First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 4

William Loader

Epiphany 4:  29 January  1 Corinthians 1:18-31

We begin this week's passage with the same verse with which we concluded last week's: 1:18. It both connects to what comes before and introduces the themes which Paul will expand in what follows. Paul is setting the wisdom of the cross over against claims to wisdom which are doubtless being made by some at Corinth. Wisdom, like knowledge, easily becomes a commodity for which people then compete because it is a way of attaining power and influence. These are all grabs at meaning, frequently desperate, and grabs at power. It is an ancient drive: to become like the gods knowing good and evil and enough to lead people to jostle all else (including people) out of their way to attain the goal.

Paul declares the path of seeking wisdom to such ends a fruitless and self deceiving path. God will topple such towers of Babel, if they don't fall in their own confusions (1:19). It is not that Paul is being anti-intellectual or suggesting we stop asking question and pursuing answers. He is challenging the "wisdom industry" where people seek to make capital for themselves through their wisdom at the expense of others. this sort of thing was frequently linked to clever rhetoric: how to hold sway over people (1:20-21).

Paul takes wisdom very seriously, but works with a different model. Being deliberately subversive he makes the apparent stupidity and shame of the cross his starting point (1:21). What people despise and see as failure and shame, Paul sees as the beginning of wisdom. God's wisdom shows itself not in winning the speaking games and wowing followers, but in love which is prepared to face the worst. This love-wisdom overturns the ambitious success driven models which strive for power. Indeed true power lies in truly profound love.

In 1:22 Paul sets up stereotypes which doubtless find their fit in Corinth as they do in our world today. Those whom he calls Jews, probably because those he had in mind were Jews, hankered after signs, especially miracles as proofs of God's support. They will be winners because God, the winner, the magician is on their side. Paul is not against miracles and would have been had far less difficulty with the notion of miracle than most of us today. But he refused to make such miracles the foundation for his theology, which would be to make a power-model the framework for this thinking about God. Against this he sets the powerlessness of the cross.

It was probably actual Greeks whom Paul thinks of when he sets up his second stereotype: Greeks seek wisdom. We should not generalise this, as though Paul is attacking Greek philosophy, from which he has learned much. He is addressing a context in which his surrounding comments show us that the issue is certain trends in Corinth which elevate claims to knowledge and wisdom and finesse in speaking.

Against those who made the sensational central, or who made knowledge power central Paul affirms the contradiction of the cross (1:23). Power matters, as does wisdom. But for Paul it is the power and wisdom evident in the cross. Real greatness is the life poured out in love. That is also the heart of the real God. God's kind of foolishness is wiser and God's kind of powerlessness more powerful than these other schemes (1:25).

In 1:26-29 Paul bolsters his argument by noting that the people who have really grasped this are often the apparently simple people and people without great claims to wisdom and lacking the skills of the great orators. Such people expose the emptiness of those who climb the rankings of power in the usual ways.

There is no room for the kind of boasting that lays claim on others, including God, on the basis of status achieved (1:29). God isn't winnable like that. Christ embodies for us the true reality of God and in him we find that God is way ahead of our manipulations and strategies of self promotion. In Christ God declares that we already have the wisdom that matters before God; we don't have to impress. We already have standing before him; there is no additional righteousness to be attained. We already an invitation to share God's holiness; we don't need priestly manipulations to become holy. We already have liberation; it is there for us in God's generous love waiting to help us be transformed. So Christ is our wisdom and righteousness and holiness and liberation - so 1:30.

If there is anything to get excited about and to be engaged in, let it be in God's life and the success of God's life reaching into us and passing through us (1:31). Paul will boast or take pride in that and wants us to do the same. When we do so, we are in tune with with God's own enthusiasms and loves. That makes it much more likely that we are going to be wise and caring human beings and powerfully so. The cross leads us into this and leads us on - if we can appreciate its subversive message.

Gospel: Epiphany 4: 29 January Matthew 5:1-12

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