The Foolishness of God -- A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4A (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

Lucas Cranach - Chicago Institute of Art


1 Corinthians 1:18-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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.”

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                “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” How do you read that statement? We might reply, yes, God’s thoughts are greater than ours but is that what Paul had in mind? Paul makes this statement in connection to his proclamation of the cross, which both Jew and Greek see as foolishness. Why would anyone think it wise to follow someone who was crucified? Yet, that is what Paul preached. He even takes note of the fact that those who answered the call to follow the crucified one weren’t considered wise by human standards. They weren’t powerful people or of noble birth. They were the kind of people who might be considered fools by those who thought of themselves as being wise by human standards. That may be true, but who really wants to be considered a fool?

                When I read this passage, I have to wonder what Paul has in mind. Might a message like this even be counterproductive in an age where growing numbers of our fellow citizens are rejecting expertise as elitism. Is Paul, in making this statement, giving license to Christian anti-intellectualism? I hope not, but I can see it being read that way. There has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism within the Christian tradition. Years ago, Mark Noll, a leading Evangelical historian wrote a book titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In that book, he addressed the presence of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical movement (as signified by ideologies such as young-earth creationism). So, what do we make of this?

When Paul declares: “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?” does this mean that there is no place for instruction or expertise in the religious world? We might want to start our reflection by remembering that Paul was confronting a congregation that was divided into factions that seem to be centered around specific teachers. Might there be those arguing against making the cross a centerpiece of the message, suggesting that this would look foolish to those who think of themselves as being wise? There is a tendency to tailor the message to the audience. Consider Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Paul knew about the cultured despisers who seemed to reject the message of the cross.  

In making the case that the cross is the center of his message, Paul is arguing that human wisdom won’t lead you to God. You can’t study your way to a crucified messiah. It just will never make sense. It is something we take by faith. We look at Jesus on the cross and we see a different way of being. In the companion reading from Micah 6, we’re reminded that what God desires is justice, loving-kindness, and humility. The cross is a sign of humility and it is also a witness to justice, especially in light of the resurrection, which is God’s no to Rome’s act of condemnation. The cross is foolishness to those who cannot see God present in that moment, but it offers a different way of being, one that human wisdom can never discern.

If we can grant this premise, then we can address the other question, and that concerns the role of wisdom in the path of faith. I’m assuming that we still want physicians and our surgeons to be well qualified, though we seem less open to the possibility that the conclusions of the majority of climate scientists are correct. We seem, at times, to be impressed with our own observations, which we attribute to “common sense.” What comes to our religious teachers, should we expect a bit of knowledge and instruction? I understand that Jesus didn’t go to seminary, but Paul was rather well educated. In the Philippian letter he claimed as his religious heritage descent from the tribe of Benjamin, he was circumcised on the eighth day, and he was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he would have had significant religious training. There is even the suggestion that he had been a disciple of the famed Rabbi Gamaliel. But according to Paul, none of this mattered to him in relation to his position in Christ (Phil 3:1-11). He could brag if he needed to, but he considered this to be foolishness. That might be true, but Paul was still a rather well-educated person, as demonstrated by his letters.   

                So, when Paul speaks here of God’s foolishness and the foolishness of the cross, when he speaks of God destroying the wisdom of the wise, I don’t believe he is embracing anti-intellectualism. We don't have to check our brains at the entrance to the church, but Paul makes it clear that human wisdom will not get you to the cross and thus to Jesus. He’s making it clear that following Jesus won’t make you respectable in the eyes of the world. Then again, when it comes to the message of salvation, God is willing to look foolish. St. Francis of Assisi was willing to be considered a Holy Fool for God. The question is, am I willing to be a Holy Fool? Am I willing to embrace God’s foolishness rather than seek salvation through human wisdom?       
               


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