It is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 – May 9, 2012)
OK. I know that scholarship is sort of settled that Paul really didn’t write the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, but regardless of who actually authored it, here it is in the canon of Holy Scripture, and we are bidden to read it and deal with it. I love the apocalyptic image of Jesus and “his mighty angels” swooping down through the skies “in flaming fire.” This is the stuff of good science fiction movie special effects! It’s that next bit, “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God”, that gives me pause. Reading from the initial greeting in Verse 1, it seems incredible that the author (whether or not Paul) goes so far afield so quickly, from gratitude (“We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters,” v. 3) to the depths of tribulation, punishment, and exclusion from God introduced in these verses. Is the author’s gratitude enhanced with a little anticipatory schadenfreude? Is the flip side of gratitude hostility? ~ When the introductory verses of Second Thessalonians are used in the Eucharistic Lectionary (Proper 26C), verses 5 through 10 are excluded; all we get is the author’s gratitude. But here in the Daily Office Lectionary we must confront the vitriol of these verses. If nothing else, this brief excursus into what is clearly an outpouring of anger against those who persecute the church reveals the “humanness” of Christian scripture. These are not the words of God; these are the words of a human being giving vent to human emotion, to genuine frustration. These words, it seems to me, are written by someone in a community under pressure. These are the words of someone surviving oppression and maltreatment left with little ability even to think of loving their enemies. It may be the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that has led the author to express his anger, but the anger is his, not God’s. Encountering these verses, we are confronted by ourselves. Coming to grips with this letter, we come to grips with our own hostility or anger towards those we perceive as different, as “the enemy”. ~ When Paul wrote to Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (1 Tim. 3:16) he, of course, was referring to the Hebrew Scriptures, not to his own letters. However, I believe what he wrote is as true for the church’s received canon of Christian scripture as for the so-called “Old Testament” in this way – there are times when what is written provides us an example of what not to do! The writer of Second Thessalonians was righteously angry and intended to comfort his readers by expressing that righteous indignation. This letter teaches us to be careful about what we write in anger; it may be preserved and hundreds or thousands of years later crazy people may use it as the basis of religious doctrine! In other words, don’t shoot your mouth off carelessly, especially on paper!