Commentary on 1 Cor 7:25-31
Today’s reading comes from a longer passage in which Paul deals with various questions about marriage and celibacy which had been put to him by the Christians of Corinth.
In the full passage (the whole of chapter 7) Paul makes three main points:
- In general, people should remain in the state of life they were in when they became Christians;
- Celibacy is a higher call than marriage and spiritually more rewarding;
- Marriage is acceptable for those who cannot otherwise observe chastity.
In today’s reading Paul is clearly speaking to virgins and widows and answering a question about the desirability of a Christian remaining celibate.
In giving his reply, he makes it perfectly clear that here he is expressing his own personal opinion and not giving Jesus’ or the Church’s teaching on the matter. He is not dealing with a matter of moral right or wrong. Even so, he believes he is writing under divine inspiration and that what he advises is the better course of action. Moreover, he speaks from the experience of one who is himself, with God’s help, faithfully observing a celibate life.
His general advice is first that, under the pressures of an immoral and hostile environment in which the Christians for the most part find themselves, people should remain in the state they are in now. His advice is to be understood as applying to the particular circumstances in which the Corinthians are at present living and is not to be understood as having a general application.
So, men who are married should remain married; on the other hand, those who are not yet married should remain single.
However, if a young man or woman does decide to get married, there is no wrong in that. At the same time, Paul warns them that he foresees trouble in their married life. This is not a reflection on the characters of those who got married but a warning that a faithful married life might be difficult in the pagan and immoral environment in which they lived and where they were liable to suffer persecution for their faith. Moreover, in times of persecution, it could be difficult for a couple to take care of each other or even to remain together.
It is not clear whether Paul himself was ever married and it is possible his present celibate situation might have been due to a marriage which he found incompatible with his vocation as a wandering apostle. (It is more likely that he was married at some stage; celibacy was not an admired state among Jews and we need to remember, too, that Paul had been a Pharisee, setting an example for other Jews.)
“Time is growing short,” says Paul. This may be a reference to the second coming of the Lord or it may be just a general statement that there is not much time in which to do the Lord’s work, especially if there is a threat of persecution (and the early Christians found themselves constantly harassed by both Jews and Christians). Attention should rather be focused on the living of the Christian life and on the love and service of the Lord and the needs of the Christian community in its work of giving witness to the Gospel.
Everything else the Christians did should be subordinated to this primary concern of their Christian life.
So, putting it rather strongly, Paul urges
- the married to live as if they were not married,
- those who are grieving as if they were not grieving,
- those who are enjoying life to remember that it may not last,
- those who are tied up in acquiring ownership of things to realise that nothing really belongs to anyone,
- those who have to deal with the world around them not to get too caught up in it.
It is a warning of the transitoriness of life. “I say this,” Paul reminds the Corinthians, “because the world as we know it is passing away.”
In other words, we should not cling too tightly or give too much of our energies to relationships, activities and things which sooner or later we will have to let go of. They must never become ends in themselves.
Generally speaking, Paul’s advice is still sound. People are still called both to celibacy and to marriage. Marriage responds to a need that most people have; nature, in its concern for the preservation of the species, has seen to that. Celibacy, for the majority, is not what they feel called to. Yet, apart altogether from those who adopt it for religious reasons, there are many who choose to remain celibate.
The Church – together with other religions – has seen the call to celibacy as allowing a more complete commitment to the direct service of God. In that sense, it is a “better” or “higher” calling in itself. It also indicates that it is possible to live a full and enriched life without being sexually active. This is less a matter of supreme sacrifice than an expression of a special freedom.
But that does not at all mean that the celibate is necessarily a “holier” or better person than those who are married. Both are vocations and through both the Gospel can be lived to the full. Both bring their rewards and both at times require great sacrifices to be made.
The question is not which is better in itself but to which way God is calling me to love and serve him.
Paul’s own life and the witness of many religious priests, brothers and sisters as well as of many others who choose de facto celibacy makes it clear that celibacy offers a level of freedom for greater service to a larger number. As Thomas Merton put it: “Belonging to all because belonging to none.”
But it cannot be overemphasised that the married couple also makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to both society and the Christian community through the family life it nurtures and its contribution to the future of our society.
Let us ask God today that each one of us be faithful to the particular way in which he has called us to serve him.