This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
FAMILIES ANGUISHED AS PLANE IS DECLARED SUNK
1 Corinthians 7:25-40
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
The Unmarried and the Widows
25 Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that, in view of the impending[a] crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life,[b] and I would spare you that. 29 I mean, brothers and sisters,[c] the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.
36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly towards his fiancée,[d] if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. 37 But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée,[e] he will do well. 38 So then, he who marries his fiancée[f] does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies,[g] she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my judgement she is more blessed if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
These advices are all qualified by the verses 29-31 “the appointed time has grown short etc…”. Paul is writing about the “parousia” the return of Jesus Messiah as the ruler of the new creation of God. This is obviously an event which will transcend history but it is not the “end of the world”; it is a transformation of the world. Paul’s timescale is determined by a sequence of “apocalyptic” (revelatory) events: the coming of the Messiah, his rejection by his own people and his death on the cross; his resurrection to authority over all the earth, which is being declared in the gospel of his messengers. This last, the announcement of God’s goodness in Messiah Jesus to the Gentiles, is still happening, but will soon be brought to an end by the return of the Messiah to exercise his authority. Paul is gathering God’s people in the brief intermission between the resurrection and the return of Jesus.
His advice on marriage makes sense in this context. All believers are called to do what is necessary to “prepare a people for the Lord”, which may involve family upheaval, journeys away from home and exposure to danger. Paul simply advises his converts that these demands may be more easily met by unmarried people. He makes it quite clear that he is not forbidding marriage or denigrating family life.
But there is something slightly”fanatical” in his certainty that something which has no earthly proof-the return of the Lord- should guide the ordinary decisions of believing people. He does not bother to explain how he knows what he says he knows, nor does he offer any scope for challenging it. He announces that the time is short and that certain normalities should take a back seat.
By any ordinary standard, we know he was wrong. Jesus Messiah did not return swiftly, and those who took his advice must have wondered if they’d been daft. Paul’s conviction that something world -changing had happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah was genuinely creative; and his own sense of urgency helped to establish his “communities of the world-to-come” throughout the Roman Empire. But eager expectation of the Parousia has more often led the church astray over the centuries than guided it in the Way of Jesus.
Some scholars think that eager expectation of his return goes back to Jesus himself. It all depends how you read such passages as Mark 13 and its parallels in Luke and Matthew. I think Jesus viewed the coming of God’s kingdom as always imminent and always small. The present day was only ever springtime in Jesus’ calendar, the time of the sowing when the tiny seed drops into the ground and “dies”. Yes, he trusted that there would be a harvest but “of that day no man knows, not even the Son, only the Father.” Like Paul, Jesus asked his followers to “live tomorrow’s life today” and to make sacrifices for the sake of God’s rule here and now, but without sectarianism.
Paul was surely wise in trying to fashion communities whose most intimate relationships were oriented towards God’s recreation of the world, without which the private interests of its constituent families might nullify its radical calling. But the way in which he chose to do so left an inheritance, which permitted the church to laud celibacy over marriage and therefore priests and monks over its people; it has not been an unmixed blessing. He was convinced he was guided by God’s spirit in this matter but with all respect to him, we can argue that married couples can be just as ready for the adventure of faith as celibate individuals; and we could cite evidence of this from both inside and outside the Christian churches today. On the other hand , we can see in his advice the makings of a church community not dominated by the conventions of marriage and family life, setting men and women free from expected social roles to serve God’s goodness.