David Takes Saul’s Spear and Water Bottle,
James Jacques Tissot, c. 1896-1902, The Jewish Museum (NYC)
But David said to Abishai, “Do not harm him,
for who can lay hands on the LORD’s anointed and remain unpunished?”
So David took the spear and the water jug from their place at Saul’s head,
and they got away without anyone’s seeing or knowing or awakening.
(1 Samuel 26:9,12)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Cor 15:45–49
February 20, 2022
This week we continue our examination of Chapter 15 of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. It is very rare that the Lectionary allots five weeks to one chapter of one letter for our second reading at Mass but this, as we have seen, is a unique chapter in a special letter. Even with this unusual attention we are not reading all of it and we are skipping about 20 verses from the last week to this. We must begin with an overview of these verses and examine a question which will shed light not only on today’s passage but on a very modern problem.
The Corinthians are a diverse group. They are from every level of society in the Roman world, from many religions and with vastly different educational backgrounds. If they shared anything in common, it would be Greek culture. Perhaps Greek culture-lite but it was in the air they breathed and unavoidable. Most Greeks believed in life after death but not in the same way that Paul, the Pharisaical Jew, did.
Pharisaical Jews, Paul, and the other scripture writers did not believe in natural immortality. Life after death is a gift from God. This gift is not because we are good, but that God is Just. He promised that those who followed him would see themselves vindicated in “this life.” This of course caused a problem. The good often suffered in this life while the evil prospered. How can this be if God is just? Their answer was that there is a life after this one and in it we would see who is justified. This Christians have come to call the kingdom of God. This is not a heavenly but a-this worldly reality. The dead will rise from the dead and will see the good and the bad separated. It therefore requires that the newly risen have a real body. They understood that it would not be a resuscitated body but a resurrected one and would still be “corporeal” in some way. We thus more rightly speak of the Resurrection of the Body. This was nonnegotiable for Paul and indeed the entire early church.
Inconveniently, it was almost incomprehensible for most non-Jews to understand. For the Jews we were our bodies, we could not be real without them but for the Greeks we had our bodies. We would use them until they were no longer necessary and could be discarded. Consequently, they saw the spirit as good or at least better and the body, if not evil, certainly inferior. For the Jews the true person was both and, in some way, always body and soul for the Greek a ghost in a machine.
In the verses before ours this week, Paul will ask what kind of Body? (1 Cor 15:35) He will answer with agricultural observations.
You fool! What you sow
is not brought to life unless it dies
And what you sow is not the body that is to be
but a bare kernel of wheat, perhaps,
or of some other kind;
(1 Co 15:36–37)
Everyone knows that the seed must die for the plant to be born. There is a transformation, the seed is not resuscitated as itself but is resurrected as another, higher, being. He continues that bodies are themselves different.
Not all flesh is the same,
but there is one kind for human beings,
another kind of flesh for animals,
another kind of flesh for birds, and
another for fish.
(1 Co 15:39)
Even in this world we see
that all beings are creatures of God
and thus good,
but some are brighter than others
(1 Cor 15: 41)
Thus, the resurrection of the dead is a real change as well:
So also, is the resurrection of the dead.
It is sown corruptible;
it is raised incorruptible.
(1 Co 15:42)
It is sown a natural body;
it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body,
there is also a spiritual one.
(1 Co 15:44)
Yet we must remember that for Paul the Jew we are never speaking of a pure spirit, it is a spiritual body. Many scholars say an “in-spirited body”. A body in which the person is so filled with the Holy Spirit that he or she is a different being. As Paul will write in his second letter to the Corinthians:
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come.
(2 Co 5:17)
And to the Galatians:
It is not I who live
but Christ who lives in me
Today’s reading will ask how we receive this “inspirited body.”
We begin today comparing the first man Adam with the last man Jesus. Paul is being rather sly here. Many of his readers would have known at least at second hand the writings of a great Jewish philosopher Philo who mixed Greek and Jewish thought. He held that the first Man was spiritual, and Adam was a—rather dim—likeness of him. For Paul, a spiritual body is possible but only as a gift from God. Jesus gives us this though his resurrection from the dead. We do not share anyone’s reflection, we share Jesus’ resurrected life.
This has a real and lasting effect on the person.
Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one,
we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.
(1 Co 15:49)
Paul will again express this more clearly in Roman:
For those whom he foreknew
he also predestined to be conformed
to the image of his Son.”
As many spiritual writers attest our goal, is not to be the best “I” possible but rather to be Jesus. This transformation begins on earth and will continue for eternity. To be spiritual simply means to be so in-spirited by the risen Lord that we resemble him more and our purely earthly selves—Adam—-less.
Like the ghost in the machine, seeking to be the best possible me is a myth that the modern Christian must seek to overcome. It was difficult for the Corinthians, it will be equally as difficult for us. It is, however, a necessary task to understand our faith. We will conclude 1 Cor 15 next week and we will see why this transformation feels so bitter, but why the rewards are so sweet.