Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
This brief passage revolves around two related ideas: “the appointed time has grown short” (verse 29) and “the present form of this world is passing away” (verse 31).
This (plus this week’s gospel reading) could prompt one to focus on things eschatological. If one’s congregation has not recently (or ever) pondered the varieties of biblical eschatology, it might be an exercise worth undertaking. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that we do not have to settle on one variety of eschatology at the exclusion of all others. Several varieties coexist in the Bible, and the creation of the canon did not require any one to prevail over all others.
Briefly, one’s eschatology could, with sound scriptural basis, consist of any or all of the following (each item is condensed and over-simplified):
Imminent Eschatology: Christ is returning soon. Watch, be faithful, be ready. (This passage, this week’s gospel, Mark 13 and parallels, I Thessalonians 4, 1 Corinthians 15, etc.)
Realized Eschatology: The kingdom of God is already present among us. May the eternal life God makes possible in Christ be visible in our lives now. (Primarily the Gospel of John, though John also has elements of proleptic eschatology.)
Proleptic Eschatology: The kingdom of God is already present in some ways but not yet in its fullness. May that kingdom be visible in our love for God and our neighbor as we patiently wait for its future glory. (Particularly the Gospel of Luke, but throughout the gospels and the epistles.)
Prophetic Eschatology: The world is under the power of evil. Let God lead you to establish justice and righteousness in the earth. (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Sermon on the Mount (Matthew), Sermon on the Plain (Luke), parables of Jesus, etc.)
Apocalyptic Eschatology: The world is so much under the power of evil that only God’s action will establish justice and righteousness in the earth. This calls for the patience and endurance of the saints. (Primarily the book of Revelation, although Romans 8, Ephesians 6:10-24, etc., fit as well.) (The distinction between prophetic and apocalyptic eschatology finds thorough exposition in Paul Hanson’s, The Dawn of Apocalyptic.)
Each of these views has two parts — a description of present and/or future realities and a call for us to respond in particular ways. In each case, whether or not one agrees with the description of reality, the various responses deserve reflection and, in fact, constitute common emphases in preaching throughout the year. Many congregations experience those emphases regularly without the eschatological underpinnings that accompany them in scripture.
If one chooses not to explore eschatology, one could focus on the last sentence, “For the present form of this world is passing away.” This idea connects with another strand of thought woven throughout scripture, the transience and non-permanence of life and this world. It finds, perhaps, its most vivid expression in Ecclesiastes, which soberly and relentlessly describes human desires, plans, and schemes as “vanity” and “chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, then some variation appears over 25 times). And, the idea finds brief expression here.
This theme is not a popular one in contemporary, dominant American culture. News, popular, and social media continually focus on what we have or want. The advertising industry daily drives home the message that our purpose in life is to want, to desire, to seek, and to have — most succinctly summarized in the bumper sticker “Born to Shop.”
Life, according to our dominant culture, does consist in the abundance of one’s possessions. If not that, it consists in abundance of relationships (How many Facebook friends do you have?) or the quest to find that one true soul mate who will make our lives complete. If not that, it consists in the quest to be ever happier, more beautiful, more handsome, more confident, and more successful — as measured by one’s money, job, clothes, appearance, house, happiness, and so on.
In stark and shocking contrast, Paul advises the married to be as if they have no spouse, mourners not to mourn, rejoicers not to rejoice, buyers to act as if they had no possessions, those who deal with the world as if they had no dealings with it. In this view, our relationships, current emotional state, and status in terms of the world’s standards have little or nothing to do with the essence or quality of our lives. People — even those we most deeply love — will die, feelings will pass, and so will this world.
That being said, this is not a call to depression, despair, and retreat from the world. After all, Paul says these things in the context of our life in Christ. It is, however, an ultimate gut-check, an ultimate reality check. Our world — at every level we can think of it — is not as substantial, dependable, and unchanging as we would like it to be. We know this in our vulnerable moments; we live along its edges when we lie awake at night. Paul hammers it home, not for the sake of despair but for the sake of focusing us on the one, true, and ultimate reality upon which we can depend.
This passage cannot be faithfully interpreted without its larger context in 1 Corinthians and in the whole of scripture. But we too often let a “faithful” response gloss over life’s most painful realities as if they are not real or they won’t happen to us. As the saying goes, we prefer resurrection to crucifixion.
Yet, we can’t really get to the statements in today’s reading from the Psalms without this understanding from Paul. Until we’ve found ourselves in a time with no discernable place to stand, no shelter, no harbor, no friend, nothing that will really last, we can’t truly say with the psalmist, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from [God]. [God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken” (Psalm 62:5-6).