Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Restoring children’s rights to our children

A Purim performance in the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw (Photograph: Henryk Kotowski, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Wednesday 3 October 2012

The Eucharist,

Collect, Readings and Post-Communion Prayer for the 17th Sunday after Trinity:

Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10, 9: 20-22; Psalm 124; James 5: 13-20; Mark 9: 38-50.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

When I was discussing the readings for this evening with [the Revd] Paddy [McGlinchey] last week, as he planned for this Eucharist, I joked that I was going to preach from a phrase in the Epistle reading that reminds us: “Elijah ... prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.”

After the poor summer we have had in Ireland this year, it is fine to make childish jokes about passages like this in Scripture.

Indeed, our first reading this evening is one that creates entertaining and rowdy occasions in synagogues to this day.

As the story of Esther is read at the festival of Purim, which usually falls in March [8 March 2012, 24 February 2013], a month before Passover, the synagogue is crowded with men, women, and children, the adults wearing their best Sabbath clothes, and many children, and some adults too, dressed up in colourful costumes, funny beards and masks. Children in particular enjoy dressing up as the characters in the Book of Esther, including King Xerxes, the banished queen Vashti, Queen Esther, her cousin Mordecai and the evil, scheming Haman.

In some communities, I think, they still burn an effigy of Haman. So Purim is Hallowe’en, Carnival, Mardi Gras and Guy Fawkes Night ... all rolled into one, and usually focussed on children.

The Megillah or Scroll of Esther, as you know, is the only book in the Bible not to mention God’s name. We were reading it last week at Morning Prayer – which somehow seemed out of place during the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur. You may remember how it tells the story of the villain Haman who plots the genocide of the Jews in Persia.

Whenever his name is mentioned during the reading, everyone in the synagogue boos and hisses and stamps their feet, and makes a racket with graggers or rattles and cymbals.

The purpose of all this fun is to blot out the name of Haman. Originally, when his name was read, the congregation would shout “Cursed be Haman,” or “May the name of the wicked rot!”

Any noise will do, and it is a mitzvah that Jewish people should eat, drink and be merry at Purim. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until they cannot tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai” ... although opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is.

If you were not here on Friday morning, you were left hanging, perhaps wondering whatever happened in the end. And this evening we have the end of the story: Haman the villain is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai, and Mordecai is given Haman’s job.

I often wonder how this story was read by Jews during the horrors of the Holocaust, how they could possibly have sung the words of our Psalm this evening:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
– let Israel now say –
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us ...
– (Psalm 124: 1-3)

But this story of Xerxes and Esther, Mordecai and Haman, is not relevant for Jews alone today. It is a story that reminds us constantly, with or without reference to God, that there are always people who plan and plot evil on a grand scale, happy to wallow in the misery and deaths of millions, men, women and children.

The fate of Haman – and of the 70,000 Persians over the course of three days – may seem severe and unconscionable by today’s standards. But it is not their executions, but the plans they sought to execute that faithful Jews are asked to call to mind at Purim.

For those of you with young children, I am sure you try to protect them from stories of evil and genocide, and try to fill their lives with appropriate but fun-filled and joyous occasions.

But while Haman and Hitler planned and plotted on a grand scale, there are always people who plot and plan evil and the destruction of innocence on varying scales of intensity and application. And we should never either under-estimate the capacity for people to do evil or undervalue the importance of our contribution to protecting the vulnerable, the frightened and the victimised children in our society today.

I was taken aback a week or two ago by a report from a refugee camp in Jordan. The reporter had been interviewing a young Syrian girl, who interrupted to resist being called a child. She could only have been 10 or 12 in age, but she pointed out that she had grown up in recent weeks, and was now an adult responsible for the young children in her family, living without their parents.

Save the Children published a report last week [Untold Atrocities: The Stories of Syria’s Children] describing how refugee children in Jordan have been abused, tortured and traumatised before fleeing Syria:

• A six-year-old boy who was tortured and denied water and food for three days until he died.
• A teenager who had cigarettes stubbed out on his body while he was suspended by his wrists from the ceiling of the school where his father was the principal.

In Dublin, in recent weeks we have seen fathers being shot dead in front of their children, on the streets and in their homes, as criminal gangs and dissident Republicans engage in a vicious violent feud, regardless of the traumatisation of children who left helpless on the scene.

We all despise the activities of these gangs. But all children caught in these situations are innocent. There is no such thing as a child being the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. All children should feel safe, in all places, at all times.

And that is a truth that at the heart of the debate in the Republic of Ireland leading up to a Constitutional Referendum next month [Saturday 10 November 2012].

Launching “Yes for Children,” a national campaign on the amendment, the former Supreme Court Justice, Catherine McGuinness – a former assessor for the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Synod and a parishioner in Kill o’ the Grange – described the referendum as an “opportunity to ensure this generation, and future generations, of children are better protected, respected and heard.”

Through this referendum, hopefully, we can:

• provide the best legal protection for vulnerable children and support for families;
• allow 2,000 or so children in long-term state care to be adopted, with a second chance of a loving, stable and permanent family;
• ensure the best interests and views of children are part of decisions made by child care and family law courts;
• set out how we value children in this society.

And yet, until Archbishop Diarmuid Martin preached at a service to mark the beginning of the Law Term on Monday, there had been silence from the Churches about this referendum.

Last Wednesday [26 September] in the Dáil, the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, was speaking on legislation to enable this referendum and said that “so far the Roman Catholic Church has been silent, and the other churches have not yet come out on it.”

He added: “I would like if the churches made a clear statement at an early date indicating that they favoured this referendum.”

As the Dáil passed all stages of the legislation the following evening, a Labour backbench TD, Anne Ferris (Wicklow), described as “disturbing” the silence of the Churches on the children’s rights referendum.

Children’s rights organisations have been campaigning for this referendum for nearly 20 years. And the Churches cannot, must not, be silent when it comes to children’s rights.

In Biblical times, children were seen as a guarantee of care and support, a type of pension and care scheme, in a society with little sense of social responsibility. In next Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mark 10: 13-16), Jesus makes a clear statement that children have their own intrinsic and inalienable rights that command personal individual respect, when he chides those who would stop children from approaching him and says with indignation: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10: 14-15).

But we need to move from Victorian Sunday School images of the children being brought to Jesus, and ask how he would hear the voices of children today and how he would respond to those who plot to do them harm.

Would Jesus challenge us to hear the cries of children in the slums, in the sweat shops, in the brothels, to hear the cries of children behind the bedroom doors of respectability, to hear the cries of children who need the protections this referendum guarantees?

Would he “name and shame” the Hamans of today who plot the end of a child’s childhood, taking away his innocence, her fun, their rights to love and life?

“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9: 42).

Archbishop Martin has described the proposed wording for the children’s referendum as a balanced attempt to address rights and obligations, while giving “a new focus on the centrality of the child’s interests.” And yet he was realistic when he warned that a constitutional change alone is not going to be “a magic formula which will resolve all the challenges for parents and children which sadly often emerge in our complex society.” He recognises that “a change of culture” is needed at all “levels of society and public service.”

I am told, and I am confident, that in the coming weeks before the referendum the voice of the Bishops of the Church of Ireland will be strong and clear.

Meanwhile, the story of Esther is a reminder that even when God’s name is not mentioned or invoked, God can act through political decision-making to protect the rights of the vulnerable, the abused and the violated. For, as the Psalmist says, and as we – and all children – should be able to sing:

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
(Psalm 124: 8)

And so, may all we think, say and do be to praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
Teach us to offer ourselves to your service,
that here we may have your peace,
and in the world to come may see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our guide,
you feed us with bread from heaven
as you fed your people Israel.
May we who have been inwardly nourished
be ready to follow you
all the days of our pilgrimage on earth,
until we come to your kingdom in heaven.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist in the institute chapel on 3 October 2012

The Pastoral Letters (1): Introduction

Archaeological remains in the Basilica in Ephesus ... the pastoral epistles are addressed to Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

3 October 2012


In this tutorial group we have agreed that during our time for Bible study during the first few weeks of this semester we should look at the three Pastoral Letters in the New Testament.

The three pastoral epistles or letters are: the First Letter of Paul to Timothy (I Timothy) the Second Letter of Paul to Timothy (II Timothy), and the Letter of Paul to Titus. They are generally discussed as a group – sometimes along with the Epistle to Philemon – and have been known as the pastoral letters since the 18th or 19th century because they address two individuals, Timothy and Titus, who have pastoral oversight of local churches and discuss in pastoral ways issues of Christian living, doctrine and leadership.

These letters are arranged in the New Testament in order of size, although this does not represent their chronological order.

The letters are addressed to Timothy and Titus who were left behind by Paul to preside in their respective churches during the author’s absence – Timothy in Ephesus (I Timothy 1: 3) and Titus in Crete (Titus 1: 5).

They use similar terms to describe the desirable qualifications of hose they appoint to offices in the Church. Timothy and Titus are warned against the same prevailing corruptions, and in particular against the same misdirection of their cares and studies.

Who were the letters written to?

The cross-shaped baptismal pool in the Basilica in Ephesus … according to later traditions, Saint Paul consecrated Timothy as Bishop of Ephesus in the year 65 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These three letters share similar phrases and expressions and similar greetings to the two recipients.

Saint Timothy (Τιμόθεος, Timótheos, “honouring God” or “honoured by God”) probably died ca 97 AD. The New Testament tells us Timothy travelled with Saint Paul, who was also his mentor.

He is mentioned at the time of Saint Paul’s second visit to Lystra in Anatolia (Acts 16: 1-2), where Timothy is said to be a “disciple.” Paul, impressed by his “own son in the faith,” arranged that he should become his companion. Little is known about his father, apart from the fact that he was Greek, while his mother was a Jewish woman who became a Christian (Acts 16: 1). His mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois, are noted as eminent for their piety and faith (II Timothy 1: 5), which may mean they were Christians too. Timothy had not been circumcised, so Paul ensures this is done so that Timothy is acceptable among the Jews.

Timothy is praised by Paul for his knowledge of the Scriptures, and is said to have been acquainted with the Scriptures since childhood (II Timothy 1: 5; 3: 15).

He was ordained by Saint Paul(I Timothy 4: 14) and accompanied Saint Paul on his journeys through Phrygia, Galatia, Mysia, Troas, Philippi, Veria, and Corinth. He is mentioned on several occasions by Paul as his trusted companion and fellow worker (for examples, see Romans 16: 21, I Corinthians 4: 17).

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews implies that Timothy was jailed at least once, mentioning Timothy’s release at the end of the epistle (Hebrews 13: 23).

Timothy may have had some stomach malady, for Saint Paul advises him to “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (I Timothy 5: 23).

According to later traditions, Saint Paul consecrated Timothy as Bishop of Ephesus in the year 65, and he served there for 15 years. Those traditions say that in the year 97, when Timothy was dying, the 80-year-old Timothy tried to halt a pagan procession of idols, ceremonies and songs in Ephesus. In response, the angry mob beat him, dragged him through the streets, and stoned him to death.

The Church of Saint Titus in Iraklion, the capital of Crete ... Saint Paul placed Titus in charge of organising the church in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Titus (Τίτος, Títos) was a companion of Saint Paul and is mentioned in several of the Pauline epistles. He was with Paul and Barnabas in Antioch and accompanied them to the Council of Jerusalem, although he is not named in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15; 2; Galatians 2: 1-3).

Titus appears to have been a Gentile and Paul refuses to have him circumcised. Initially, he was engaged mainly in ministry among the Gentiles.

At a later period, Paul’s epistles place Titus with Paul and Timothy at Ephesus. From Ephesus he is sent by Paul to Corinth to collect the contributions from the Church there to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem (II Corinthians 8: 6; 12: 18). He joined Paul again in Macedonia, and consoled or cheered him with the tidings he brought from Corinth (II Corinthians 7: 6-15).

After that, Titus is not mentioned again until after Saint Paul’s first imprisonment, when he was organising the church in Crete, where Paul had left him. According to tradition, Paul ordained Titus bishop of Gortys, 45 km south of Iraklion, on the south coast of Crete, and the early Church historian Eusebius says Titus was the first Bishop of Crete.

The last we hear of Titus is in II Timothy 4: 10, when he leaves Saint Paul in Rome in order to travel to Dalmatia, on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea.

His death is not mentioned in the New Testament, but Greek tradition says he died in the year 107, aged about 95. His only relic is his skull, which is kept in the Church of Saint Titus in Iraklion in Crete. It was removed to Venice during the Turkish Ottoman occupation of Crete, and was returned to Iraklion in 1966.

Dating the letters

Remains of the basilica in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I Timothy may have been written around AD 66 or 67 and II Timothy a year or so later from Rome, where Paul was a prisoner.

The Epistle to Titus was written after Paul’s visit to Crete (see Titus 1: 5), but this was hardly the same visit as the one in Acts 27: 7, when Paul was on his way to Rome as a prisoner, and where he remained a prisoner for two years. Traditional exegesis supposes that after his release Paul sailed from Rome to western Anatolia, passing through Crete on the way, and that there he left Titus “to set in order the things that were wanting.”

From Crete he would have gone to Ephesus, where he left Timothy, and from Ephesus to Macedonia, where he wrote I Timothy. From there he travelled on to Nicopolis (modern Preveza) in Epirus, from where he wrote to Titus, about AD 66 or 67.

I Timothy:

I Timothy primarily provides guidance for the worship and organisation of the Church. It deals with the issue of women in relationship to authority (I Timothy 2: 9-15) and dignity (I Timothy 3: 11), speaks of bishops (overseers, I Timothy 3: 1-7), deacons (I Timothy 3: 8-10, 12), and elders (I Timothy 5: 17-18).

The letter also opposes false teaching of a speculative and moralistic type.

This epistle or letter consists mainly of counsels to Timothy regarding the forms of worship of the Church (I Timothy 2: 1-15), and the responsibilities resting on its members, including ἐπίσκοποι (epískopoi, bishops or overseers, I Timothy 3: 1-7), πρεσβύτεροι (presbyteroi, presbyters, priest or elders, I Timothy 5: 17-20), and διάκονοι (diákonoi, deacons, I Timothy 3: 8-13).

In I Timothy, the task of preserving the tradition is entrusted to ordained πρεσβύτεροι. Deacons are not mentioned in Titus, but the office of πρεσβύτερος is also mentioned in James 5, and this word, sometimes translated as elder, is also the Greek root for the English word priest.

There are exhortations to faithfulness in maintaining the truth amid surrounding errors (4: 1 ff), presented as a prophecy of erring teachers to come. The letter warns strongly against teachers who lack understanding, wander into vain discussions, and end by making a shipwreck of their faith (I Timothy 1: 3-7, 19-20; 6: 3-10). It also attacks an asceticism that was related to Gnosticism (see I Timothy 4: 3, 7; 6: 20).

The epistle’s “irregular character, abrupt connections and loose transitions” have led critics to discern later interpolations, such as the epistle’s conclusion (I Timothy 6: 20-21), read by some as a reference to Marcion of Sinope, and lines that appear to be marginal glosses that have been copied into the body of the text.

This epistle also includes the well-known but oft-misquoted passages: “For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it” (I Timothy 6: 7), and: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Timothy 6: 10).

II Timothy:

II Timothy is the most personal of the pastoral letters, and most of it is addressed directly to Timothy. It is an earnest pastoral letter from a veteran missionary to a younger colleague.

In II Timothy, Paul asks Timothy to come to him and bring Mark. He warns Timothy about the false teachers and urges him to be faithful in carrying out the office to which he has been called. It is a prophecy about difficult times that will come.

In this epistle the author, who identifies himself as the Apostle Paul, entreats Timothy to come to him before winter, and to bring Mark with him (c.f. Philemon 2: 22).

He realises “the time of my departure has come” (II Timothy 4: 6), and he exhorts Timothy, his “beloved child” (II Timothy 1: 2) to all diligence and steadfastness in the face of false teachings, giving him advice about combating them with reference to the teachings of the past. He urges him to be patient under persecution (1: 6-15), and to faithfully discharge of all the duties of his office (4: 1-5), with all the solemnity of one who is about to appear before Christ Jesus, the judge of the living and the dead.


The head of Saint Titus is kept in a side chapel in the Basilica of Saint Titus in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

This short letter is addressed to Titus in Crete, and is divided into three chapters. It includes advice on the character required of Church leaders (chapter 1), a structure and hierarchy for Christian teaching within the Church (chapter 2), and the kind of godly life and moral action required of Christians in response to God’s grace and gift of the Holy Spirit (chapter 3).

It includes the oft-quoted paradox which the author ascribes to a Cretan prophet: “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons” (Titus 1: 12).

Known as the “Epimenides Paradox,” this proposition reveals a problem with self-reference in logic. The original statement is said to have been made by the Cretan philosopher, Epimenides of Knossos (ca 600 BC), who responded to the popular belief in Crete that Zeus was dead by saying: “All Cretans are liars.” The paradox arises when we considers whether it is possible for Epimenides to have spoken the truth.

Titus deals with the character and qualifications of church officials such as elders, declaring that they are to be men of dignity, respectful, honourable, etc.

The remains of the Palace at Knossos ... Saint Paul borrows his paradoxical claim, “Cretans are always liars,” from the Cretan philosopher, Epimenides of Knossos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some questions and problems

During our studies of these three epistles over the next few weeks, we should also pay attention to some of the problems they raise for us today, including the attitudes to the submissiveness of slaves and women, and questions about the Pauline authorship of the letters.

1, Slavery

Paul writes: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour” (I Timothy 6: 1). And he says something similar when he writes: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity …” (Titus 2: 9-10).

Today, we may be surprised that Paul does not denounce slavery, and this surprise may be expressed if we continue on to the Letter to Philemon, which is sometimes included with the pastoral letters.

How do we interpret Paul’s understanding of the attitude Christian slaves should have towards unbelieving masters?

Why does he seem so nonchalant about slavery?

Has Paul cowered under the pressure of the Greek and Roman culture of the times and accepted the patriarchal attitudes of the day without questioning them?

How do we react to this in a world where 27 million people are living in slavery or the victims of human trafficking? Modern-day slavery is built on greed, fear and a disregard for human life, and human trafficking is a $32 billion multinational industry.

2, Women:

The letters deal with the issue of women in relationship to authority (I Timothy 2: 9-15) and dignity (I Timothy 3: 11). They say how women should dress, what they should do with their hair, and what type of jewellery they should wear.

We shall see how the attitude to women in these letters appear to deviate from Saint Paul’s more egalitarian teaching that in Christ there is neither male nor female. However, Saint Paul also commands that “women should be silent in the churches … For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (I Corinthians 14: 34-35).

3, Pauline authorship

The traditional view accepts Paul as the author. Those who accept this view say they fit within his life and work and they say the linguistic differences complement the differences recipients of the letters. While other Pauline letters are addressed to fledgling congregations, the pastoral epistles are addressed to Paul’s close companions, evangelists he has worked with and has trained. In other words, linguistic differences are to be expected. They would argue that the burden of proof rests with those who dispute the Pauline authorship of these letters.

Among the Apostolic Fathers, it seems I and II Timothy were known and used by Saint Ignatius of Antioch and by Saint Polycarp of Smyrna. Saint Irenaeus makes extensive use of the two epistles to Timothy as the prime force of his work against Gnostics ca 170 AD.

The Muratorian fragment (ca170) ascribes the Pastoral Letters to Paul, while excluding other epistles.

Origen refers to the “fourteen epistles of Paul” without specifically naming Titus or Timothy, and is believed to have written a commentary on at least Titus.

However, on the basis of their language, content, and other factors, many scholars do not accept the Pastoral Epistles as the work of the Apostle Paul, and say instead that they were written after his death. These critics say these letters do not have the same vocabulary and literary style as the unquestionably authentic Pauline letters, they fail to fit the life story of Saint Paul found in the Acts of the Apostles and the other Pauline epistles into a reconstructed biography of Saint Paul, and they identify principles applicable to a later Church rather than the Church of the apostolic generation.

The letters do not share some of Saint Paul’s leading theological concerns, such as the union of the believer with Christ, the power and witness of the Spirit, and freedom from the law. Some of the expressions used in these letters also have a different meaning from the customary Pauline usage – for example, “faith” is used as a synonym for Christian belief and religion rather than a believer’s relationship with Christ.

Similarly, some critics claim the Pastoral Epistles seem to argue against a more developed Gnosticism than that found in Saint Paul’s time; however, more recent scholarship has shown that Gnosticism developed earlier than was previously thought, and this argument, once considered strong, has now faded.


I Timothy 1

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 3 October 2012