Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a powerful read. The passage we hear at Mass this weekend comes from the seventh chapter and may, at first blush, seem a bit odd. It sounds almost as though St. Paul is discouraging marriage. In fact, St. Paul is situating marriage and celibacy in the context of a much broader theology of the Church, and laying the groundwork for a world vision that merits theological reflection and spiritual contemplation. To understand the letter, and thus to understand St. Paul’s theological points, it is helpful to know something about the people to whom St. Paul was writing.
Corinth was a Greek city that eventually was conquered by the Roman Empire. Before the time of Christ, the Romans turned the city into a colony for freed slaves and military veterans. Over time, Corinth became extremely important as a port city and center of trade, as well as the capital of the Roman province of Achaia (modern-day Greece). Numerous temples to pagan gods were built within the city walls. With trade and travelers coming through the city at all times, Corinth came to have a reputation for licentiousness and an intense climate of social competition. St. Paul first visited Corinth around the year 50 AD, having just unsuccessfully attempted to evangelize Athens. We read about Paul’s attempt to evangelize Athens in Acts chapter 17. Chapter 18 of Acts brings us to Corinth, where Paul would stay for 18 months or so. Assisted by Silas and Timothy, and housed by Pontus and Priscilla, Paul begins to evangelize in the Jewish synagogue. His message is received well by Crispus who was the leader of the synagogue, and who was baptized with his entire household. At the end of his time in Corinth, the Jews in Corinth brought Paul before the tribunal of Gallio the Roman proconsul, and a few days later, Paul left the city and continued his mission in Ephesus. With this brief sketch, we can see that Corinth was a complex city with a mix of cultures and attitudes present. The Christian community which Paul established there was made up of Jews and Greeks alike, who lived in a largely pagan environment. As a result, they had many questions about how they were supposed to live, how they were to follow God’s law, and how they were to engage with the ambient culture, especially when it seemed to conflict with the Gospel.
The first letter to the Corinthians, then, was written to address divisions that had sprung up among those early Christians and to help them navigate a moral landscape that the culture made difficult. St. Paul had to articulate for them the moral consequences of being disciples of Christ and help them to understand a common faith and morality that could unite their disparate cultural backgrounds. He had to name for them the behaviors that are directly contrary to God’s plan, and in particular articulate a coherent sexual morality. St. Paul does all of this with his own sense of urgency; he tended to view the second coming of Christ as something imminent, and thus living according to the Gospel was for Paul an immediate preparation to welcome the Lord when he would come again. All of this builds to Paul’s great vision of heaven and the way to reach heaven by way of true charity, articulated most famously in 1 Corinthians 13. St. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that everything they have learned and experienced of Christ must have an impact on their daily words, thoughts, and actions, and is directing them to their final end, which is eternity with Christ in heaven.
The seventh chapter of this letter as read in this weekend’s Mass is a bit out of context, but valuable nevertheless. The previous chapter ends with these powerful words: “So glorify God in your body.” Paul makes clear that the body itself has a theological meaning and we are therefore capable of worshipping and glorifying God not only with our words, thoughts, and prayers, but even with our body. From there, Paul begins to teach about marriage. In answer to a question the Corinthians have sent him (which we, unfortunately, do not get to read), he points to his own celibate life and encourages that discipline, but also indicates that marriage can and should be a path to holiness for those who choose it. Marriage helps couples to avoid immorality, learn self-control, and understand the meaning of Christian service in love. He speaks of the sanctity and indissolubility of the marriage bond, and encourages those who have become Christians to live in their particular state in life, rather than seeking personal advancement.
The particular passage from 1 Corinthians 7 we read at Mass deals with the unmarried and how they ought to live. In view of what St. Paul believed to be Christ’s imminent second coming, he encourages the unmarried to remain single and focus their energies, efforts, and prayers at preparing for the Lord’s return. In this, he is not denying the goodness of marriage, but rather encouraging a single-mindedness of purpose; be devoted to God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Do not be concerned with material goods or the affairs of this world, but rather be concerned with the things of God and living a life pleasing to Him. In the broader context of a city and culture beset on all sides by pagan license, Paul is teaching his community that living a Christian life makes one stand out from society. Our morality and way of living cannot be the same as that of the world. The Gospel demands more of us. It may be challenging at times, and we may want to adopt the morality and spirit of the world. This seventh chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians outlines what we should do, while the rest of the letter will remind us why we do it. We are called, St. Paul says, to choose the more excellent way, the way of love. Love never fails and love leads us into the everlasting life of heaven promised to us by our merciful and loving Savior, Jesus Christ.