The Sermon on the Mount, Carl Bloch, 1877,
Museum of National History (Denmark)
You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 3:16–23 (with reference to 1 Cor 3:1–3:9)
February 19, 2023
We will conclude our examination of the opening section of Paul’s “First Letter to the Corinthians” today. It is a Christian essential because it reveals the social consequences of accepting Jesus. A Christian has accepted Jesus and more specifically Jesus as the crucified Lord only when he has changed his or her entire life. This as we have seen includes what and who we deem important in our daily lives. By this point an honest reader will acknowledge that he or she may have accepted the doctrines but not the consequences. He will address that today. We will need however to look at several verses before the ones chosen for today’s readings.
This letter is not a dialogue between equals:
Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people,
but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ.
(1 Co 3:1)
For you are still of the flesh.
While there is jealousy and rivalry among you,
are you not of the flesh,
and behaving in an ordinary human way?
(1 Co 3:3)
It is first necessary to remember that Paul is not a Greek and understanding him requires that we accept a Jewish anthropology. He does not see people as having a temporal body into which an eternal soul is inserted. For Jews, we do not have a body; we are our bodies. Thus, we like Pharisaical Jews, believe in the resurrection of the body. We are fleshly when we live our lives as if this existence is all that there is. We are spiritual when we live our lives knowing that there is something more. But remember that the Church teaches the “general judgement” and a final resurrection when we will in some way get our bodies back.
When Christians create rivalries among themselves and divide the community they are acing in the flesh. Paul shrewdly assumes that the Corinthians were overly impressed by social class, education, and position. All these attributes were found in Apollos who we have met previously. He was an educated philosopher and if he did not look much different than Paul he would have sounded very different. Paul will use his good working relationship with Apollos to show how believers especially ministers of the gospel should act.
I planted, Apollos watered,
but God caused the growth.
(1 Co 3:6)
He and Apollos are spiritually mature because they worked for the unity and growth of the church not to establish a more important position.
Paul is here introducing the basic idea behind the Body of Christ which he will develop later in the letter.
For we are God’s co-workers;
you are God’s field, God’s building
(1 Co 3:9)
To accept a position of leadership in the church is to recognize that the disciple must work for and with Jesus to be his physical presence, body, in the world.
In today’s reading he draws out the consequences of this:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
(1 Co 3:16)
“Do you not know” is a standard expression for “pay attention”. The idea behind being the temple of the Holy Spirit is important and the image is meant to be arresting. Temples were buildings which came in many sizes and shapes. Paul’s readers would most likely have thought of the Temple in Jerusalem which was still standing and was one of the great wonders of the ancient world. For Paul the simplest Christian community like that in Corinth because filled with the Holy Spirit was more impressive and awesome than even the temple of Jerusalem.
If anyone destroys God’s temple,
God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God,
which you are, is holy.
(1 Co 3:17)
This is a great responsibility; Paul has spoken about the rivalries and false assumptions of the faithful in Corinth. Precisely because these are so petty, they can prevent the church from being the presence of God in the world.
Another possible translation would make this clearer:
“For the temple of God is holy, and that temple you are”
Paul has shown us that the wisdom that most of the church people of Corinth have lived does not bring people together, and that if we want to be this real and true temple we must give up this wisdom or even the desire for it.
Let no one deceive himself.
If any one among you considers himself wise in this age,
let him become a fool so as to become wise.
For the wisdom of this world
is foolishness in the eyes of God
(1 Co 3:18-19a)
Paul presumes that this will require a radical change which will be difficult and painful. A Christian must see all things thought the centrality of the cross. A crucified person was the ultimate failure in that would. It was not only painful beyond words but a sign that one was cast out of the community.
Paul recalls passages of scripture about those who think themselves wise throughout the world : “He catches the wise in their own ruses,” (1 Co 3:19) quotes from Job and “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.” (1 Co 3:20) is based on Psalm 94:11.
So let no one boast about human beings,
for everything belongs to you
(1 Co 3:21)
The human beings here are the leaders of the various faction, Paul, Apollos, or Kephas. The Corinthians believed that they belonged to the ministers but Paul is telling them that the ministers belong to them. A Christian leader is one who develops him or herself to the building up of the church.
Paul or Apollos or Kephas,
or the world or life or death,
or the present or the future:
all belong to you,
(1 Co 3:22)
This also includes all the forces of the world, life and death, present and future the principalities and powers are also for the building up of the community. Only then will the church be what God intends it to be and only then we the community be truly connected to Jesus and the Father. He ends this section triumphantly.
And you to Christ,
and Christ to God
(1 Co 3:23)
And we begin Lent this Wednesday.
Paul’s insight that Christians resist the social implications of belief in Jesus is as relevant in modern times as well as his own. Almost ninety years ago the great Church historian, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote that American mainstream Protestantism often promoted: “A God without wrath (who) brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”. We Catholics may find ourselves as guilty.
Lent is a time to strip away that which prevents us from being the true temple of the Spirit. Paul has prepared us to ask what ideas or more directly presumptions do we need to change to live what we believe. This is the time to replace that which is not the cross from being the standard by which we judge our lived. No cross, no kingdom.