Corinthians: The Greatest of These is Love

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The church at Corinth was Paul’s problem child, as his two letters to the Corinthians will attest. The Corinthians seemed to have been an enthusiastic, but immature group of people.  Paul’s letters to them deal less with theological than practical matters, primarily how to deal with cliques and one-upmanship, but also with “anything goes” behaviors that went beyond what was considered normal by even the fairly lax standards of a cosmopolitan city in the pagan world. He spends most of 1 Corinthians telling them everything they are doing wrong, and a fair amount of 2 Corinthians apologizing for his earlier harshness

The good news of the gospel- that God loves and accepts everyone- was perverted by some as justification for licentious and harmful behavior. Paul emphasized the difference between liberty and license. Yes, you are free from following arbitrary rules in order to be accepted by God, but no, you are not free to do things that hurt other people. For Paul, the key to moral behavior was love.”Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” When it comes to moral choices, don’t just think of yourself. Don’t do things that hurt other people. Do do things that help other people. Paul gives several examples that most people would consider universally relevant: don’t murder, don’t steal, be faithful to your spouse. He also gives some examples that most people do not consider universally relevant: women should wear head coverings in church and remain silent.

I think the thing to remember about Paul’s letters is that they were just that: letters to specific churches, dealing with specific problems those churches were facing. I don’t agree with my more traditional and conservative friends who think every word Paul wrote was straight from the mouth of God and therefore literally and universally applicable for all cultures and all times. I don’t agree with my more progressive and liberal friends who think Paul’s letters are irrelevant and have nothing to say to us today. Some of his advice to first-century churches may no longer be applicable in the twenty-first century, but the principles which lie behind his advice are still valid. If Paul were writing today, he might give different examples of bad behavior- maybe he’d rail against spreading gossip on the internet instead of women with bare heads.

The devil is in the details, but God is in the principles, so it’s the underlying principles I look for when reading Paul. And the greatest principle of all is love. As Peter later writes, “love covers a multitude of sins“. If we put the principle of love first, in everything we say and do, we will be headed in the right direction.  It’s that easy, and difficult.

And that’s good news to me!

Zephaniah: Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

 Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
er prophets are unprincipled;
they are treacherous people.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.

Zephaniah is bound to create a bit of cognitive dissonance for Biblical inerrantists. The writer identifies himself as  ” Zephaniah, son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah”. He then proceeds to announce impending doom coming for Judah, along with the surrounding nations, because of their continuing sins against God and neighbor. There’s nothing new about that motif; the problem is the time frame. Zephaniah’s invectives, which include the royal family,  occur in the time of Josiah. Elsewhere in the Bible, Josiah is portrayed as a very good king, in fact one of the best as measured by his singlehearted devotion to God and attempts to stamp out idol worship. The priests and prophets who are castigated as being unprincipled, treacherous, and profane would have included Hilkiah, Josiah’s mentor, as well Jeremiah and other prophetic luminaries. as  So what’s going on here?

Some more literally-minded scholars will attempt to harmonize the discrepancy by assuming that Zephaniah’s prophecies are from very early in Josiah’s reign, when he was still a minor, and before the Book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was discovered during temple renovations. That doesn’t really make sense to me, especially as Zephaniah invokes judgement not on the king himself, but on the “king’s sons” And as we know in historical hindsight, that’s exactly what happened. Whether you judge them on political or theological criteria, Josiah’s sons were bad kings, and their poor leadership led to Jerusalem’s conquest and the Babylonian exile. So other scholars think Zephaniah was written after the monarchy came to an end.

I’ve always wondered why Josiah met such an early and untimely end, considering that the books of Kings and Chronicles present him in such an unwaveringly positive light.According to the prevailing traditionalist theologies of the time, that should not have happened. God rewards the good guys with health, wealth, and long life, while punishing the bad guys with the opposite. Clearly, that was and is an inadequate understanding of God and the way God works.

I see the Bible is a rich and living book not because God magically dictated every word to an auto-writing scribe, but because it contains so many different perspectives. We all try to make sense of what is going on around us, and see the world through our own lenses. Perhaps Zephaniah’s writings date from the time of Josiah, but from his vantage point things were not going so swimmingly. Perhaps they are from a later time period, one in which the exiles struggled to make sense of history. Regardless of when it was written, Zephaniah says to me is that things are always more complicated than they seem. As Paul observed, we “know in part and prophesy in part” and “see through a glass darkly”.  Or as Mulder and Scully might say, “The truth is out there somewhere”.

I appreciate the Bible as a record of humanity’s evolving understanding of God. For me, acknowledging that its writers were a diverse group of people, each with their own particular perspective, doesn’t diminish but enhances my faith. The details may differ, but the story is the same: There is a God; he wants us to live in love and justice with each other; and he is always working with and through us to make that happen.  And that’s good news to me.