Not-So-Well-Known People of the Bible
Pentecost 7C 7/11/10
Grace and peace to you from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Let’s play Jeopardy! Only one category, though. Not-So-Well-Known People of the Bible. You’re all contestants—just raise your hand if you know the question.
$100 – Owner of the slave whose name, Onesimus, when translated means “useful.” Paul wrote to this bible character urging that he free him. PHILEMON
$200 – Made queen of Persia after the king dismissed her predecessor for disobedience, she foiled a plot to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. ESTHER
Final Jeopardy – Not even given a name in the parable in which he appears, this moniker became attached to the rich man who ignored the poor, sick Lazarus – even though he was just outside the front door.
Not all the characters of the bible are heavyweights like Moses, or Elijah, or Peter, or Paul, or any of the others who share instant name recognition. Abraham and Sarah, Adam and Eve, Noah, Zaccheus, Mary Magdalene, Ruth—most of us know the stories about them, mainly because there are stories about them. Good, long stories.
However, bible people like Nimrod, and Jehu, and Silvanus, and Jairus, and Terah, and hundreds of others, sound familiar—but you just can’t place them. We forget them almost as soon as we stumble over their names in scripture. And some we really stumble over! Tirhakah. Othniel. Achaicus. Uzzah. Tychicus. Epaphroditus, Epaphras.
That last one is the guy whose name we heard mentioned in the second lesson. E-p-a-p-h-r-a-s. Eparafas. Can’t even say this guy’s name! He gets mentioned three times in the letters of Paul. Which when you think about it, that’s pretty huge. He’s no one hit wonder. He is obviously a partner to Paul in his mission to Colossae, and a cellmate with him later on. And, still, there’s no song lyric about him, like there is about Paul. (If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Epaphras…). There’s no gospel according to Epaphras. We don’t know any more about him than what’s been said. And we wouldn’t know about him at all if Paul didn’t make a habit of thanking the little people at the end of his missives. Epaphras is a not-so-well-known bible personage. He passes through our reading and our consciousness with hardly a wake to show for it.
As do the vast majority of biblical characters. They show up for a second or two, do what they’re there to do, and then return to obscurity—or maybe that’s too harsh a word, obscurity. Better said that they simply melt back into the story’s context—they go back to living their basically unremarkable lives. Lives that are much like ours.
Because, you see, as much as we’d love to be a Moses, Peter, Mary, or Sarah, as much as we want to do great things, like split the Red Sea or convert 3,000 in one day, or bear a child chosen by the Lord—only a very few will accomplish really great things for God. Only a handful will be remembered. People like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. As much as we would wish to be like these heroes of the bible and the Christian church, we aren’t. We’re Epaphrasses. D-listers. The not-so-well-known people.
Oh, sure, some of us will show up here or there doing God’s work in a noticeable way. If any of you have been to the NE Synod’s youth camp out at Hammonasset, and seen Ken D., with a headset on, directing the actions of several hundred people and a rock band, you know what I mean. In the Hammo story, Ken pops up only briefly. But. But…when that headset comes off, and Ken returns to his regular life, what you may not know is that he has been on the planning committee for that event now for years—generously giving countless Saturdays to meetings in Worcester. Not as glamorous as Joseph in his amazing technicolored dream coat, or as cool as Peter walking on water, or as flashy as Elijah calling down fire from heaven to ignite the altar he had built, along with the ones Baal’s priests failed to set afire, and the priests themselves! But needed and necessary, the everyday kind of work that keeps the kingdom moving towards fruition.
That’s what we do as Epaphrasses. We’re the little people who make it all possible by investing our lives in the lives of others. Behind the scenes type of people. Each helping in relatively insignificant ways that, when taken together, constitute a total far greater than the sum of its parts. And each eager for the coming kingdom’s arrival.
That was what was on the mind of the lawyer who came to see Jesus. We don’t even get his name, he’s really a bible nobody. As a lawyer, he obviously had a firm grasp of religious law. And, on a personal level, he was keenly interested in attaining the kingdom through his compliance with the letter of the Law. He thinks he’s got it covered, when along comes this Jesus person, who is preaching a radically new religious worldview. Not wanting to miss anything through lack of due diligence, the lawyer joins the crowd listening to Jesus. Then comes his Epaphras moment. He stands up to test Jesus’ ideas against the Torah.
“What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” in other words what laws do I have to follow, and how closely—what’s the minimum to get the golden ticket? A selfish question, but one whose answer enquiring minds want to know. Jesus answers the question with a question (a favorite move on his part). “You’re a lawyer, how do you interpret the law on this issue?” The lawyer answers in a strict legalistic manner. 1. Love God with all you’ve got. 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says “There you have it. Do these and you’re good to go.”
But that isn’t the end of this man’s 15 minutes of fame. Because he’s got a follow up question. He wants clarification on something. The part about God he understands completely. But in “love your neighbor”—who is my neighbor? How far do I have to go with this? Remember he’s looking for the easy way in.
Now at this point in the interpretation, we have a decision to make. Is what follows a story that teaches us who our neighbors are, and how to be a good neighbor? That’s the way we usually take it. Why, we even have laws based on this parable—Good Samaritan laws that protect people who help at the scene of an accident from getting sued by grateful victims. Or is Jesus’ story just like his other stories—is it about the kingdom?
As great a lesson as the first one is, I have to come down on the other side. This is not so much about EMTs – first second or third responders and the definition of neighbor, as it is about our entry into the kingdom of God. Remember this all started with the lawyer’s question about inheriting eternal life. And at the end of the story, when Jesus asks, “Who was neighbor to the man who was robbed?” the lawyer’s answer is not “the Samaritan,” or “The one who helped him.” Or even “the one had compassion for him. It was a surprising “The one who showed him mercy.”
How the Samaritan showed mercy was by being willing to cross boundaries, willingness to become involved in someone else’s problem, willingness to enter into relationship with someone who brought nothing at all to that relationship. Looking at this allegorically, which I usually discourage, looking at it allegorically, one could envision the man set upon by robbers to be Us, half dead with sin; the priest and levite represent the religious practice of that time and the laws and prohibitions; the Samaritan is Jesus—an outsider who doesn’t condemn the man with neglect and avoidance, but shows mercy on one who is broke, bloody, and broken. He restores his life. The innkeeper is the church, where the man will await Jesus’ return.
That’s allegory. It fits, but it’s always easy to make just about anything fit allegorically. Better to look at the surprise in the text, which leads to a “truth” that transcends the story itself. That surprise is the Samaritan hero, and the truth is that salvation comes through surprising means. Go and do likewise—that’s not a social statement. It’s the answer to the “So what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” question. Nothing.
Nothing. You can be beat up by life and Jesus will help you. You can have money problems and still the church will take you in. You can be annoying, troublesome, a real piece of work-and Christ will have mercy on you none the less. What can you do? Nothing. What can you say? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. What happens next?
Love the Lord your God with all you got, and your neighbor like you want to be treated.
That’s the job description for us Epaphrases. Nothing flashy. Nothing showy. Once in a while a brief moment of recognition. But the rest of the time, loving God, loving neighbor. Under the radar, behind the scenes—sometimes in a headset—but always—loving Good, loving neighbor.
There’s a piece of newsprint on the easel in the back, and it has two columns – LG, LN. If you can think of ways we can or do love god and neighbors here at mLC, I invite you to add them to the list.
And until the day when Christ returns may you be happy and productive and comforted by being not so well known on earth, but well known to God! Amen