Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians
Though the cities of Paul's time were a far cry
from our own, we can relate to the people of Corinth, a sophisticated,
important port city in the first century. There was diversity
among the converts to Christ there. Some were wealthy and well
educated, while others were neither. There were women and men
and children, slave and free, married and unmarried, a majority
of Gentiles, but some Jews. The Gentiles especially, who distinguished
between body and spirit, were prone to prize knowledge and other
gifts they thought made them spiritually superior. They had a
kind of individualism mixed with religious enthusiasm.
These Christians appear to have been eager and generous
in accepting the gospel Paul preached. They believed in the resurrection
from the dead. They wanted to measure progress and spiritual worth,
and they did so in the way they knew bestby worldly standards.
They tended to rank gifts and persons by systems of honor familiar
in their own Greco-Roman world.
Paul was made aware of problems that existed in
the Corinthian community by travelers who reported to him (see
1 Cor 1:11) and by the questions addressed to him by some Corinthians.
Divisions Among the Corinthians
Diversity contributed to the many factions among
the Corinthians. Some formed groups depending on which leader
they followed: Peter or Paul or Apollos (1 Cor 14). It appears
that some believed that they did not need any other leader than
The Corinthians emphasized those spiritual gifts
that titillated and thrilled them. For example, their knowledge
appeared to place them above others not so enlightened. Some were
captivated by those who exhibited the gift of tongues, assuming
that they were filled with the Spirit of God. Some Corinthians
who had wealth and prestige acted superior to others.
Some practiced celibacy and abandoned their marriages
or abstained from marriage altogether on the assumption that this
practice put them above married folks, and was more in keeping
with belief in the resurrection. Some held the view that they
were already living the resurrected life, and that there was no
In response, Paul urges them to reflect on the true
meaning of the cross, which changes everything. "Become imitators
of me," Paul says (see 11:1). Paul himself underwent a change
of mind and heart so that he no longer persecuted believers for
their belief that through Jesus' death he was shown by God to
be the Messiah. Rather, Paul came to interpret Jesus' death as
"for us." Jesus' complete self-emptying death saves humankind
and also sets an example for us in our relationships with one
another. It is an example Paul follows by making himself a "slave
to all in order to win over as many as possible" (9:19). It is
also the means by which Paul and every other believer are granted
access to God and to grace. Thus Paul urges the Corinthians to
let the cross reshape their spirituality, to become a new basis
for acting and for judging and for relating to one another.
The Body of Christ
A principal image that Paul uses in First Corinthians
is "Body of Christ." This one image can unlock the whole message
of the letter. The Corinthians seem to have been impressed with
Paul's preaching about the resurrection, but their conclusions
about its implications for them caused them to err in a number
of different ways. They appear to have considered themselves so
spiritually mature that even blatant sexual immorality would not
Some considered themselves more spiritually "strong"
than others, an opinion which allowed them certain ethical privileges
and ways of acting. At the same time, some Christians in Corinth
were suing other Christians, because of some real or imagined
fraud they suffered (6:1-11). To counteract the envy and rivalry,
the moral apathy and the personal sense of righteous indignation
they were exhibiting in myriad ways, Paul stresses their common
identity as belonging to Christ. Through Baptism they are linked
to Christ in an inviolable and unbreakable association. This new
identity calls for worthy behavior as an adequate expression of
their mutual commitment. They must show that their bodies belong
to Christ rather than defile this "temple" with behavior not in
keeping with that association.
The Eucharist: (10:16; 11:17-34).
Another way Paul applies the image of the Body of Christ is in
response to abuses among the Corinthians apparent in their celebration
of the Eucharist. Their divisions are magnified there since they
contradict the very meaning of their memorial service. They are
to "proclaim the death of the Lord" until he comes again (10:16).
Jesus' saving death appeared to be a tragedy, but it is interpreted
by believers as the basis for their hope and their common faith.
Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that the
purpose of their gatherings is to commemorate Christ's actions
"the night he was handed over" (11:23). One abuse is their disagreement
about eating food offered to idols in public ceremonies, a practice
that scandalized those whose consciences were "weak" and who were
offended when the "strong" participated in such services (see
8:1-13; 10:23-33). Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to be
mindful of their unity: "We, though many, are one body, for we
all partake of one loaf" (10:17). Their unity through Baptism
is expressed and reinforced in the Eucharist and ought not to
be violated because of the indifference of the strong to the scruples
of the weak. Paul warns that "You cannot drink the cup of the
Lord and also demons" (10:21). Our actions cannot belie our identity
as a Christian community, one Body in Christ.
Another abuse noted by Paul in the Corinthians'
celebration of the Eucharist has to do with divisions between
the rich and the poor (see 11:17-22, 27-34). It appears as if
the rich were hosting gatherings of the Christians to the detriment
of real community. The rich invited their own friends to a banquet-style
celebration while the poor were relegated to a lesser status,
unable to fit into the dining area. Some went hungry while others
drank and ate too much. Paul warns the Corinthians that they are
doing more harm than good, that it is not the Lord's Supper that
they are observing, that they are risking bringing condemnation
rather than blessings upon themselves.
The Community (1 Cor 12:12-20; see 14). A
third way in which Paul employs the image of the Body is in his
description of the Christian community itself as the Body of Christ
(12:12-27). Paul may have been drawing on the concept of the "commonwealth"
made popular in the Greco-Roman world by the Stoic philosophers
who portrayed such an association as a partnership in which members
shared spiritual as well as material resources. Paul likens this
association to a physical entity, a "body" whose members reciprocally
need and support one another. In order to correct an exaggerated
emphasis on some of the gifts they thought were more spiritual
and therefore more valuable, such as the gift of tongues, Paul
admonishes the Corinthians: "As a body is one though it has many
parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ" (12:12). One part cannot say to another, "I do
not need you" (12:21). His concluding lesson is a paradox; if
one possesses a gift thought to be superior, it is for the greater
service to all, especially those "weaker" and most in need.
The rivalry concerning gifts considered to be greater
has to be healed with the greatest gift of all, the gift of love.
Paul inserts into his discussion of these gifts in chapters 12
and 14 the famous hymn of charity (chapter 13) which he apparently
borrowed and adopted from the Stoics, who celebrated love not
as an emotion or a feeling, but as the energy that infused the
commonwealth and held a society together.
The Resurrection (1 Cor 15). All of the abuses,
divisions and misunderstanding experienced by the Corinthians
would find their remedy and their healing in a true embrace of
the resurrection of Jesus. Paul turns to this reality in chapter
15 to help this community accept more deeply and fully what he
passed on to them as of "first importance" (15:3). Paul insists
that he received this teaching as an apostle, as one who, like
Peter and James and others, had "seen the Lord."
The resurrection gives new meaning to the death
of Jesus, a death "for our sins" (15:3). This is so important
because Christ is the "first-fruits" of the resurrection from
the dead, the promise of the resurrection of those who believe
in him (15:23). The resurrection empowers Paul and us to face
danger for the sake of our faith, with courage and hope. By Christ's
resurrection our "lowly" bodies are transformed. Because of the
resurrection, death no longer holds its sting or its power over
The Language of Family
Paul has fashioned much of the vocabulary we use
with regard to Christian life. For example, Paul first used and
gave meaning to terms such as apostle and gospel.
But Paul also gave birth to Christian use of more commonplace
terms, for example, the idea that our common faith makes us brothers
Paul insists on this language, especially in First
Corinthians. Paul counteracts the Corinthians' exaggerated sense
of individualism, superiority and competitiveness by addressing
and describing them in terms of family relationships. Especially
in the Mediterranean world this conveyed a sense of mutual responsibility
of the support and promotion of the family unit.
Paul applies to the community of faith the language
of family, a much-cherished and appreciated unit considered to
be sacred in both the Greco-Roman and the Jewish world. Sibling
solidarity was fostered and developed as one of the highest values
necessary for the life of the society.
Paul raises this solidarity to a theological level
by stressing that those who are called to live in Christ form
a new family, with new ties to one another. This new family in
Christ enables its members to disregard social status and all
other forms of competition in favor of a new unity characterized
by selfless love. Paul's understanding of the story of Jesus is
shaped by Jesus' self-giving death. This is the basis for God's
action in the resurrection.
As members of Christ's family, Christians have a
new regard for one another. They judge themselves in the light
of Christ's death and resurrection, and they consider of first
importance their responsibilities to one another. That is why
Christians cannot take "brothers and sisters" to civil court (6:1-11).
That is why Paul warns that we must not sin against the "brother
for whom Christ has died" (see 8:11-12). That is why Christians
approach the "Lord's Supper" as different than an ordinary festive
When he addresses the problems that plague the Corinthians,
Paul does not merely determine who is right and who wrong, and
pronounce on the side of the former. Rather, Paul consistently
underscores the new social basis for Christian morality, which
is to preserve and promote the solidarity and holiness of the
family of faith. If we are strong, the greater is our responsibility
to and for the weak. If we have knowledge or wealth or spiritual
gifts, those must be used not for the exclusion of the ignorant,
the poor and the disenfranchised, but for strengthening and healing
the whole community.
The Paradox of the Cross
Paul's letter to the Corinthians draws on sources
Paul's world recognized as wise and authoritative: Greek philosophy,
Roman customs, Jewish Scriptures. Yet Paul aims to communicate
to the Corinthians a wisdom and a knowledge that defies the world's
logic. Paul admits that he came among them not teaching in lofty
words and concepts, but preaching a gospel that is scandal to
the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (see 2:13:4). It is the
wisdom of the Cross.
Paul says that "the foolishness of God is wiser
than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human
strength" (1:25). This is the paradox which reverses worldly standards
and sets up a new way of judging and of acting. The Corinthians
claim to be knowledgeable and honorable, to possess spiritual
gifts of knowledge and of tongues that distinguish them. Paul
allows from the beginning of his letter that this community enjoys
every spiritual blessing (1:4-7). But then Paul shows them how
human and immature and contrary to the gospel their standards
for judging themselves and each other really are. They need to
grasp the paradox at work in the gospel, which has as its center
the cross interpreted as the greatest of all spiritual gifts since
it embodies God's love for us. "Tongues will cease..., knowledge
will be brought to nothing" (13:8). Even faith and hope will pass
away. But love remains. This is a reality the Corinthians must
experience to truly understand.
Next: What Jesus Said (by Virginia Smith)