CATEGORY: EDT Editorials
Editorial, Sunday, July 18, 1999
America’s prolonged economic expansion soaring stocks, widespread accumulation of significant personal wealth, and generally prospering state treasuries understandably makes our culture preoccupied with money more than anything else.
Moral spokesmen from the poles of right and left decry our culture’s decline and its loss of “values,” but few voices are heard echoing a caution given by the Apostle Paul in a New Testament letter about 1,900 years ago.
Paul, an educated man and citizen of the Roman Empire, had a cosmopolitan understanding of his time. He saw, in many ways, the broader scope of human behavior (although some argue convincingly that parts of his letters reflect a narrow captivity to his own views and the chauvinism of his age).
Arguments aside, the most powerful of the passages in Paul’s extensive communications speak universally to the weaknesses and the worst in human nature. His most eloquent letter, in the opinion of some scholars, was sent to Christian believers in Ephesus. The letter needed to be eloquent and persuasive because Ephesus was among the most sophisticated of the great cities in antiquity.
Ephesus, civically speaking, enjoyed its pleasures and denied itself nothing. It was a city of legendary indulgence, a public character doubtless reflecting the lifestyle of many residents. It was a tough sell, in contemporary terms, to present a Gospel of selflessness in a culture of selfishness.
Paul thrusts to the heart of the problems within the church at Ephesus (and by relation, in the larger culture of the city and Roman world) in the fourth chapter of Ephesians (4:17-24).
In that part of the letter, Paul speaks without restraint of the petrified hearts of people who cling to things for security and salvation. He speaks of arrogant greediness (the “accursed love of possessing” and the “unlawful desire” of having things that belong to others, in William Barclay’s much-used commentary).
Barclay describes Paul’s view of the world of the Ephesians as people with hearts so petrified they were unaware of sin; people dominated by sin with vanquished decency and shame; people so enslaved to satisfying their desires that they did not care who was injured, or how badly, in getting the things that made them momentarily at ease.
If the description sounds like warnings about America’s contemporary culture it is not accidental or inconsequential. Cosmopolitan American culture, like the indulgent society in Ephesus, gratifies itself at any cost.
The deprivation and suffering of the lowly and meek among us in America seem to increase as wealth multiplies. Our society, for all its refinement, displays raw indifference to the poor and dispossessed.
Paul also wrote to the Ephesians advice that has been passed on to the ages:
” … Strip yourselves of falsehood … Let him who was a thief steal no more; rather let him take to hard work, and to producing good with his hands, in order that he may share with the man who is in need. … Show yourselves kind to one another, merciful, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Paul’s instruction calls for intentional changes. No half-hearted, mumbled agreement is sought.
Paul told the Ephesians that God wanted people who had changed from one way of living to an infinitely better way. And the same message applies in contemporary American life.