Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
How do you begin a letter to a bickering church?
Paul began it with foolishness — the foolishness of the cross. The passage today is a theological re-centering — a reminder that the gospel does not operate according to the wisdom of the world. The wisdom of the world leads to division, hierarchies in social order, and privileges bestowed on a few.
In contrast, Jesus was willing to die in a humiliating way for the love of others — even his enemies (Romans 5:10). Through the scandal of the cross, Paul argues, God has saved the whole world, but not all will find this news appealing.
“To those who are called”
Paul is writing this letter to address a number of divisions in First Church Corinth. Some of the divisions are around belief. For example, some find the concept of raising corpses to be ridiculous (1 Corinthians 15). But most of the letter is not a discussion of church doctrine. Simply put, the Corinthians are failing to love one another (thus the need for 1 Corinthians 13:1-13).
Social and class divisions are evident. Though they were baptized into a creed of neither slave nor free (see also 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28), the believers are struggling with what it means to live in community with those who are beneath them on the social ladder. For example, Paul has to tell the “haves” to wait for the “have-nots” at the Lord’s table and, not just to wait, but to welcome them (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Filing lawsuits (1 Corinthians 6:1-11), visiting prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), wearing veils (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), consuming idol food in the local temple (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) are all issues that are creating divisions in the community, and they are all matters related to the exercise of social privilege.
Before Paul engages the church on these matters of division — matters that he has heard about from Chloe’s people (1 Corinthians 1:11) and questions that the church has posed in a letter (1 Corinthians 7:1) — he reminds the believers of the topsy-turvy nature of the cross. God chose the most shameful thing in the world, because the values with which the world operates — where some have privilege and status at the expense of others — look nothing like God’s reign.
Foolishness of the cross as the wisdom of God
It is little surprise that a term like “foolishness” might be the first word to come to mind as the Apostle Paul considered the disunity in First Church Corinth. Actually, our translation of “foolish” sounds more polite than a more literal translation. Our English word “moron” is a transliteration of the Greek word for “fool.” Thus, in our text for today, Paul likens the word of the cross to a belief that, according to the world, is moronic.
In our culture of gilded crosses and political correctness it might be hard to hear the scandal of what Paul is saying. God in his wisdom deliberately chose the most scandalous means possible to bring about the world’s salvation — a way that the wisest people in the world would frown upon and the elite would be ashamed to accept. The most knowledgeable in Corinth are using their so-called knowledge and wisdom to alienate and, from Paul’s perspective, to destroy their brother or sister in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:1-13).
The world did not know God through wisdom
The social values of the world are literally destroying First Church Corinth. Why continue to live by the values set by the world? Operating with the world’s sense of who should have status and power has further instilled the world’s privilege system within the body of Christ. Instead, Paul insists that God has deliberately debunked the world’s system in the cross.
To believe in this good news, Paul says, is to recognize that the values of the world are no longer the highest values. The wisest people in the world would not have selected a Jewish peasant from a hillbilly town to die on a Roman cross for the world’s sins. They may have asked for more signs or desired a sage to guide them. Those are, after all, logical ways to proceed in the world.
But wait. The Corinthians have believed in the scandal of the cross. Why is Paul reminding them of what they have already accepted? The problem is that the scandal of God’s wisdom has not been translated into their daily lives. God, in God’s wisdom, chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise. To Paul, that does not just mean the cross.
God continues to display God’s power by choosing even the weak and lowly to be part of God’s church. Paul will ask the believers to consider their own call; most of them are not part of the world’s elite class (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Furthermore, he calls himself unworthy to be called an apostle and likens himself to a fetus who is struggling for life (1 Corinthians 15:8). Yet, God, in God’s wisdom and grace, called him anyway. This God has enough power to choose all in his saving work — including those whom the world has humiliated. In effect, by highlighting the topsy-turvy nature of the wisdom of God, Paul is saying to the church: “Why are you continuing to operate by the wisdom of the world? All that you have and are — your very existence — comes from God!”
Lenten journey to the cross
First Church Corinth was by no means perfect. Fortunately for them and for us, we believe in a God who is not limited by our weakness, social position, wisdom, or strength. In fact, God’s love calls into question how the world creates hierarchies where some thrive and others are cast aside.
The cross with all its shame has left a mark on Paul. Paul finds in Christ the embodiment of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Though he will not call his churches to die for one another, he will call them to think like Jesus — to love their neighbors — beginning with their brothers and sisters in Christ — in such a way that they would rather relinquish their own rights than to see their neighbor harmed or experience anything other than life abundant.
Perhaps, in this Lenten journey, we may struggle to see the pathway or to gain any sense of direction. Paul reminds us that God in God’s wisdom has placed the cross before us as a guide. Thanks be to God.