FOR READERS I have just started a new blog: xtremejesus.co which is intended to contribute to political and social debate from the point of view of the Jesus tradition. Some have found difficulty in accessing the site from their search engines and browsers. At present, Google Chrome gives it easily.
MEANWHILE, this old faithful blog continues to explore Paul’s Corinthian correspondence day by day. At present it is dealing with 2 Corinthians 10-13, which is all we have of Paul’s harsh letter after a visit to Corinth in the wake of 1st Corinthians. I’m assuming that all his Corinthian letters were sent from Ephesos. The news headline is a reminder of the world we live in.
2 Corinthians 12
1. I have to boast. There is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in union with the Messiah who fourteen years ago was snatched up to the third heaven; whether he was in the body or outside the body I don’t know, God knows. 3 And I know that such a man — whether in the body or apart from the body I don’t know, God knows — 4 was snatched into Paradise-‘and heard things that cannot be put into words, things unlawful for a human being to utter. 5 About such a man I will boast; but about myself I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. 6 If I did want to boast, I would not be foolish; because I would be speaking the truth. But, because of the extraordinary greatness of the revelations, I refrain, so that no one will think more of me than what my words or deeds may warrant. 7 Therefore, to keep me from becoming overly proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from the Adversary to pound away at me, so that I wouldn’t grow conceited. 8 Three times I begged the Lord to take this thing away from me; 9 but he told me, “My kindness is enough for you, for my power is brought to perfection in weakness.” Therefore, I am very happy to boast about my weaknesses, in order that the Messiah’s power will rest upon me. 10 Yes, I am well pleased with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties endured on behalf of the Messiah; for it is when I am weak that I am strong.
This is a splendid passage in Paul’s correspondence and in the history of religion. For firstly he recounts what would conventionally be considered a religious experience, a moment of ecstasy in which he heard holy words that were not for other ears. He says ironically that he could boast about the man who had such an experience. But in fact he mentions it just to show its insignificance compared to a much more earth-bound experience, the notorious thorn or splinter in his flesh. He means some ailment that belongs to his flesh and blood self. it could have been what we would call physical or mental or psychological. We do not know what it was, although there have been many guesses. In my book on Paul I made it epilepsy, simply because it is the sort of occasional malady which might have permitted his energetic lifestyle.
But the astonishing thing is that he finds this ‘weakness ” more significant than the mystical experience his has just mentioned. He is not advocating a new religion with new otherworldly experiences; he is commending the way of a man executed on a Roman stake, who has revealed earthly life in all its weakness to be the locus of God’s kindness, which is enough to enable trusting people to live well.
The false strengths of knowledge, power, wealth and religious status, so much admired in worldly society are in Paul’s view negligible compared to the weakness of one man who enjoys God’s kindness. This is Paul’s equivalent of Jesus’ words about children and little ones, and shows his deep understanding of Jesus although his vocabulary is very different.
He is saying that faith in Jesus is reveals religion to be just another commodity in a world where people compete for wealth. Getting one’s hands on a workable God is something that worldly people understand. But what if God has blown this tactic out of the water by being downwardly mobile and making himself available to all and sundry? Then maybe only those prepared to be week and needy will want him. ” God has come amongst us,” Paul is saying. “There’s no need to go looking for Him.” Paul speaks out the experience of a top range Pharisee and bargain basement emissary, “It is when I’m weak that I am strong.”