Epiphany 3: 21 January 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Unfortunately Paul's assessment of 'the appointed time' was awry. He expected that Christ would come in his lifetime, that he would experience the transfiguration which would make him like those to be raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:52). Does this also invalidate his advice? First we need to explore what he is saying and why.
The context is about marrying and about marriage. He has had to counter those at Corinth who have given up marrying and marriage altogether. Such people were doubtless inspired by the widespread assumption that in the age to come there will be no sexual activity (see Mark 12:25!). They decided to live now as they will then. Paul had made such a decision for himself - as had Jesus and John the Baptist. Some of the Essenes had reasoned similarly. Such people 'made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God', to use a phrase attributed to Jesus in Matt 19:10-12. Where Paul (and Jesus) differs from the people at Corinth is in asserting that this is not something to be imposed on everyone. For some it is perfectly acceptable to marry. Even though Paul is cautious and clearly sees the unmarried state as preferable for people, if they can cope with it, he is at pains to point out that marrying, including having sexual relations in marriage, is something good and belongs to God's order.
Some people think Paul's hesitation about marriage is entirely because of his view of living in the last times. This is clearly not the case. He is operating with assumptions about sexuality which were present in the early Christian movement which both affirmed it and marginalised it, particularly because of the way the future was envisaged. That probably had to do with notions of holiness and that sexual activity did not belong in the holy place. The Jewish roots are evident: the temple is the holy place; outside it, especially out in everyday life sex is fine - but not in the temple. When heaven or the life to come was envisaged in cultic terms, there was a problem.
Nevertheless Paul's view that they were living near the close of time certainly contributed towards his attitude towards marriage - and many other things, as our reading indicates. It is a little sad that his view of marriage is one where being in a marriage partnership is not likely to help you in the last days or in times of struggle. Many people have found the opposite and would dispute what he goes on to write in the verses which follow. Paul looks more widely in these verses to espouse the view that the best way to live is without distractions - whatever they are. What he writes matches quite closely the wisdom of the secular world of his time, especially the Stoics, often admired by Jews (and Christians) and therefore quite influential on early Christian thought.
Paul is saying: reduce distractions and you will cope better with the challenges which meet you as people living in the end time. He is doubtless thinking of the prospect of hardship. For some this would be general advice about life, whether one believes the age is about to end or not. You can make a strong case for this approach. People who are distracted by a range of priorities sometimes lose track of what really matters and therefore do not function or cope well. The pressures and distractions become like 'other gods' whom they serve. It is really important to stay centred, connected with God, who is one and so helps us integrate our life and activity and see things in perspective.
The approach also has some serious dangers. One is that the ordinary human issues of life receive little attention or at worst come to be seen as the enemy of the 'spiritual' - like they had at Corinth. We can think of fanatics whose devotion to their 'god' causes them to neglect family, friends, other human beings. It can be disastrous - not least when they believe their god wants them to disregard care of other human beings. In its mild forms it is also dangerous and can lead people to expect God only in high places and extraordinary experiences and not in the everyday. It can produce the ideal of the Christian who will not be rattled, shuns emotion and emotional involvement, and so stunts himself (or herself - though usually a male model) and others' emotional maturity.
Paul wants people to be free of 'worries' (7:32), but there are ways of trying to achieve that which are themselves a very big worry. We need to hear what Paul is saying and bring it into dialogue with other texts and stories. The impassionate Stoic ideal does not even fit the impassioned Paul, himself, well. It does not fit the Jesus of Gethsemane - although the pressure was certainly on to make the two fit. It does not fit the doctrine of creation which affirms humanity, sexuality, relationships, the time to weep and the time to laugh. Paul's challenge does, however, confront the style of living which loses touch with the centre and is carried along in a segmented fashion. This is a common lifestyle in the present. God is just one of the pressures to which we succumb beside all the others which bombard us through slick advertising or through our submission to western norms. Paul's word may jolt us into asking whether we have in the process lost God and lost ourselves - let alone the real interests of others.
Gospel: Epiphany 3: 21 January Mark 1:16-20
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