Commentary on 1 Cor 4:9-15
The reading continues from yesterday’s passage. Paul has been describing himself and Apollos as stewards or managers of God’s message. The focus should be totally on the message rather than on the messengers. (Good advice for today’s Church!) As Paul says elsewhere, the messengers are just leaking vessels, vessels of brittle clay. The Corinthians therefore should not be taking sides and pitting one messenger against another, accepting one and rejecting the other. They have no right to be doing such a thing.
They should “keep to what is written”. This may refer to Scripture or the written traditions and teachings that had been passed on to them.
The Corinthians themselves can only make judgements based on the teaching they were given and they should not act as if their ideas were their own. “Is it that you have everything you want – that you are rich already, in possession of your kingdom, with us left outside?”
There is a strong element of irony and sarcasm here as Paul points out their arrogance coupled with their spiritual poverty in comparison with those by whom they were taught.
He wishes it could be otherwise so Paul could share in their “riches” but the sad fact is that those “riches” do not exist.
And, in spite of their calling to be apostles, missionaries and teachers, Paul and his fellow-evangelisers they seem to be at the very bottom of the social ladder. “God has put us at the end of his parade.” It is as if Paul and the other evangelisers were numbered last in the line of condemned men called to fight for their lives in the gladiatorial arena and on display before the whole world.
There is more irony as Paul mockingly compares his position with the imagined superiority of the Corinthians. “We are fools for Christ’s sake, while you are the learned men in Christ; we have no power, but you are influential; you are celebrities, we are nobodies.” The fact was, as he had reminded them earlier, they were neither learned nor powerful nor influential. They came from the lower strata of their society.
On the other hand, what Paul says of himself was largely true. He proceeds to give a litany of the trials and hardships he and his companions have to go through to fulfil their mission of proclaiming Christ to the world. They are hungry and inadequately clothed; beaten and homeless; they work hard to support themselves. (We know that Paul supported himself as a tent-maker.)
But, following the teaching and example of their Master, they turn the other cheek to all the abuse showered on them. When cursed, they bless; when hounded, they put up with it; when insulted, they respond with politeness. They are seen as the refuse and scum of the earth. And – it seems to be implied – some of this abuse comes from the Corinthians themselves.
Paul is saying all this not to shame or condemn them but to bring them “to their senses”, to help them realise the real meaning of the Gospel they have been called on to embrace. They may have “10,000 guardians in Christ” but they should remember they have only one father, only one person who originally established the Gospel among them and that person is Paul. “It was I who begot you in Christ Jesus by preaching the Good News (Gospel).”
All too often we hear Church leaders and pastors being criticised and sometimes with justification. But we do need to remember that, from top to bottom, we are a Church of flawed people. And so, we should keep in mind what Paul says – namely, that what we really need to focus on is the Message rather than the messengers. Some people abandon the Message on the basis of the behaviour of one or two messengers. Sometimes this is a rationalisation for not accepting the Message. We might remember Jesus’ words about being too conscious about the splinter in the eye of the other while there is a large beam of wood in our own. Messengers have had their shortcomings since the very beginning. Just look at Peter and Paul. The Gospel, too, is addressed equally to all and the same fidelity is required of every member and not more from some and less from others.