Commentaries on 1 Corinthians
Some persons praise the first Christians as if they had been models of all virtue. In fact, there were no more miracles then than now. Here as elsewhere, Paul addresses men and women living in a world as real as our own. Corinth had its own particular character among the Mediterranean cities. Situated on a tongue of land separating two gulfs, it had the best part of its privileged site. The two ports of the east and west had been joined by a kind of paved way on which boats were pulled by means of enormous wagons drawn by bullocks. This spared sailors having to detour to GreeceCorinth, there was a sportive celebration—rather similar to the Olympic Games of our day—every two years. This drew large crowds of people. We notice in these two letters of Paul very clear allusions to these different aspects of Corinthian history: slavery, prostitution, stadium sports. by the south: a very long voyage at the time and very dangerous. Obviously it had to be paid for; this financially benefited the town; it also needed labor which meant many slaves. The city had a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of “love” for the Greeks, around which had developed (with the help of money) a prostitution that had nothing sacred about it other than its name. The prostitutes were counted in the thousands. Quite near
In Corinth, there existed a dynamic, though not well ordered Church, composed of Jews and Greeks converted by Paul. Many of them were in danger of returning to the vices of their former lives, once the enthusiasm of their first years as Christians had worn off. Those responsible in the Church apparently were not capable of dealing with many problems: internal divisions and doubts about faith. They therefore called upon Paul, who wrote the present letter, because he could not interrupt his work in Ephesus.
We notice the authority with which Paul, from afar, leads the Church in the name of Christ; also his manner of teaching: before answering any question, he reasserts the foundations of the faith.
The Corinthians, in the midst of a pagan world, were concerned about matters that are again relevant in our times:
– about celibacy and marriage,
– about living together with those who do not share the Christian faith,
– about conducting the assemblies, for both the celebration of the eucharist and the use of “spiritual gifts,”
– about the resurrection of the dead.
• 1.1 From Paul called to be an apostle.… to God’s church in Corinth… with those who everywhere call upon the name of our Lord Christ Jesus. With these three expressions Paul defends his authority. He reminds the Corinthians, so easily entrenched in their rivalries, that they are part of a greater reality, the Universal Church of God.
Called to be holy. You have to become holy, but you already are. Holy, in the biblical sense, is the person or thing that belongs to God. The baptized have been consecrated to God and form part of the people who belong to God, the assembly of the holy ones, which is the Church.
God’s call does not allow them to remain as they are. Their conscience readily adapted to the moral norms of their milieu, but now, God’s call demands a renunciation of a certain vision of existence based on ‘the natural.’ They will have to be orientated, as best they can, towards an ideal of life found in the person of Christ.
In Christ. A single Greek preposition used by Paul is to be translated into English as in or through or with, according to the case. “In Christ” has many meanings:
– We are sons and daughters of God, made after the image of the only Son of God, and God loves us in Christ.
– God the Father saves us through Christ.
– The Father calls us to share with Christ his inheritance.
– We have become part of the body of Christ; we live in Christ and have received his Spirit.
– The word “Christian,” used for the first time in Antioch (Acts 11:26) to denote the disciples of Christ, was still not widely used; often in Christ means Christian. So “marry in Christ” signified “to marry in a Christian way.”
See Paul’s acts of thanksgiving in verses 4-9: what certitude of riches present in a community where all is far from perfect!
In his advice to the Corinthians, Paul shows us how to act when reviewing the activities of our parish or our apostolic group. Instead of being discouraged by the problems we face and accusing one another when something fails, the first thing to do is to remember what we already have in common.
These communities, in fact, like our own had to face their problems and their weakness. Each generation of Christians must learn to follow Jesus and “build Church,” or better still “be Church.”
He will keep you steadfast to the end (v. 8). The hope that maintains the “tone” of faith is the return of Christ. The first Christian generation expected to witness his glorious coming: he would judge the world and take his own with him (1 Thes 4:13).
• 10. The first sin of the Church is the division among believers. Several apostles (see 12:28) passed through Corinth. Certain members of the community profited by this to affirm their own identity by declaring allegiance to one leader rather than another: a way of satisfying vanity and the need of self-assertion.
Agree among yourselves and do away with divisions (v. 10): be a united family. This admonition is understood when the Church is a community sharing the same concerns. It is a little different when the church gathers together large numbers of people of different backgrounds who are perhaps opposed to one another in daily life. In this case the Christian community must be united, not by ignoring reality and never talking of inequalities, but by recognizing individual and collective faults in daily life. The Church can never be a reunion of passive or “heavenly” people.
I am for Peter (v. 12). Paul says “for Cephas” like in 3:22; this was the aramaic nickname Jesus gave him. Apollos: see Acts 18:24.
Christ did not send me to baptize (v. 17). When the Church is fully absorbed in its own problems, Paul reminds them of their mission: Is our first concern to preach the Gospel, or to dispute for the posts of guides and ministers of the community?
• 17. Even if these Christians in Corinth are not great “intellectuals,” as good Greeks that they are, they enjoy fine discourses and want to be seen as cultured persons. At this time throughout the Roman Empire people are in search of esoteric doctrines and some people in the Church see in faith the means of acceding to a higher knowledge. So Paul will tell them that all Christian wisdom is contained in the cross.
That would be like getting rid of the cross of Christ (v. 17). The cross should be present in the message we preach and in the way we preach it.
Moreover in evangelization it will always cost us to work with poor resources in a world subject to media. We need to count on the grace of God because we are weak and without titles of prestige. It will cost us to remind our communities of the poverty of Jesus and to be criticized by those who are well off in the world.
See whom God has called (v. 26). The Church of Corinth is formed of ordinary people: this is their strength. Everybody has his place and his mission in the Church. Ordinary people and poor communities, often persecuted and calumniated, have a primary role in the evangelization of the world. God wants them to evangelize the rich and at times, even the hierarchy.
• 2.1 I myself came weak, fearful and trembling. Paul indeed must have felt weak when for the first time he was bringing the Gospel to a brilliant Greek city well used to slavery and immorality. We experience the same feelings towards the evangelization of the modern world; preparation is important but what is it to prepare ourselves? Paul invites us to accept the mystery of the cross and to find there the strength of the Spirit.
It was a demonstration of Spirit and power (v. 5). The power of Spirit, the power of prayer, the power of suffering. The Spirit is poured out after Jesus has suffered and died. With him, we can expect everything. Healings and miracles are worthless (and the devil takes advantage of them) unless they affirm faith in Jesus crucified, acting through the humble, and present in the poor.
• 6. Paul never intended to be considered a wise or eminent speaker by his audience. Yet he speaks of wisdom to the mature in faith (v. 6). The text says in more precise terms: “to the perfect ones.” At that time, several religions were calling “perfect” any believer who had received some secret information not given to all the members of the sect. In the Church also some considered themselves as belonging to a higher class of believers because of gifts of the Spirit they had received, especially if they were able to speak endlessly on matters of faith.
Paul opposes them with his own gifts as prophet and apostle. He is capable of teaching these essential truths which need few words but which can only be presented by those who have experienced the living God. What are these secrets? Firstly, what God is for us and what God wishes to give us (vv. 7 and 12).
Christian faith proposes that which no human doctrine, no religion could have given us. At times, comparing ourselves with those who follow a spiritual way outside Christianity, it would seem that we are saying the same thing with different words. This is partly true regarding our attitudes and our choices in life, but we should not be afraid to confess the riches God has given us in Christ: his Spirit gives us what no one has ever penetrated.
Such knowledge is not intellectual, it is a gift of the Spirit that sows and develops in us the one and only truth. It is very difficult to give an explanation of a truly spiritual experience. We can only speak of wisdom to those who have attained a certain spiritual level. That is why Paul tells the Corinthians that most of them are unable to criticize him.
The one who remains on the psychological level (v. 14). (Paul says precisely: “the psychic man”) does not reach the truth of Christ. However the spiritual person, not necessarily the intellectual person, knows by gift of God the things of God.
The spiritual person judges everything and no one judges him. He who sees has no way of convincing the blind person that there are colors. He sees them, however, and knows that if the blind person does not see them, it is not because the thing is doubtful, but because the blind person has neither eyes nor criteria for that. It is the same with the spiritual person and the carnal one.
• 3.1 As a good architect I laid the foundation (v. 10). Paul is founder of churches and others come after him, apostles, prophets or teachers, to preach and encourage the people. Paul is not jealous, but it could be that some of them seek their own prestige, forgetting that the Church belongs only to God. It could also be that the believers compare one apostle with another, and do this readily inasmuch as they are ignorant of what apostolic work really is.
Fire will test the work of everyone (v. 13). This image suggests many things. To Paul as well as to the readers the day of God’s judgment seemed to be imminent and everyone thought that God would purify and cleanse the world by fire. So Paul concludes that whatever we did not do according to the will of God and with the means he wanted will be destroyed by fire. Remember what happened with many apostolic projects that were but a smoke screen (how many tons of documents fit for the fire!). To serve Christ without really pure intentions, will not merit hell of course, but a personal purification will be necessary. This text supports the belief in Purgatory, that is, a process of purification at the time of death or after death for all whose transformation by the Spirit of God was only half-concluded (see commentary on Mt 5: 21).
• 16. Do you not know that you are God’s temple (v. 16)? Christ is the new Temple that takes the place of the temple of the Jews (Jn 2:19 and Mk 15: 38). The Temple of God is Christ because in him abides all the divine Mystery. The Temple of God is likewise the Church because in her the Holy Spirit is working. The Temple of God is also each home and each believer (see 6:19) because the Spirit lives in each one of them.
• 18. Everything is yours and you belong to Christ (v. 23). We have here a decisive word on Christian freedom.
On the other hand, remember what non-believing philosophers have said: People created God out of their own misery. Whatever was lacking in order for them to feel great and happy, they attributed to a superior being, who had everything. In worshiping him, they felt identified with him and forgot their own misery. This theory is not completely false: in fact people make idols for themselves, be they singers, athletes or politicians; and they feel happy when their idols have and do everything they themselves cannot do or have. They die for causes not their own and they feel proud of people and institutions that exploit them. A Christian is wary of authority becoming idols: he exists and thinks for himself. Even in the Church he is face to face with God with no other intermediary but Christ, and he does not indulge in the cult of personalities.
• 4.8 The Corinthians feel rich in their faith, rich in their spiritual gifts. They have made fair progress in the road of knowledge, and as people expert in the matter, they charitably look down on Paul, the poor Jewish preacher.
The Apostle knows that his own culture and strong personality would have given him a bright future. He sees at the same time the narrow-mindedness of his adversaries but allows them to make fun of him. They think he is a fool, and in a way he is. However, even if taken for a fool he brought them to Christ.
• 5.1 Paul knows that such a sinner cannot be brought to repentance unless he experiences the bitterness of his treachery. So the community must ask that he suffer in health and belongings (Paul says “delivered to Satan for the ruin of the flesh:” see in Job 1:12 and 2:6 the meaning of delivered to Satan). This excommunication is not merely a human gesture. What the Church binds on earth is bound in heaven (Mt 18:18). God is committed to send trials that may be at the same time a warning to the Church and a way of repentance for the sinner.
You should be unleavened bread (v. 7). The believers have been spiritually raised with Christ. As the Jews used unleavened bread to celebrate the Passover, in the same way the Christians have to be, in a figurative sense unleavened bread, that is, they must lead a sinless life before God, and so worthily celebrate their Passover, which is the Resurrection of Christ. Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to yeast that leavens the whole mass. Here Paul uses the same comparison to show how evil spreads everywhere.
Those who do not belong to the Church (Paul says: those of this world) (v. 10). Believers are not afraid of living among sinners, because they themselves are, first, sinners among others (1 Jn 1:8-9) and have as mission to make known the mercy of Christ who ate with sinners. Yet they are not willing to live in a Church community with those who are hardened in sin and refuse to put right a public scandal.
Why should I judge outsiders? (v. 12). Jesus taught us the way to follow, but we cannot demand of unbelievers that they understand and accept our moral standards regarding reconciliation, sex, abortion, as long as their conscience is unable to recognize the criteria of the Gospel. The authorities of the Church are not commissioned to condemn them, but to be witnesses to the light.
• 6.1 “We carry treasures from God in vessels of clay” (2 Cor 4:7). How far is our daily life from what we pretend it is: children of God reborn in the Spirit! What do the members of our own family think about this! What do our near neighbors think of us!
Paul points out the contradiction between the contempt of believers for the false “justice” of the world, and the fact of lawsuits among them. What should they do? Settle their differences in the way indicated by the Gospel (Mt 18:15), in so far as there is a real community. How beautiful it would be to follow the letter of the Gospel (Mt 5:40)!
• 12. Everything is lawful to me, but not everything is to my profit. People without conscience quoted the first part of this sentence to justify their immoral behavior.
Food is for the stomach.… the body is for the Lord (v. 13). Paul contrasts what is purely biological in our body with what makes up our whole person. To eat and drink are requirements of the stomach (modern language: body). In sexual union the body is given (modern language: person). This is why the believer who belongs to Christ cannot give himself to a prostitute.
Paul finds himself with the same problem that had led him to intervene in 1 Thes 4. For the Jews, all the criteria for morality were in the commandments of the Law. It was not usually questioned to what degree these commandments were the expression of an eternal order or depended on the beliefs and the culture of past time. Whatever the Law condemned—interpreted by the religious community—was a sin. Yet the Greeks and the pagans were ignorant of this law. Paul recalls the commandments on sexual matters (5:11 and 6:10; Eph 5:3), as Jesus had done (Mk 7:21), but he is careful not to make it the only criterion of what is good and bad. For him what obliges Christians to control and even strongly curb the practice of sexuality is their life in Christ. They want to respond to a call from God rather than satisfy the demands of nature.
Paul’s way of responding is of particular interest for us today in the universal moral crisis. For centuries and through necessity, sexuality was seen above all as the means of procreation; and from there began the search for the natural law ordering sex, pleasure and procreation. Today, union is no longer, primarily, for procreation even if procreation is desired. The cultural evolution and feminine promotion have made of sexual union, for an ever-increasing number of couples, the occasion of an exceptionally deep human exchange.
At the same time, personal liberation—and the liberation of women who carry all the weight of maternity—has thrown doubt on former moral laws, seen as belonging to a certain time and culture. Almost all countries that are considered “developed” have had to take into account pre-marital sex, homosexuality, abortion on the mother’s decision, the choice of maternity without marriage. Christians get in touch with these questions with religious references their contemporaries lack. Yet if they don’t have other motivation than a natural law valid for all, limiting sexuality to procreation and only within marriage, they will probably get bogged down in endless discussions that are scarcely convincing.
So they must do what Paul did. Without forgetting the laws in the Old Testament, recognized by the apostles and the tradition of the Church up to our day, it must be said that the sexual conduct of a Christian obeys, first of all, a logic of faith in Jesus Christ. It is less a matter of defining what is “good” or “evil” than showing where the practice and the experience of love and sexuality should lead us. To proclaim moral principles of sexuality, without first highlighting the eminent dignity of our humanity created in the likeness of God, and then consecrated to Christ by baptism and conversion, is wanting to gather the fruits without having planted the tree.
• 7.1 In this chapter Paul begins to answer some of the questions put to him by the Corinthians in writing. The first are about marriage and chastity.
Christian life encouraged the esteem for chastity. That esteem could be inspired as well by other non-Christian motives. Many doctrines in the Greek world considered evil and unclean whatever came from the body; and so, for some Christians, perfection meant living like angels, condemning among other things, marriage.
Paul does not teach everything on marriage, but only clarifies the relation between chastity and marriage. Spouses belong to Christ with all their being, consecrated by baptism. Therefore they cannot become slaves to the demands of their bodies. Love rather than sex guides them.
But the appeal of sex is there (v. 2). Paul says precisely: Because of “porneia” let each one take… This “porneia” has many meanings: prostitution, illegitimate unions, and many other things that go along with the word “porno.” Paul is probably referring to sexual attraction, a force that rebels against our moral projects (similar to the revolt of the flesh in Rom 7:21). He does not say a person should marry “in order to” avoid misconduct but “because” sex is a reality strong enough to impose its demands.
Many are shocked by Paul not speaking of the positive aspect of sexuality at the service of love, but we must not forget that twenty centuries are between him and us. In Paul’s time the Greeks considered the sharing of themselves to be an ideal: a spouse for children, a friend for love, and prostitutes for pleasure. Here, on the contrary, Paul presents sexual life as a commitment of the whole human person (6:13) and not the “work of the flesh”: something that is very important.
Christianity was to reveal the dignity of marriage and conjugal love; but only in the twelfth century in Christian countries would there be an awareness of the great beauty of a couple’s love. What is here revolutionary is the reminder of the equality of rights of husband and wife according to the teaching of Jesus (Mk 10:1-12).
Lest you fall into Satan’s trap (v. 5). We should recall these words when speaking about Christian birth control. Paul says that, except in special cases where a special grace is given, it is not good for husband and wife to abstain from intimate relations for a long time.
• 10. I command married couples (v. 10). We read after a while: To the others I say (v. 12), referring again to married persons. It is almost obvious that in v. 10 Paul addresses married couples recognized by the Church; and in v. 12, all those married before they were baptized, but whose partners do not yet belong to the Church.
If she separates… (v. 11). Paul stresses a teaching of Jesus (Mt 5:32 and 19:5). This fundamental law of marriage as a commitment lasting to death is a divine law: not I but the Lord (v. 10). See also Eph 5:22.
If the unbelieving… (v. 15). Paul makes an exception for those who at the time of their conversion and baptism were married. In this one case the new Christian, starting a new life, obtains freedom from the marriage ties if his or her partner does not want to accept his (or her) conversion. Even while praising the desire of the believer to convert his spouse, Paul’s advice is that sometimes it would be better to separate, notwithstanding the possibility of a new marriage in the new faith. It is important to remember that Paul was living in a pagan world where separation and divorce were legal and constantly practiced.
Your children also would be apart from God (v. 14). Paul says precisely: “your children would be unclean”, using this word with the meaning that Jesus gave it: children who do not yet share the privileges of God’s people. Would it be right to think that children of Christian parents are alien to God as long as they have not been baptized? Grace has already touched them through the tenderness, the care and the prayers of their parents. We must not use false arguments when we invite Christian parents, (and rightly so) not to delay the baptism of their children.
• 17. Let each one continue living as he was (v. 17). Paul responds to the thirst for improvement of social conditions that are always real. Free people and slaves lived side by side, often in the same houses; and it was not always a distinction between rich and poor. Paul simply wants to put in its right place ambitions that devour the lives of many people, causing them to forget all the rest. Paul puts interior freedom above recognized liberty and he sees possessing Christ as supreme riches.
Yet if you can gain your freedom, take the opportunity. There are conditions of work and of social life that prevent us from doing God’s will and being truly free. However one quickly forgets that each social situation has its element of slavery. The quality of life is not to be confused with better-paid employment, especially if judged according to the criteria of the Gospel. In a world we call inhuman, our slavery largely depends on our whims and our ready response to advertising.
We translate: If you can gain your freedom, take the opportunity. It could also be translated as: Even if you could gain your freedom, take advantage of the present situation, that is, instead of being concerned so much for the advantages of becoming free, live your life fully today.
• 25. A new question to which Paul must reply. In Corinth, a city with a bad reputation where thousands of prostitutes lived in the vicinity of the temple of Aphrodite (as was the custom with pagans) the new community was discovering the way of virginity.
Choosing chastity “for the kingdom of God” is not a way of gaining time and freedom for apostolic work: it is taking a direction that opens to the love of God with new possibilities. Paul defends this choice he himself made. If Christ, to whom we are consecrated by baptism, is a living person, present to us, if he is the Spouse (Mk 2:19), the choice is valid, even if for most people it looks as strange as voluntary poverty.
Paul’s response goes further than the question of the Corinthians when he adds: time is running out. He points to much more than a prompt return of Christ, familiar to the first Christians. The coming of Jesus has shortened time in a figurative way: we can no longer settle down in the present world as we did before when we could see no further than the present. We are entirely turned towards what is to come. A Christian lives in the present, but all that matters most for him comes in the “after.” Let us not argue with Paul as if he were reasoning on the consequences of a certain coming of Jesus Christ: he is not theologizing but speaks like someone already possessed by Christ.
Paul then points out that all Christian commitments are likely to cause division for those who wish to live according to the logic of their baptism, seen as a total consecration to Christ. Married life or family life can present many obstacles to spiritual freedom and apostolic desires: see the words of Jesus in Mark 10:29.
• 36. If anyone is not sure (v. 36). This can also be interpreted as: “if anyone feels he cannot behave correctly with his young virgin.” In this case Paul would be referring to a spiritual trial that in fact took place in the primitive church. Some Christians shared their house with a girl who could have been their girl friend, both consecrating their virginity to the Lord. Paul, in this case, would invite them not to persevere in this commitment if they did not feel capable of keeping their virginity.
• 8.1 We live in a pluralist society, where many do not share our faith and wonder sometimes if we should take part in their feasts or activities that are not in harmony with our faith. For example, how to deal with relatives or neighbors of another religion. What a married woman may do when her husband does not share her scruples. May a person belong to a group or party when many of its members are opposed to the Church? This is the problem that Paul deals with when answering about meat sacrificed to idols. The discussion begun here continues in paragraph 10:23–11:1.
There were many sacrifices of animals in the pagan temples. After the sacrifices, in a room of the temple a banquet was celebrated at which the meat of the victims was served. Christians were often invited to these banquets by their pagan friends. On other occasions, meat from these sacrifices was offered to them in the homes of their pagan friends. Even in the public market, most of the meat was from animals offered to idols.
Paul does not want the Christians to become a group of fanatics keeping themselves apart from society. Although it is true that offering sacrifice to idols is a sin, not for that reason is the meat unclean. False gods do not exist and have no power. Besides Jesus said that it is not what enters into a person that makes him unclean, but what comes out of his heart (Mk 7:15).
Knowledge puffs up, while love builds (v. 1). Christians with an informed conscience could perfectly well eat of that meat, knowing it was not sinful. However it was their duty to respect the opinion of others and so avoid scandalizing those unable to understand their reasons.
In 8:2 the words in brackets were most probably added later. Here, Paul contrasts the knowledge of God we can acquire and express by means of words and ideas, and another more authentic riches that is God’s presence to the one he knows and treats in a special way.
In verses 8:10, 11 and 12, Paul speaks of those of weak or unformed conscience, meaning the believers who have not yet had sufficient religious instruction or who have been badly instructed. They think that something is sinful when in reality it is not; or they are weak and follow others when their conscience reproaches them for doing so.
What if others with an unformed conscience see you, a person of knowledge, sitting at the table in the temple of the idols (v. 10). This is more serious. Some in the community already follow a path that will be denounced by John in Revelation (2:23), those who later would be known as the “Nicolaites.” They wanted to be very open and not separate from the non-Christians around them, so they preferred not to manifest their convictions. Finally one could not tell what truth they were witnesses to. In 10:14-22 Paul will clearly state that a Christian may not participate in such a banquet in the temple. For the present he does not say it openly, but he shows that such an attitude should be shocking for many people.
• 9.1 Have we not the right to be fed? In asking the Corinthians to forget their right to eat sacrificed meat, Paul gives himself as an example and tells them how he also renounces his right to be supported by the churches. The churches gave food and drink to the apostles who visited them and took care of the Christian women attending them (v. 5), as in the case of Jesus (Lk 8:2). However, to give proof of detachment, Paul did not accept this favor and lived by the work of his hands (Acts 18:3).
I am bound to do it. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel (v. 16). As happened with Jeremiah (Jer 1) Christ the Lord began ruling the life of Paul from the day he called him.
I made myself all things to all people (v. 23). Paul gives a guideline for apostles of all times. Apostolic movements require their members to know their environment very well and the problems of their companions. Committed Christians must share the life-style and human aspirations of their companions in everything that is not sinful. Becoming like Paul, “a Greek among the Greeks,” not in appearance but in reality, they will be able to express simply and in all truth their faith in Christ; in that way they will offer to those whose daily life they share, the possibility of one day finding their place in the Church. From then on it will be the entire life of the new convert with all that is linked to his culture and his milieu that will be renewed by faith.
• 24. Paul is now ready to tell the Corinthians that they may not share the cult of idols. To justify his position (for the Corinthians it was very strict), Paul presents two arguments:
– no racing contest is won without self-sacrifice;
– the Bible has many examples of how God punished those who practiced a cult of idols.
As athletes who impose upon themselves a rigorous discipline (v. 25). Like them, we must renounce many things that are not evil. We need discipline to be really free, whether in the use of alcohol or tobacco, or not idly waste time in front of the television or reading magazines. While the world lures us to be spectators and consumers, we must be agents of salvation, the salt of the earth. The second paragraph recalls the example of Israel (see Ex 32 and Num 21).
The rock was Christ (10:4). The Jewish legends said that the rock mentioned in Ex 17:5 followed the Israelites in their journey. Paul does not affirm that legend as true. He only recalls it as an image of Christ, present in his Church.
• 10.15 And the bread that we break, is it not a communion with the body of Christ? (v. 16). Paul will return to speak of the Eucharist in 11:18. This communion through the body and blood of the Risen Christ, besides being a personal encounter with Christ, makes of all of us one body. We form one body. This does not only mean that we feel united, but that the Risen Christ unites us to himself and, so doing, gives the community new strength.
The idol is nothing. The idol in itself was just a material thing, like an image. Yet the Jews thought (and Paul also mentions it) that the cult of idols was addressed to the devils. In fact, when people are now being dragged along by crazy trends or rhythms, or attitudes, and sacrifice to their idols what their families need for survival, and make themselves dependent on “mortals,” we know that in reality they are serving the devil.
• 23. Everything is lawful for me, but not everything is to my profit (v. 23). Paul draws the same practical deductions as in 8:1-13. Except in the cases mentioned, where the believer refuses to share directly in something evil, the supreme rule of conduct will be to seek what is good and respect the conscience of others.
• 11.1 Is it important for a woman to wear a veil while praying in Church? Mediterranean traditions required it and perhaps the new custom originated in “mystery religions.” In an earlier paragraph (9:20) Paul said he was “all for all.” Here we notice that he didn’t always have a fair regard for customs contrary to Jewish tradition.
Paul speaks here according to his Jewish culture, chiefly male-centered, and repeats the same arguments of Jewish teachers (vv. 5-10). Then suddenly he realizes that he is denying the equality proclaimed by Jesus and tries to turn back (vv. 11-12). By the way Paul ends the discussion, we see that he himself was aware of the weakness of his arguments.
Let us not lessen these flashes of light thrown at us by Paul: the angels participate in Christian worship (Mt 18:10 and Rev 5:8; 8:3), even our exterior bearing is in a way an active sharing in the liturgy of the Eucharist.
This paragraph helps us to understand that many things in the Church and in Christian life are no more than customs or human traditions, although they maintain among us respectable values. Those in authority, like Paul, cannot impose them on the community.
• 17. Without making any transition Paul passes to the most important act of the Christian assembly, the Eucharist. These lines are the oldest testimony relating to the Supper of the Lord and were written in the year 55 A.D., some years ahead of the Gospels.
The community gathered in a friendly house. After the supper, solemnized by the singing of the psalms, the leader of the community said a prayer of thanksgiving, remembering the last supper of Jesus, and repeated his words to consecrate the body and blood of Christ. Then everyone received communion from the same bread and the same cup.
In 10:16 Paul recalled two aspects of the Lord’s Supper:
– it is the communion of the body and blood of the Lord;
– it affirms a union of love among all: we form one body.
Here Paul denounces the Corinthians for their sin with regard to these two points.
Each one eats at once his own food to avoid sharing with those who are poorer, or to evade the company of certain persons. We can imagine that the groups spontaneously formed and occupied various rooms in the same house: actually each one joined the group from his own milieu. Perhaps the buffet is more promising where the rich are, while the poor are in the yard.
Another is getting drunk and therefore not disposed to receive the body of Christ.
In not recognizing the Body (v. 29). This term points out at the same time:
– the one who does not distinguish consecrated bread from ordinary bread and does not receive it with due respect, as the body of Christ;
– the one who ignores his brothers and sisters in the celebration of the Eucharist. He does not recognize the body of Christ as formed by all the assembled Christians.
The Eucharist is the center and heart of the life of the Church, which is, before all else, a communion with God and with others. The Church is not only an instrument for spreading the Good News, but the place here on earth where people can already experience the union between themselves and Christ.
You are proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes (v. 26). All the Eucharists celebrated around the world each day and every minute of the day, remind us that the death of Christ fills up the time until his coming.
History cannot cease, nor civilization be stagnant as happened in past centuries. Not only does technical progress force us to advance, but also the requirements of justice springing from the death of the innocent (and here God is the innocent) destroy the established order. Jesus’ death does not allow the world to rest or have peace. The Church reminds us of the death of Christ, not to preserve the past, but to draw from this unique event new energy for both reconciling and condemning.
This is the reason why so many among you are sick (v. 30). The Lord uses many signs to admonish us. Sometimes through personal illness; more often, through the weakness and spiritual anemia of the Church. Fulfilling the requirements for a worthy celebration of the Eucharist would be sufficient to renew the Church.
• 12.1 Let us notice the order followed by Paul: the Spirit comes after the Word, the Son. The spiritual gifts distributed in our days are the fruit of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the Church of Corinth the Holy Spirit reveals his presence by giving many believers spiritual gifts. All marvel when some of them, touched by the Spirit, begin praising God with words understood by no one. They feel still more the presence of God when a prophet reveals to some of them what is on their conscience or gives to someone a special message from God.
Paul intervenes in two ways. First to establish order. Pagans went wild in the frenzied celebration of their feasts, while the Spirit makes everyone more responsible. When a frenzied individual cried out something senseless or scandalous, it was proof that he was not inspired.
Paul reminds us that the gifts of the Spirit (sometimes called charisms) have several aspects. They are gifts, especially evident in miracles. But they are also ministries (v. 5), that is services, as is evident in the leading of a community. These should also be called works, because in them a person must not praise himself, but all must be seen as the work of God.
If Paul said that these services come from Christ, people might think that most important in the Church is the authority of those who govern in the name of Christ and at times are considered his “vicars.” Yet these gifts and ministries are also related to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit blows where he pleases and multiplies, among believers of simple heart, gifts and initiatives that renew the church. The mission of the ministers (bishops, priests or lay ministers) is not only to govern and command the Church, but also to recognize the true work of the Spirit in the community.
Who gives to each one as he so desires (v. 11). The Spirit gives the Church what it needs at the right place and the right time. These paragraphs reveal the concerns of the Church of that time, very different from ours today. Now the Spirit reminds the Church of its mission in the world. Many believers possess gifts that, without being apparent in miracles, inspire their exemplary and fruitful lives. Whereas, in those early times, the newly converted Christians discovered that God was among them. Through gifts of prophecy, wisdom, teaching, the Church unfolded day by day the innumerable consequences of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Words of wisdom that indicate an attitude to adopt. Words of knowledge that reveal something that is hidden, or what God is about to do. Faith (not in the meaning we usually give it, but as in Mk 11:22) that means certitude that God wishes to do something and urges us to ask for a miracle. Thus, it was that the Church discovered God’s presence within herself as well as the power issuing from the death and resurrection of Christ.
The same Spirit… the same Lord… the same God. God is the fountain of the various gifts granted to the Church and God is also the model of how diversity may be coupled with unity.
• 12. A detailed comparison with the body helps us to understand what the Church is, showing at the same time how we must complement and respect each other.
We cannot have a true community unless each of us shares in its life, placing our talents at the service of others. Even the least gifted may have riches that will be revealed at the right time. Even the misfortunes of someone may become the riches of the group that welcomes him/her. As soon as one is really committed to a Christian life, the spirit awakens in him new and sometimes unsuspected capabilities. If we pay attention to the riches of our brothers and sisters and awaken in them the consciousness of their dignity and responsibility, we shall see a new resurgence in the Church, fruit of the Spirit. It would take too long to recall the harm done to the Church in some places because of the passivity of Christians in a clericalized church.
At the end of the paragraph Paul lists the various gifts according to their importance. First, not what appears more miraculous, but what is most constructive for the Church. That is why apostles occupy the first place. These are not only the twelve chosen by Jesus, but also those who, like them and accepted by them, are founding new communities and governing those already existing. Then, in second place, come the prophets, who not only announce words of God, but also strengthen the community with the gifts of faith and wisdom that inspire their preaching.
In the last place are those who receive the gift of speaking in tongues, although in Corinth it was as if they had already reached Heaven.
• 13.1 I will show you a much better way (12:31). As the Corinthians marveled at the spectacular and wonderful things worked by the Spirit, Paul tells them that the only important thing is the ability to love.
Love or charity? At the beginning both words meant the same thing. Later on, the word “charity” came to mean the help given in the form of alms, although the giving of alms alone is not real love. On the other hand, for many people, true love is only that of a man and a woman. So it is irrelevant whether we say charity or love, but we have rather to clarify what love really is. Paul does just that in the present text.
If I could speak… if I had… To love is more important than performing miracles, more important than doing great things for others and dying for a cause, all of which can be done without love.
When I was a child. Already Paul outlines what he will explain in chapter 15 when he speaks of our life after the resurrection. Just as the caterpillar must completely change itself to become a butterfly (not merely by sprouting wings), and just as a child’s game has no sense for an adult, so will it be for our present life: work, study, love, our understanding of God and the world, the life of the Church—all will be no more than a forgotten past. Paul experienced a love of God that invaded him and divinized his least desires, and he knew it was already God’s possession of him, which would be eternal: love would never end.
Faith, hope, love (v. 13). Paul quite often joins these three “virtues,” that is the three movements in the Christian soul. In no other place does he state this more clearly than here. There is no authentic love without faith and hope.
The greatest of those is love. Sometimes this sentence is used to misrepresent what is essential to Christian life. For many say, “I do good to my neighbor, what else does God ask of me?” It would not be difficult to prove that such love is very limited, selfish and impure. It is a “love” in which divine love lives in very cramped conditions and so is unable to transform our life. We would need, first of all, great hope in a Christian sense that is a passion for eternal things and then the yielding of ourselves to the Spirit who would complete his work of love in us. Love reaches its perfection when we are in God: I will know him as he knows me. As long as we do not see God, love is immature; this is the time when love must grow through faith and the knowledge of God’s word; also through hope and perseverance as we follow Jesus poor, free and in the midst of trials.
• 14.1 It seems that the assemblies in Corinth were very disorderly. People did not wait for their turn to speak, but spoke at the same time, especially the women. Paul invites them to be silent. Those with spectacular gifts felt more important and did not respect the most elementary order. Some who pretended to be inspired spoke and acted very strangely and at times shamefully.
Paul establishes an order of priority, giving preference to those gifts that most help strengthen the Church. He compares the Church to a building. We build it when we help others to grow, to be better and more united. What makes a person better is charity, and not the performance of extraordinary gifts and charisms, as miracles, languages and such. This is why extraordinary performances do not mean holiness; God can use anybody, even sinners, to perform for others’ benefit. The truth of a religion does not rely on the fact that its preachers can heal the sick or do similar things, thereby filling stadiums and impressing large audiences. It depends on its fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles, as found in the Church.
The spirits speaking through prophets are submitted to prophets (v. 32). What comes from the Spirit always blends with what comes from a person. Those who think they are inspired must be careful not to lessen what comes from the Spirit with their own beliefs and desires. No inspiration allows us to disregard our community or rightful authority.
The verses 34-35 have from the beginning scandalized people because of their harshness towards women and in certain texts they have been removed. If they are Paul’s they must be understood in the light of 11:1-16. The apostle was infallible regarding faith but no decision touching the organization of the Church whether it comes from Paul or someone else is beyond criticism or irrevocable, even in the case when it could be at a given moment “an order of the Lord.”
• 15.1 Have we here the response to a last question of the Corinthians? Many Greeks thought that at death the immortal soul leaves the body and remains alone. Was it admitted to the paradise of souls? Did it come to the great reservoir of souls already gone or who were to return, forgetting all the past lived on earth? Others held (as do a good number of Christians today), that all ends with death: see 1 Thes 5:13. Paul will therefore remind the Corinthians that faith in the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian message.
I remind you of the gospel. Here certainly we may speak of Good News, for death as something unknown is and always has been the great burden of human life (Sir 40:1).
How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (v. 12). Paul begins with the resurrection of Jesus as a fact: and from that he then draws consequences: our own resurrection.
We hear it said at times, even among believers that the resurrection of Jesus is not an historical fact. This is true in the sense that resurrection escapes the historical dimension. We know and we believe it because there are witnesses, and in no other way does history proceed. Nevertheless there is a vast difference: history deals with testimonies on which we have some ideas: a war, a meeting between two people, an invention. On the contrary, for the resurrection of Jesus, the witnesses can only speak of apparitions of Jesus or meetings with him. This experience led them to believe something much greater: Jesus had begun a life about which we have no idea, even sharing the power of God! We, then, in this very special case, shall believe not only what they saw but also what they believe, and that is in no way comparable with historical processes. But all the same, Jesus’ resurrection and coming in glory is a fact (see com. on Mk 16).
I have passed on to you (v. 3). Paul will not recall a tale, or a “myth,” these stories full of wisdom that abounded with the Greeks. They bared an order in the world, a meaning of life, but were only stories. Today certain people speak of the resurrection in the same way. They say: “It matters little what took place, the gospels are not directly interested in what happened to Jesus, for them it was important that strange events would give courage to the disciples and the hope of another life.” Paul says precisely the contrary: the resurrection of Jesus is a fact.
• 20. Whoever shares the faith of the apostles has accepted resurrection as a fact. Paul immediately goes to the consequences for us: shall we also enter another life?
All die for being Adam’s (v. 22). See the commentary in Rom 5:12 concerning Adam and Christ. The myths of various religions in the past projected onto some mysterious personage our own condition, but were unable to do more than give a meaning to life. They could not change it. Faith instead tells us that the Son-of-God-made-human has lived among us and lived for all of us. Let us leave aside our individualistic vision in which each one sees no more than his own destiny: for God the entire venture of creation and salvation is that of Adam, one and multiple at the same time. Jesus who is himself Man has lived it fully for us all.
Then the end will come, when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father (v. 24). Here again, let us leave aside simplistic images. Let us remember that there is only one God. Here, the Son is the Word of God made flesh who has taken on his shoulders the whole history of humankind. He who is eternally returning to the Father from whom he is born brings to the eternity of God all creation. There will not be a re-beginning of history. God will be all in all, we will receive God from God and we will have all, finally becoming ourselves. That, surely, surpasses all we could have imagined, but Paul adds: The last enemy to be destroyed will be death (v. 26). John will say the same in Revelation (21:4).
Why do they want to be baptized for the dead? (v. 29). Perhaps some of them were concerned for the fate of their parents who died without knowing the Gospel, and were baptized in their name. Paul does not give his opinion about this practice. He only takes the opportunity to argue in favor of the resurrection.
• 35. How will the dead be raised? With what kind of body will they come? (v. 35). Here indeed is the question we often ask: we would like to imagine, to know what we shall then be. But how can a human being imagine, know, this new world which is even now being prepared: is it not like a child still enclosed in the universe of its mother’s womb, and trying to imagine the world into which it will be projected?
All that Paul can do is to throw light on the mystery by using comparisons.
What you sow is not the body of the future plant (v. 37). Jesus spoke of the grain that is sown (Jn 12:24). With this example he destroyed those primitive ideas that some people still have nowadays: that angels will come to gather the dust of the dead, that corpses will come out of their tombs… In reality, our present body is the grain and the risen body, the spike or ear, will not be the recomposition of the actual body that is put in the earth.
Not all flesh is the same (v. 39). Paul explains that one and the same word can express many different things that have some likeness. For example, the word “light” is used to designate the very different ways in which the sun, the moon and stars, each shines with its own special color. During Paul’s time the word “body” was used for many things, even to designate the sun and the stars, called “heavenly bodies.” So, when it is said that the dead are raised with their own body, this does not mean with the same shape (with arms and legs and hair…) or the same life, although it will be the same person.
Just as the ear of wheat comes from a grain of wheat, it will be the same person as before, marked by all that has made him grow (the risen Christ rightly wished to show the marks of his passion on his glorious body). Since no one becomes himself alone, but in union and in relation with others, we shall know in all the fullness of their transfigured persons, those who have helped us most to develop our riches.
For there shall be a spiritual body as there is at present a living body (v. 44). Resurrection comes from what is within, it is like a transfiguration. Each one will have the body he/she deserves; a body that best expresses what he/she has become and what he/she is in God. Could we hope for anything more beautiful than that hope which is beautiful even in its logic? But is it certain? Paul is affirmative with all the boldness of faith. No reasoning can prove faith: only the experience of the working of the Spirit which even now is transfiguring us and will give us day by day, more than an intuition, a certitude of where we are going.
Earthly… heavenly… (vv. 45-49). We all have a double heritage: by nature we are in solidarity with the human race in the person of Adam—man, animal and earthly—but we also belong to this human community which mysteriously forms itself around Christ who is Spirit, source of life and who comes from heaven. Baptism has not made us pass from one to another. Moreover, faithful as we may be, our Adam will continue to grow and increase in weight, with his weakness and temptations, but at the same time our inner being will be strengthened, this embryo of a celestial person, waiting for its true birth.
Flesh and blood cannot share the kingdom of God; nothing of us that is to decay can reach imperishable life (v. 50). It is the opposition between what can only rot and decompose, and the definitive, unaltered which is proper to the world where God is (Rom 8:21). Life has its logic: persons who have chosen to enjoy the present life hardly believe in that other world.
Not all of us will die (v. 51). Paul thinks that Christ is to return soon. On this supposition, he says that those who are alive when Christ returns will not have to “travel” with him to Heaven (that would be a materialist image), but will be transformed. Resurrection is not simply to live again as happened to Lazarus.
• 16.1 With respect to the collection, see Romans 15:25 and 2 Corinthians chaps. 8 & 9.
Sunday, the first day of the Jewish week. See Acts 20: 7. During the time of Paul, Christians began to observe Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, rather than the Saturday (or Sabbath) of Moses and the Jews.
Through the list of greetings to be passed on, we can form some idea of these first believers from whom we have received the faith. We can see that in spite of their weakness the Christians of Corinth form a real Church, since it is a community where many are active and together trying to solve the problems of their life “in Jesus Christ.”
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