Sunday 9 February 2020
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Paul tells the Corinthians: when I came to you, I came in weakness. I stood in front of you with weakness. This passage is actually used when a new bishop comes to their cathedral for the first time. I’m thinking of the Episcopal Church here, but it might be true in the Roman Catholic Church, as well. The bishop comes to the front door of the church, which is closed. They take the shepherd’s staff that is the symbol of their office—it’s called a crozier—and they bang on the door with it. Someone lets them in and asks them who they are and what they are doing there. Part of the bishop’s response is “I come to you in weakness, determined to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” It gives the sense of the leader being humble. It gives the impression that the bishop doesn’t want to lord over the people with any sort of superior knowledge. It’s a nice sentiment. It affirms the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of all Christians, the idea that everyone has an equal ability to understand the faith, that no Christian is any better or more wise than any other. I came to you in weakness.
However, it doesn’t actually have much to do with what Paul seems to be talking about in this letter. When Paul talks about weakness, he means something very specific. In fact, this is one of the keys to understanding all of 1 Corinthians. For Paul, the problems in the church in Corinth have to do with a division between two groups of people. And he refers to those two groups of people as the weak and the strong. We don’t know the exact definition of these two groups. Both Paul and the people of Corinth already know who it is that Paul is talking about. He doesn’t have to explain. We are reading other people’s mail 2000 years later, so we have to make some guesses about what was going on. But here’s our best guess about what Paul means by weak and strong.
As best as we can tell, the people Paul refers to as strong are people of means. They might own their own farms and business ventures. They generally don’t have to do physical labor for their living. They are educated, and education in the Roman world means rhetoric and philosophy. They know Plato and Aristotle. But that doesn’t mean that they are philosophers themselves. Instead, they hire philosophers to instruct them in wisdom, but those philosophers are their social inferiors, like the private tutors in the house of a wealthy or noble person. The strong think of themselves as above superstition, especially when it comes to the practice of their new Christian faith. Through discipline, they think they can control their wills and also their bodies. Through physical and spiritual exercise, they can sculpt themselves into better people. Because of their training in philosophy, they tend to think of the traditional Roman gods—like Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva—as more mythology than reality. So when they statues of the gods in temples and shrines, they think of them as just statues, not the embodiment of real, spiritual beings. In the ancient world, meat was usually sacrificed to a god before it was distributed to people. Since the strong don’t think those gods exist, they aren’t worried about eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Since they don’t really believe in the traditional gods, and since they think they can control their own bodies, they aren’t worried about being polluted by things like idol meat or sex with prostitutes. They tend not to be very impressed by the idea of a bodily resurrection. Instead, they favor the Greek philosophical understanding of the afterlife, the idea that the spirit leaves the body and is joined with God. When they come together for the Lord’s Supper, they bring plenty of fancy food to eat. They also tend to be very interested in spiritual gifts, and are the sorts of folks who are likely to speak in tongues and have ecstatic visions.
The weak, on the other hand, are from the lower classes of society. They would include slaves, laborers, and maybe some small-time tradespeople. They don’t own much. Often they themselves are owned. Their time is not their own, and they spend nearly all of it working. They aren’t educated and are probably illiterate. Few can even write their own names. At least before they hear the message of Christ, they had believed in and been devoted to the traditional Roman gods: Apollo, Minerva, Mars, Jupiter. They understand the world to be inhabited by all kinds of spirits, both good spirits and evil spirits. They don’t have the kinds of resources, leisure, or freedom to try to sculpt their bodies and minds. In fact, many don’t even own their bodies. If their masters decide to use them for sex, they have no choice in the matter. Because everything in the world is filled with spiritual power, they are scared of being polluted by things like meat that has been sacrificed to idols. They probably can’t afford to eat meat that isn’t sacrificed to idols, so they don’t eat meat at all. They don’t have a concept of an immortal soul, so they are very interested in the idea of bodily resurrection. They don’t have the freedom of their time, so by the time they are able to make it to the Lord’s Supper, all of the food has already been eaten. They are unlikely to be interested in the showier of the spiritual gifts. They are common people.
These are overgeneralizations, but it should give you some sense of the conflict in Corinth. The strong are people of privilege who are used to controlling their destinies and having their own ways. They aren’t at the uppermost levels of Roman society, but in Corinth they are patrons. They demand respect. In general, the poor work for them, or for other higher-class people. They are workers or slaves.
Paul has a very interesting stance regarding this division between the weak and the strong. He insists to the strong that he is even stronger than they are. He doesn’t need them to give him a salary because he doesn’t need a patron. He’s not like some hired tutor. He has his own authority. He is educated in philosophy and rhetoric. He has spiritual gifts that are even more impressive than those displayed by the strong of Corinth. He has complete spiritual control of himself. If they want to have a competition about who is stronger, then Paul insists that he far exceeds anyone else at Corinth.
However, at the same time, Paul insists that he comes as one who is weak. That’s what he’s doing in this part of the letter. Paul sets aside his strength and becomes weak, for the sake of the weak. This is Paul’s refrain throughout the letter. Although he is strong, he sets it all aside and shows solidarity with the weak. He tells the strong in Corinth that they should imitate him in doing this.
So when Paul says to the Corinthians, “I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified. I stood in front of you with weakness.” When he says that, he is simultaneously saying that he is not beholden to the strong and that he stands with the weak. He is not like some philosopher who dazzles with fancy words and wisdom and expects to be hired on in the houses of the wealthy. He is not going to be afraid to upset their refined sensibilities about the scandal of the cross. And he is going to identify himself with the weak, not because he can only be weak, but because he chooses, from a position of strength, to be weak. He knows that idols are not really gods, but he still won’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, because he doesn’t want to create a spiritual crisis for the weak. But neither will he bow to the strong and their puffed-up sense of self-justification.
This is what Paul thinks is the difference between Godly wisdom and worldly wisdom. The world honors the accomplishments of the rich. The world respects people who have enough means to live at leisure. The world is impressed by those who can exercise power in the world. But God isn’t impressed with any of that. God honors those who have nothing. God respects those that have to work to survive. God is impressed by those who have no power to exert, not even power over their own bodies.
That is, after all, how Jesus achieved the victory, by giving over his own body to be tortured and killed. That is why Paul preaches Christ crucified, the very image of powerlessness, and yet, the profoundest expression of God’s power. Because it is in weakness that God finds strength. It is among the powerless that God finds power. It is among the poor that God finds the greatest riches.