The Foolishness of the Cross—Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3B
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended,
that mortal judgment that on thee descended?
By foes derided, by the world rejected, O most afflicted!
—Johannn Heerman (Chalice Hymnal, 210).
The scandal of the Gospel is that it is centered in a message about a crucified messiah. What is it about a figure who suffered a humiliating death on one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised that would attract anyone? Truly it would be foolishness to embrace such a one as Jesus of Nazareth, who met his death on a Roman cross outside a city in a backwater part of the Roman Empire.
The cross continues to be a scandal. For some within the Christian community, the way in which Jesus is often portrayed as a means of satisfying the demands for blood on the part of a wrathful God causes angst. This is because some forms of atonement theory can look a lot like divine child abuse. Thus, for some, it seems as if it would be better if we eschew the message of Good Friday and simply skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, from one triumph to another. Of course, there are others who worry that a religious leader who dies on a cross might look like a loser. Who wants to be associated with a loser. Maybe we can photoshop out the cross and simply focus on a Jesus sitting on a throne. Nevertheless, Paul makes it clear to critics, both Jewish and Greek, ancient and modern, that he is going to “proclaim Christ crucified.” Just so you know, Paul’s not afraid of being associated with someone the world might consider a loser.
It’s appropriate to situate this word about the cross in an imperial context. The Romans valued power. They ruled a vast empire on the basis of their military might. They built roads that made commerce efficient, but just like our modern interstates, these roads had a military purpose. In fact, it was the Roman legions who built the roads so they could move quickly across the empire. The religions of the empire tended to emphasize power as well. The mystery religions promised their adherents access to power that was intoxicating. So, it’s not surprising that these young Christians in Corinth would have expected something similar from their religious tradition. Some of them might have been embarrassed by Paul’s preaching a gospel that placed the cross at the center.
We encounter this word from Paul as we journey through Lent, a season that invites us to let go of things that impede our relationship with Jesus. It invites us to consider how the cross of Jesus defines our faith. Perhaps it’s the desire for power that we need to let go of so that we might share in a different kind of power. This is the kind of power that emerges from humility. It’s a very different message from the one proclaimed by imperial Rome. Is it not different from the message we hear in our culture? Who wants to be a loser or aligned with a loser?
Here is how Paul defined the way of the cross. He informed his readers that God wasn’t interested in hanging out with the rich and powerful of this world. Instead, God had chosen the “low and despised in the world” to identify with. This is the message revealed in Jesus’s death on a cross. What we see in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is evidence of class-based division. Most likely a large portion of this Christian community was poor. Many might have been slaves. There were, of course, wealthier members, who seemed intent on having power over the poor and the despised. Paul responds to this division by reminding the people that Jesus had died on a cross, despised by those who were in power and those who prized power.
Paul emphasized God’s identification with the ones the world considered to be expendable and losers, recognizing that for many it appeared that Rome’s power reigned supreme. Was not Jesus’ death an expression of weakness? If so, is this not foolishness? Now, Paul understood that there was more to the story than simply Jesus’ death. Paul knew that his proclamation of this message of the cross included the resurrection. It might appear that Rome won, but did it really? That is a question we need to wrestle with in our day. What does it mean to win?
Ever since Constantine decided to make Christianity a recognized religion, we’ve tended to rethink the message of the cross. For Constantine, it was a symbol of conquest. He would not be the last to conquer in the name of the cross. What was once a symbol of weakness has been transformed into a symbol of political and military power. Many Christians today have found the promise of gaining power over others, of using the premise of religious liberty to discriminate, rather intoxicating. In fact, it appears that quite a number of Christians have given their allegiance to a figure who promised them power in exchange for loyalty. They have given themselves over to his vision of dominance over others. Lest we think ourselves immune from the intoxicating allure of political power, we might want to heed Paul’s words here. We might want to remember that we are called to live in a relationship with one whose death on a cross was deemed foolish.
It might help us gain perspective on our place in the world if we remember that this message Paul delivers to the Corinthians is rooted in an eschatological vision of reality. Rome represented the old age, while Jesus represents the new age. We have a choice. We can stay with Rome, which promises victory. Or we can embrace Jesus, who also offers a vision of victory, but of a very different kind. Yes, it might appear that Rome has won, but if dive below the surface of our reality, we will discover that the crucified Jesus is risen and has set in motion a new way of living before God. That is a message worth considering during this Lenten season.