The Corinthians challenged the patience of St. Paul. After preaching in Corinth, he and had established there a small but strong local church. But influence by the larger number of Corinthians swayed them in a direction that disturbed Paul and prompted him to write them four letters.
Corinth boasted of sophisticated tastes born of every kind of Hellenistic philosophy. It was a mecca for the worship of pagan idols, the preeminent being Aphrodite Pandemos, the goddess of love. In the temple were some 1,000 prostitutes, a permanent part of the city’s pagan worship. Corinth’s other claim to fame was as a center of immorality. Paul had his hands full when he heard that the little community of Christians was reverting to these same practices.
Metaphor of the Body
The Corinthians’ preoccupation with the body became Paul’s. He used the theme of the body to refute their behavior. In his first letter to them (this is really his second; the first remains lost), Paul addresses the specious arguments of philosophical cliques that were splitting apart the body of the community: “God’s folly is wiser than the wisdom of the world, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1Cor. 1:25) Only Christ and Christ crucified is the answer to the specious arguments of philosophy.
Corrupting practices of the human body also evoked Paul’s ire: “I have been told as an undoubted fact that one of you is living with his father’s wife. You should be ashamed ... You know perfectly well that people who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God: people of immoral lives, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves and usurers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers. In fact, it has been reported that the extent of your immorality has not been found even among the pagans.” (1Cor. Ch 5)
He presses his admonition: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in you? The temple of God is sacred, and you are that temple. You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to you. Keep away from fornication; ... to fornicate is to sin against the body, so get rid of all the old yeast and make yourselves into a completely new batch of bread. You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for. That is why you should use your body for the glory of God” (1Cor. Chapters 2-4)
Paul cautions those in the married or celibate state to remain faithful to it, for infidelity can break down the Body of Christ, which they are. He condemns the factions of participants in the Eucharist because, after sharing in the sacrament of unity, they wrangle with one another over petty things like places at table and sharing the food. There could be no divisions at the Lord’s Supper despite specific categories of wealth, occupation, and status which affected the complex social divisions in the community: “The bread that we break is a communion with the body of Christ. Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1Cor. 11:27)
Chapter Twelve: Building up the Body
In chapter twelve, the body serves as an analogy for the Body of Christ. In the human body, a headache, a toothache, bad news, scandal—all these cause the whole body to suffer. Every part of the human body has its own special role to build up the body. Similarly with the Body of Christ: there are a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit. Each member of Christ’s Body has a special gift, and each member cultivates that gift uniquely, with quality, and with excellence. The devotion of a husband and wife to their family builds up the Domestic Church. Their vocation differs from the devotion of a person in the clerical or consecrated life.
A public figure is called to live the vocation of governing the people and serving them with commitment to build up the polis. In each state of life, there is honey to be gathered in a way that fructifies the Body. Thus, the message of chapter twelve: by living in and according to the Spirit, every member builds up the Body of Christ.
Chapter Thirteen: Hymn to Love
Paul caps 1 Corinthians with his famous hymn to love. Is he so naïve as to think that they will heed the soaring poetic prose? The answer he spells out is not just a better one but the only one that binds together the members of the Body of Christ. Love is “a many-splendored thing.”
Though hackneyed, misused and overused, love asks much nevertheless. Love makes demands on one’s time and energy, patience and generosity; love is shown more in actions than in words. The commitment to love may require a slow burn instead of outright martyrdom.
The expression of love asks discernment of the giver. To some, love, given outright, is gladly accepted. To others, love, given outright, may be construed as intrusive—even pushy. A wise person heeds the advice: Do not give what is not received, and do not take what is not given. The discerning person can grasp the sense of a particular moment in a culture that is characterized by skepticism, even of well-intentioned love.
The Example of Jesus
When it came to relationships, Jesus had perfect pitch. The parable tells us that, in the case of one lost sheep, the Good Shepherd goes out at once to save it (Jn 10). Yet, his love could be nuanced. A clear example of discerning love was shown in his encounter with the Samaritan woman. At the Lord’s promptings, her subterfuges were peeled off layer by layer. Embarrassed but relieved, she ran and proclaimed to the villagers, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” (Jn 4:29)
With her and with others, Jesus attracted not with temporal power but with moral authority, and the Sermon on the Mount makes the ultimate counter-cultural statement. Gandhi himself treasured the beatitudes as the core of his teaching, and it is said that he took a copy of them wherever he went.
Today, in the public square, only children, saints, and fools are admired for love given outright. Contemporary man and woman also seek to make the Body beautiful through love but without appearing weak and without inviting ridicule.
St. Thomas More had it just right:
“God made the angels to show him splendor
As he made animals for innocence
And plants for their simplicity.
But to man, he gave an intellect
to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.”
(St. Thomas More in Robert Bolt's “A Man for All Seasons”)