Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Laodicea's Wealth (part 2 of 4)

Taken together, the facts of the great wealth of the city, that the wealth enabled them to decline assistance from Rome after a catastrophe, and that it was a seat of provincial government (though not relying on the largesse or beneficence of Rome or of the emperor, in contrast to so many other cities of the region), Jesus’ chiding of His church for its insistence that they were rich, that they have acquired great wealth, and that they were in need of nothing becomes quite understandable. 

Now, this is not meant to be a condemnation of wealth.  Taking a negative view of wealth, whether civic or individual, based on these words, would be unwarranted and out of context.  What we must keep in mind as we continue to make progress, and as we pull back the layers of nearly two thousand years of cultural changes that have served to obfuscate from our view what would have been easily seen and understood by the Laodiceans in their day (they would have known about declining imperial assistance in rebuilding, they would have known why, and as citizens of Laodicea they would have been quite proud of that fact), is that their wealth is what is causing them to engage in practices that have Jesus wanting to vomit them out of His mouth. Therefore, these practices are not in line with what can be observed in His mission, nor are they in accordance with the message of the Gospel. 

The practice or practices (as the case may be) of this “lukewarm” city (Laodicea) stands in contrast to what takes place in the “hot” and “cold” cities (the well-known epithets assigned to Hierapolis and Colossae).  The church in Laodicea, correspondingly, is being asked to observe the difference in practice between itself and the churches in those other cities and to mimic the practice, thereby becoming either hot or cold, either of which was perfectly acceptable to Jesus.

After commenting on their wealth and need of nothing, Jesus makes an interjection that serves to negate any vaunted ideas of self as citizens of Laodicea that might have arisen from such thoughts, saying that this church did not realize that they were actually “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17b).  Here, metaphorical and analogical application seems to be unavoidable, as Jesus wants them to understand that though they may be wealthy, their nauseating practice that partially stemmed from the fact of their wealth actually showed them to be something far different.  This too is something to which we shall return in due course.

As a result, Jesus implores this church---the very church upon whose door He stands and knocks so that He might come in and share a meal---to “take My advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich!” (3:18a).  This is another reference based on historical context.  As we have already seen, Laodicea is a place in which large financial transactions take place, which this making a major contribution to the wealth of the city in general, and more than likely, to some of the individuals within the church.  Understandably, precious metals such as gold would have been standard fare in the financial world of the day, which makes sense of Jesus’ reference to the need to buy gold from Him. 

There is no need here to go to any discourses about the impossibility of buying the things of God, or to ponder what it is that Jesus insists needs to be obtained.  Such would be inappropriate, and need only be ventured if we fail to consider the context of Laodicea’s position, its trade, and its source of wealth.  An abundance of gold will generally cause those that possess such abundance to consider themselves rich.  However, Jesus has already informed this church that their practice, quite to the contrary, has made them truly poor.  If they will but discard the practice and enter into what it is that He desires, as demonstrated by His life and practice, then they will truly be rich.  If the Biblical narrative pattern is followed, these riches (blessings?) that are indissolubly linked to practice will probably have some connection to the Abrahamic covenant.  The true gold that will be purchased from Jesus will be inextricably connected to the kingdom principles that He demonstrated throughout His ministry, and according to the Hebrew prophets, there can be no greater riches than those which are connected to the established kingdom of God.

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