26th Sunday -Phronesis and the Drama of Suffering

The Apostle Paul by Rembrandt

Phil 2:1-11

Philippi was a Roman Colony. A colony of Rome was an extension of Rome and it’s rule. These weren’t colonies in the sense we use them today – where one country is ‘colonised’ by another. It had most Roman privileges, except it wasn’t in Rome. These colonies served the purpose of housing their veterans returning from war (even while they freely wielded the sword throughout the world, they were careful to keep it well away from their own home soil). These veterans would have been citizens of Rome and being a citizen automatically put you in an elite class. Citizens had rights which we take for granted today, like a fair judicial trial, humane treatment and so on. But most people in Philippi were not citizens and were probably quite poor. This would have been reflected in the Church as well. Their rights were limited and were more or less dependent on the elites, who acted as ‘patrons’.  Without the favour, the help of patrons, normal life was difficult if not impossible in Rome. If you had a grievance against someone, a wealthy patron would have to sponsor you in order to get a trial. You needed patrons to help you found and run a business. You couldn’t afford to get on their wrong side. The favours the patrons bestowed meant that you owed them a lot of things. They were your saviours. Rome was built on such relationships of patronage. The emperor himself sat at the very top of this chain of patronage, he was the patron of patrons. 

The Christians professing a new faith and not worshipping the gods of Rome meant that they were vulnerable to being ostracised by the elite.  A patron’s rejection of your business could severely cripple your livelihood. Paul’s letter indicates that the church in Philippi was undergoing some kind of suffering, most likely of an economic nature. It could be analogous to the plight of Christians today in many places across Asia and the Middle East where they are a minority. They are often poor, sometimes ostracised and at others denied basic rights because of their faith. 

How do you interpret your life and what you need to do, when undergoing so much suffering? It is easy to be confident when things are going well, but suffering raises a lot of questions. Would it be better to curry the favour of the patrons, maybe by compromising in some way? A few of the Christians might have been rich. Would it be wise to publicly associate with the poorer Christians, or even identify yourself as one in such a situation? Would it be better maybe, to ascend the ranks and then do the good your position would allow? All kinds of questions come up, especially during a crisis, not least of which being why God would allow one to go through such suffering.

Aristotle contemplating Homer, Rembrandt

To these Christians, his friends, Paul tells them to be ‘of the same mind’ as Christ Jesus. The word he uses is phronesis, usually translated as the virtue of prudence, though that remains an approximation. Phronesis/prudence is the virtue of practical wisdom, so valued by the Greeks. As a virtue of both the mind and the heart, it makes you ‘think, act and feel’, all together when faced with a situation requiring discernment. But such a virtue, like any, is not developed overnight and cannot be read off a manual. Virtue can only be learnt when modelled by someone who exemplifies this virtue. Imitation of this person causes one to instinctively think and act along similar lines, even when faced with a new situation. But one can grow in virtue, the philosopher Aristotle, thought, only in a community where this is practiced, which understands itself according to a narrative, which also shows them where they are headed. 

Paul asks these suffering Christians to be united, taking care and showing love to each other, especially to the ones suffering, which would have gone against the grain of Roman society. He presents Jesus, the Son of God, Paul’s own model, who, though he was in the form of God emptied himself. The word ‘though’ could also be translated ‘because’. These verses, which we have got used to, would have sparked off several resonances for the first century Christians. The one who was in the ‘form of God’ was the Emperor. The Roman emperors were routinely divinised. Augustus was called ‘son of God’ having tactically divinised his father. The emperor was the ‘saviour’. Before them, Paul sets out the story of the true saviour, the true God and what true divinity does. God is the one who constantly gives himself away. While Caesar held all power to himself, what is truly divine gives it away. Christ had let go of the privileges of his divinity, of remaining in glory and had emptied himself, all the way to the lowest point in society – to become a crucified criminal. Philippians were being rejected and shamed, Christ had gone lower than them – and he was with them in their humiliation.  Paul sets before them, or rather reminds them of their story – their value came not from what society gave them, but from the fact that they had been chosen and loved by the Son of God himself. This was the One who had emptied himself of glory to be with them. In doing so, Christ had also been raised: this raising to the right hand of the Father was not something like a reward he received. Even in his humiliation, Christ always remained God. But in letting go of ‘his rights’, his glory, he had, as man become most like the Father and he was now vindicated by the Father in his exaltation. This was the unfolding story which Christians were living out. It was what helped them interpret their lives. To interpret their lives according to the ideals of Roman society would be diametrically opposed to the story of Christ.

Paul could tell all this to the Philippians because this was the story which he lived himself. Having spent decades of imitating Christ, he could now tell the Philippians to imitate him (3:17). Even now, he wrote, imprisoned in the dungeons, for the sake of the gospel. He had renounced, or let go of all his privileges as a high born Jew for the sake of the gospel. While there would be a final reckoning, when the Saviour from heaven would appear (Phil 3:20), even now, he could live, content (4:11) both in times of plenty and difficulty. He could be at peace and even rejoice in anxious times because Christ was always near (4:4-7), having come close through the Cross.

Most of us do not expect to be martyred or maybe even have our rights seriously curtailed, in the West, at least for now. But the Cross appears in all of our lives, sometimes dramatically, though most times in very mundane circumstances. Many times it appears as a regular part of one’s vocation. To give up a career to do the ‘mind-numbing’ work of bringing up children can seem senseless in our age; an act where you’re losing yourself. To close work at a reasonable time to come back to be with the family might not be a good career move. To work in professions of service, which are draining and offer little reward by way of appreciation might seem foolish. The Cross is a weapon of destruction and by itself it can destroy us. But precisely in this place where we are most vulnerable, Christ comes with his power. And it is in living out the Christian story in these smaller things, the everyday crosses, that we develop the mindset, the virtue of phronesis. Without this, we will run away from the Cross and hence will also miss Christ. This cannot be lived out in isolation. It is together with the community centered around the Eucharist, where this virtue can grow. The presence of this Love which has gone to the depths of our own suffering and more, is what marks out the identity of this community and gives it it’s identifying narrative. Around the Eucharist, the gift of Christ’s love poured out, we can be transformed into the image of Christ, given as gift for the world. And we find that we can rejoice, like Paul, in all that might come our way.

2 Comments

  1. Really appreciated the sensitive and thoughtful post, especially the summing up—very poignant indeed. Moving mountains one stone at a time…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.