Investigating the right question
One of my favorite movie genres is science fiction. The reason is the genre allows the exploration of what it is to be human against the backdrop of something so different, so alien to our own understanding that it is easier to see the truth of who we are. Of all the greats in science fiction, Isaac Asimov stands out head and shoulders above most. In his classic book I, Robot, he explores for us what it is to be human. In the film version, Alfred Lanning, author of the three laws of robotics, played by James Cromwell, sets the main character Detective Del Spooner, played by Will Smith, on the trail of a mystery created by Lanning’s apparent suicide. At the scene of the suicide, a holographic video is left for the detective and the following conversation ensues.
Dr. Alfred Lanning: Good to see you again, son.
Detective Del Spooner: Hello, doctor.
Dr. Alfred Lanning: Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.
Detective Del Spooner: Is there something you want to tell me?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.
Detective Del Spooner: Why did you call me?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: I trust your judgment.
Detective Del Spooner: Normally, these circumstances wouldn’t require a homicide detective.
Dr. Alfred Lanning: But then our interactions have never been entirely normal. Wouldn’t you agree?
Detective Del Spooner: You got that right… Is there something you want to say to me?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: [the camera rotates around Lanning, revealing him to be a hologram] I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.
Detective Del Spooner: Why would you kill yourself?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: That, detective, is the right question. Program terminated.
When it comes to understanding those more nuanced, complex issues of theology, the right question is paramount in getting to the meaning of the text. You cannot get answers without asking questions and the better the question, the better the answer. So our responsibility is to develop a good interrogative hermeneutic as an approach to Paul’s first letter to Thessalonica.
Asking the right questions
When it comes to studying texts we often use language about what is ‘in front of the text’ or ‘behind the text’ as ways of talking about the formation of our ideas about what we read. The text itself is also curious in that the language itself is difficult from a Greek perspective and leads one to question both Paul’s word choices and their meaning, a difficulty that extends into the translation and deciphering of the meaning of this text.
The truth is that “Interpretation is an art,” and that art requires us to think beyond our basic preconceptions and try to understand the ‘language’ being used and people who are using it. For instance, in our text, who are the Thessalonians? Where did they live? How did they live? What was going on in their world, in their time? In regard to Paul, why would he need to say what he did? What did he hope to accomplish? What are the possible meanings of the text and which one is most reasonable?
Who is Paul writing to?
Thessalonica was a city whose civic leadership was particularly adept at ingratiating itself into the circles of Roman power, time and again falling in with those who rose to power in the city-state, making it “one of the strongest cities of the region.”
The city is situated on a natural harbor that is one of the safest in the Aegean Sea and had been in existence for three hundred years before the Pax Romana began under Augustus. It was strategically located on trade routes (the Via Egnatia, a major land route, ran through the city) and had certain security guarantees from the empire to be a free city as well as being the seat of provincial Roman government. Despite this Roman influence, the city retained much of its Greek culture, remaining a free city, being exempt from certain taxes, and being able to mint its own currency.
As a major textile hub, particularly the purple dye industry, a leather worker like Paul would have little trouble finding work to supply income while he worked to develop a Gentile Christian community,  something he mentions in chapter two verse nine. This would cause us to lean toward the idea that Paul developed a congregation from those people he met in the course of conducting business in Thessalonica. Yet, the Book of Acts speaks of Paul developing a modus operandi of going into the synagogue,
“…as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”
Yet, the letter never explicitly mentions a synagogue or Jews being in Thessalonica, whether in the congregation of Gentile believers or even in the city proper. In fact, the converts he does mention in chapter one verse nine are those who were converted from the worship of “dead idols to serve the living and true God.”
As a hub of pre-Roman Egyptian cults and temples for Greek and Roman gods and deities, the religious sphere was populated by a wide variety of polytheistic beliefs. Many of these cults were politically ingratiated into the political order leading to a relationship between the two that created religio-political ideologies within the politics of the rather urban city of Thessalonica.
While being a part of the urban landscape in what is arguably a city of affluence, comparatively speaking, the church that was founded at Thessalonica was made up largely of a subaltern class of poorer craftspeople.
What did Paul need to tell them?
Paul plays with words in 1 Thessalonians. One of the most significant methods of understanding for this text relates to the dualistic words/phrases: ‘those who fall/are asleep’ (4.13-15, 5.6-7,10), ‘the dead in Christ’ (4.16), ‘died’ (4.14, 5.10), ‘alive’ (4.15, 17, 5.10), ‘light’ (5.5, 8), ‘dark/darkness’ (5.4-5), ‘day’ (5.4-5, 8), ‘night’ (5.2, 5, 7).
Dualities in the text:
- In the presence of God/without the presence of God
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is one of encouragement in the face of secular pressures not unlike those pressures that we see today. The gospel for Paul is ‘that Jesus died and rose again’ and that ‘…God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.’
What do we do with it?
Saint Augustine said, “Paul didn’t say that you may not be saddened but that you may not be saddened as the heathen are, who do not have any hope. It is unavoidable, after all, that you should be saddened; but when you feel sad, let hope console you.”
So what do we do with this understanding?
The truth is, this sermon will almost preach itself as comfort and encouragement without much needing to be said. The message is one of hope, comfort, and encouragement in times of difficulty and pain. God has provided us with these things through Jesus the Christ. Paul exhorts us to “encourage one another and build each other up” twice in this passage as summations of the major themes. And what is Paul’s encouragement? That, “we believe that Jesus died and rose again” and that one day we will, through whatever travail in this life, whatever difficulty we might face, find ourselves ushered into his presence, forever to remain.
And that is Paul’s great declaration here, that those who were without hope for their loved ones who had died in the faith, can have hope. Paul is telling them that their grief does not have to be this hopeless expression of losing someone forever. No, Paul is telling them that at some point in the future, Jesus will return for them and there will be a resurrection of the dead and a rescue of the living. Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to ‘be sober and vigilant,’ to be a people who are shielded by love and carry with them a hope for salvation in Jesus the Christ “who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” In other words, for those who follow in the Way of Jesus, there will be a time when we find ourselves in the very real, physical and spiritual presence of Jesus the Redeemer. We who are alive should “encourage one another and build up each other.”
Is there any greater answer to the question than that?
 (Asimov (Novel), Goldsmith (Screenplay) and Vintar (Screenplay) 2004)
 (Schleiermacher 1991), Kindle Loc. 2297
 (Schleiermacher 1991), Kindle Loc. 2304
 (Minguez 2012), p.51
 (Minguez 2012), p.52
 Acts 18.3; cf. (Ehrman 2004), p.304 – There is some discrepancy about the term ‘tent-maker.’ It may be that the term has as much to do with one who works with the materials associated with tent production as one who actually assembles a tent from the constituent pieces.
 (Minguez 2012), p.54 – There has been no evidence of a synagogue or decidedly strong Jewish community in Thessalonica. There was, however, a Samaritan community that existed there and therefore a Semitic community however small it may have been.
 (Ehrman 2004), p.303
 Acts 17.2-3
 (Ehrman 2004), p.303
 (Minguez 2012), p.56
 1 Thessalonians 4.14
 1 Thessalonians 5.9
 (Oden 2000), p.85