Wednesday of week 23 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Col 3:1-11
Just before our reading begins, Paul had been warning the Colossians against false beliefs and practices. These involved the observance of ‘New Moons’ and ‘Sabbaths’. He tells them not to be misled by people who choose “to grovel to angels… pinning every hope on visions received”.

Such people, he says, have no connection with “the Head [Christ], by which the whole Body [the church], given all that it needs and held together by its joints and sinews, grows with the growth given by God”. Their lives are being governed by all kinds of rules and petty regulations which are merely ‘human commandments and doctrines’ – “Do not pick up this, do not eat that, do not touch something else.” It is not unusual for some Christians today to become obsessed with these kinds of trivialities and miss the big picture – working with Christ to build the Kingdom of God on earth.

Having warned the Colossians about the futility of all kinds of external, ritualistic observances which it seems they were getting involved in, Paul asks them to focus on just one thing – Christ. “Since you have been raised up to be with Christ, you must look for the things that are above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.”

There are two interlocking elements in today’s reading: the first deals with the believer’s relationship with Christ, and the second speaks of the behaviour which should naturally follow from that relationship.

As to the believers’ position in Christ: they are as dead; they have been raised with Christ; they are already with Christ in heaven (“hidden with Christ”); they have “taken off the old self” and have “put on the new self” .

The second element speaks of how the believers are to behave as a result: they are to set their heart (or mind) on things above; they are to put to death practices that belong to their earthly nature; and they are to rid himself of practices that characterise their unredeemed self. In summary, they are called upon to become in their daily experiences what they are in essence through their vocation in Christ.

Hence, their thoughts are to be on things above, not on the things that are on the earth. This is not a literal looking up to ‘heaven’ but rather that the thinking that guides their actions is solidly rooted in all that God stands for. They are not to identify themselves with the “world”, that part of our experience which is remote from or opposed to God’s way.

And the reason Paul gives is because “you have died and the life you have now is hidden with Christ in God”. They have not literally died but all links with whatever is opposed to Christ have died in them. They are “hidden with Christ” in the sense that their whole being is totally immersed in the person and the vision of Christ and that brings them into close relationship with God. That is the ideal, of course; it takes a lifetime to make it a reality in practice.

And when Christ in his fullness and glory is revealed and, because we have become fully identified with him, then we too will be revealed together with him in glory. Through union with Christ in baptism, his followers already live the identical life he lives in heaven; we have already risen with him, but this spiritual life is not yet manifest and glorious as it will be at the Parousia.

Our identity with Christ – which includes both Christ’s gift to us of his life and our positive response to his call – must result in a way of life that is totally in harmony with that identity. So Paul now warns the Colossians of the kind of behaviour which should have no part in a Christian’s life.

“You must kill everything in you that is earthly: sexual vice, impurity, uncontrolled passion, evil desires and especially greed, which is the same thing as worshipping a false god; it is precisely these things which draw God’s retribution on those who resist.” He highlights ‘greed’ as a form of idolatry. Perhaps it is the main idol that is worshipped in the prosperous parts of the world today. The obsession with ownership and the power and status that ownership brings. The constant urge to buy, buy, buy things we have no need of. Our new temples (packed on Sundays) are our shopping malls.

On one level, our union with the Risen Christ, our sharing in his death and resurrection through baptism is immediate and total, but at the practical level of life on earth, this union has to be grown into gradually and we do that by ridding ourselves of the kind of behaviour Paul mentions. Paul has said that we are already “dead” in Christ, “hidden with Christ in God” but, on the practical level, that dying and being reborn is something that we have to work on every day, by “killing” the old and sinful self.

And then he gives some more examples of the things the Colossians need to die to, behaviour which marked their pre-Christian lives but which now should be removed from their life: human anger, hot temper, malice, abusive language and dirty talk, lying to each other… As the French say, ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’. All the examples Paul mentions are found every day in our TV screens and played out in people’s lives.

With the abandoning of the old pre-Christian self, there must also be the abandonment of the old ways of doing and relating. “You have stripped off your old behaviour with your old self.” Just as one takes off dirty clothes and puts on clean ones, so Christian are called upon to renounce their evil ways and live in accordance with the ways of Christ’s kingdom.

Instead “you have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of it Creator.” The human race, that was to have been in the ‘image of God’ (Gen 1:26), lost its way outside and apart from the will of God and became the slave of sin and sinful urges. This is the ‘old self (anthropos)’ that must die; the ‘new self’ is reborn in Christ, who is the true image of God and, in his humanity, the true image of what it is to be human.

And, when we have taken on this ‘new self’, this new way of being fully human, there can be no room for “distinction between Greek and Jew, between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, or between barbarian and Scythian, slave and free”. ‘Barbarians’ were those who did not speak Greek and hence were deemed uncivilised; Scythians, who came originally from what is now southern Russia, were known especially for their brutality and considered by other peoples as little better than wild animals. In many ways, this understanding of humanity was a huge advance in human relations.

There can then be only one conclusion: “There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything.” Christ is in all and above all. He is the paradigm for all human thinking and acting and relating. It is the central theme of the whole letter. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is the Word of God to be listened to and followed. “Those that have ears let them hear.” All lesser ‘gods’ need to be abandoned. We all have our lesser gods. What are mine?

Christ is our Lord and he is also our Brother and his Father is the Father of every single person. Hence, the new creation will not be divided into races and religions and cultures and social classes in the way the present creation has been since the Fall. Christ transcends all barriers and unifies people from all cultures, races and nations. Such distinctions are no longer significant; Christ alone matters.

Again, that is the ideal but, in the 2,000 years since these words were written, we have still such a long way to go. And, far from being the model of unity we are called to be, Christians themselves are deeply divided, contemptuous and unaccepting of each other. Charlie Brown put it very well many years ago: “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” In church, we profess a great love for all mankind. What happens with all those people we bump into in the street?

Clearly this reading gives much room for personal and community reflection. It is as relevant to us, wherever we are today, as it was for the Christians of Colossae and Laodicea.

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