6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – The Wisdom of the Cross

Fra Angelico, detail from “Sermon on the Mount” (1442),
Museo Di San marco Dell’Angelico, Florence.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
(Matthew 5:17)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 2:6–10
February 12, 2023

For several weeks, we have been examining the opening chapters of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul has been showing the Corinthians and us the social consequences of the Gospel. The Corinthians and far more than we might wish to acknowledge ourselves, accept a social, political, and cultural hierarchy. Paul may acknowledge some of this may be needed in civil society but none of it may be allowed in the Church. He has rigorously demolished the claims of money, class, education, and group. Last week with extraordinary acumen he showed how oratory, the prestige means of communication of ideas in his world, was unable to express the cross. Today he will show how elite wisdom fails in comparison to the cross.

For us he is somewhat unclear as to what he means by Wisdom. Corinth was a commercial crossroads, and its residents would be exposed to many ideas. The Corinthian church was more varied than we might have expected. Different types of people would have had different levels of exposure and understanding or Wisdom. They almost certainly would have experienced the Jewish-Greek version attributed to Philo of Alexandria. (c. 20 BC – 50 AD) The general school of Alexandria was known for the allegorical interpretation. Allegory is “a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.” This was very helpful to both Jews and early Christians to explain some difficult scriptural passages. When the psalm says, “blessed is the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rocks.” (Ps 137:9) Allegorical interpretation will interpret it as really meaning that “blessed is the one who will not hold to the beliefs of pagans”. The words of scripture do not change but its meaning can be very flexible. This however can be more problematic when Philo accepts the Greek anthropology of spirit and matter with spirit as good and matter as at least inferior. This will affect everything from the meaning of the afterlife to the foundations of morality. It is wisdom like this which Paul rejects and refutes.

He first acknowledges that not everyone will understand.

Yet we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature,
but not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.

(1 Co 2:6)

Note that he is saying “we”. He is speaking not only for himself or his followers but for all Christians. Paul is a man of the Church speaking to the Church. He has told us previously what wisdom is:

But to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

(1 Co 1:24)

Wisdom is Jesus or more clearly a relationship with him. The closer the relationship a person has with Jesus or more exactly with the crucified Jesus the more mature his or her faith. Paul choses the word teolosis for mature. It means complete and is often translated as perfect. We are complete or perfect Christians to the extent that our faith is based on the cross. We will see this next week in Matthew gospel when we read “So be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)

This knowledge is not for an elite but for all who can accept it. It is based not on philosophical examination but revelation,

Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,
(1 Co 2:7)

Thus, this wisdom is truly “God’s Wisdom”, his gift. As we have seen for Jews mystery was not sacred knowledge about personal salvation for the initiated but rather God’s plan which could not be reasoned to but only accepted. It is secret in that a person who does not accept revelation will never find it.

The life of one who receives it will be changed completely. Paul makes the obvious observation that those who crucified Jesus obviously did not know who he was or the meaning of the cross.

And which none of the rulers of this age* knew;
for if they had known it,
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

(1 Co 2:8)

The rulers of this age then most explicitly refers to the leaders in Jerusalem who put Jesus to death. For Paul however there is always hidden powers behind the running of the world. One example

So that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known
through the church to the principalities and authorities
in the heavens.

(Eph 3:10)

Jesus is supreme over all beings. Paul makes the contrast here explicit. “Lord of Glory” in the New Testament (e.g. Act 7.2) refers to the Father. By using this expression for Jesus, he is showing in the clearest possible way that whatever the power of the “rulers of this age”, it cannot compete with Jesus the “lord of glory”.

This is true salvation. Prestige and elite wisdom told them that they would escape extinction and if they had the right knowledge they would have a pleasant afterlife. Christian wisdom tells a different story.

What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,”

(1 Co 2:9)

As is often with Paul this is not an exact quotation but a pastiche of several, most clearly:

such as they had not heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen,
any God but you
doing such deeds for those who wait for him

(Is 64:3)

This sounds similar but Isaiah says, “wait for him” and Paul “love” him. This is key. This is not the future, this is now. This was expressed most beautifully by Pope Benedict. When asked what heaven is, he simply answered “Jesus., The best intimation of heaven for the future is knowing Jesus today.

Yet we know Jesus not just about him through the spirit.
this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.
For the Spirit scrutinizes everything,
even the depths of God.

(1 Co 2:10)

As we see more clearly in the gospels, Jesus performs many miracles which do not change people’s minds. They do not repent. It is only through the spirit that the truth is revealed. Once more not knowing about Jesus but knowing him.

The spirit of God knows us not just about us.

I, the LORD, alone probe the mind
and test the heart,
To reward everyone according to his ways,
according to the merit of his deeds

(Je 17:10)

And again, in Paul

And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because it intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.

(Ro 8:27)

The God revealed by Jesus is beyond our understanding. Paul will later write.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments
and how unsearchable his ways!

(Ro 11:33)

Fear of the Lord, awe, is a proper response to this.

But is also the bedrock of trust in God. Depth here means unfathomable. The sprit shows that God is deeper than anything on earth and thus we can be confident that the spirit reveals that nothing can be greater.

Each age has its prestige ideas. As with the allegorical method from Alexandria they can be very helpful. In my reading life there has been existentialism, structuralism, destructuralism and a host of others. All had something to contribute, and I am grateful for the insights. Yet all were the products of an elite, a secular priesthood and none expressed the wisdom of the Cross. The wisdom the world can give is at best an instrument to express the greater wisdom it cannot.