Monday of Week 23 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 5:1-8

Expel the immoral brother! We now enter a part of the letter where Paul speaks of various moral disorders prevalent in the Christian community of Corinth. Here Paul justifies his criticism of the “unspirituality” and moral immaturity of the Christians in Corinth.

First, he tackles a problem of incest. He has been told that one of the Christians is cohabiting with his own mother-in-law, his father’s wife. Such a relationship is explicitly forbidden in the Mosaic law (cf. Leviticus 18:8) and indeed in nearly every society.

Even pagans hardly stoop to such levels, says Paul. We know, for instance, that the famous Roman writer and orator Cicero said that incest was practically unheard of in Roman society although it is not certain whether that applied to Corinth, a city notorious for its sexual liberties.

With examples like this, Paul asks how the Corinthian Christians can have such a high opinion of themselves. Did they really think that such behaviour was a boastful expression of freedom? On the contrary, they should be in deep mourning for their sins.

Such a person should not be tolerated in the community and should be expelled from it. Paul, in fact, urges the church (with which he is spiritually united, though physically absent) to do so in the name of the Lord Jesus. As we are told in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 18), whenever the community gathers together in the name of Jesus, he is with them and they have authority to speak and make decisions in his name.

Not only that, the man is to be “handed over to Satan”. This may mean that he is to be left unprotected to the power of Satan, which will follow from his being left to fend for himself, without the support of his community, in a pagan and highly immoral society. In Matthew 18:17 Jesus says: “If he [an offending member] refuses to listen to the church [the gathered community], treat him/her as you would a Gentile or tax collector.” In effect, the person is to be excommunicated.

The purpose of this punishment is twofold: it is hoped that the afflictions he will experience from his being ostracised will destroy his misguided sensuality and bring him back into the saving arms of Christ on the day of judgement. The purpose is to heal both the community and the sinner. For Jesus came to save and not to condemn.

With examples like this, Paul tells the Corinthians there is not much for them to boast or be proud about. Although he has been speaking of only one person, he says they should realise that even a tiny amount of yeast can leaven a large batch of dough. Generally in the bible, yeast is taken as a symbol of corruption and sin. The example is something like our saying that one bad apple can spoil a whole barrelful. The community here is being called on to get rid of the yeast of sin, represented by this wrongdoer, because they are called to be an unleavened batch of dough – new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).

Paul then links the image with Jesus as “our Passover”. Jesus is now the paschal Lamb of God sacrificed and his blood poured out on the cross by which the new covenant was sealed, replacing the old Pasch in which a lamb was sacrificed and eaten. Christ, the Lamb of God, was crucified on Passover day, a celebration that began the evening before the Passover meal was eaten (cf. Ex 12:8). By his death on the cross, Christ fulfilled the true meaning of the Jewish sacrifice of the Passover lamb (Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29) and introduced an unending Passover.

“Let us celebrate the feast”, says Paul. He is referring to the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which followed the Passover. In the Jewish calendar, Passover was followed immediately by the festival of Unleavened Bread. In preparation for this feast all traces of old leavened bread were removed from the house and, during the festival, only unleavened bread was eaten. The sequence of these two feasts provides Paul with an image of Christian living: Christ’s death (the true Passover celebration) is followed by the life of the Christian community, marked by newness, purity and integrity (a never-ending feast of unleavened bread). It meant living their life in total dedication to God, removing from their lives all corrupting behaviour, wickedness and incestuous relationships.

Paul may actually have been writing around Passover time so his words can be taken as a small Easter homily, the earliest in Christian literature.

Expelling someone from our community is something that rarely happens, except where the Church officially excommunicates some person according to the norms of Church Law. This can happen by formal declaration or automatically, depending on the offence committed.

We may have some difficulties with the idea of excommunication although there are clear precedents in the Old and New Testaments. We may feel it contradicts Jesus’ command to forgive 70 times 7 times. However, we must not confuse two issues.

It is true that we must always be ready to forgive and be reconciled with the truly repentant person no matter how many times he or she falls. On the other hand, a Christian community, e.g. a parish, is called on to give witness to the Gospel message and to be an agent in the building up of the Kingdom of God. It is difficult for a community to do this if there is a member or a number of members who are acting in ways which are diametrically opposed to the way of life that the Gospel represents and who, after this has been pointed out to them, still refuse to change.

The community lives by certain standards with which it cannot in conscience compromise. It would seem that, in certain (hopefully rare) cases, the only option the community has is to ask these people to separate themselves from the community as long as they continue doing what they are doing. Of course, if they change and sincerely ask for reconciliation, they will be welcomed back with open arms.

We do see a form of semi-excommunication in our churches when we see people, known to be baptised Catholics, staying away from the Communion table.

It is probably true to say that in many places we Catholics (and other Christians too) have a poor awareness of the importance of corporate witness to the Gospel. We tend to think that being a “good Catholic” is a purely personal affair and that the “Church” is the place where we get the helps we need. As a result, we may at times be too tolerant of “bad apples” among us and thus greatly weaken the witness we are called to give.

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