Posts By This Author
To Comfort the Afflicted
ONCE UPON A TIME, long before there were birth certificates or Social Security numbers, there were immigrants. If you are or have been an immigrant without documents, you may think life must have been easier then, that you would never be afraid of getting found out and deported.
But life was not easier—at least not in the first century C.E., in the five mostly rural Roman provinces in what is now Turkey. Especially if you were a follower of Jesus.
As an immigrant, you are called by one of two names in Greek, the trade language of the time. You are a paroikos if you had fled or been forced from your native community for any personal, economic, or political reason and were trying to eke out a living in a foreign land. Oikos refers to "house" or the economic structure of the extended household in which native people lived. Para means "alongside of." In other words, you are "away from home," a resident alien on the edges of ordinary life.
Consequently, you have fewer rights than full citizens. Never able to own land, you are a sharecropper, a craftsperson, or perhaps a small trader or shopkeeper. You may have been driven off your land by high taxes you could not pay, or perhaps you are a second son and will not inherit your father's land. You may be the wife or daughter of such a man, or a widow driven to support yourself and your children. You have legal restrictions regarding intermarriage, commerce, and succession of property. You have no political rights, such as voting in public assemblies or joining in guilds. Unlike citizens, if you are charged with a crime, you can be tortured.
Paul's Letter to the 1%
Each Sunday, in many churches across North America, congregants hear these words preparing them for communion: “The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread ...”
However, few churchgoers kneeling for bread and wine at the altar may know that these words in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 are set in a longer section (11:17-34) that begins sharply: “Now in the following instructions, I do not commend you, because when you come together, it is not for the better, but for the worse!” Paul continues the attack in verse 20: “When you come together it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry, and another becomes drunk” (emphasis added).
What Paul describes sounds more like a food fight in a high school cafeteria than our solemn rituals. Have we missed something in this text?
This article isn’t mainly about food. It’s about inequality—the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. But when you live in the Roman Empire where most inhabitants live at or below subsistence, earning enough daily bread is the main thing you think about.
A longtime friend, George McClain, and I are presently finishing a curriculum simulating a house church planted by Paul in Corinth during the years 50 to 51 C.E. We owe much to the research of biblical and classical scholars and archeologists on power relations in the Roman Empire. This “empire-critical” method examines the sociological, political, religious, and economic structures that underpin first century Rome. Such structures contrast starkly with the “kingdom of God” as proclaimed by Jesus and his apostle Paul.
Reading Romans Anew
I have always felt some tension about using the church's common lectionary.