Tuesday of Week 24 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27-31

Paul moves on now to another issue in the Corinthian community: the question of “spiritual gifts” or “charisms” (charismata). Here too there were disputes among community members.

The gifts under discussion were granted to certain members of the community and were the signs by which the Spirit helped the community to function. We need to remember that the organisation of the communities at this stage was not very developed. The later hierarchical ministries we know now were still in the process of evolution. This led to a certain amount of confusion in the community and was the cause of some of the factional disagreements which were occurring. Some of the gifts were even disruptive, being rather eccentric in form. Clearly, there had to be a discernment between which were beneficial and which were not.

In this part of his letter Paul makes five points:

  1. All the gifts come from the Spirit working in the community;
  2. All the gifts, though given to individuals, are for the good of the whole community;
  3. The importance of each gift is to be measured by its benefit to the community;
  4. The gift of ‘prophecy’ is far more important than being able to ‘speak in tongues’, a gift the Corinthians apparently thought very highly of.
  5. Love (agape) transcends and is present in all the genuine gifts and is in a class by itself. (This is dealt with in the famous ‘Hymn to Love’ in chap 13 which we will be reading tomorrow.)

To illustrate what he wants to say, Paul uses the analogy of the human body. Although it is made of many different parts, each with its own functions, it is basically a single coordinated unit. So it is with Christ, says Paul. By ‘Christ’ here he means the Risen Christ which includes his new Body, the Church and each local church community. For Paul, Christians are bodily united with the Risen Body through their baptism and the common celebration of the Eucharist. The community becomes, in effect, the Risen Body of Christ of which he is the Head. Hence, the importance of its unity and mutual complementarity.

The source of unity is the Spirit of Christ in which all, both Jews and Greeks, citizens and slaves, were baptised and given that Spirit. In the community there can be no ethnic or social discrimination where the giving of the Spirit is concerned. “All are given to drink of the one Spirit.”

Paul now emphasises that a body is not to be identified with any one of its parts. This is what was happening in the Corinthian community where groups were giving excessive importance to the charism of one or other of their leaders, or to the gifts which some individuals were experiencing.

Continuing his analogy, he tells them that they, in their community, are the Body of Christ but, like a body, each one has a different role to play. He singles out three particular charisms as being of prime importance.

First of all, come the apostles. They are those who were specially and personally chosen by Jesus during his time among us to carry on his work of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. They were also to be witnesses of the resurrection. They are the founder members, the ‘pillars’ of the Church and the unique bearers of the tradition which Jesus handed on.

Next to them in importance come the prophets. The special role of the prophet is not to foretell the future. The prophet was any person through whom God wishes to communicate a message to a particular community. It might be an encouragement; it might be a warning. The prophet, unlike the apostle, is a ‘non-institutional’ figure and can appear at any time. Clearly, careful discernment is needed to distinguish the true from the false prophets. Because the message they give may be unpleasant to hear or may challenge the status quo, the prophet may not be welcome and even efforts made to get rid of him or her. At the same time, we ignore the message of the true prophet at our peril and at all times we need prophets to wake us out of our complacency.

Thirdly, there are the teachers, those whose gift was to form the community and to hand on the content and meaning of the tradition received from Jesus. Again, they make an indispensable contribution to the life and growth of the community.

After them come charisms of lesser crucial importance although they can greatly enrich the life of the community.

Some members had the gift of performing miracles, namely, actions which could not be explained by natural means. Their main function was to reveal the power of God working in the community and be spurs to a deeper faith (as such, it does not really matter that at a later age, there might be a natural explanation for what happened).

The gift of healing was given to some and again was the means by which the Lord brought wholeness back into people’s lives.

‘Helpers’ are those who make charitable contributions or support the community in some other way; ‘leaders’ are those who do the administrative work and provide guidance on a practical level.

Lastly, there are those “with many languages”. It is not clear whether this means an actual ability to speak in different languages and dialects (quite useful in cosmopolitan Corinth) or whether it refers to making ecstatic utterances, the “gift of tongues”, under the impulse of the Spirit (and which needed interpretation by those gifted to understand their meaning).

These gifts are all spread among the community and not given to all or even to many. Not all can claim to be apostles, or prophets, or miracle-doers, or healers. That would result in a very lop-sided body. So, the gifts are many but the community is one.

It is also important to realise that this list is not meant to be exhaustive. There are hundreds of possible charisms and surely every single member in the community has a gift by which a positive contribution can be made to the life of the community. Everyone, in however small a way, can and should make a difference by their presence.

And, if we are to desire any gifts, let us seek those which are of greater benefit to the community and not just those which are more spectacular (like speaking in tongues) or seem to give higher status in the eyes of others.

However, in conclusion, Paul says that behind all these gifts lies something much more important, it is “the more excellent way”. We will see what that is tomorrow.

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