The Marriage at Cana, Maerten de Vos,
c. 1596, O.-L. Vrouwekathedraal
(About this Image)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 12:4–11
January 16, 2022
TV Westerns of the 50s and 60s were a wonderful introduction to sociology. Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, and countless others showed how towns and the social structures that maintained them developed. They mostly unconsciously revealed the importance of class and caste. Despite the almost official American ideology of rugged individualism, we saw how people worked together to build towns along rivers, between mountains, and eventually along train routes. Although most people farmed crops or herded animals, others were drawn to support roles of merchandising and transportation. There was almost always at least one church, school, and saloon in any town and perhaps to appeal to a wider audience, the contributions of white ethics were shown from the beginning. Black, Brown, and Asian people were added in the later sixties. Some programs were very honest about racial tensions but almost all about the conflicts between the very small elite and the workers and farmers. The realities both positive and negative of the power structures were clearly seen.
My parents viewed my TV watching as I imagine parents do with gaming today: not shall we say uncritically. Yet this was the best introduction to the realities behind many of the situations we find in Paul’s letters, most especially Corinthians.
Like the towns in the American West, Corinth did not rise accidentally. It is located on the four-mile isthmus, which divides Greece into upper and lower (see the map at bottom of this post). It was a convenient place for ships to drop off boatloads of materials on one side and then haul them across the isthmus to the other saving a dangerous and time-consuming journey around southern Greece. The city itself is built on a plateau controlling movement across this space. It was inhabited for thousands of years before Paul, who would have lived in Corinth around 50 AD in a city built by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Because of its location, it attracted a cosmopolitan population from the entire the Roman world and became both a commercial and manufacturing center. Paul, a tent maker, was easily able to find work and we note that his key associates in Corinth were the married couple Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish tent makers evicted from Rome.
Paul spent about 18 months there and held the people in great affection, but they were a difficult group. From references throughout Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, scholars think that Paul wrote at least four letters to them of which we have two. He had to address many difficulties which resemble the American Frontier. We will be reading the latter half of 1st Corinthians between now and Lent and will look at the meaning of Church, love, and resurrection. However, the sections before this are much grittier. If rich people were asked to open their homes for worship, should they not be able to have the best food and sit by themselves at Eucharist as would have been the usual custom among pagans? Paul of course will answer no, which will not be accepted without some push-back. If we are freed from the law, can we not engage in any sexual practice we desire? Here, Paul needed to address different religious backgrounds rather than class. A Jew would have understood that being freed from the law meant eating what one willed, not marrying your sister.
For the next seven weeks, we will be reading this letter at its most elevated but cannot forget that it is written for flesh and blood people with real and messy concerns. Today, Paul will instruct the Corinthians on the meaning and use of spiritual gifts.
Paul is asking this community to look at what they see among them. Some people express great wisdom, others learning, still others healing, others speaking in tongues, others interpreting them. Paul will several times give lists of gifts, the items vary but he assumes that his audience have experienced them and that there is no dispute that they exist.
Paul’s instruction is about their meaning.
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
(1 Co 12:4–6)
Most basically, they are Spirit-given gifts. No one can earn them, and no one deserves them, and they are not given for us, alone nor are they are they for our own self-aggrandizement, but rather “are different forms of service.” They are given to us for others or to be more exact for the building up of the community.
These gifts express themselves in different ways but it is the same God who for the same reason produces them in everyone.
Lest we think that there are some spiritless people, Paul continues:
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given
for some benefit.
(1 Co 12:7)
We can assume that every baptized person has at least one spirit-given gift and will only find joy by using it for the wider community.
Paul is writing to people who were too often overly impressed by position, title, and wealth. That is even more evident in 2nd Corinthians. Paul is telling them that everyone has a God-given gift to contribute. This list today may reflect Paul’s personal hierarchy of gifts from wisdom as the most important to interpretation of tongues as the least. This is speculation, but we need all of them and we must take them where they are found. A poor woman may be “wise,” a rich man not; a stevedore may have the gift of healing and rich woman may need it.
This reality has not changed. The Jesuits have revived the seriousness of discernment of spirits, knowing what gift Jesus has given to whom. It is especially important when a person, community or institution is lost. Pope Francis is a Jesuit. He has discerned that the Church is not where She should be and is calling all of us to use our spiritual gifts to see where we should be and how we are to get there.
Paul is telling us today that if we do this seriously, it will not be comfortable, but it will be fruitful.