanna, “1 Timothy,” Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsom, Carol A. and Sharon H. Ringe, eds., Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky., 1998, p. 44.