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1 Corinthians 1:18-31

This last half of Chapter 1 elaborates on Paul’s diagnosis and prognosis of a divided Corinthian Church. Mainly, he lays out his argument from the first half of the chapter more explicitly, and explains further why those in the Corinthian church should not fight and bicker over who baptized who, and/or about who is more deserving of admiration and service amongst the church leaders. Verses 18-31 contains two parts of Paul’s threefold argument: first, he emphasizes the transvaluation of values which accompanied the eschatological and apocalyptic revelation of God’s redemption through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection (1:18-25); second, he applies this reversal of values to the audience’s present situation (1:26-31).

As a reminder, it was determined in the opening verses that what lay at the center of the Corinthians’ intra-ecumenical feud is a question of value; or, rather—as many commentators put it—the tumultuous state of the Corinthian church is due to their precarious inclination toward idolatry. The problem of idolatry in Hebrew and Christian scriptures is a question of value because when one commits idolatry they either explicitly or implicitly declare that they value some object, idea, or person over God. Hence, when Paul is going on about the wisdom of the world and its inferiority in the face of God’s foolishness, he is not exhorting the congregation to embrace an anti-intellectualism, nor is he endorsing a cheap faith that refuses to scrutinize and examines one’s own belief and tradition. Rather when there is a juxtaposition of God’s foolishness with the wisdom of the world, he is taking aim at the Corinthians who are privileging the Roman value system and its subsequent social hierarchy over fellowship and equity in Christ.

This can especially be seen in the first phase of Paul’s three-part argument. Here, Paul continues to present the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of God or the cross as diametrically opposed. Moreover, through citing Isaiah 29:14, the use of chronological language (e.g., “this age”), and his somewhat-consistent employment of imperfect verbs, Paul emphasizes the eschatological and apocalyptic nature of God’s revelation in Christ. [1] In effect, he portrays those figures who are powerful and considered wise in the present (the “scribe,” the “debater,” etc.) as passing a way, and unable to see the true wisdom which is revealed in the foolishness of the cross. Again, this is not a treatise against the academy or thinking critically in general. Rather, Paul’s ultimate purpose is to stress that only the knowledge of God has the power to reveal the true Wisdom of God as it is display in Christ crucified. Think wisdom in these verses as a modern-day triumphant humanism, and think the foolishness of the cross as the rejection of that view for the sake of serving and living in solidarity with those who are not triumphant.

The second part of his argument picks up this motif of transvaluation and expatiates on it further. In verses 26-31 Paul asks the Corinthian church to think about what the consequences might be of fully embracing the foolishness of the cross. He reminds them that most of them, excluding only few, were not considered wise or powerful, yet God had chosen them to be a part of God’s church. He also reminds him that, because of God’s eschatological promise which was revealed and fulfilled in Christ—that the last shall be first, and that the first shall be last—they are now a part of what is coming to be, and are not doomed to perish as the Roman values and social hierarchy someday will. Thus, the message of Paul’s argument is simple: as a member of Christ’s church, you are living in a reality that is altogether new and peculiar through your baptism, and, therefore, you ought to look like a particular kind of oddity to the rest of the world in living out that reality now.

William Cavanaugh in his work, Migrations of The Holy, captures this truth through a metaphorical retelling of Ariande auf Naxos. He writes that once, the richest man in Vienna held a dinner party and scheduled two performances to take place after the meal: one an opera tragedy, and the other a comedy. The composer of the tragedy, already insulted that his opera was to be followed by a frivolous comedy, became enraged after learning that the master of the house had ordered both pieces to be performed at the same time in order to “leave time for fireworks.” Despite the composer’s indignation, the two performances happened simultaneously, the acts and scenes infiltrated one another, and the comedy ended up winning the day, giving the tragic opera a happy ending and leaving the prestigious composer of the opera flustered and confused.

Cavanaugh—using the work of Augustine—writes that the tragedy in the narrative represents the City of Man, or the world, and the comedy represents the City of God, or the church when it embodies God’s reign, and that the stage is creation. The world, you see, cannot imagine the same kind of ending that the church knows and believes will come. Thus, the church is to interrupt and surprise the world’s tragic expectations by constantly redefining what the world claims is ultimately valuable, by proclaiming with word and deed that Christ has saved creation from its ostensibly inexorable, hopeless ending. Bringing Cavanaugh and Paul together to conclude, the church, at least in their view, must understand itself as a vehicle of God’s work, one that disrupts the perceived trajectory of the earthly recital by knowing, believing, and acting as if the conclusion of the play will not end in death.

Paul’s Letter and Cavanaugh’s metaphor calls us to ask how we are disrupting the performance that is taking place on today’s political stage. Are we, for instance, proclaiming that there is enough room for refugees even if it doesn’t look like it? Or, are we living in ways that simply interrupt the world’s tragedy in our day-to-day dealings? Are we standing with the oppressed in a way that truly believes Christ will come? Or, are we, like the Corinthians, trapped in a tragic rat race for prestige and power that is doomed to end in an unsatisfying death? [1]  Suzanne Watts Henderson, The New Interpreter’s Bible: One-volume Commentary. By Beverly Roberts. Gaventa. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2010. 788-808., 790. [2]  William Cavanaugh, Migrations of The Holy (Michigan/Cambridge U.K.: Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids 2011), 63-64. [3] Ibid.