Conundrum

given on Sunday, February 27, 2011

Conundrum

 

This week has put me into a conundrum.  For three weeks I have used the Life Application Study Bible’s blueprint for Philippians to provide a structure for the sermons.  I really thought that was a safe way to dive into a new study since I have never run into a problem with that particular Bible’s study notes.  But I can tell you, I suddenly discovered a conundrum on my hands.

First I decided I must have misread the blueprint.  I checked and it was correct.  Then I decided I must have read the scripture incorrectly or worse yet, the wrong scripture.  No, that was not the problem.  I read the Message, then I read the New International Version, and still I could not find the solution.

This is the conundrum:  the term “joy in giving” I figured meant giving in terms of money, time, and/or talents.  I was reading with a clear understanding that giving meant literally taking some thing, some time, or some money and providing it to the church.  That is my definition of giving.

To add to the confusion and the sense of error I was feeling, the words from the various translations did not seem to connect to “giving.”  There is the side note included in the letter to the Philippians that does thank the church for their financial and non-financial support while Paul was in jail.  But that was just a very brief excerpt of the fourth chapter:

18-20 And now I have it all—and keep getting more?  The gifts you sent with Epaphroditus were more than enough, like a sweet-smelling sacrifice roasting on the altar, filling the air with fragrance, pleasing God no end.  (The Message)

That is a reference to giving, but certainly not the giving I figured would be included in the chapter.  What a conundrum!

The three earlier chapters all seemed to follow the blueprint perfectly.

  • Chapter 1—the joy of suffering
  • Chapter 2—the joy of serving
  • Chapter 3—the joy of believing

Now Chapter 4, following the format of letter writing at the time, I find the language really does wind down the message.  There is a sense he is wrapping up his comments and taking care of his manners by thanking the Philippians for their care of him, as a person.  Nowhere did any mention come up about tithing or donating money or anything like the type of giving that was in my mind.  I had a conundrum and I began wondering where I was going wrong.

A conundrum is like a riddle.  In looking up the complete definition, I found the second descriptor from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary possibly  provided me a clue:  conundrum—a question or problem having only a conjectural answer.  This hint surely could help me unravel the mystery of the phrase “joy of giving” in a chapter that does not seem to support it.

In fact, in the details of the word, I found another clue in an example of its use:

the conundrum of how an ancient people were able to build such massive structures without the benefit of today’s knowledge and technology

Just connecting that word with the term “ancient people” brought to mind another study note I had read which said that the sacrifice during Paul’s time had a different significance, sacrifice was a means of joyful giving

The New Interpreter’s Bible explains this ancient way of thinking:

Paul walks a thin line as he seeks to thank the Philippians for their generosity without giving the impression either that he is no under obligation to them or that he desires gifts . . . It is no accident, then, that as he expresses gratitude to the Philippian congregation, Paul very deliberately highlights the presence and activity of God at the center of their relationship.  His joy (emphasis added) at their recent demonstration of concern for him is joy “in the Lord.”  Phrases like “in the Lord” and “in Christ” that repeatedly punctuate the letter express Paul’s fundamental conviction that their fellowship has its basis in God’s having united them all to Christ, so that their partnership is a participation in Christ’s own life. . . Because God, “our Father,” stands at the center of this relationship, the Philippians’ service to Paul is ultimately “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” (p. 849)

Finally, I think I understand the phrase “joy in giving.”  The joy is the outcome from giving a sacrifice to God.  Paul was trying to connect the Philippians’ support of him financially as well as physical and mental support was a ‘sacrifice’ they made to God.

The conundrum, or riddle, is approaching an answer.  The answer is a conjecture made from the intentional study needed to understand the phrase “joy in giving.”  What I thought was going to be a simple request from Paul to give in order to continue his work, turns out to be a way of stating that giving is a sacrifice expressing joy.

The basis of the conundrum is clear, but a struggle between giving and sacrifice is complicating the issue.  Turning to the Bible Dictionary helps, but it really helps understand a shift in the culture—a shift in an ancient paradigm.  The early church changed a paradigm; sacrifices were a deeply integrated, complicated part of the Israelite worship.  There were a variety of sacrifices each with very strict processes to follow.  In fact different types of situations called for different animals and grains, primarily, the choice of a sacrifice came  right down to the age and gender of the animal.  Sacrificial animals especially were then distributed along a very rigid hierarchy with the chief priest getting the best, the other priests dividing up another section, and the individual making the sacrifice took was left.  All of the sacrificial meat had to be consumed within 48 hours or less.

The early church no longer needed sacrifices in any form because the crucifixion of Christ was the final sacrifice.  The earliest Christians were still accustomed to the traditions of the Israelite, even the pagan, rituals.  Sacrificing, as a paradigm is gone, the new tradition is giving.  The need for atonement in the form of a concrete sacrifice is gone, but to worship and to honor God the earliest Christians found joy in giving.

The conundrum of Philippians 4 is unraveled.  At least I now understand how the study notes included the phrase “joy in giving.”  The riddle that developed between the study notes in today’s Biblical language took work to solve.  Paul’s letter is an example of a primary source, an original document written over 28 generations ago, that we still use today to guide us in our role as Christians.  While there is joy in suffering, in serving, in believing, and in giving, today we also find joy in intentional faith development, too.

Dear Father,

The generations which have separated ours from Jesus’, but we continue to learn from his work and that of Paul’s.  Thank you for all the earliest teachers and the teachers that have kept your message alive all these years.  As we learn how our faith grows, we learn how our faith gives us joy:  joy even in suffering, joy in serving one another, joy in believing, and joy in giving to God as an expression of our thanks.  Guide us as we continue to grow in our faith.  –Amen

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