First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 3

William Loader

Lent 3: 7 March  1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Paul has just been bemoaning the divisions in the Corinthian community. People connected with a person called, Chloe, perhaps her family, have come to Paul in Ephesus from Corinth and reported the fractiousness (1:11).. While Paul does not exactly take sides - he takes them all to task! - he starts in our passage by addressing the issue of wisdom. We are inclined to think that Apollos, who came from Alexandria (Acts 18:24), may have been one who demonstrated a claim to wisdom, but we should be cautious in reading Paul through Acts. We can, in any case, see  already in 1:5 that wisdom is an issue in Corinth. Paul praises them in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. Later he will tell them to stop being childish!

His first challenge had been to confront the special status the Corinthians were giving their leaders (1:12). Preachers can become cult heroes to those whom they persuade. It is easier to develop the dependency of admirers and then live from them. Something like this had clearly been happening. Paul points beyond such leaders, including himself, to Christ (1:12-13). 1:17 brings the next allusion to wisdom. Clearly this is an issue. Was it a matter of clever ways of saying things or claims to special insight? Probably both. Later, in 2 Corinthians, Paul will complain that people have been rating him rather lowly in the rhetorical stakes - though from what he has written and the way he writes, we can see he, too, took such things very seriously.

Paul sees focusing on preachers and on their performance as a distraction. It skews Christian values. Paul confronts it with something ugly: the cross. This was a way of bringing the high flyers down to earth. No matter how fine our rhetoric, there is something much more basic. Those who would hear his letter read in Corinth would agree that outsiders think the cross is foolish. They had probably had to explain this embarrassment about their religion a number of times. It is not a good start to place an instrument of execution in the centre of your symbolism. People recognised it as an instrument of deterrence. Criminals hung on crosses! Paul is not, however, wanting to give a lecture about outsiders. He is really wanting to say something to those Christians who are behaving like outsiders because they are valuing their polished performances so highly.

The ugly sight of a mangled human body hanging on a cross confronts normal human values. Of course, we have got used to it and dressed it up, coated it in gold, made it 'nice', turned it into jewellery. Paul shows in 1:18 that he is confronting two things: the adulation of knowledge and its fancy forms, and the obsession with power. A broken body is not a fine form; nor is it a good Olympic symbol. Paul's attack is not on the value of being wise; he is, himself, appealing to a new profound wisdom. It is on the abuse of knowledge and its forms as power. Knowing more is a way of winning and when it is, it is abusive. Such 'wisdom' must be subverted. To Paul, God has always sought to undo such pretensions. Hence the scripture quotation in 1:19. Hence ultimately the bloodied figure on the cross.

In 1:22 Paul generalises with some stereotypes. Jews are looking for signs, probably miracles of power. Greeks (a cultural generalisation) are looking for wisdom, probably impressive displays of knowledge. Paul's preaching portrays a suffering Jesus, who embodies a new kind of wisdom, a new kind of power, which is love broken and poured out for all. He not only proclaims this Jesus - in his shorthand: 'the cross' - he also understands his own life in its terms. He is not bent on making a slick impression or astounding people with feats, but simply on embodying this kind of love. He, too, becomes an embarrassment, because he falls so far short of what others apparently achieve. Paul sees all this not as a matter of technique or style, but of theology. That is, he sees it as a matter of understanding the way God is. God's way of being and doing confronts the pretensions of human images of greatness, wisdom and success (1:25).

In all this Paul is not developing an academic discourse or analysing pagan values. He is addressing Christians at Corinth who have so obviously got it wrong. It has always been difficult to get it right! Our structures and stances are usually not cruciform but elevations of the high and mighty, partly because we are bent on giving and receiving honours and rewards according to a value system which ultimately crucified Jesus. Lent is a long road!

Gospel: Lent 3: 7 March John 2:13-22

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