Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
In 2 Corinthians 5:13 Paul admits to madness: exestemen.
This verse has perplexed scholars for generations. What follows is one attempt to make sense of it. I do so by placing it into the troubled relationship Paul had with the church in Corinth.
So here, in a nutshell, might have been the situation. The major data point, though not the first event, was the “letter of tears” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2:4. Letters like these in which the writer bitterly rebukes the recipients by dwelling on the injuries received from the latter were not uncommon in antiquity and are attested in the surviving epistolary handbooks. So how had the Corinthians hurt Paul? After writing 1 Corinthians and sending it in the care of Timothy to Corinth, Paul decided to visit the church again. During this visit Paul was insulted or injured by an unknown person and the church took no action against him. Paul fled Corinth but sent the “letter of tears” in the care of Titus criticizing the community for ignoring the injury. At their rendezvous in Macedonia Titus reports (2 Corinthians 7:5-16) to Paul that the church had disciplined the offending individual (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Paul also was informed of the pain his tearful letter had caused the church (2 Corinthians 7:8-13).
What a mess! And remember this is only from Paul’s point of view. Each person would have their own tale to tell. Everybody has wronged everybody. And it gets worse. The “super-apostles” show up pleased with Paul’s severity in the letter of tears but ridicule his gentleness in the presence of the church. To Paul’s way of thinking their ministry is indistinguishable from Satan’s (2 Corinthians 2:11; 4:4; 6:14-16; 11:12-21). Yet it looks like the church has started to admire their moral absolutism (2 Corinthians 11:3-4; 11:19; 13:1-10). If ever a community and its leaders needed a new start, this was it. Paul’s conviction is that the new start does not begin with a renewed application of law (see chapter 3), no matter how good that law might be.
Out of this disaster emerges a profound meditation on grace and forgiveness in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Our entry point into Paul’s theological response to a very human and chaotic situation, one in which Paul finds himself as lost as anyone else, is to distinguish forgiveness from reconciliation. Here I follow John D. Caputo’s fascinating exploration of forgiveness (The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2006, 208-235). Reconciliation depends on reasons, excuses, or confession; these in a sense “buy” back the debt incurred through the injury. Forgiveness, however, seeks to exist apart from any economic consideration. It seeks to be pure and absolute. Its logic, against the logic of common sense, demands that only the unforgivable can be forgiven, only that which is not forgotten, blotted out, cleansed, or purified, can be given back to the wrong doer as a gift with no strings attached. If one is moved to forgive based on the repentance of the offender or some proclivity of the sinner which excuses the wrong then it ceases to be forgiveness. Likewise, forgiveness offered because it heals the one who forgives (which may indeed happen) is no longer forgiveness in the strict sense. Forgiveness requires there be no reason for it. It must be a pure gift, the arrival of the impossible (“new creation” in Paul’s terminology); it must escape calculation in what Caputo calls “the event.” He writes,
Reconciliation is not a bad economy and certainly not a bad thing, and it is much to be preferred to vindictiveness and endless cycles of retribution. But it is not the gift of the event or the event of the gift, which is not an economy but an excess … Reconciliation, which is the form forgiveness takes in its ordinary mundane existence, belongs to the economy of the world, taking place on the plane of being. Forgiveness, on the other hand, belongs not to the entitative order of checks and balances but to the order of the event, which is here the order of the gift, of the grace and gratuitousness of the event beyond being’s transactions (p. 211).
I want to emphasize the contrast Caputo draws between “economy” and “excess.” Paul, I think, sides wholeheartedly with the excess of forgiveness and not the calculation of reconciliation in 5:16-21. Why? Forgiveness is the only way to go on living with and in spite of the mess. It is the only way simultaneously to take responsibility for wrongs committed and to live as if a new start had been given.
“But Paul does use the term reconciliation,” it might be objected. In fact, English translations of the term katallasso (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19, 20) and its cognate katallage (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) are testimony to our unfortunate habit of turning excess into economy, of turning gift into barter. Lexical evidence suggests that katallasso does not so much refer to a restoration of a relationship through settling accounts but the initiation of a friendship in which all things are held in common, in other words, where the very idea of an economic exchange has evaporated. New creation! Think of it (if you can): God has entered into a friendship with the cosmos (a Greek way of saying “everybody”) in which God and cosmos have all things in common, where between the two there is no “mine” and “thine” as the ancients said about friends. Forgiveness, understood in 2 Corinthians 5:19 as God’s not counting sin against the sinner is the heart of this new creation. And Paul is unafraid to draw an impossible theological conclusion from this mad idea of God’s friendship with the world. Read 2 Corinthians 5:19 (very slowly) and wonder whether forgiveness might be bearing the sin of the other in one’s own life and in so doing never forgetting it but living on in any case in the delight of the other’s righteousness that your forgiving/not forgetting gives the other. Now apply this to God and everybody. Whoa.