Reflecting on Philippians for the Third Sunday of Advent

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, by Dennis Hamm, SJ, commenting on Philippians 4:4-7
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Your kindness should be known to all. The “kindness” (epieikes) Paul calls for here is a special kind, which the lexicon describes as “not insisting on every right or letter of law or custom; yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant.” He may have chosen this rare word as a necessary virtue for the two women leaders mentioned above, as well as for those dealing with them.

In this context, Paul’s statement The Lord is near is not a general truism. In Ps 145:18, a psalm that praises God’s goodness as creator and redeemer, the phrase “You, Lord, are near” expresses confidence that God is responsive to those who call upon him.

Here in Philippians the short assertion that the Lord is near carries the psalm’s resonance but applies it to the one who is specifically honored as Lord in this letter—Jesus the risen Messiah. Since the context of this passage is a call for prayer of petition (v. 6), “near” seems best understood as immediate presence, as in Psalm 145, rather than the temporal imminence of the parousia.

The phrase Have no anxiety at all could provoke the anxious person to respond, “Easy for you to say.” But this is not wishful thinking. Paul reminds his addressees that they have a God whom they can trust to respond to their anxiety and provide for their needs. There is a practical way to address anxiety: in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. “In everything” means in every circumstance—imprisonment, community conflict, harassment from external adversaries. Help is at hand, for the asking.

In urging prayer of petition, Paul insists that it be made with “thanksgiving” (eucharistia)—a reminder that their confidence in God rests on the ways they have already known his power that “began a good work” in them (1:6). The result? The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

It takes something that transcends human understanding to guard human hearts and minds. And this happens precisely “in Christ Jesus,” that is, in the risen Lord and the messianic community joined to him. Note that Paul is putting in other language Jesus’s teaching at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:25–34): the remedy for anxiety is not simply emptying the mind of worry but seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt 6:33). Trusting in God, expressed in prayer within the believing community, leads to peace of mind.

 

© 2013 Dennis Hamm, SJ, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.