(Image courtesy usnews.com)
In continuing our series on the Apostolic Fathers, this week’s blog examines the book of 2 Clement. While some is known about the authorship and date of 1 Clement, much less is known about 2 Clement, who wrote it, and when. It is traditionally associated with 1 Clement and many have thought it to be an early 2nd century text with some connection to Corinth (Holmes 134-35). Either way, although much is not really known about the background of the text, it is preserved in collections of the Apostolic Fathers and therefore worth examining.
For our blog this week, I wanted to discuss 2 Clement chapter 7 and its discourse on competition:
“So then, my brothers and sisters, let us compete in the games, realizing that competition is at hand. While many come to enter the earthly competitions, not all are crowned, but only those who have trained hard and competed well. Let us compete, therefore, so that we may all be crowned. Let us run the straight course, the heavenly competition, and let many of us come to enter it and compete, so that we may also be crowned. And if we cannot all be crowned, let us at least come close to it. We must realize that if one who competes in the earthly contest is caught cheating, he is flogged, disqualified, and thrown out of the stadium. What do you think? What will be done to the one who cheats in the heavenly competition?” (7:1-5)
The image of the heavenly competition is something that appears in the New Testament (2 Tim. 4:7-8; Hebrews 12:1-2), and it therefore should not surprise us that it is employed by the author of 2 Clement as well. Here we have something a little bit more elaborate, however. The notion of what happens to cheaters is one of the most poignant parts of this passage, in my opinion. The author notes that in earthly competitions cheaters are “flogged, disqualified, and thrown out of the stadium.” While in sports today cheaters are punished, they are not flogged. However, the abuse they have to endure on social media could be a form of “flogging.” Their reputation certainly experiences it to a degree.
Take Lance Armstrong’s example for a minute. He was seen as the golden child of American athletics. He beat cancer and won the Tour de France 7 times in a row. Well, it turns out he cheated and experienced a dramatic fall from grace. Heck, half of baseball players from the 1990’s and early 2000’s have been accused and found guilty of cheating to the point that it may have ruined their chances of being in the Hall of Fame someday (see Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, A-Rod, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, etc.).
But bringing this blog back to 2 Clement, we see a question that hangs in the air in verse 5: “What do you think? What will be done to the one who cheats in the heavenly competition?” The author answers the question in verse six by quoting “Their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched, and they will be a spectacle for all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24). Obviously this punishment is far worse and more lasting than being flogged and thrown out of the stadium. The audience of 2 Clement is thus warned not to cheat in the heavenly race because the punishment is far worse. It also fits the author’s phrasing in 7:3 that “if we cannot all be crowned, let us at least come close to it.” Clearly just competing in the race is important, even if the crown is not earned. Putting aside any theological debate about what that means, let us as modern readers see that it’s better to get 2nd or 3rd or 50th in the competition (competing with integrity) than to cheat.
Competitions can be fun, lighthearted (like those in the picture above), or serious (like those in the Olympics). I find the topic of competition applicable particularly in a 21st century Western context. In a funny exercise, go ahead and do a google image search for “competition.” Many of the images that come up are people in business suits racing in athletic-style events trying to get there first. The metaphor there is obvious: in the business world, getting there first is always the goal. In other careers, often getting to the top requires that we step on others along the way. The importance of competing with integrity therefore should not be missed, even in those contexts. Isn’t it better to remain honorable and end up not quite as far as you could have if you had “cheated?” I feel that this is the message regarding competition that the author of 2 Clement is trying to convey.
What do you think? How have you seen competition play out in your own life, career, ministry? Can it be fun, healthy, or even productive? Is there a type of positive competition?