We are studying 1 Corinthians 1:26-30, alongside Acts 16:11-15 and Acts 16:40, for Sunday, February 28. This text seems to be a capstone or overall commentary on the past five weeks of New Testament texts featuring women. Some notes on the Acts text are in a separate post; here are some notes on this text from 1 Corinthians [along with some questions, here]:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: 1 Corinthians is a letter from Paul to the church in Corinth, written some time after his extended stay in that city [see Acts 18 and the notes from last week]. The letter responds to several concerns that have come up in the life of the church, which Paul proceeds to address one by one. The first, and arguably most serious, is the emergence of factions in the community.
Whether the basis for these factions is theological, or practical, or both is unclear from the text. Paul doesn’t discuss the content associated with these different factions. [Although the material from 1:18 through 2:16 seems likely to represent a partial review of the theological content of the Pauline faction.] What we know is that Paul presents the message of the redemptive power of Christ’s cross as absolutely central – and also, as counter-cultural.
The cross of Christ is the paradigm for the assertion that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)
Paul’s argument continues with our text, the eloquent description of God’s strength lying along the way of weakness, at least in the eyes of “the world.”
That point will be developed further as Paul describes the reliance of that message on the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:1-16), and his insistence that this spiritual message does not depend on the human teacher or leader but on the source, who is God. And, crucially, on faithfulness to that source. That seems to be the point of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, the passage about building on the foundation of Jesus Christ.
The conclusion of this argument seems to be “let no one boast about human leaders,” 1 Corinthians 3:21. This suggests to me that at least some of the arguments in Corinth took the form “my teacher is better than yours.” That’s assuming Paul is directly addressing what was going on in Corinth, and not setting up a straw man representation of what was going on.
Then there is some personal application and sarcasm in chapter 4, before turning to the specific moral and practical problems that take up the next several chapters, and then his vision of the church as a body of love in chapters 12-13, the matter of prophecy and tongues in chapter 14, and the teaching about the resurrection in chapter 15.
So our text is near the beginning of Paul’s discussion of God’s foolishness as wisdom, but not at the very beginning; it depends on and responds to what has gone before.
The material in verses 18-25 – “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” – gets a lot of lectionary exposure, in a way. It is the epistle for the Third Sunday of Lent Year B, and for the feast of the Holy Cross every year. The verses that follow – our text, verses 26-30 – are added to make the epistle for Tuesday of Holy Week, again every year. So people who attend church religiously could be familiar with this text.
CLOSER READING: Verse 26 seems to presuppose that the brothers [and sisters] have been called. And explicitly points out that “not many” of them were wise “according to the flesh,” or powerful or “well-born.”
V27 and 28 are three almost parallel statements, beginning with God chose – the “election” word, the verb that corresponds to the “elect,” as in Romans 8:33 – the “foolish,” “weak,” and “low-born” and “despised” of the world for a purpose.
The first two sentences are exact parallels. God chose the foolish “to shame” the wise, God chose the weak to shame the strong.
The word translated “shame” might trouble those of us who have read Brené Brown and had some therapy and have learned that shaming is something we shouldn’t do to our children or other people. In some contexts it is translated “disappoint.” If we thought of it as “taking someone down a peg” we might not be far wrong.
My take: The wise and the strong think they’re something, that those qualities entitle them to something. God’s choice of the foolish and the weak show them how mistaken they are, how little wisdom and strength count with God.
The next sentence, v28, breaks and expands the parallelism. God chose the “low-born” and “things being despised” or rejected or treated with contempt, and then Paul adds “things that don’t exist,” so that things that do exist God might “render completely inoperative.” Translators use words like “reduce to nothing,” “nullify,” “abolish,” etc. for the Greek verb there, because nothing seems to capture the idea in English in a single word or two. That idea seems to be that the way things work now, in the world, “according to the flesh,” according to “worldly wisdom” and “common sense” and “just how things are,” is going to be completely ended, stopped, and things are going to work differently from now on.
Throw your sociology and political science and organizational behavior out the window. There are new rules.
The point of this exercise is in v29, “so that no one might boast in the face of God.” Before God, in front of God. Not so that no one might boast that they are in the presence of God, or have that presence. Just to clarify that potential ambiguity, in English.
God [alone] gives people life in Christ (v30).
Christ “has been made wisdom to or for us, unto us, from God,” to be clunkily literal. If we were to think of a gift of wisdom, that would work. Christ has also been made our “righteousness and purification and redemption.”
This is so Paul: Jesus is our Torah.
The quotation in v31 seems to be a bit of Jeremiah 9:23-24. It might also be worth noticing the similarity of Jeremiah 9:12 to 1 Corinthians 1:20. Paul’s presentation of the reversal of values in Christ draws heavily on the prophets, who clearly see the worldly wisdom and wealth and power of their day as having been obtained unjustly at the expense of the lowly.
Once again, the paradigmatic divine choice of the foolish, weak, and null is the cross of Christ. If we don’t see the watermark of the cross in verses 26-31, I think we miss the point.
I suspect the reason this text was included in our Uniform Series lessons for this Sunday has something to do with the way it has been appropriated, historically, by women in ministry in defense of their ministry. This goes at least as far back as Hildegard of Bingen, maybe farther. This, I suspect, is what makes it a “capstone” of sorts for this series of lessons.
I have mixed feelings about that rationale, honestly. Maybe we can talk about that.
Images: “Saint Paul Writing,” 17th c mosaic, by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons