Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
This passage is taken from a letter addressed to a faith community rocked by the arrogance and choices of spiritual smart alecks!
It is clear from this particular passage of the letter that the lessons of history and the consequences of those considering themselves spiritual know-it-alls were designed by Paul as a means of pastoral warning. His instruction is focused on attempting to point out the dangers of improper spiritual behavior and the ways a true faith life can correct such directions.
Preachers who attempt this text will find themselves awash in somewhat obscure Old Testament interpretation on Paul’s part. The chapter offers a rough outline of the spiritual nature of the exodus narrative. Paul is hoping to make his points about the gravity of the Corinthians’ spiritual behavior by grounding it where he places all his theology — in the heart of Israel’s history. Care must be taken not to draw the analogies of baptism (washing) and Eucharist (eating and drinking) too tightly or analogically with this text of the exodus salvation narrative. By doing so, theological issues will become too complex for the ordinary sermon-listener. (Preachers seeking to untangle these will find literary assistance in Ulrich Luz’s excellent commentary on this passage).
What then is the governing issue or theme in this passage? Verse 7 holds the key: it is behavior, faux spiritual and otherwise, which is idolatry. The Gospel text for this Third Sunday in Lent also bids the listener to repent and change, as does Paul in this passage, and to worship the true God.
I. The Text
Paul informs the Corinthians they are alike — and no better than — “our ancestors.” (verse 1) What did the exodus narrative reveal about them? They journeyed, they ate and drank in a manner blest by God, and they also sinned. For this they were “struck down in the wilderness.” (verse 5). It is with this comment that Paul signals to the Corinthians that their religious behavior is not a guarantee of God’s blessing and presence.
Why is Paul discussing this narrative and the destruction of some of the Israelites? He is doing it as “example” and because he does not want them to become “idolaters.” How does Paul define idolatry? He lists, somewhat vaguely, the way Christians have made wrong spiritual choices.
In verse 8 he refers to “sexual immorality.” And in verse 9, he speaks of running counter to the nature and will of Christ so that “We must not put Christ to the test…” Others “complained” and like those in the other examples of idolatry were destroyed. Paul’s list of brimstone-and-fire examples of those who alienated themselves from Christ by their behaviors are called to take note of the past and present punishments of God “to serve as an example.” (verse 11a).
But Paul has another concern as well: the “end of the ages have come.” (verse 11b) His concern is that current life practices must reflect the advent of Christ’s coming. His stories or “examples” are not of the order of Aesop’s Fables but signs that point to the eschatological age. Idolatry has eternal consequences.
Paul concludes this section of the reading by addressing the nature of temptation, something which idolaters consider or to which they will succumb. In doing so, he chides the Corinthians for thinking they have their salvation all wrapped up, with nothing to fear: “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” (verse 12). Paul is calling here for a strict self-watchfulness, a program of spiritual living which does not mistake one thing for something else. He is calling for a lack of self-delusion about one’s spiritual life and the tendencies to idolatry. and for radical spiritual, self-discernment.
In one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, Paul goes on in verse 13 to note several things about the nature of temptation. First, it comes to everyone (most reassuringly!). Second, that God will remain faithful to the one tempted. Third, that temptation will not exceed one’s strength to resist it — a debatable point some would say – and finally, God will “provide the way out….”
Paul is calling for radical realism about the nature of one’s life with God. The temptations to idolatry are prevalent and perpetual. History records that this is so. No one is spiritually exempt from temptation! Paul is also making the interesting assertion that God is with the person in their states and sieges of being tempted. In fact, this entire passage of its examples of idolatry and consequent punishments continues to have God as both judge and helper at its center.
II. More Homiletical Possibilities
There are many possible preaching foci in this text. Probably the two that are most obvious are idolatry and temptation. One useful resource in preaching about idolatry and its nature and consequences comes from Luther’s two catechisms. He is clear in several of the explanations to the materials therein about the difference between worshipping what is false and what is God and of God.
The reality of temptation has already been pre-figured for the preaching season of Lent by Jesus’ experiences in the wilderness. Again, Paul’s words raise the issue of temptation and the vectors that can prompt it, such as misuse of the body and challenging God spiritually. The text speaks both to the spiritually misinformed and smug, as well as the spiritually apathetic who do not consider this attitude, too, will have consequences.
Paul’s history of the exodus narrative invokes baptismal and Eucharistic imagery and one may consider a sermon on these means of grace in relationship to the God who stands with us in the midst of and against all forms of temptation and idolatry. This would be homiletically justified as this appointed text leads into the conclusion of Chapter 10, which is explicitly focused on the Eucharist. That being the case, perhaps the preacher may consider extending the boundaries of the lectionary for a more rhetorically coherent sermon on the entire chapter.