1 Peter 2:19-25
19 Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. 20 But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God.
21 You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps. 22 He committed no sin, nor did he ever speak in ways meant to deceive. 23 When he was insulted, he did not reply with insults. When he suffered, he did not threaten revenge. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed. 25 Though you were like straying sheep, you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives. (CEB)
Shepherd and Guardian
One of my seminary professors at Duke once said “Bible translators are spineless weenies who never let the Bible say what it actually says” He made the comment because, in his opinion, translators seemed to be too worried that people would read their translations and be scandalized if the actual meaning of certain texts came through. Like those places where Saint Paul suggests that certain people should go to hell. Apparently, the translators can’t have Saint Paul saying something so… harsh. Therefore, the translators lean toward Greek instead of English to water down the translation. Yes, the Greek might say, “let them be accursed,” but that isn’t how we speak in English. We don’t say, You know, you’re a real jerk. Be accursed. No. We typically tell them exactly where they can go, which is the English vernacular equivalent of what Paul was saying in Greek.
While I find the lectionary to be an invaluable tool for preachers and the congregations, the Consultation on Common Texts, which produced the Revised Common Lectionary, seems to have a similar penchant for displaying spineless weenie-ism. They often cut difficult texts out of the lectionary readings so they don’t get read. (Or, so pastors and congregations don’t have to deal with them). They do that with Psalm 139, for example. Everyone loves Psalm 139 with its intimate and flowy language.
“Lord, you have examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up… Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean, even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight… You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb… My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth…” (CEB).
Those are a few excerpts from the Psalm that the lectionary provides. Of the four times that the lectionary offers Psalm 139 as a reading, however, none of them include verses 19-22. You see, those verses get angry. Loud. Vicious. They are verses that say, “If only, God, you would kill the wicked! Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too” (CEB). These verses are omitted as if there is no place for righteous anger, as if we cannot handle hearing them, as if preachers are not trusted enough to interpret them adequately.
Rather than ignore the difficult stuff, I think we should hear it, consider it, and wrestle with its interpretation. My reasoning is simple: the difficult parts are Holy Scripture, too, just as much as the easy-to-hear parts are Holy Scripture. We don’t get to ignore the hard stuff as if it doesn’t exist.
If you’ve ever read First Peter, you might recognize one glowering omission from the text I just read. Verse 18 is where the reading should actually begin, and it says this: “Household slaves, submit by accepting the authority of your masters with all respect. Do this not only to good and kind masters but also to those who are harsh” (CEB). This is where Biblical interpretation comes into play, and it’s incredibly important. We need to understand the context of those Christians who originally heard it. What did it mean to them? We also need to understand how it might have been used and abused throughout the centuries, and what it ought to mean to us.
It also begs the question: what do we do with texts from the Bible that have been used to harm people? Verse 18 is one of them. There was a time in American history when black slaves only heard sermons on 1 Peter 2:18 and a few other texts that talked about submission and accepting one’s lot. It was a way of keeping control over those they had enslaved. In fact, this was used against the abolitionist argument as Biblical justification for slavery. But that kind of interpretation is an abuse of the Biblical text. Any time the Scriptures are used to keep people down, shut people up, or makes us think better of ourselves and less of others, it’s an abuse. That’s called oppression, and God entire plan of salvation is one of liberation.
Despite how some have tried to twist these words through the centuries, Peter is not suggesting that suffering is the norm we should all accept for those who are belittled, abused, oppressed, or enslaved. Nor is Peter suggesting that those in positions of power are free to abuse, oppress, or enslave others. It is not God’s will that the oppressed should suffer. Even a cursory reading of the Pentateuch, the Prophets, or the Gospels should make that clear.
Even if we leave verse 18 out, as the lectionary does, another incorrect interpretation would be to read this text as if it is praising suffering for the sake of suffering itself. It almost sounds like Peter is lifting suffering up as something that we should seek out for its own sake. There have been overzealous people throughout history who have done all manner of things like this so they could attain suffering: whipped themselves, frozen themselves in the snow, etc. As if you can get closer to God by smashing your thumb with a hammer. (Believe me, I’ve done it accidentally with my 20oz Estwing, and the words that spewed from my mouth did not bring me closer to God). That’s not what Peter is talking about.
He says, “But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:20b, CEB). In the 1980s there were refugees from El Salvador who sought shelter in the United States. These were people with written death threats and scars from torture from their own government. The response of the United States government was to send them back to El Salvador into the hands of their torturers and those who wanted them dead. The Carter and Regan administrations saw the government of El Salvador as an ally and refused to recognize the human rights violations against the people of El Salvador. So, some American citizens took those refugees in and hid them. Some of those American citizens were arrested and prosecuted for doing it because it was illegal. But it was also the kind of civil disobedience that was the right thing to do. That is what it means to suffer for doing what is right. They were willing to be arrested and prosecuted to save lives.
In the context of 1 Peter, the comment about suffering may have had to do with worship. If a household slave was ridiculed by their master for worshipping the God of Christianity rather than the gods of Rome, they were suffering for doing what was right. The thing is, suffering is something the early church leaders told their flock to expect. If the incarnation of God could experience suffering, even death, at the hands of God’s own creatures, then why should Christians expect anything else? In fact, later in 1 Peter, he writes, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed. If you are mocked because of Christ’s name, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory – indeed, the Spirit of God – rests on you” (1 Peter 4:12-14 CEB).
That Greek word, hupogrammon (example), is only found here in the New Testament. For those of us who had chalkboards in our elementary school classrooms, do you remember the alphabet that was usually written across the top? That’s what a hupogrammon is. It’s the perfect example which we copy and copy and copy until we can write those letters perfectly. We are to follow the example of Jesus Christ and follow in his steps. We are to pattern our lives after the example of Jesus Christ.
That pattern includes suffering. Suffering is something we should expect, not something we should see as abnormal. It’s a bummer when it happens, but it shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The possibility of suffering exists because of the transformed life we live as followers of Christ. It is counter-cultural to entrust ourselves to God; to not seek revenge and return abuse for abuse, but trust that God will make everything right in the end. It is counter-intuitive to love our enemies and pray for those who harass us. We have been healed by the wounds of Jesus Christ on the cross so that we can live in righteousness and free from sin; so that we can live for God.
Verse 25 serves as a reminder that there is a difference, a dichotomy, something irreconcilable from life before Christ and life in Christ. Before Christ, we were going astray like sheep without a shepherd. But in Christ, we have returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls. One of the reasons the sheep-shepherd imagery is so predominant in Christianity is that sheep are utterly reliant upon the shepherd. Who defends the sheep from predators who would devour them? The shepherd. Who leads the sheep to good pasture land and sources of water? The shepherd. Sheep are not self-reliant creatures. They need a shepherd. And so do we.
The story of Christians who experience adversity for doing right is not new. It’s actually the backbone of apocalyptic theology, which expects that those who are allied with God will suffer at the hands of the world because the world loved darkness rather than light (c.f. John 3:19). We are to keep our eyes on the light, and trust that the shepherd and guardian of our souls is watching over us even when we are in the midst of our sufferings.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!