1 Corinthians 3:1-9
What is the purpose of religion? Yes, we talk about the importance of worship and one’s relationship with God, but is that really the focus of much human religion? Although, the chief end of humanity, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “is to love God, and enjoy him forever,” could we not say that controlling prescribed and proscribed social behaviors central to religion? Why else would governments want to partner with religion, except that religions support the state and the status quo? George Washington wasn’t necessarily orthodox in his theology, but he believed that chaplains were important to his army, for two reasons – to inculcate virtue and teach proper deference to authority. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams may not have been theologically orthodox either, but they recognized the social value of religion. In fact they believed that one of the most important principles that any religion could bring to the table was a belief in rewards and punishments in an afterlife. Put the fear of God in them and they’ll behave properly – and deferentially to authority as well. Hey, isn’t that why parents took their children to church? Instill a little fear of God in them!
Rare is it that religion becomes counter-cultural. It may start out that way, but before too long we can get sucked in and become merely the providers of a foundation for a proper civil morality and behavior. And yet, issues of law and behavior are prominent in the teachings of our faith traditions.
As we consider the lectionary texts for the week, there is this concern for proper behavior. For instance, in Deuteronomy the theme of reward and punishment is definitely prominent, even if the focus isn’t the afterlife. The people of Israel are told that if they obey the Lord’s commands and walk in God’s ways, they will live long lives and their offspring will be numerous. Yes, if you follow the commands of God, God will bless you as you enter and live in the land of Promise. But, if you don’t listen and don’t obey, and are led astray by other gods, then you will perish. The voice is supposed to be that of Moses offering the Law of God to the people, and he calls heaven and earth to bear witness to the choice that is being offered – life or death: what will you choose? The choice is offered not simply to individuals, but to the community, to the nation. Will you obey God? If you are so willing, you will experience blessings.
When we come to Paul’s word to the Corinthian church the situation is very different. It’s not so much following commands as understanding what it means to experience a mature faith. Here is a community of faith that isn’t ready for solid food, a community of the flesh rather than of the spirit. The point is not obedience to commands, but refraining from behaving according to “human inclinations.” And the way this behavior is expressed is through factionalism. Some like Paul and others like Apollos, but such inclinations show them to be merely human, and not truly spiritual in nature. For, who is Paul or Apollos? One plants and the other waters, but it’s God who gives the growth. So, if Paul and Apollos serve the same Lord and have a common purpose and aim, there’s no need to divide up. That’s not spiritual, it’s human – or we might say – juvenile. Paul’s hope, of course, is that they will soon move from infancy into adulthood. Behavior is key, but here it’s more internalized than the message from Deuteronomy. There is less in the way of rewards or punishment, at least in this passage – just a sense of moving upward toward maturity.
And then we come to the words of Jesus who has called us to a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes a Pharisees. Remembering again the tendency to stereotype Pharisees, the point Jesus makes here is that God is concerned about the heart, out of which misbehavior emerges. Yes, we shouldn’t murder, but murder is a physical manifestation of an inner problem, which is anger. So, take care of the anger before it gets out of hand. Don’t say things like “you fool” lest you face the danger of hell. And if you think that you’re out of the woods because you didn’t commit adultery, well even lust is sufficient to get you in trouble. So, it’s better to cut out the offending eye or cut off the offending hand, lest you face having your whole body thrown in hell. I sure hope this is meant to be taken metaphorically! And then there’s divorce. In Matthew Jesus gives the man at least one out. If his wife has committed adultery then he can divorce and remarry without problem, but no longer can you just willy-nilly toss out your wife because the dinner was cold. If you do this you put here in an untenable position. If she’s going to survive she’ll either have to become a prostitute or remarry, and in either case she’ll be considered an adulterer and the one she marries will be considered an adulterer. Better then, for everyone, that everyone stays married to their original partner and stay away from wandering eyes!
The final section of the sermon treats oaths. Don’t swear oaths, Jesus says. Instead, mean what you say, and say what you mean. You don’t need to swear by the heavens, because that’s God’s throne, and you’re not God. And don’t even think about swearing by the earth, because that’s God’s footstool. As for Jerusalem, well that’s God’s city, so that doesn’t seem to be something you control. In fact, you can’t even turn one hair white or black, so don’t think about swearing by your own head. This section is really challenging to us, or should be, for we think that somehow the Bible is a magical book, that if we put our hand upon it, we’ll tell the truth. Why is this? Why can’t our no be no and our yes be yes?
Religion may have a role in providing support for the common good. But surely it is not merely the provider of support for the social and cultural status quo? Surely, it goes beyond merely behaving properly? But what does that entail? To return to Deuteronomy – what does it mean to love God and walk in the ways of God?