Complete this sentence: “If only _____, then I would be happy.” What would you put in the blank? There are so many things that may feel out of kilter in life, and so many things we’re told will make us feel better. Like all human beings, we want to be loved and accepted; we want to feel that we are worthy in someone’s eyes. When we feel insecure and uncertain, however, when we feel we’re somehow less worthy than others, we strive to make ourselves more by following the formulas we’ve been taught. Be successful. Be smart. Be beautiful.
Or this one: Be religious. And make sure others see.
Such religion is useless, Jesus taught: “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 6:1, CEB). Paul similarly criticized the Judaizers, the Jewish believers who insisted that Gentile converts be circumcised. Salvation, he everywhere and always insisted, is by the grace of God alone. It comes through faith, not by religious effort nor any mark of social status.
Thus, when Paul seems to brag to the Philippians about his background as a model Jew, it’s not to flaunt his moral or religious superiority. Yes, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Israelite, circumcised as every good Jewish boy should be, privileged to be of the tribe of Benjamin, he tells them. I was a prodigy as a Pharisee, more zealous than my peers, and never missed a beat in following all of our customs and traditions.
But who cares? he suggests, as if none of that counted anymore:
These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. (Phil 3:7-9)
Paul flips the religious script, just as Jesus did before him. All the things that used to count as assets, as marks of status, he now counts as loss. It’s not that he regrets being born a Jew; far from it, as his letter to the Romans suggests. But all of his efforts at being “righteous” by following the rules of Mosaic law are nothing to him now.
Indeed, they are less than nothing: they are “sewer trash.” The word can be translated in different ways. The King James Version uses the word “dung,” and we could legitimately substitute another four-letter word with the same meaning (yes, that word). But Paul may also be heightening his criticism of the Judaizers. Earlier, he called them “dogs” (3:2), a stinging insult to a Jew. Here, he may be suggesting the image of dogs rooting around in garbage.
That’s what he thinks of the Judaizers’ insistence on circumcision.
It’s a bit of salty rhetoric on Paul’s part. Again, to say that he now “consider(s) everything a loss” — or even garbage — is not to say that there is nothing good about being Jewish, or for that matter, a Pharisee. These things aren’t garbage in themselves. They are garbage in comparison to the beauty of a relationship with Jesus.
After all, he dares to speak here of his former self-righteous crusade against the followers of Jesus. I imagine the pang of shame he felt in writing those words. But that shame is enveloped in grace. Paul remembers his encounter with the risen Jesus as if it were yesterday. He marvels at being chosen as an apostle. He rejoices in seeing how God has used him. For the astonished and grateful Paul, all of this is the proverbial pearl of great price (Matt 13:45-46). It is worth any cost, any loss.
He knows now that his religious résumé counts for nothing, because a relationship with Jesus is everything. Thus Paul will not stand for anyone teaching the Philippians that they need to do something religious in order to be in good standing with God. In contrast to the Judaizers, in contrast even to his own former way of thinking, he flips the script on righteousness itself.
Do we need to do the same? Let’s explore that question in the next post.