This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
1 Corinthians 5:1-8
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
5 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you?
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgement 4 in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing.[a] When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.[b]
6 Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Today I’m going to focus on just a few verses because they are startling in themselves and also illustrate a frequent dilemma in Bible study.
In verses 3-5 above, Paul encourages the Corinthians to make a judgement about the offending member. He indicates that because he “present in Spirit” he has already made a judgement and he invites them in solemn assembly, that is, as assembled by Jesus Messiah, to expel the man from the community. But what exactly is the man’s crime? He has “taken” his father’s wife. Commentators suggest that the “father” is dead and his widow is not the offender´s mother. “Taken” may refer to a sexual relationship or to marriage. Many translations simply say, “living / sleeping with his stepmother” while others such as the NRSV above, stay close to the Greek wording. It seems at any rate that we’re dealing with a case of incest as defined by both Jewish and Gentile Law and indeed by U.K. law today. Clearly such behaviour could have brought the church community into disrepute even in a city notorious for sexual licence.
But there is a further possibility. The clause, “in the name of the Lord Jesus” in verse 4 may belong with “pronounced judgement” or with “done such a thing.” As I read the Greek, the latter is the more likely. But what would it mean to say that the man acted in the name of the Lord Jesus? It would mean that this was another instance of the arrogant spirituality of some Corinthian believers, a misunderstanding of their salvation, which they may have called “freedom in Christ”. The offender, perhaps with encouragement from the community, may have been claiming the very freedom from the Law that Paul preached. If so, the offence would be even greater in Paul’s eyes and might justify his making a judgement on the man without listening to his side of the case.
The next dilemma is the nature of the judgement that Paul wants the community to pass on the offender. He is to be “handed over to Satan.” Who is Satan or The Satan as we might translate? In Jewish Bible (Job 1) he is the cynical servant of God (literally, the enemy) who is allowed to scope to test the faith of believers. In later tradition, his evil intent is emphasised but in Paul his operation is related only to believers, and the results of his attentions may be beneficial, as here and in 2 Corinthians 12:7. The Satan’s power can afflict those who belong and those who no longer belong to Jesus Messiah in ways that may assist their ultimate salvation. But how exactly? The Greek says for the destruction of his “sarx”, his flesh. Many versions wrongly translate this as his “body” assuming that the man’s health will be destroyed by the ministry of the Satan; and that he will die. But Paul does not use the term “sarx” to mean the human body, but rather the condition of living as if one was mere flesh and blood, to the exclusion of God. It is quite possible therefore that Paul means the destruction of the man’s “lower nature”, his stubborn sinfulness, rather than the destruction of his life. He may consider that expulsion from the community and exposure to the power of evil may break the man’s pride and bring him back to God.
I’ve highlighted these dilemmas of translation and understanding to show that they exist, and that they make important differences to the way the reader thinks of Paul and his message. If the man claimed to be acting “in the name of Jesus”, Paul’s swift judgement can be seen as necessary and beneficial rather than illegitimate. If the expulsion of the man from the community and his handing over to The Satan are designed to break his pride rather than his body, the reader can see the link with the “thorn in the flesh” (Corinthians 12:7) with which God allowed The Satan to afflict Paul, so that he would not get above himself, but know that God’s strength is perfected in weakness.
Especially in a faith tradition that encourages believers to live by scripture, it is vital that scripture is examined in its original language and that where there are ambiguities these are exposed, so that harmful practice based on mistranslation or misinterpretation is prevented.