One side of the conversation

I have often noted that some of St. Paul’s letters are akin to listening to one side of a telephone conversation. You really don’t know what the other person is saying, you can only guess based on the response that you can hear. This is especially true of the 1st Letter to the Corinthians from which we take our first reading for today.

Paul has received reports that things are not well in the Corinth community of faith – that’s the part of the conversation we can’t hear. But in listening to the first six chapters of 1st Corinthians we do know several things: (a) the people of the community are a prideful people who believe they now possess special wisdom by means of their baptism, (b) this wisdom places them above ethical norms which only bind the spiritually unenlightened, (c) they place such an emphasis on the spiritual that they disparage the body as thought Christian life did not concern itself with such “common” things, and (d) they believe themselves to be unaccountable to one another for the common life of faith lived in the world. It is this context that one has to “hear” the conversation Paul is having with the community in Chapters 5-7 which address sexual integrity

At the beginning of Chapter 7 we actually get to “hear” the other side of the conversation as Paul begins his reactions to their questions by quoting the position of the Corinthians themselves “It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman.” As become clear, the Corinthians view celibacy as a preferred state. Some seem to be even using their baptism as an excuse to escape commitments already made. Just as they had tried to escape reality in shunning all sinners (see 5:10–11), now they wish to use baptism as an escape from the burdens of married life, under the pretext of asceticism. They seem to have devalued marriage on the assumption that it has no place in the kingdom of God (cf. Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35). Further, the degraded status of women in the society of Paul’s day provided good reason, especially for women, to look for excuses to escape the oppression of marital responsibilities. Christian converts in Corinth argued that since they already lived in Christ, they were exempt from their pre-baptismal commitments, including marriage, which they saw as only concerned with life in the flesh. Considering the spiritual to be higher and therefore better, they denied their own sexuality as expressed in marriage.

Yet, all this is framed by Paul’s acknowledgement that marriage reflects the order of creation. In the positive perspective, then, marriage provides a model for the kind of union attainable for Christians and one to which the community should strive: obey one another, carry one another’s burdens, support, love, challenge one another.

Then what is with the advice to virgins and all those not in a married state of life? Paul believes the parousia (2nd coming) was imminent (“…for the world in its present form is passing away” 1 Cor 7:31) and so he advises all Christians to not change their state of life (v.17). His letter addresses problems as they arise, providing solutions to questions within the context of living in the “in-between” times, which are shortened and which will be ended with the sudden coming of the Lord.

Still, he warns the community to not use their high opinion of themselves to disparage the gift of sexual integrity that the Lord has given humanity as seek a spiritual asceticism for pride’s sake. This faith is called to be embodied, above all, embodied in love.


Image credit: Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne. (Image: Valentin de Boulogne/Public domain)

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