Reflecting on Philippians for Palm Sunday

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon by Dennis Hamm, SJ, commenting on Philippians 2:5-11:

The passage as example. The first and best application of this passage is the one Paul himself makes in the Letter to the Philippians. The Christ hymn illustrates the mind-set he exhorts Christians to take on in the preceding verses (1:27–2:4). Then in the verses that follow (2:12–18) he will apply the example of Christ in concrete ways to the life of the community.

The passage as a prayer of the Church. The passage has such beauty and wholeness that it lends itself to being lifted from its epistolary context and used as a freestanding text for prayer, meditation, liturgical reading, and song. Indeed, it is likely that more Christians have experienced the text in these contexts than in the context of the letter itself. In that way, it is like the three canticles drawn from the infancy narrative of the Gospel of Luke—the Magnificat (1:46–55), the Benedictus (1:68–79), and the Nunc Dimittis (2:29–32).

The passage as a source of doctrine. Paul speaks of Christ as being “in the form of God” and not considering “equality with God” as something to be taken advantage of. In all this, he refers to the preexistent, eternally divine Son of God in a way that parallels the thought of Heb 1:1–14, the prologue of John (1:1–4), the affirmation of 1 Cor 8:6, and the hymn of Col 1:15–20. It is important to notice that Paul is not teaching the preexistence of the Son as something new. He presumes that this is common knowledge among Christians as he moves to present first Christ’s self-emptying in his †incarnation and then the self-humiliation of his earthly life and shameful death as the pattern and standard for the life of a Christian.

While Paul is not explicitly spelling out the doctrine of Jesus as Second Person of the Trinity, his text provided some of the raw material that the Church, some three centuries later, would use to formulate the doctrine of Jesus as the eternal Son “consubstantial” with the Father.

 

 

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

Reflecting on Philippians for the Second Sunday of Lent

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon by Dennis Hamm, SJ, commenting on Philippians 3:17:

Paul’s exhortation to be imitators of me may sound strange to our ears. We are reluctant to present ourselves as moral or religious examples. But in the ancient Greco-Roman world it was a common and acceptable practice for teachers to point to themselves as examples. It is human nature to look for examples to imitate; and teachers know that their role inevitably makes them examples, for better or for worse.

Moreover, we acknowledge this fact in plenty of ways in our own culture: consider the recovering alcoholics who tell their stories to other alcoholics to encourage them, or excercise enthusiasts who speak of the new energy they have gained from an exercise program in order to prompt sluggish friends to join them in the gym.

Paul describes the imitation in a careful way: join with others in being imitators of me, literally, “be co-imitators of me.” Since this word appears nowhere else in the New Testament, nor in Greek literature generally, it seems that Paul has coined it to emphasize imitation as a communal enterprise; they are to collaborate as a church in emulating Paul’s way of life. Indeed, he develops that idea: observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us. They are to imitate one another as they follow Paul’s way of imitating

Christ himself. The plural “us” underscores the fact that Paul is not the only model. For example, his cosender Timothy and the Philippians’ emissary Epaphroditus are also to be viewed as models (2:19–30).

 

 

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

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.

Reflecting on Colossians for The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, by Dennis Hamm, SJ, commenting on Colossians 3:12-17
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And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. Apart from Paul’s benediction in the prescript of the letter (1:2), this is the only other occurrence of the noun “peace” (eirēnē, as in the name Irene). But Paul surely chooses the word with awareness of his reference to Christ’s “making peace [eirēnopoiēsas] by the blood of his cross” in the climactic line of the Christ hymn (1:20).

Obviously, “the peace of Christ” is not merely the absence of war or violence but also the serenity and good order in relationships that proceeds from self-giving and self-denying love practiced in the Christian community, which participates in the self-emptying love of the Son.

And how exactly does one let the peace of Christ “control” one’s heart? The verb for “control” is another rare word, used only here in the New Testament. It carries the connotation of decisiveness. The imperative is addressed to the community as a whole, so it could be paraphrased, “Beloved brothers and sisters, let the reign of Christ’s peace be the determining factor in all your personal and community relationships.”

The image of the word of Christ dwelling in you richly draws on the cosmic poem in chapter 1. As the fullness of divinity dwells in Christ (1:19), the word of Christ dwells in the gathered worshiping community. Although one might easily hear “dwell in you” as applied to the individual, the pronoun is plural and the phrase can also be translated “among you,” and probably should be in this context.

How does this indwelling of the word of Christ come about? By way of teaching and admonition, and by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. Thus Paul gives us a fascinating interpretation of what actually goes on in liturgical song. Even as we are praising God musically, we are supporting and teaching one another by way of this shared prayer of praise.

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

Reflecting on Philippians for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, by Dennis Hamm, SJ, commenting on Philippians 2:6-11
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The Son, who had already emptied himself of divinity, humbled himself, becoming obedient to death. Since “obedient to death” could seem to describe death as Christ’s master, a clearer translation is that of the NRSV: “obedient to the point of death.” This obedience to the Father as a humble servant characterizes the whole earthly life of Jesus (see Mark 10:45).

Even death on a cross is not an addendum but the very climax of the statement. In Paul’s world, death on a cross was the ultimate extreme not only of pain but also, and especially, of humiliation. Paul is, after all, expanding on the self-abasement of Jesus. First came his self-emptying in the incarnation; then came his self-humbling in his human life, which culminated in the most humiliating death of all, the gruesome form of Roman execution reserved for criminals who were noncitizens of the empire, especially slaves. If the city of Philippi was filled with inscriptions posted by citizens boasting of their accomplishments in the Roman honors race, Paul counters this mind-set with his acclamation of Jesus Christ’s self-emptying humility—to which God the Father responded by bestowing the supreme honor that is about to be described.

At verse 9 there is suddenly a complete reversal. Because of this, God greatly exalted him. The Greek verb for “greatly exalt” (hyperypsoō) means in effect to “hyper-exalt.” Though the hymn surely alludes to Jesus’ resurrection, the emphasis here is on the lofty status to which he has been raised. Jesus’ exaltation is not a matter of being raised from the human to the divine, since he already possessed “the form of God” and “equality with God.”

Rather, it was the Father’s public vindication of the supremely honorable human life of the Son. Christ is now, in his human nature, exalted to divine glory and enthroned as Lord of the universe. This reversal from humiliation to exaltation evokes Isaiah’s fourth servant song, where God foretells that his suffering servant shall “be exalted and glorified exceedingly” (Isa 52:13 LXX). The humiliated one is glorified!

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

Logos Upgrade for the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture

Philippians, Colossians, PhilemonActs of the ApostlesTwo new volumes from the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture are now available for preorder on Logos; Acts by William S. Kurz, SJ, and Philippians, Colossians, Philemon by Dennis Hamm, SJ.

For a limited time, you can preorder both volumes for just $25.95. Also, with the Logos edition, each Scripture passage in the commentaries links with your favorite translation, and you can utilize the powerful search features of Logos Bible software to receive comprehensive, lightning-fast results.

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Reflecting on Colossians for Easter Sunday

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, by Dennis Hamm SJ, commenting on Colossians 3:1-4.

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As in Philippians, where Paul speaks of “God’s upward calling” and “our citizenship . . . in heaven” (3:14, 20), his exhortation here to seek what is above, where “your life is hidden with Christ in God,” is not so much about location as orientation. Since Christians have truly died and been raised with Christ in baptism, the concerns of this world can no longer dominate their attention.

This does not mean being so otherworldly that you’re no earthly good, but just the opposite: relating to others with the purity and selflessness that come from knowing Christ’s victory and sovereignty over all things. Just as Paul spoke of Christians’ having left the world without denying their flesh-and-blood existence on earth (2:20), so here he reminds them to orient their daily lives toward union with their exalted and risen head, Christ.

This is similar to his words in Eph 2:6, about our being seated with Christ in the heavenly places. For the only time in this letter, he uses that habits-of-the-heart word he used ten times in Philippians: Think of (phroneō). Keeping in mind that Christ is seated at the right hand of God, the place of highest sovereignty, is the best possible perspective for handling affairs on earth.

Further, Paul says, your life is hidden with Christ in God—that is, the divine glory already present and at work within you is for the time being invisible. This heavenly orientation of our earthly lives will eventually be heavenly in the literal sense at Christ’s parousia, or second coming, when you too will appear with him in glory. The contrasting orientations Paul speaks of here, heavenly versus earthly, are the same as those he expresses in Galatians as walking in the Spirit versus doing the works of the flesh (Gal 5:13–26).

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

New Release: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon

Cover ArtIn this addition to the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Dennis Hamm explores the significance of Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon and the enduring relevance of these letters to the life and mission of the church. Based on solid scholarship yet readily accessible, this book is enriched with pastoral reflections and applications and includes sidebars on the living tradition and biblical background.

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“These three ‘prison letters’ of St. Paul are often overshadowed by his more substantive letters, especially Galatians and Romans….Hamm shows that these little letters are more substantial than one might suspect. His interpretation is informative and insightful, his style concise and user friendly, and his discussions evenhanded. In addition, the sidebars, illustrations, and glossary are full of useful information. I warmly recommend this commentary to a wide audience, whether Catholic or ecumenical.” – Ronald D. Witherup, SS, Superior General, Society of Saint Sulpice, Paris, France

“A marvelous book–lucid, intelligent, learned, accessible, and provocative–written by a scholar who knows how to invite people into the riches of the New Testament. Presented in a lively format that will appeal to both scholars and general readers alike, Father Hamm’s new book is a boon to anyone seeking to understand and live out the timeless wisdom of St. Paul.” – James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage

“[A] delightfully reader-friendly treatment that greatly illuminates three of Paul’s captivity letters. Many illustrations, sidebars, and maps enrich the presentation. All teachers of the letters of Paul will want to alert their students to this sparkling gem. It will enlighten anyone interested in Pauline studies, but especially seminarians, preachers, and pastoral ministers.” – John Heil, The Catholic University of America

“I’ve had the privilege of visiting the sites associated with St. Paul’s works, but the experience was not nearly as vivid for me as my reading of Father Dennis Hamm’s commentary. This book lives up to the standard of a series whose volumes have been at once devout, beautiful, erudite, and useful–an extremely rare achievement.” – Mike Aquilina, author of The Fathers of the Church and The Mass of the Early Christians

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Dennis Hamm, SJ (PhD, St. Louis University), is professor of New Testament and Graff Chair in Catholic Theological Studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where he has taught Scripture for over thirty-five years. He is the author of several books and numerous articles.

For more information on Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, click here.

Reflecting on Colossians for Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, by Dennis Hamm SJ, commenting on Colossians 1:12-20.

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Paul begins his marvelous hymn by describing the preeminence of God’s beloved Son as image of God and as firstborn of all creation. Describing Christ as the image (Greek eikōn, from which our word “icon” is derived) of the invisible God, he turns the focus to the incarnate Son, Jesus, since only the enfleshed Son is visible. This means that to look upon Jesus of Nazareth is to see the face of the eternal, invisible God. The word “image” echoes Gen 1:26–27 (“Let us make man in our image”) and prepares the way for understanding Christ as the new Adam (see Col 3:10).

When he calls the Son the firstborn of all creation, he uses the rich biblical notion of a firstborn son as preeminent in a family in two ways: (1) the firstborn is chronologically first to be born to his parents; (2) he has greater privilege and honor (e.g., in measure of inheritance) than other siblings.

Paul proceeds to apply this concept to the eternal Son in two different ways, each of which uses both senses of “firstborn.” First, the Son is firstborn in the sense that he is, with the Father, the source and sustainer of all created things (vv. 16–17). As firstborn, he is heir to the entire universe. Second, he is chronologically the first to rise from the dead; and as risen Lord he is the foundation and capstone of the new creation, the Church (vv. 18–20). In both the original creation and the new creation, Christ is prior in time and supreme in honor.

In verse 16 Paul speaks of the eternal Son before his incarnation. A vast world of things was created over the course of the enormous era we call BC (some 13.7 billion years, astronomers tell us). The Son was not himself created. He is “firstborn” of all creation because of his status as agent of all creation from the beginning—as we say in the Nicene Creed, “begotten, not made.”

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