Today’s reading from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a seamless continuation from last week’s excerpt, and therefore quite naturally the theme of ‘there may be trouble ahead’ gains a greater intensity. To be fair to St Paul, he had his emotional ups and downs as we all do; he had his bad days and his good days, his successes and failures, so it’s only right to take a closer look at his emotional state. I have always considered St Paul to be a ‘toughie’, particularly when one thinks of the times he was shipwrecked, flogged, imprisoned, went without food, had to sleep under the stars and perhaps suffer other deprivations which in his words were endured ‘all for the sake of Jesus Christ’. Lesser men would have given up, but not Paul.
Before moving to Corinth, Paul had been in Athens where his efforts to spread the gospel had little success. The Athenians were not ready to ‘hear the truth of Jesus Christ;’ He was ‘down in the dumps’, and so he shook the dust of his feet and travelled the 40 miles or so to Corinth, a city five times the size of Athens, and a prominent commercial city of Greece. Corinth was said to have been one of the most licentious and profligate cities of its day, but I suspect no more so than any port, then or now! It was in Corinth that Paul met Aquila and his wife Priscilla shortly after his arrival. They were tent makers, and that being Pauls trade, he stayed with them. At the time it was customary that the sons of all the upper class people should learn a trade however well-educated they were, so Paul’s trade stood him in good stead and could earn a living; that is why we read ‘he could preach the gospel without charge.’
Paul preached to the Jews wherever he could, but he struggled to achieve progress in Corinth, and it wasn’t until Silas and Timothy joined him, bringing good news from Berea, Thessalonica and Philippi and brought him a gift (I assume cash and probably from Lydia who was in the purple-dye trade’ – therefore a wealthy woman) that his spirits rose from the darkness of depression. His energy levels rose, and I quote: ‘he became more zealous and bold in his preaching.’ Paul was re-energised!
Many of you may be thinking what I have often thought about Pauls’ attitude and advice in this part of his first letter to the Corinthians. Where is this guy coming from? And that is a fair question, because it would seem the moral attitudes expressed and displayed in our culture are worlds apart from St Pauls’. But of course they are similar. The weakness of humanity regarding morality doesn’t change, but the motivation behind Paul’s urgent message was that the ‘second coming’ of Jesus Christ was imminent, the end world was on the horizon, and if humanity didn’t amend its immoral way of life, many would have to face the consequences when they came face to face with the God of Justice, mercy and compassion on judgment day, and he wanted to spare people the pain of condemnation.
Nicholas King. SJ in his commentary on this excerpt from Pauls’ letter says: ‘We shall misread the apostle if we see him as a miserable old Puritan, thundering ‘Sex is bad, sex is dirty’ from his office in Ephesus.’ Paul is straining his guts to convince the Corinthians to change their lives even at the very last moment before they meet their maker, and so fulfil God’s wish that all humanity will gain eternal life with the God of mercy and compassion. The world does not have a vaccine to cure the licentiousness and profligacy of humanity, so it’s up to the individual to develop self-control as best as he or she is able. Sexual immorality is an addiction, and it takes courage and determination to change, as any other addiction.
If you want to know more about St Paul, there is a very good book written by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor OP called ‘A Critical Life’ . The Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-285342-2.