Wednesday of Week 10 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:4-11

Today’s reading is part of Paul’s defence of his behaviour and of his credentials with the Christian community in Corinth. However, as often happens, it leads him into making statements which go far beyond his own personal interests and leave us with ideas providing much material for theological and spiritual reflection.

In the verses immediately preceding our reading, Paul has just said that one of his main credentials are the Christians of Corinth themselves.

You are our letter of commendation written on our hearts, known and read by all.

And ultimately he now says that all the credit for what has been achieved in Corinth comes not from Paul himself but from God.

He is the one who has give us the qualifications to be the administrators of this new covenant.

Paul has not appointed himself; it God in Jesus who has called him. And this “new covenant” is not of a written law, but of the Spirit. It is a covenant not confined to a legal document but is the living testimony of the Corinthians themselves.

And, perhaps in a remark aimed at some of his more legalistic critics, he affirms that:

…the written letters bring death, but the Spirit gives life.

It is a remark that should be engraved on all our hearts. Again and again, it has been the lists of laws and rules that has often been the kiss of death for Christian communities, and it is a problem which continues to bedevil us today. For Paul, to cling tenaciously to the letter of the Law is to die, to atrophy.

Paul’s confidence is grounded in his sense of a God-given mission. His qualifications come entirely from God’s calling. Paul is now living in a new covenant, characterised by the Spirit, which gives life. The term ‘new covenant’ comes from Jeremiah:

The days are coming says the Lord when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the Lord. This is the covenant I will make…after those days. I will place my law within them, and write it on their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:31-33)

And he goes on in words that must have been very provocative for some of his more conservative hearers:

…if there was so much brightness accompanying the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai, such that the people could not look directly at the shining face of Moses, what brightness must accompany the giving of the Spirit?

Paul’s words here seem directed against individuals who appeal to the glorious Moses and fail to perceive any comparable glory either in Paul’s life as an apostle, or in the Gospel he preaches. He asserts in response that Christians have a glory of their own that far surpasses that of Moses. Not so much because of who they are, but because of the message which inspires their lives.

He refers to the Old Law, carved on tablets of stone, as a “ministry of death”. He is speaking of the Mosaic law in its limitations. It leads to death rather than life, to condemnation rather than reconciliation. For its defendants, it was “glorious”, as indicated by the shining face of Moses. Paul does not deny that, but asserts that its glory was only temporary and fades in the face of Jesus’ ministry of life. The glory of the new reduces the former glory to no glory at all.

If there was any splendour in administering condemnation, there must be very much greater splendour in administering justification.

This is the difference between the law and the Spirit. The law tends to bring judgement on people, but the Spirit gives life and renewal. The law points out the limits for people’s behaviour – ‘Don’t do this’, ‘Don’t do that’. The Spirit calls forward to a much deeper level of living.

If the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory.

The Law was a complex of things that must be done, and even more things that must not be done. The “ministry of righteousness” we find in the teaching of Jesus is inspiration continually to reach beyond ourselves. It is the difference between the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. In the fact, the Law, which seemed such a great thing at the time, has now been surpassed by a far more inspirational vision.

Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it. In doing so, he simply left it behind.

For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious.

It is that Spirit which Paul wants the Corinthians to experience rather than go back to the old days of blindly following a legalistic system, whose observance was often measured by what could be seen externally. The Law leads to rigidity and stagnation, the Spirit to spontaneity and creativity.

What Paul said then is equally true for us now. There is a certain tempting security in following a set of do’s and don’ts which some people are tempted to follow, but it leads ultimately to stagnation, and often to a not very attractive self-righteousness. It is the Spirit that gives life and brings people together in love, unity and harmony. That is the only way that the Kingdom can be built.

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