Le Christ chez les paysans, Fritz von Uhde,
1887–1888, Musée d’Orsay
(About this Image)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Cor 12:12–30
January 23, 2022
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are among his most personal writings. As we saw last week, Corinth was a busy mercantile and industrial city, which attracted people from the entire empire. The church at Corinth reflected this diversity not only with members from many religious and ethnic groups but by its composition: a small elite, some small businesspeople, and many laborers and craftspeople. They were enthusiastic but often did not fully digest Paul’s message and needed to be “reinstructed” more carefully.
In last week’s reading, Paul told them that in their baptisms they were given the Spirit of God. The Spirit manifested himself in many ways and gifts. Every Christian had at least one gift, but no Christian was able to use his or her gift or gifts alone. They are designed to work together. The last line was a perfect summary:
But one and the same Spirit produces all of these,
distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.
(1 Co 12:11)
We must always remember that Paul is not leading a spiritual movement but erecting a church. It is not enough to be spiritual; it is necessary to be religious. Religious means bound and Paul is telling the Corinthians and us that we are bound to him by being bound to each other. This requires that the church be a physical presence and, in our terms, an institution.
He expresses this as with the image of a body. This is a common idea in the classical world. It is most used by Stoic philosophers but would have been instantly recognizable by his entire audience.
As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many,
are one body, so also Christ.
(1 Co 12:12)
The image of the body was often employed to justify the status quo. There were people who had more important, honorable, positions and should be deferred to. Position was awarded by nature or fate with some room for virtue. Not so for Christians:
For in one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit
(1 Co 12:13)
The body is formed by the Spirit alone and one’s position comes from the Spirit and will not follow the normal or approved lines. This will take some time for the Corinthians or any ancient people to digest.
The next section in Paul (1 Cor 12:14–21) resembles many other writers. His near contemporary the Stoic philosopher Senaca wrote:
What if the hands should desire to harm
the feet, or the eyes the hands?
As all the members of the body
are in harmony one with another
because it is to the advantage of the whole
that the individual members be unharmed,
so mankind should spare the individual man,
because all are born for a life of fellowship,
and society can be kept unharmed only
by the mutual protection and love of its parts.
(Another example from the historian Livy is found in the appendix below)
Paul is intentionally reflecting common ideas but skillfully and subtly adds:
But as it is, God placed the parts,
each one of them, in the body as he intended.
(1 Co 12:18)
The body that is the church is by and for God and his intentions which do not mean upholding the present order of things. It is hierarchical in the sense that some roles are more necessary to the proper functioning of the body, but the spiritual gifts given for this will not all allotted to the usual suspects: people of the upper classes.
Paul is quite blunt about this
Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker
are all the more necessary,
(1 Co 12:22)
Parts of the body here should best be interpreted as people who populate it. The section which follows as more or less honorable and presentable is difficult for us to follow as it comes from a different world. It is enough for us to know that this would have shocked most of his readers and very much upset the elite. They are reminded that no matter where one is in the social hierarchy of the state within the church:
there may be no division in the body,
but that the parts may have the same concern
for one another.
(1 Co 12:25)
Paul’s argument is very well constructed. If one accepts that there are God-given spiritual gifts and that these are to have an effect in the life of the church, then it is difficult to object to how God wishes to use them. Thus
Now you are Christ’s body,
and individually parts of it.
(1 Co 12:27)
Consequences follow. Paul will lay out the spirit given hierarchy of the church:
- Apostles, those who are sent by God to evangelize, for Paul needed to have an experience of the Risen Lord;
- Prophets, those who point to the presence of God in the world; and
- Teachers, those who pass on the good news.
These seem to be permanent offices based on spiritual gifts.
The gifts which follow: “mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues.” (1 Co 12:28) are necessary but may be only for a set time and purpose.
Paul and his followers often give these lists. They do not always agree and indeed may change for different times and locations, but the key element is that they address the needs of the community and do not slavishly reflect the local power structure. Because no one has all the gifts needed for the Church no one can play every role.
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds? (1 Co 12:29)
Some people call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Paul would have found this distinction ludicrous. The spiritual gifts are given to us to bind us together. We cannot be spiritual alone; we need other people with other gifts. These gifts are not designed to make us feel good, but to do good. Jesus came to bring the kingdom and the church and the gifts which form her are a means to that end. Whatever spiritual gift or gifts I may have, they have meaning only when they are experienced and completed by other people.
Appendix: Another Example of a Body Metaphor from the Historian Livy
At a time when all the parts in the human body did not, as now, agree together, but the several members had each its own scheme, its own language, the other parts, indignant that every thing was procured for the belly by their care, labour, and service; that the belly, remaining quiet in the center, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures afforded it. They conspired accordingly, that the hands should not convey food to the mouth, nor the mouth receive it when presented, nor the teeth chew it: whilst they wished under the influence of this feeling to subdue the belly by famine, the members themselves and the entire body were reduced to the last degree of emaciation. Thence it became apparent that the service of the belly was by no means a slothful one; that it did not so much receive nourishment as supply it, sending to all parts of the body this blood by which we live and possess vigour, distributed equally to the veins when perfected by the digestion of the food. By comparing in this way how similar the intestine sedition of the body was to the resentment of the people against the senators, he made an impression on the minds of the multitude.
(History of Rome, Titus Livius, Book 2:32)