The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Burden of Context

Are there some texts that are so divorced from our context that they should not be preached?

by Russell Rathbun

Epistle Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:9-20

For Sunday, Oct.30 , 2011: Year A—Ordinary 31

The week’s readings are all about burdens. The burden of the Ark of the Covenant, the burden of hard labor that bowed down the hearts of the people, and the burden of the Pharisees, which they were not willing to lift a finger to move. And here comes Paul saying he labored and toiled, worked night and day so he would not burden any of us while he proclaimed the gospel to us.

Well, sorry, Paul−whatever your intentions−you have burdened your readers here, nineteen hundred years later.

Context is Everything

Permission to treat the witness as hostile?

This text leads me to wonder if Paul has not completely shed his Pharisaic ways. And that, perhaps, he knew it. He seems to begin by seeking to justify himself. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. I am sure those purity codes are hard to shake. Is that the context?

As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with is children. Jesus told us just this week that we have one father that is in heaven and one teacher. And then Paul asserts here that I should accept what he says not as a human word, but as what it really is, namely, God’s word. Quite the thing, but again what’s the context for this assertion?

Okay, then, what would that word be, Paul?

You have suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.

That’s it?

“Rot roh” (to quote Scooby Doo)

I know that Paul is not talking to me and that he had no concept of how his words would be used in the unfolding of human history, but that is sort of the point.

It seems like in order to preach this text so that it could be heard in anyway that didn’t seem like the prelude to a hate crime one would have to do so much back pedaling, contextualizing and recontextualizing that it would take a month of Sundays.

The Hardest Question

All texts are not given equal weight in the churches study and proclamation. I have never heard a sermon on 1 Chronicles 26:18−At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar. Although, it might be easier to preach on that than this text.

Are there some texts that are so divorced from our context that they should not be preached?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Charis Varnadore says:

    Perhaps this is where it began – the preacher being held up more highly than the Word, or God himself, in the eyes of the congregation, which is quite natural in our world view, since in our conversion, our turning around, we held on to an unchangeable vocabulary. This explains why we hear the term “leadership of the church” instead of “servant of the people.”

  2. Phil Ewing says:

    This is a great comment from Charis. I looked you up as I found another superb thought from you ( see below) on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins which led me here.

    “We, the church, are the Foolish Virgins, since the bridegroom has already arrived – he is the poor, the homeless, the prisoner, the disenfranchised, the “least of these.’ And we, in the safety and security of our homes and churches have refused to respond to the continuous knocking at our door.”

    Thank you for your wisdom and insight- it’s refreshing!


How do you read?