Friday of Week 21 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:17-25

In today’s reading, there is made a distinction between true and false wisdom. Paul presents us with one of the most central concepts of his teaching and indeed of our Christian faith. He begins by saying that Christ had not sent him to baptise. In so speaking, he is not in any way minimising baptism. What he is asserting that his special calling was to proclaim the Gospel. It was for others to establish Christian communities after he had gone to preach the Message in another mission field. Peter, too, asked others to baptise the gentile Cornelius and his household after they were received into the community (Acts 10:48).

Today’s passage focuses on the essence of our faith, which transcends all human divisions—a message just as relevant now as it was then. What he says arises out his displeasure with factions which were forming in the Corinthian communities. Some saying they were for Paul, others for Apollos, or Cephas (Peter), or even Christ. Paul emphasises that they are all, no matter who baptised them, one in Christ. It was Christ and Christ alone who died for them and saved them. Paul’s particular role or charism was to proclaim the Gospel mainly to new communities; he was a founder of churches and communities and so he kept moving from place to place. The other church ministries were left to others to carry out. It is a good example of the diversity of gifts which he will speak about later on.

Further, his role was to preach the Cross of Christ, but not with an orator’s eloquence which might rob the Cross of its real power. Oratory was a highly esteemed talent in those days, especially among the Greeks and Romans, but Paul makes no claim to it and for that he is glad. Paul’s mission was not to couch the Gospel in the language of the trained orator, who had studied the techniques of influencing people by persuasive arguments. What Paul shares is not human wisdom, but the wisdom of God. The strength of the message is not in how it is delivered, but in its content.

The Cross will speak for itself and does not need the persuasive language of the orator. The message of the Cross is unique. It requires a special kind of insight to see its meaning and its wisdom, which is itself a gift from God. For those who are not on God’s wavelength, it makes no sense, but for those who are it speaks of God’s power, above all, the power of love.

Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah (29:14) in which God says he will bring the wisdom of the wise to nothing. This was originally said in the context of the people of Judah and Jerusalem who thought it was an astute thing to do to make an alliance with Egypt and thus turn away the threats of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king. God had other plans to deal with him, plans which the ‘wise’ never dreamt of. In fact, Sennacherib was forced to withdraw from the gates of the city when his army was unexpectedly decimated by a kind of plague.

And where are the wise men now – all those pagan philosophers, including those Paul met in Athens and who laughed at his message, asks Paul. Perhaps Paul knew of the remark of Aristides who said that on every street in Corinth one met a so-called wise man, who had his own solutions to all the world’s problems (we still see them on our media every day!) Where, asks Paul, are the experts in the Mosaic Law? Where is the “debater of this age”, those Greek sophists who loved to engage in long and subtle disputes?

Has not God, in Christ, made the wisdom of the world look foolish? Faced with the mystery of the Cross such people have nothing to say.

In a beautifully paradoxical statement (worthy of an orator!) he says:

…since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of the proclamation, to save those who believe.

Not, of course, that their preaching is foolish, but the message of Christ crucified is viewed by the world as foolish. Jesus said something similar:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants… (Luke 10:21)

And so, the Jews are demanding miracles and signs as proofs of God’s saving power among them. Several times in the Gospel, Jesus was asked for a ‘sign’ to prove his credentials, even though his whole public life was a succession of signs which ordinary people frequently recognised. The Greeks, on the other hand, indulged in endless philosophising about ‘truth‘ and ‘wisdom’ without ever coming to grips with the realities of life.

The Cross is on a completely different level. It does not require great intelligence and learning to be understood. It can be grasped by the totally illiterate person. It is not a message of intellectual depth but a witness to immeasurable love. It can only be accessed by faith and trust.

Paul and his companions are proclaiming a crucified Lord, a message of power shining through total impotence and apparent failure. On the face of it, it is a total contradiction—except to those who can see its inner meaning. No wonder it is a ‘scandal’, an insuperable obstacle for those Jews who were waiting for an altogether different Messiah. They expected a triumphant, political Messiah, not a crucified one.

Even Jesus’ disciples had this expectation. On the day of the Ascension, they asked him:

Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)

The answer, of course, was “Yes”, but not in the way they were thinking. Similarly, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus said to the stranger who walked along with them:

…we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
(Luke 24:21)

It was only after Jesus had explained the Scriptures to them that they realised the real truth behind their question.

And to the Gentiles it made no sense whatever. How could a crucified criminal be proclaimed as the world’s Saviour? Greeks and Romans were sure no reputable person would ever be crucified, so it was unthinkable that a crucified criminal could be the Saviour.

However, for those who have received the call, be they Jews or Greeks, Jesus on the cross speaks eloquently of the power and wisdom of God. The crucified Christ is the power that saves and the wisdom that transforms apparent folly into ultimate and highest discernment. And Paul finishes with a memorable and much-quoted statement:

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Today, the Cross is still seen as a stumbling block and as nonsense by those who only see the external image. In a world dedicated to acquisition, power and success, it gives a totally unacceptable message.

The power of the Cross, the power of active non-violence is not understood, and the followers of Jesus are ridiculed and deemed irrelevant. As Christians living in this world, we are probably often caught in the middle. We are carried along by the power-success dream, and at the same time would like to be able to make the weakness-failure Way of Christ ours too. What we need is to be able to see clearly that the real power and wisdom is with Jesus’ Way and that the way of the world ultimately leads only to nothingness.

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