Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Something big is happening between Paul and the church at Corinth in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13.

Mark 4:39b
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

June 24, 2018

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Something big is happening between Paul and the church at Corinth in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13.

The roller coaster ride that was Paul’s life pictured in 2 Corinthians 5 points us in the direction of something emotional. In other words, Paul seems not to be dealing with doctrinal disagreements but something very personal, something to do with his relationship with the church at Corinth. His terms kardia and splagchna are particularly salient.

Although ancient medicine in the first century had already made the move to a brain-centered account of intellectual and emotional functions, language itself had not caught up with the doctors. Even today everyday speech associates the heart with emotions. But what about the innards (splagchna) which the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unhelpfully translates hearts. The splagchna are the organs and connective tissue between the clavicle and diaphragm. This would of course include the kardia (the heart), but also the liver, lungs, and spleen.

The reason I bring this up is this: ancient writers conceptualized what we call “emotion” as the heating and ultimately the melting of the splagchna. Not all ancient writers: philosophers thought that an emotion began as a (faulty) judgment concerning the good or evil of an event. Poets on the other hand thought of emotion as an event occurring bodily before or apart from rational thought. It was as if the splagchna housed another self or even other selves and emotions occurred independently of choices, whether rational or misguided, of a single “I.”

I assume that 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 is the rhetorical high point of chapters 1-7. This is a pretty safe move. The main evidence is that Paul addresses his readers by their collective name, Corinthians. Writing their name in this way, getting it out there in the open, they have nowhere to hide as he makes his big ask. He calls them out to acknowledge they have been addressed and to respond to the words he has written in the prior six chapters. In other words, the business that Paul has been trying to get done with his readers since 2 Corinthians 1:1 now, in an extremely condensed form, gets done in thirty-one (Greek) words. What the letter calls for on our part, then, is a review of Paul’s argument up to this point.

But that could easily prove deadly boring and certainly too large a project in this setting. I propose instead to focus on language (that is, specific words and phrases) rather than argumentation. For example, when Paul writes “mouth” how might this term have connected back to what he has just written in chapters 1-6? What we are after are the major themes of the letter.

My job is to point out connections between words and phrases that the first Greek readers likely would have noticed but now readers pass over unaware, since the connections have been obscured by translation, like the NRSV translating splagchna as hearts. Perhaps this thematic approach is no less boring than tracking down Paul’s argument, but at least it can be accomplished quicker. And maybe, just maybe, the passion of 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 won’t be entirely lost on us.

So, first the mouth (to stoma). Paul’s mouth seems to have gotten him into trouble, but not quite in the way you might expect. There are a number of ancient texts that employ the phrase open mouth as a synonym for free or frank speech (parresia), an interesting combination of pas (every) and word (rema). The latter term is related to the verb reo: to flow. Putting it all together, you have Paul claiming that every word flows out of him freely. No fear causes him to soften or censure his thoughts.

For the ancients, telling it like it is no matter whose feelings are hurt and no matter what the consequences are for the speaker is the most important trait of a public leader. And there’s the problem. Paul’s opponents in Corinth, the so-called “super-apostles,” have made a big stink about the inconsistency they perceive between Paul’s mildness, gentleness, and emphasis on grace (2 Corinthians 1:12) while he is present to the church and his obvious capacity for parresia when he writes to them safely from a distance (2 Corinthians 10:9-11).

They like the feelings-hurting-I-can-say-anything-I-want Paul, since that is their identity (2 Corinthians 11:12-21). But the gentle Paul they despise, since they think he is sugar-coating God’s word (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:3). And why wouldn’t they since they are nothing but hyper-moralists, representatives of the Hyper-Moralist they call God? Well, to their charges of sugar-coating Paul says: “We do too have parresia (2 Corinthians 3:12; 7:4),” although his actual argument (which we are avoiding) is more profound than that.

Paul also injured the feelings of the Corinthians with his parresia (2 Corinthians 7:2-13, especially verses 7-8). And he apparently induced the church to go overboard in its discipline of an unnamed offender who at the time of the apostle’s previous visit had injured Paul himself (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). So an open mouth can get you into trouble. And yet he persisted: “Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians.” What he says next is crucial, since he links his parresia not to his inner sense of freedom, as the super-apostles would like to see him do, but to his friendship, even his love (here expressed by the phrase widened heart, see also 2 Corinthians 3:1-3) for the Corinthians.

It must be said not all philosophers in the ancient world regarded parresia simply as proof of an independent and courageous mind. For example, Plutarch (see his wonderful essay How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend) said that parresia is “the natural language of friendship.” A true friend will tell you what you need to hear, even if it is hard to hear it. And that is the role Paul is creating for himself in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13: a friend who says tough things. It is another question entirely whether the Corinthians believed him. No one knows.