Click here for the readings - Sunday, March 8, 2015
Who are the Corinthians, and why is Paul writing to them?
Corinth was a city in ancient Greece that sat in a crucial geopolitical location, on the thin isthmus of land that connected the Peloponnesus with the Greek mainland. The Peloponnesian Peninsula was home to one of the first major civilizations of Europe, and it eventually boasted the regional powers of Sparta, Argos, and Megalopolis. Corinth was strategically situated about halfway between Sparta on the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the cradle of Greek civilization, Athens, which was on the mainland. On either side of Corinth were ports; the city itself was a major harbor for the Gulf of Corinth, which is a part of the Ionian Sea, itself connected to the larger Mediterranean.
Because of its location, Corinth was a bustling metropolis... among the largest and most diverse in the world. Seafarers from all over the Mediterranean would arrive by boat. Caravans going from the Peninsula to the Mainland, and vice versa, had to pass through. There was a constant stream of activity and visitors. And as is the case in a modern hub of commerce, such as New York, Miami, or Los Angeles, different ethnic groups set down roots in various parts of the city. Jews, Greeks, and all sorts of ethnic minorities from around Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. All living, at the time of Paul’s writing, under the rule and protection of the Roman Empire, who had conquered Corinth from the Greeks.
And like most major cities, it developed a reputation for being a place of great sin, particularly sin of the sexual kind. Think of Corinth as an ancient analogue of Las Vegas, a.k.a. “Sin City.” People went to Corinth looking for a good time. And for this reason, Paul goes to bring the Gospel.
What does Paul say to them in the Letter?
As one might expect, Paul spends a great deal of the letter condemning various sexual practices and forms of debauchery. He supplements these critiques with equally powerful exhortations delineating a more fulfilling, more noble, more Christ-like way of living. It is in Chapter 13 that we hear the now-ubiquitous, “Love is patient, love is kind,” discourse. But before Paul wades into the morass of moral licentiousness taking place among the community, he first takes aim at a uniquely problematic phenomenon completely unrelated to sins of the flesh: factionalism. That is, divisions within the Christian community.
In a city as ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse as Corinth, factionalism was bound to be a problem. Egyptians worshiped the cult of Isis alongside Greeks paying homage to the god of medicine, Aesclepius, while nearby, a Roman temple to the emperor saw tributes to Caesar. Add in a significant Jewish community, and the number of different rituals, belief systems, and worship spaces was downright dizzying. So Paul’s challenge in proclaiming the Gospel was compounded by his need to tailor the message in a manner that would be compelling to these many disparate groups.
And it must be remembered that, having accepted the Good News that Paul was proclaiming, these same people would not simply have abandoned all previous religious practices. In much the same way that Incans who became Catholic did not stop offering sacrifices to the spirits of the Andes, and Japanese who welcomed missionaries did not cease honoring deceased relatives at temples of the dead... nor did all of these groups assimilate uniformly to this nascent Christian cult. So divisions arose. Jewish converts felt that Gentiles should be circumcised, since Jesus was himself a Jew and claimed that he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Gentiles rejected Jewish dietary customs, believing that Jesus had not required them as a condition of discipleship. Moreover, particular sub-groups were loyal to different preachers; some considered themselves followers of Apollos, others of Paul, others of a missionary named Cephas.
So Paul takes aim at all of these squabbling factions, claiming that they are disciples not of Paul or Apollos, but of Christ Jesus. Moreover, the respective demands that the groups place on those preaching the Gospel are problematic, but for different reasons. Greece was the civilization of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and Pythagoras and Zeno and so many brilliant minds of the ancient world. To be convinced of something, the Greeks wanted to be persuaded by facts. By compelling arguments. By masterful rhetoric. The Jews, by comparison, came from a tradition of prophets who were able to perform signs as evidence of their authority. Moses struck a rock and drew water, then called down bread from Heaven. Elijah raised a widow’s son from the dead. What feats did this Jesus perform? And what were his followers capable of? If they could not produce signs of their unique relationship with God, they were not to be trusted.
So what does this have to do with us?
Paul’s response to them is that their demand either for wisdom or signs is misguided. Instead of impressive rhetorical formulations or inexplicable supernatural acts, what ought to compel us about this person Jesus was his living witness. His utterly unbelievable, completely unmerited offer of self-sacrificing love in the form of the Cross. His model of perfect service, embodied and epitomized in the horrific act of Crucifixion. No words will be enough to convince the Greeks, who are looking for a compelling argument. No signs will be enough for the Jews, who want evidence of miracles. Their requirement that this Jesus, and this Gospel, fit their preconceived notions is a prohibitive impediment to their receiving the truth of the message.
Is that not the same some 2,000 years later? Don’t most of us have friends who say they can’t get on board with Christianity because they do not find the arguments to be intellectually compelling? Don’t many of us know someone who’s looking for a “sign” that God is present in their lives? Perhaps WE are even that person some times! (Perhaps we are that person MOST of the time!)
When we reduce faith to a series of intellectual propositions, to which we lend or withhold our cognitive consent, we do it a disservice. When we demand that God provide evidence of God’s existence by way of supernatural intervention, we likewise distort the nature of belief. Instead, our faith is premised upon and built around a witness and a relationship. A witness of what living according to God’s plan for our lives looks like in the person of Christ Jesus, and a relationship with that same self-sacrificing savior who gave His life for us on the Cross not just that one time 2,000 years ago, but each time we celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass, in which we re-create the “paschal sacrifice,” and Jesus’ body is once more broken and bloodied and poured out for us.
We would do well to heed St. Paul’s words that we not let our demands for wisdom or signs get in the way of a deeper relationship with Jesus. Yes, there is enormous wisdom contained in the Parables and the Sermon on the Mount and in Sacred Scripture more broadly. Yes, we hear testimony all the time of people whose prayers are answered and cancer is cured. But our faith is not a truly Christ-centered one if it can rise and fall based on the presence or absence of such things. Our faith centers around a person, not an argument, and definitely not a miracle.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who did not find the “arguments” for God or Christianity compelling? What were that person’s objections? How did you try to respond?
2. Have you ever struggled with the lack of “signs” of God’s presence in your life? (Or has someone you have known?) From what do you draw faith in moments where you struggle to see God?
3. How can we bear witness to a truly Christ-centered faith, when the world so often demands facts or evidence or proof or explanations... which belief, by its nature, usually cannot provide? How can you model the example of Jesus’ self-sacrificing love to those you encounter?