Look past the surface clutter
On November 4th, 1922, while exploring in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, Howard Carter found the steps leading to Tutankhamen’s tomb. He wired Lord Carnarvon, the financier of his expedition, to come. Three weeks later, on November 26, 1922, with Lord Carnarvon, Carnarvon’s daughter, and others in attendance, Carter made a “tiny breach in the top left hand corner” of the doorway. With the party waiting behind him, Carter was able to peer through the hole by the light of a candle, and he could see that many gold and ebony treasures were still in place. Someone behind him asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things!”
That’s how I often feel when I peer into Scripture, that I am gazing upon wonderful treasures. But, as with Howard Carter, sometimes we have to go through the work of pushing the sand aside and drilling a hole in the door in order to get past the surface appearance and discover the treasure within.
Many people fail to get past the surface clutter. They stay, as it were, outside and think that’s all there is to a passage. It’s when we dig in deeper that we actually gaze into the heart of God and find treasures that are richer than we would expect.
That’s how I feel about a passage like Colossians 3:18 – 4:1. On the surface, this is a rather routine (some would say archaic) set of instructions about how to get along in a marriage, a family, and between masters and slaves. But what might we discover if we push away some of the sand?
The subject matter Paul addresses here was expected of an ethical teacher in Greek or Roman cultures. Michael Kruse explains, “The ancient Greeks saw the household as the primary institution through which order was kept in society. To promote effective household management Greek sages would offer their advice…on household management. These discourses came to be known as the ‘household codes’ or ‘household tables’…. Included in the codes are usually instructions about how the paterfamilias [the head of the household] should manage his wife, his children and his slaves.”
Here is where we need to begin pushing aside the surface clutter. The ancient Greek philosopher Arius Didymus argued, “A man has the rule of this household by nature, for the deliberative faculty in a woman is inferior, in children it does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves it was completely absent.”
In keeping with the culture of his day, Paul writes here a set of ethical instructions pertaining to the most fundamental relationships of his readers’ lives. Yet Paul pushes aside the clutter of his day—the belief that only the “man of the house” mattered and the belief that the most important thing was to keep the order in society by keeping everyone in their proper place. Since the belief of that day was that only the “man of the house” had adequately developed “deliberative faculty,” the household codes were written only to the husband, father, and slave owner, providing him with instructions on how to keep others in their proper place. But Paul opens the ethical directives to wives, children, and slaves as well, because everyone matters to God and because everyone is endowed by God with deliberative faculty—a will and a conscience
This changes everything and opens the door to the richer treasures God has in mind.
Briefly, here are a few glimpses we get of the richer treasures we find in these verses:
In telling wives to be subject to their husbands “as is fitting in the Lord,” Paul asserts the lofty role of a woman’s conscience and of her personal relationship with God. She is called to subject herself to her husband only to the extent that it is “fitting in the Lord.” The book of Acts provides an example: When a number of Christians in the early church were selling property and giving the proceeds to the cause of Christ, one couple decided to impress others by selling some property and claiming to give all the proceeds to the church while actually keeping much for themselves. When Ananias, the husband, presented the money to the apostles, Peter confronted Ananias with his hypocrisy, and Ananias fell over dead. When Sapphira, the wife, came along some hours later and repeated the same story, Peter did not compliment her for faithfully submitting to her husband. He confronted her over her hypocrisy, and she, too, fell over dead. Going along with her husband’s wrong simply because he was her husband was not “fitting in the Lord.” Each of us is called to exercise our will and our conscience in a way that is “fitting in the Lord.”
Paul instructs husbands to “love your wives,” because God’s heart for marriage is not merely a functional division of labor, or the well ordering of society, or even the increase of the population, but God’s heart is for two to become one. God longs for love to fill a marriage.
William Barclay points out, “In the ancient world children were very much under the domination of their parents. The supreme example of that was the Roman Patria Potestas, the law of the father’s power. Under it a parent could do anything he liked with his child. He could even sell him into slavery; he could make him work like a laborer on his farm; he had even the legal right to condemn his child to death, and to carry out the execution.” But Paul sets forth a very different ethic for followers of Christ. Paul tells fathers, “Do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.” God cares about the wellbeing of a child’s heart. That kind of care must govern our ethics.
One of the primary reasons why there were slaves in Colossae is because Greeks and Romans devalued physical labor. Slaves were needed for jobs that were considered beneath the pride of the nobility. This perspective leads to the devaluing of workers, and it cultivates within laborers a “get-away-with-what-you-can” attitude. But the ethics set forward in these verses turns that kind of thinking upside down. By reminding “masters” that they “also have a Master in heaven,” Paul sets master and slave on equal footing before God, so master as well as slave must act with justice and integrity. And in calling even slaves to do everything “wholeheartedly,” and by calling us to approach every task by putting “yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters,” Paul stresses the value of every legitimate, ethical job we might undertake. Any job a person may have has as much potential of pleasing God as the task of any noble or any priest. God cares for the contributions of every worker.