Ash Wednesday

We become the righteousness of God through Christ

dust running through closed hand
Photo by Kunj Parekh on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 14, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

This reading from 2 Corinthians invites us to a paradox of faith. Paul testifies: Serving God can take you anywhere, from beatings to genuine love. 

Second Corinthians is a composite of multiple letters; some scholars think it is a collection of two texts, while others suggest five fragments. No matter how the partition and sequence of the letters are reconstructed, 2 Corinthians shows the ups and downs in Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians. This passage comes from a part generally considered Paul’s self-defense (2 Corinthians 2:14–7:14, minus 6:14–7:1), which shows Paul at one of his lowest points. Questions and suspicions were brewing in the Corinthian community regarding his apostolic mission and authority (see my commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16–23 for this past Sunday). 

Put into a position to defend himself, Paul chooses humility as his primary response. He is a fragile human, like a clay jar (2 Corinthians 4:7), but it is God, not other humans, who makes him competent (2 Corinthians 3:5–6). Paul promotes himself by demoting himself. The convergence of promotion and demotion, which sums up the irony of the Christian faith as well as Paul’s defense, makes this lesson proper for this particular day when we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and we commence the journey to the cross.  

Paul’s words in today’s lesson give us three inspirations for the Lenten journey of repentance and prayer. First, this is a season in which we are called to seek reconciliation with God. The reading for today begins with Paul asking the Corinthians to be reconciled to God (verse 20b). Reconciliation is the theme of verses 16–21. The Greek word for “reconciliation” is katallágē (verb: katallássō), which was used in commerce as it primarily meant exchange of money. Some Greek writers, such as Herodotus and Aristotle, used katallássō to denote a change in a relationship from enmity to friendship. 

Katallágē required the one who broke the relationship to initiate the process of mending the relationship and ending the enmity, which involved asking for forgiveness and appealing to friendship. In this light, what Paul writes in verses 18–19 is pretty striking because it is God who initiates reconciliation with humans. God has opened a way for reconciliation by sending Christ, even though God is not the one responsible for any broken relationships with us. In verse 20, Paul implores the Corinthians to accept God’s invitation to reconciliation (and to accept Paul and his companions as ambassadors for Christ, entrusted with the message of reconciliation).  

Paul is the only New Testament author who uses katallágē or katallássō for the relationship between God and humans. It is noteworthy that Paul uses the verb katallássō in the passive voice in verse 20b: “Be reconciled to God.” This is the same as in Romans 5:10–11, where Paul uses katallágē and katallássō: “We were reconciled to God through the death of God’s Son” and have “received reconciliation” (Romans 5:11). The reversal of roles—the one who seeks to reconcile and the one who is reconciled—is clear. We are reconciled to God not by our efforts but through Christ. Paul’s words are a reminder that God is inviting us to receive reconciliation again in this Lenten season.  

Second, this is a season in which we are called to reflect upon the communal nature of faith. Paul predominantly speaks in the first person singular (“I/me”) in most of his letters, even when he did have co-sender(s) (Timothy in Philippians, and Philemon; Silvanus and Timothy in 1 Thessalonians). Interestingly, in this passage, and in this entire section of self-defense, Paul speaks as “we.” Besides 1 Thessalonians, in which Paul uses the first-person plural throughout, this is almost the only place where we see Paul use “we/us” (and 2 Corinthians 8:1 and 12:19). 

To whom does Paul refer with this “we”? It could be Paul and his companions, like Timothy, or Paul and anyone who was staying with him at the time he was writing this letter. It is unlikely that Paul is indicating the Corinthians, the recipients of this letter, because he distinguishes the Corinthians from “we” by calling them “you” in 6:11–13. Yet, Paul’s intent here is to ask the Corinthians to join “us” in “our” ministry of reconciliation, even if it may bring them afflictions and hardships at times (verses 4–5). 

As we enter into Lent, we may interpret this first-person plural more rhetorically, as an invitation extended to anyone who reads this lesson. Since Lent is a season of penitential preparation, the emphasis on self-examination and repentance often makes this season quite individualistic. But Lent is a communal journey on which each Christian joins fellow Christians toward reconciliation. Paul’s plea can be a reminder that this season leads us to collective practices of repentance. 

Third, this is a season in which we are called to strive for God’s justice. In 5:21, Paul writes, “In [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God.” The Greek word for “righteousness” here is dikaiosynē, one of the words Paul frequently uses in his letters. Here, Paul associates righteousness with God, and this word carries a solid legal and covenantal connotation, as often seen in the Hebrew Scriptures (dikaiosynē can also mean a moral virtue or innocence, as we can see in Matthew 27:19, where Pilate’s wife calls Jesus righteous). 

The Septuagint translates sedeq as dikaiosynē throughout; later chapters of Isaiah (see chapters 58–59 in particular) are a good example of how God’s sedeq operates in a judicial sense. God’s righteousness is manifested in God’s work of vindicating the oppressed, punishing injustice, and eventually saving them. Paul is asking us to become the righteousness of God through Christ. And he reminds us that, since we have become God’s righteousness, our inward journeys need to be fulfilled by outward endeavors. This is a season in which we are invited to be more intentional about naming injustices around us and bringing God’s justice.