Third Sunday in Lent

Paul knows that this idea makes no earthly sense, and that is his point

Pigeon looking left
"In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves" (John 2:14). Photo by Max Berger on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 7, 2021

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25



Given Paul’s letters’ dense theological ideas, preachers often find it easy to focus on Paul’s role as the early church’s most influential theologian.

It is no hyperbole to suggest that Paul’s theology set a course for the church that it still travels. Paul’s theology rewards attention, careful study, and patience. The theology unfolds in such elegant ways that it is no wonder that people spend their whole lives chewing on his words. 

Paul’s epistolary literature has such theological wonder that we sometimes forget that Paul was also a pastor. As some of the best pastors I know, Paul can be tender and moody. He has both a bottomless well of compassion and a quick trigger. He gets overjoyed and righteously angry in equal measure. Paul is not an academic in the modern sense. He is not dispassionate and removed. Paul doesn’t care to be unbiased or objective. Instead, he cares deeply and prays fervently for the communities he loves—and Paul loves the church in Corinth. 

It is worth comparing the tone of Paul’s first letter to Corinth with his letter to the Roman community. The letter to the Romans is profound, penetrating, and more than a bit confounding. Paul’s intelligence is on full display. And yet, the letter to the Romans has a coldness to it, a measured directness that comes from only knowing the community tangentially. In contrast, Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth is passionate. The arguments aren’t as well-measured, but what they lack in cohesiveness, they make up for in vibrancy. 

Paul wastes no time before getting to one of his most famous and inspiring dichotomies: wisdom and foolishness. As with most of his letters, Paul is concerned with explaining the consequences—both theologically and communally—of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Christ has initiated a new apocalyptic age, where assumptions about the world are being overturned. Moreover, to be a community of this new age will require reconsidering what identities are valuable. Revaluing these identities is never easy. To be told that the identity that is valuable everywhere else is no longer beneficial in this new age is a bitter pill. Our current period in the U.S. is a clear example of what happens when an identity is revalued. As whiteness has slowly (sloooooooowly) lost some of its privileges, resistance and anger have risen among those who feel the value of whiteness changing.

Anticipating these objections, Paul attempts to explain the new values of God’s eschatological kingdom. On this side of the resurrection, Paul explains, foolishness is more valuable than wisdom. Specifically, the symbol of the cross—a symbol of death and destruction—is the very means through which life has broken into the world. The torture device is now the font of life. Paul knows that this idea makes no earthly sense, and that is his point. The wisdom that attends to the earthly sense of things cannot fully account for the heaven now breaking into the world. 

Paul is well aware of how this sounds to the church in Corinth, but as any true pastor, he is willing to scandalize the community so that they might understand the new values of the apocalyptic world. Paul is calling the church in Corinth to adopt a unique cultural and communal imagination that reconsiders the values that are too often seen as innate and immutable. 

From time to time, the church has believed Paul’s scandalous idea. Near the palatine hill in Rome, there is this remarkable piece of graffiti scrawled into the wall of the dormitory of imperial pageboys. In the depiction, which any Google search will unearth, a Christian boy is mocked for worshipping a crucified man with a donkey’s head. The boy, standing in front of the cross, raises his hand in adoration of this donkey God. Scrawled below the picture are the words: “Alexemenos worships his God.”

This graffiti, as you might suspect, is not a compliment. In antiquity, the donkey was reviled for its stupidity and stubbornness and became the primary metaphor for describing people’s foolishness. Moreover, Christians in ancient Rome were slandered as donkey worshippers (why exactly remains a subject of vigorous scholarly debate), hence the donkey Christ, high upon a cross. 

Yet, in an odd twist, as the Romans insulted each other and Christianity with claims of donkey worship, the Christian tradition began claiming that Joseph and Mary fled with the Christ child to Egypt riding astride a donkey. This image is nowhere in scripture, but the church latched onto it, and the donkey became a symbol of salvation. During the middle ages, the church celebrated the Feast of the Donkey and sang hymns venerating the donkey that carried the holy family to safety and carried Jesus into Jerusalem. 1

The donkey in the hands of Christian interpreters became a symbol of the inverted world order. The donkey God crucified and raised—what a joke! On a cross, the donkey God was designed as a deep insult, poking fun at the foolish Alexemenos and lodging contempt at the faithfulness of backward, absurd worshippers. To the pageboys teasing Alexemenos, the whole story was foolishness. But Alexemenos seems to take Paul’s words to heart. In a room adjacent to the one with the graffiti, another inscription reads “Alexemenos is faithful.” 

Presumably, Alexemenos has the last word. To be faithful is to be foolish but according to Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, to be foolish is wise. In a world turned upside down by the resurrection, in a world that now resides in a perpetual Easter season, it is the fools who now see clearly.

Notes

  1. For a wonderful and lively history of the role of the donkey in Christian liturgy and imagination, see Max Harris, Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).