Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

If given the chance to interrogate Paul directly on this passage, my side of the conversation would look something like this:

Mark 4:32
"[W]hen it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

June 17, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

If given the chance to interrogate Paul directly on this passage, my side of the conversation would look something like this:

Tharrountes oun pantote. Really, Paul? You just wrote not so many words ago that we (I assume that means you, but maybe not) are groaning and longing and weighed down. Now, however, you declare that you “are always confident.”

Paul, you write that you are always bold — over-bold, even, and downright reckless. What is it that you know about yourself that lets you reveal yourself in self-contradiction, in such inconsistency? Many keep this sort of thing to themselves! What is it that you know that makes you advertise such wild mood swings to us, your readers, many of whom in the centuries after your death would refuse to see it in you just as they refuse to see it in themselves?

Your inner contradiction has not occurred to pious readers, or if it has they have repressed the thought. Perhaps, and this is what I hope, you have recorded your oscillation between manic heights and the dumps precisely for this reason: for others to see the traces you left behind, in these words, of your unguarded self, these traces called Scripture, the living voice of God, which some would say cannot contradict itself.

In your condition, how can you possibly walk about (peripatoumen, 2 Corinthians 5:7) teaching, preaching, thinking, listening, and writing letters? You tell us you are caught both by recklessness and by the coming undone that comes from grief’s just wanting to fall asleep. Reckless, you trip over your own feet rushing forward; yet weighed down, you can’t throw off the bedclothes, can’t sit up, can’t plant your feet on the floor. How is this walking about possible when you yearn and groan, always about to fall off the edge? You rush onward and you long for rest. Boldness trips up. Sadness paralyzes. In that state, how do you manage to walk so evenly, so temperately?

You, Paul, say that walking is possible through faith (dia pisteos), is it? Is that the answer? And what is faith? Is it a form of knowledge? That is what the Christian tradition, with some rare exceptions, thinks you meant to say. For most believers (or at least the ones who feel the pressure to toe the line) faith is what always comes after the word “that” in such sentences as “I believe that …,” “I confess that …,” “I hope that …,”  “I know that …” But you seem convinced that (another self-contradiction?) faith is most assuredly not a form of knowledge, even a meager scrap of knowledge.

What else would “not through sight” mean except that in your manic ups and downs you are flying blind? Your faith is recalcitrant blindness. You walk with eyes completely closed, not even slightly open. And knowledge for you (even the smallest bit of knowledge) is no friend of faith. Knowledge is unlike faith, like water is unlike fire. So, perhaps your temperate walking, when you are able to put one foot in front of another, is a ruse.

I fear for you Paul. If it is true what you say about each person receiving back what they have done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10), then this blind walking … where will it lead? Your gait weighed down with longing yet legs rushing ahead beyond where they can take you — can this possibly be pleasing to Christ who will judge and return your body’s bumbling to you (2 Corinthians 5:10)?

You seem to think so. In your recklessness/depression you hide neither from God before whom you are out of your mind (2 Corinthians 5:13) nor from humans (5:11), although you do scale back your ecstasy (exestemen, 5:13) long enough to walk, write letters, and get along with folks (sopronoumen, 5:13). You even invite the Corinthians to boast in your madness! You give them a defense (5:12), of sorts, against sober-minded theologians in whose system God is God by being the most self-controlled being (making God the Supreme Being) in the universe and who smiles down on God’s imitators as they mock your weakness and intrude upon your lovesick relationship with the Corinthians.

You, on the other hand, wash your hands of the Supreme Being, and stick with another madman, Jesus, whom you believe is not dead and not confined to the past but beckons from an unimaginable future. Jesus in his own lovesickness died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14-16). Was that bold and reckless? Or did he die in weakness (2 Corinthians 13:4)? If this one is the Christ who will judge, if he is the one who must be pleased (2 Corinthians 5:9), then you, Paul, are in pretty good shape — if you can call living with this low/high mania being “in good shape.”

Let’s take a step back from the interrogation and look more closely at Paul’s preoccupation with “knowing,” or more accurately with his “not-knowing” in the phrase, “We walk by faith.”

On the one hand, “knowing” is the bread and butter of the Supreme Being, or perhaps because God is in need of nothing outside of Godself (foodstuffs included), “knowing” is the sustenance of God’s imitators, who as mini-supreme beings seek to replicate their Master’s ordering of the world upon churches and upon personal lives — their own lives, of course, but especially the inner lives of others.

On the other hand, for Paul, who believes in the anointed one, the King to come, the Christ, the one whom he no longer knows “from a human point of view” (kata sarka), the one who is (a very strange sense of the word “is” since “is-ness” here depends on the Christ’s “not-yet-ness”) to come, the one who is always yet to come, who if he should ever come would no longer be the one who is always yet to come… (sentence incomplete, since to complete it would be to ruin it).

A final thought on the phrase kata sarka: I take this to be the marker of anything that comes into and passes out of being. Sarx is not the marker of Paul’s Christ (but “body” most certainly is), whom he knows by not-knowing. Whom he has by not having.

I begin to see the logic of Paul’s madness …