Monday of Week 32 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Titus 1:1-9

As we come to the end of the liturgical year on this third last week we dip into four short letters (unless there is a feast day requiring different readings): the Letter to Titus (Mon-Wed), the Letter to Philemon (Thursday), the Second Letter of John (Friday), and the Third Letter of John (Saturday). The Letters to Titus and Philemon come last in the body of the Pauline Letters, because they are the two shortest. Philemon consists of only one chapter and is more in the nature of a personal note or memo to a friend.

The Letter to Titus is the third of the so-called “Pastoral Letters” because they consist largely of pastoral advice to Paul’s colleagues, Timothy and Titus. They are the only Pauline letters addressed to individuals rather than a church. There is a good deal of dispute as to whether they really were written by Paul because they clearly deal with a period following Paul’s imprisonment in Rome with which the Acts of the Apostles end.

Some hold that Paul was released from that imprisonment and went on another pastoral mission which included Crete, where Titus was left in charge. Others would hold that such a mission is pure speculation made to fit the awkward fact that, not Paul, but another anonymous writer authored the three Pastoral Letters, which share a common style quite unlike that of letters definitely known to have been written by Paul. This theory would date the letters around the year 100, long after Paul’s death. If Paul did write them, they would belong to a period about 65 AD.

Whatever the truth, Titus was certainly one of Paul’s most important collaborators. Strangely, he is never mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles but his name occurs 13 times in other books of the New Testament. He played a very important role in restoring peace to the church at Corinth, where it seems Paul had made himself very unpopular (cf. the reading from 1 Corinthians 4:6-15 of Saturday in the 22nd Week, Year II, where Paul’s problems can be read between the lines).

The letter purports to be from Paul to Titus and in our notes we will comment as if that was actually the case, while keeping in mind that in fact the letter may be from another hand and at a much later date (when Paul was already dead for many years). Whatever the Letter’s real origins, we need to remember that it is now in the canon of Scripture recognised by all Christians and is to be read primarily as the Word of God.

Today’s reading consists of the opening address of the letter, and then sets the qualifications for the appointment of elders (presbyteroi) and overseers (episkopoi) to lead the communities.

The writer begins by calling himself the “servant of God”. In other letters Paul always refers to himself as the “servant of Christ”. James, in his letter, uses both terms of himself.

And he is an “apostle”, one of those specially and personally commissioned by Christ himself, even if he is not one of the Twelve and was “born out of time” into the Christian faith.

He describes his mission as being to lead those chosen by God (through baptism) to faith and a knowledge of the truth that brings one to “true religion”, that is, a true relationship with God, coupled with the hope of eventually enjoying that life without end that God promises to his people.

He speaks of “God our Saviour”, one of three times in this Letter when the Father is called “Saviour”. Jesus will also be referred to as “Saviour” three times.

Unlike the Cretans, known for their immorality (Titus is in Crete), God does not lie. In Christ, he has revealed his plans and it is Paul’s mandate to make them widely known.

He then greets the addressee of the letter, Titus, wishing him the traditional “grace and peace” from God the Father and Jesus Christ the Saviour. Titus is called a “true child of mine,” for it was through Paul’s ministry that Titus was converted to Christianity, “the faith that we share”. In the Letter to Philemon (to be read on Thursday), Onesimus is also called a son by Paul.

As the body of the letter begins, Titus is given his instructions. By saying that he had left Titus behind in Crete, Paul seems to imply that they had both been there together, although the Acts of the Apostles does not record any such visit by Paul, except as a stop off point on his way to Rome as a prisoner. It is an open question whether Paul did go there after being released in Rome, or whether it is simply an invention of the writer. In leaving Titus in Crete, Paul was simply following his usual custom by leaving someone in charge of a church he had evangelised. He saw himself as a “sower” of the seed, leaving it to others to look after the growing crop and bring in the “harvest”.

Titus’ main mission was to appoint elders in every town where there was a Christian community. There are two Greek words used for “elders” at this stage in the Church’s development: presbyteros, which means an “elder” and episcopos, which literally means an “overseer”. Later, these words gave us “priest” and “bishop” in the English language. However, at this stage the words could be applied to the same person, and referred simply to those who were given the role of leadership in the local church. There could also be several elders in one community. And we are not yet into the distinction between “clergy” and “laity”. And the term “priest” would take on meanings it certainly did not have at this time.*

The connotation of “elder” is that of an older, mature person who wins the respect of the community, while “overseer” looks more to the authority and responsibility that the person has over the community. It is quite certain that Christian presbyteroi or episkopoi were not merely concerned with the practical side of organising things; they had to teach and govern. They were appointed by the apostles or their representatives by the imposition of hands; their powers derived from God, and were charismatic.

Elsewhere we will see reference to “deacons” (diakonos), which points to a person in a serving capacity and which was at first applied to those who gave practical assistance to the elder.

Paul then gives a list of qualifications expected of an elder, or church leader:
– a man of irreproachable character,
– married only once
– his children are Christians and well behaved and not likely to be a source of scandal in the community
– never arrogant or hot-tempered,
– not a drinker or a violent person,
– not concerned with making money (especially out of his position),
– someone who is hospitable and ordered to all that is good,
– sensible, moral, devout and disciplined,
– having a clear understanding of the central and unchanging core of the Christian message, which will enable him both to give sound and solid teaching and refute those who question it.

A few comments on the above qualifications:

  • Clearly the elder is seen as a man and not a woman. This was probably the only possibility in the culture of the time. Whether it is an argument against women presbyteroi in our Church today continues to be an acute issue.
  • A husband of one wife seems to exclude any form of polygamy or anything except a purely monogamous relationship. It does not necessarily exclude a bachelor, or a widower, nor remarriage by an elder whose first wife had died (although Paul told the Corinthians that it is more desirable not to marry again). Since elders, by definition, were chosen from among the older men of the congregation, Paul assumed they would already be married and have children. The most likely meaning is simply that a faithful monogamous married life must be maintained.
  • The requirement that the children (and presumably the wife) be also Christian was most likely that the whole family would give witness to the Gospel. What kind of a Christian leader could not lead his own family members to Christ?
  • Self-disciplined: possessing the inner strength to control one’s desires and actions. Given that the people of Crete had a notorious reputation for all that was gross and immoral, the elder had to give an outstanding example of a person free from such behaviour. Paul refers to it five times in two chapters.
  • The emphasis on sound doctrine is a central theme of all the Pastoral Letters and reflects concerns about various erratic teachings, especially forms of Gnosticism, which were current in the post-Pauline period. The word “sound” occurs eight times in these letters but is never used in any of the other Pauline letters.

*In Greek and Latin, the words for ‘priest’ were hiereus and sacerdos respectively. These words explicitly indicate a ritualistic, sacrificial priesthood as found in the Jewish priesthood of the Old Testament and in the priests found in the pagan temples and places of religious worship in Greece and Rome. In the early New Testament, this word was applied only to Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest and our only Priest, all other priesthoods having been abolished. This is put most clearly in the Letter to the Hebrews. How presbyter became hiereus is a question we cannot go into here. With the word hiereus comes, of course, both the concept and the reality of ‘hier-archy’, rule by priests. Paul and his Christian contemporaries might find all this very strange and even disturbing.

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