Saturday of week 11 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Cor 12:1-10


We come to the final reading from this letter as Paul continues to defend his credentials as an apostle of Christ to the Corinthians.

“I must boast,” he says. Not because it does any good in itself but because he sees it as the only effective way to counter the claims of his opponents.

He has spoken about the terrible sufferings and hardships he has been through and now he speaks of tremendous mystical experiences which brought him to unutterable heights of intimacy with God. Like most mystical experiences, he tells us that they cannot be adequately explained in human words.

Speaking of himself in the third person, he speaks of someone who, fourteen years previously, had been caught up to the “third heaven”. It was such an intense experience that he is not sure whether it took place inside or outside his body. “Caught up” suggests an ecstatic experience. This same person was caught up into “Paradise” and heard things which it is impossible to put into words or perhaps to divulge. This is the experience that many mystics – Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, for instance – have described.

The reference to a ‘third heaven’ reflects the cosmologies of the ancient world which pictured a multi-tiered universe. Jewish literature in the immediate pre-Christian era had much speculation about the number of ‘heavens’. The usual number is seven but the Testament of Levi speaks of three and spoke of God in level three. This seems to be the model Paul envisages. In any case, Paul seems to indicate a spiritual journey to a non-earthly environment in which God revealed to him certain secrets.

Now, however, he does not want to boast about that person; instead he prefers to speak about his weaknesses. These experiences were not a personal accomplishment because they were so clearly the work of God in him. By referring here to himself in the third person he is emphasising the distance between that experience and his ordinary life. And his use of passive verbs also points to his passivity and receptivity in the experience. He boasts of them as a blessing from God rather than a personal achievement or something he earned. At the same time, they do indicate a special closeness to God which his opponents would not be able to claim.

So he prefers to boast of his weaknesses, weaknesses which were so obvious to those who knew him and these were entirely his own. He could boast about the “abundance of revelations” because they are the truth but he will not because people might have a higher opinion of him than he really deserves. Instead he will speak about his weaknesses. No one will question these because they are all too obvious!

So, in case he might have been tempted to feel superior because of these mystical experiences, he was given a “thorn in the flesh”, which he calls “an angel, a messenger of Satan”. This negative experience helps to give him a sense of balance. There is much discussion about the nature of this “thorn in the flesh”.

The term ‘thorn in the flesh’, like the English ‘thorn in the side’, usually refers to persons so it is very possible that Paul is speaking either of one person who has been particularly critical of him or of the group of ‘super apostles’ who have ridiculed him for his poor speaking ability and generally poor presentation. The main reason for his distress is that he saw it making his work of proclaiming Christ less effective.

Whatever it was, like his Master before him in the garden, he begged his Lord three times to liberate him from this cross – an indication of how it hurt him. As in the case of his Lord, his prayer was answered not quite in the way he intended – with a firm ‘No’. Yet it was, as in the case of Jesus, an answer and a clear indication of God’s will. He was told: “My grace is enough for you; my power is at its best in weakness.” In other words, God’s power is given most fully and manifested most fully by Paul remaining with his weakness.

Great man that he is, Paul fully accepts this. He realises that all he accomplishes will not be attributed to him, because of his transparent faults, but to their original Source – the Lord he loves and serves so faithfully.

Far from regretting or concealing these faults, he now even boasts of them. He had seen them as an obstacle to his apostolic work but now, after his prayer, he understand that they only make the power of Christ working through him more obvious. “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.” These weaknesses include the apostolic hardships he must continue to endure, including strong personal hostility as listed at this point. “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints – for the sake of Christ.” Paradoxically, it is through these weaknesses and shortcomings that the power of Christ is most visible in his evangelising work.

And he concludes, “For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”

There is much for us to pray and reflect on here. How sensitive we are to our faults and weaknesses and what efforts we make to hide them from others! How often we blame God for the pains and aches of life!

Paul was only concerned about one thing, namely, that the Gospel of Christ be proclaimed. If that could only be done by his weaknesses becoming known to the world, so be it. We need to have the same spirit.

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