First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 3

William Loader

Lent 3: 24 March  1 Corinthians 10:1-13

This is a very strange passage, all the more so when we hear it read independent of its context. Basically it is trying to rattle the self-confidence of the Corinthians by pointing out we cannot assume that all is well simply because we can look back to a wonderful past experience. Paul does not espouse the view: "once saved, always saved", because he sees salvation as something focused not on getting into heaven and escaping hell, but on a relationship with a person. That relationship is either intact and growing or it is not. The wedding does not guarantee the marriage. That's Paul's message here.

It is not hard to see what Paul is getting at in his opening images. He is deliberately retelling the exodus through the waters of the sea in a way that echoes baptism. The water on either side and the cloud above is enough for Paul to treat it as the equivalent of baptism (did he perhaps think it was a rain cloud!?). Moses figures as the equivalent of Christ. They were "baptised into Moses" has to mean something like they followed and made themselves dependent on Moses by marching on across the dry land surrounded by the waters. Paul pushes the imagery further, picking up an element of the time in the wilderness: drinking from the rock. The image of the rock which produces water allows Paul to get Christ into the picture. It is doubtless not the first time Paul has developed the imagery. It might at some stage have been the basis for reflection on the meaning of baptism and the receiving of the Spirit (from which we all drink, as he reminds us in 12:13). It may even have been imagery with which they were familiar. Paul often introduces such familiar material with the statement: "I do not want you to be ignorant", as he does here in 10:1.

Paul's present purpose is to shatter the assumption that such a past event exempts us from facing reality in the present. The wilderness generation mostly died in the desert. Even this motif was probably not unfamiliar. Psalm 95 exhorts people not to harden their hearts like the wilderness generation. They become a paradigm of people missing out on the promised land. Hebrews 3 and 4 expand the theme. Paul adds some authority to his argument by asserting that such stories are meant to be used in this symbolic (typological) way (10:6, 11). 10:12 states the conclusion: watch out you don't end up the same way!

Paul's diagnosis of the problem with the wilderness generation is also deliberately shaped to match what he sees as the dangers at Corinth, at least on the surface. 10:6-8 identifies lust as the problem which expresses itself in idolatry, feasting and sexual immorality. Paul is thinking about the golden calf which Aaron made. The people feasted, danced and committed sexual immorality. The translation, rose "to play" is too vague. The danger lies with the dancing in this context. It was not uncommon to lump these things together: idolatry, feasting, dancing and sexual immorality (usually with the dancers, who were predominantly prostitutes). In the preceding chapters Paul has been dealing with the Corinthians' failure to address matters of sexual immorality (1 Cor 5), the apparent tolerance by some of prostitution (a regular part of daily life for many; 1 Cor 6) and whether one should eat meat offered to idols and above all attend temple restaurants (1 Cor 8 and 10:14 - 11:1).

Some Corinthians would be shocked at Paul's assertions and reject out of hand the suggestion that they were engaging in such activities. It was "over the top" of Paul to write like this. They would have seen themselves as spiritual people who had great wisdom and engaged in activities which manifested the signs of spiritual gifts. They didn't need to be lectured by Paul about immorality. It was insulting. Yet it is likely that Paul is targeting such people just as much he might be targeting some who did live a double life. Throughout 1 Corinthians we see Paul concerned about these "spiritual" people. He will go on to expose the inequities and contradictions in their celebration of the Lord's supper (1 Cor 11) and the laxity of their worship which led to collapse of what Paul saw as important gender differences. He will challenge the high regard they have for spiritual gifts, pointing out that without compassion and generosity such activities do no more than any other religion's similar activities (1 Cor 12-14). He also argues that their abandonment of a concrete and corporate understanding of future hope in favour of the individualism of souls and their bliss is an abandonment of faith, itself and of Christ (1 Cor 15).

So the rhetorical challenge needs to be seen in perspective. While the warnings about lust may apply to some, for most Paul is wanting to assert that they are no better, if they think spirituality is based on a wonderful past conversion and manifestation of wonders now. These people are just as much in danger of missing out as those who are flagrantly immoral. One might also argue that religion gone wrong is usually much more dangerous than the acts of immorality which it easily deplores.

Paul ends the segment with another image from the wilderness days: testing. Psalm 95 warns against putting God to the test. Paul implies that the Corinthians are testing God's patience. The word, testing (or temptation or trial), can face different directions. From testing God's patience (10:9), Paul moves to the idea of the Corinthians being tested (10:13). Paul does not become so engaged in anger that he forgets to care (angry preachers beware!). Paul ends on a note of reassurance. There is a chance for the Corinthians. They can change. But they need to!

Complacency easily enters in when God ceases to be central for faith and is replaced by the gift of heaven or the wonder of experiences past and present. The gift replaces the giver. Faith understood as an ongoing relation on engagement in God and with God in the world can never sit back in distraction or religious self-preoccupation or self indulgence, because the God we know in Jesus keeps opening our eyes to both joy and pain, to wonder and to need, and inviting us to see them and not withdraw from them, which is the wont of religion. God offers us a seat, for sure, and it is a great comfort to take it, but it's on a bus that's going somewhere, so that the joy is being affirmed without denying the realities of the world. That had become the problem at Corinth. It was a kind of idolatry, not blatant, but more serious; religion had usurped the place of God, spiritual experience, the place of love. They'd missed the bus, even if they kept saying and singing that they were in love with the driver, Jesus. Paul found it hard to get the message through. It is still not easy.

Gospel: Lent 3: 24 March  Luke 13:1-9

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