Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
The Second Lesson prescribed for any given Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary does not usually cohere with the core message of the Gospel for the Day.
Except on special occasions, it is typically a passage that is part of a continuous reading within Acts, an epistle, or Revelation, and given attention over several weeks.
But there are fortuitous occasions when the Second Lesson does cohere thematically with the Gospel for the Day. This day is one of them. The lesson from 1 Corinthians, like the Gospel (Mark 1:14-20), has to do with time and the place of the believer within it.
In Mark 1:15, Jesus proclaims: “The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The moment is one of urgency, for God’s reign is breaking into human history. Our reading begins with similar urgency: “I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time (kairos) has grown short” (1 Corinthians 7:29). Paul expects the imminent arrival of Christ in his glory, when “the present form of this world” passes away (7:31), and that makes all the difference in the world as to how one should live.
The Greek term kairos carries several nuances within the New Testament. Among its most widely used meanings, the word can mean “significant time,” “appointed time” (a time determined by God), “critical time,” or even some combination of these. Within the two texts assigned for today, all of these meanings are present. The time is significant, appointed, and critical, whether it is the moment when the reign of God over all things dawns upon the earth, as proclaimed by Jesus, or the moment at the eve of Christ’s coming in glory, as proclaimed by Paul.
What Paul writes in 1 Corinthians is a response to questions from the community of believers at Corinth. Prior to the passage assigned for today, he has taken up a series of issues. He writes that the single life is better, but recommends marriage to help prevent sexual immorality (7:1-9). He urges that believers not divorce one another, although conceding that divorce might be necessary in some cases (7:10-16). And he counsels those who become Christians not to make changes. For example, slaves should not think that they must become free, but accept freedom if it is offered (7:11-24).
Now Paul turns again to the matter of singles and married couples. He recommends that they remain in their present state (7:25-28). The basis for his recommendation is: “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are” (7:26). In short, Paul’s imminent eschatology (his sense of the end of all things coming soon) governs all that is being said. It is the foundation for the way of life that he recommends.
This entire discussion leads us to the brief passage assigned for today. It is especially important to notice Paul’s use of the words “as though not” (hōs mē) five times over in these three verses. So, Paul says, one is to live “as though not” married, mourning, rejoicing, making purchases, and (in summation) dealing with the world in general.
Basic to his thinking is that one is to disengage from the world, for all is transitory. There is no point in becoming consumed or even entangled with the world and its concerns, for the “present form of this world is passing away.”
However, this approach is not the sum and substance of everything Paul has to say concerning life in this world. There is plenty more. In Romans 12:9-21, Paul provides a sustained discussion on Christian behavior within the community of believers (12:9-13) and in the larger community outside (12:14-21). In Romans 13:1-10, he urges that believers should be subject to the governing powers and should practice love for one another. In Philippians 4:8-9, he endorses and commends basic values and virtues as giving guidance for the Christian life. Twice in his letters, he sums up the Ten Commandments with the Love Commandment (Romans 13:9-10; Galatians 5:14).
Amidst these examples, it is helpful to put side-by-side two words: “disengagement” and “engagement.” In his ethical thinking, and in our passage for today, Paul calls upon persons of faith to disengage from the world and its ways of living. One should step back and see how being entangled with it can be a captivity preventing one from living the new life in Christ. But that is not the end of the matter, for we continue to live in this world and have to deal with it. In Paul’s way of thinking, disengagement is not an end in itself. Rather, being disengaged and set free, a person can engage the world from the perspective of being one who is “in Christ.” And Paul provides a lot of exhortation in his letters concerning that life, as mentioned above.
People who hear this passage read at worship will find it puzzling. They do not have a sense of the imminent coming of Christ, and they can hardly live day-to-day “as though not” having dealings with the world. It is important therefore, if this text is the basis for a sermon, to set it in the context of 1 Corinthians and within the larger framework of Paul’s ethical teaching, as done here.
In the end, the primary message of this text is that nothing in this world can compare to the eternal fellowship we have with God and Christ. Dealing with the world is inevitable and important we need to deal with it well for the sake of our families, our nation, and ourselves. But we need to maintain an “eschatological reserve,” knowing that this is not all there is, for we look to the eternal beyond that which is passing away. Still, we should remain invested in the world and its ongoing concerns. Indeed, those who pray for the kingdom and expect Christ to come in glory are bound to be engaged in the world and its struggles. Knowing the certainty of God’s ultimate reign beyond history, we work to align the present and future with it.
January 25, 2009