Some parts of the Word of God are intellectually gripping the moment we read them. They sound like what we think inspired Scriptures ought to sound like, and we recognize their unique nature without some impassioned orator prodding us about their deep theological implications. When we read a statement like this, for instance: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…,” we don’t need a study Bible with a footnote in bold type to alert us that those are important words. People with keen spiritual sensitivities like us, and folks with an IQ score greater than their shoe size, notice right away that these words are significant, because they’re saying things outside the normal range of ideas. Unfortunately, though, not every comment in the Word of God is as quick to set off our spiritual content alarm and have us reaching for a highlighter. Some verses in the ‘Book of Books’ sound pretty commonplace and ordinary, like something we might have said or written ourselves. We wonder why some of those passages were included at all, and what we’re supposed to do about them, if anything. I ran across one of them again this week, and it claimed squatter’s rights in my head and heart for a while.
Here’s the passage, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also” (Romans 16:1-2 NKJV). OK, so Paul is saying some nice things about Phoebe. I get it, but what’s so special about that? Why wouldn’t he? After all, once Jesus got him over being a brutal religious tyrant, he turned out to be a really sensitive, considerate guy. Now, instead of throwing Phoebe in jail, or maybe having her stoned to death, he’s saying nice things about her. But maybe that’s not the whole point.
When these words were written, Paul had just penned the bulk of one of the most profound spiritual documents that ever had been, or ever would be, written. The Book of Romans has been called a ‘manifesto of the Christian faith’, and represents a composite of New Testament doctrine that is unparalleled. Now Paul was adding a final, concluding section, and though it sounds very different from the 15 chapters that precede it, it is as inspired as the rest of it. No profound doctrinal expositions unfold in this section, and there’s not much that seems to just leap off the page at us. It’s mainly a collection of personal notes to folks whose names sound really unfamiliar. I’ve never met anybody named Amplias, for instance, or Tryphosa, and Philologus sounds more like a medical term than somebody to share a cup of coffee with. So, what does God want us to do in response to these comments?
Paul’s simple remark about Phoebe wouldn’t let me alone this week. She was obviously important to him, though we aren’t given any details about her specific contributions, just her name, and that her helping efforts benefitted him and lots of other folks as well. Paul pointed her out to everyone who would read his inspired treatise, and said, “Accept [receive/embrace/welcome] her.” Then he suggested that the tables be turned. “Whatever she’s doing,” he said, “help her.” It was time that she started to get back some of what she had been handing out to others, so he said, “If she needs anything for whatever she’s doing, see that she gets it.”
Phoebe’s role was important enough to be inscribed and stand alongside all of his inspired insights and doctrinal expositions. All who might be praising God for his ministry and the work he was doing would hear him say, “I didn’t do this—couldn’t have done this—by myself.” Phoebe’s work was vital, but not ostentatious. She was a behind the scenes person, left unknown or overlooked by most. She wasn’t in the limelight, didn’t write lofty epistles, didn’t preach, or expound at length on doctrinal issues. She didn’t plant churches. She didn’t engage in theological debates, or publicly challenge those in power. She just “helped”. Probably few even knew what that really meant, but those she ‘helped’ did. Maybe no one but Paul and God knew how many times her help made the difference in whether his task at the moment succeeded or failed. Regardless, neither God nor Paul were content to leave this quiet helper unacknowledged.
I’ve thought a lot about Phoebe this week, because I live with her. Well… OK, someone like her. They hate to hear themselves mentioned, but God made it clear that He wants the Phoebes in our lives pointed out, and it’s time to comply. My version of Phoebe had a birthday a few days ago, so it’s a good time for me to step up and be obedient, although it’s strange to feel so good about doing something I know she’s going to hate.
If there are ‘Phoebe genes’, my wife got a major crop of them, because like Paul’s Phoebe, helping is who she is. Diane’s never guilty of self-promotion, will find last place in any line, and give her portion of anything to anyone around who seems not to have one. She avoids spotlights, stages, platforms, and podiums. She doesn’t teach, though she could. She doesn’t make speeches, but not because she has nothing interesting to say. She takes nothing that isn’t hers except the burdens and struggles of those around her. She loves much louder and more often with her hands than her mouth. Like Paul’s Phoebe, mine has faults, or so she claims, but like Paul, I have no interest in wasting my time trying to figure out what they are. Her name may not appear on things I publish, lessons I teach, or messages I deliver, but nothing I do is minus her touch, and her help.
Let’s make Mother’s Day 2016 a time to honor all the ‘Phoebes’ in our lives with more than a Hallmark card. Let’s turn the tables and help them for a change, and declare to all who know us that we’d be a much poorer version of ‘us’ without her.
© 2016 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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