I’ve encountered resistance from Christians in speaking about Paul’s conception of churches as communities of justice. I think that fears of a “social gospel” have made many readers of Paul’s texts blind to the sorts of social behaviors and intentionally-cultivated community dynamics to which Paul calls his churches.
In his new book, Becoming the Gospel, which I’m having a difficult time putting down, Michael Gorman addresses this crucial aspect of Paul’s vision:
The theme of justice has become increasingly central to my interpretation of Paul. Some readers, however, become nervous when they hear “justice” language associated with the apostle Paul. They fear that he is being turned into an advocate of nonpersonal, nonspiritual, progressive, or “liberal” theology that detracts from Paul’s true intentions. …[S]uch fears are misplaced. Paul’s theology and spirituality are a legitimate and substantive continuation of the prophetic ministry and message of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus. This does not make him “unspiritual” – or anything else one might fear – but rather interprets him properly as fully and covenantally spiritual: passionate about love of God and love of neighbor, filled with the Spirit of justice who filled Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Jesus. But Paul expresses this Spirit-filled prophetic reality in new ways in light of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, cruciformity and justice are inseparable from each other. The same can be said of peacemaking and reconciliation, which are related in the Bible (and specifically in Paul) not only to justice but also to love – all components of the Bible’s grand vision of shalom. These interrelated practices constitute the several sides, so to speak, of one coin, the missional identity of those who are in Christ (p. 9, n. 21).
I’ve just finished Donald Juel’s lovely little book, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted. He argues that Mark’s implied audience(s) are those that have grown complacent and comfortable. This accounts for Mark’s disturbing ending:
The surprise ending of the Gospel is intended for the implied audience. Its impact does not easily fit the image of an implied audience desperate and in need of comfort. The conclusion offers little comfort. The impact of the ending has more to do with expectations of satisfaction and control. Readers have been treated as insiders throughout the story, learning what none of the characters can know. It is not difficult to imagine an ending to the story that would reinforce that experience, providing readers with a sense of closure and satisfaction at the expense of the disciples. Yet the empty tomb and the silent women do not provide such satisfaction for those who have been led to expect such an ending, and the events do not leave resolution of the story in the hands of readers. There is something disquieting about that lack of control—a disquiet that usually drives interpreters to get what they need from the story by means of cunning or violence.
The surprise, the irony, work differently if directed at insiders whose problem is indifference or a tired lack of perception about the way things are. It may serve as a warning, as Paul’s reminders do in the opening chapters of his first letter to the Corinthians. The features of his message that initially moved that Corinthians from darkness to light, identifying the change that came at their conversion, now serve to illumine their Christian piety, which turns out to have much in common with their pagan past.
Viewing the audience as tired or indifferent is appropriate to the present situation of most Christians, weary of waiting, tempted to believe that the master of the house will never return, increasingly comfortable in a world capable of hiding from the truth, unaware of how easily the authority of the gospel is exchanged for ordinary power.
Careful attention to the implied audience in Mark’s story of Jesus may serve to remove barriers to a fruitful hearing of the Gospel for those whose problem is not persecution as much as the inability to be surprised by the God who is both more dangerous and more promising than they can have imagined (pp. 145-46).