Modern Scripture scholars are just as focused on surfacing the mindset of the sacred authors as they are on explaining the words they’ve written. One’s frame of mind best demonstrates the faith one professes.
In today’s short Philippians passage, for instance, Paul is referring to a practical, specific situation. The Philippian community wanted to help Paul financially in his ministry. But without access to Western Union, it didn’t have a way to get the money to him. The Apostle thanks them for their concern, but also assures them, “I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances, I also know how to live in abundance . . . I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
It’s that adaptability to changing circumstances which most distinguishes early Christianity.
Raymond Brown often reminded his students that, counter to what we learned in our grade school catechisms, Jesus didn’t give his followers a handbook of detailed, step by step instructions on how to construct the church after his earthly ministry was finished. He simply left them with an example of his own dying and rising, commanded them to continue his ministry and trusted them to be adaptable enough to carry through with it.
And they did! As we know from our written gospels, they immediately changed Jesus’ Aramaic into Greek when they encountered perspective converts who didn’t speak Aramaic. They weren’t trapped or restricted in preaching about an historical person who lived in Palestine between 6 BCE and 30 CE. They preached the risen Jesus, so they weren’t limited by any time, culture or geography. As long as they were faithful to his teachings and example, Jesus presumed his followers would know what to throw away, keep or change.
This unique frame of mind demands that we’re constantly “reading the signs of the times,” constantly aware of the changing circumstances around us and developing new ways to deal with them. But we Christians don’t have a corner on this market. It’s clear from our Hebrew Scriptures that some followers of God were gifted with this same adaptive outlook long before Jesus’ birth.
Isaiah, for instance, sees a beautiful future in which “Yahweh will destroy death forever.” But he also includes in that glorious future “the peoples” and “the nations,” a polite biblical way of referring to Gentiles. Considering that when he’s proclaiming these oracles the Assyrians are threatening to wipe Jerusalem, the city built on the “mountain of Yahweh of hosts,” off the face of the earth, I presume most of Isaiah’s original hearers were scandalized by the prophet’s vision. For them, the only good Gentile was a dead Gentile. Yet even in this conflict, Isaiah sees an opportunity to offer the faith to the very people who want to annihilate his people.
Matthew shows us a Jesus who is more than uptight with individuals who don’t take advantage of the opportunities God sends. His well-known parable of the refused wedding invitations was probably part of his basic “stump speech.” (Ignore the “wedding garment” ending; originally a second, independent wedding parable eventually joined to the first.) It perfectly summed up the situation he daily faced, synagogue to synagogue, town to town. Instead of regarding God’s invitation to reform as an opportunity for new faith experiences, many simply became experts in developing excuses to continue in their personal “status quo.”
Rarely do we surface leaders like John XXIII who embody such an adaptive frame of mind. Remember the talk he gave at the opening of Vatican II? He basically told those bishops who didn’t want to be there that morning that he called the council not to rehash what they already believed, but to explore what the church could gain from what was going on outside the church. Our church hasn’t been the same since.