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Third Sunday of the Year

Putting Everything in Context

'Let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it'.

Are these words addressed to us, who turn to Scripture for good news? Or do such startling assertions make sense only in the original historical context? Long ago, about AD 55, Saint Paul was addressing people who had been Christians for little more than five years — is there anything in what he says for us now? 

Let's take a step back, to the beginning of chapter 7: 'It is well for a man not to touch a woman' (verse 1). Paul must be quoting something said in the congregation at Corinth, by some supposedly authoritative person. He neither endorses nor dismisses the idea. Sexual drives and needs are so strong that 'each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband' (verse 2). Moreover, a husband should give his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife her husband's (verse 3). There is nothing wrong in being married — just the contrary.  

Given what we know about the status of women in the ancient world (and in many societies today), it is instructive that Paul regards husband and wife as absolutely equal in this respect: 'For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does' (verse 4).  

However, here at Corinth, some spouses have high-mindedly chosen to practise celibacy, in order to concentrate on prayer. Far from praising this form of asceticism unqualifiedly, Paul's advice is not to go in for such abstinence at all — unless the partners do so by consent, and for a set length of time. Then couples should 'come together again … so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control' (verse 5). 

Denying themselves physical intimacy in order 'to have leisure for prayer' (verse 5), a husband or wife — the former more likely, no doubt — would be all but irresistibly tempted to resort to the brothels for which Corinth (as a seaport) was notorious. On the other hand, it is good for the unmarried and widows to remain single, Paul declares — wishing that 'all were as I myself am'. 'But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion' (verse 9), as the RSV says.

'It is better to marry than to burn', as the King James version puts it. This could mean that the flames of passion are best integrated in marriage. However, the Greek might equally well mean that it is better to marry than to burn in hell: in New Testament times the great ever-smouldering rubbish dump outside Jerusalem represented Gehenna. Famously, one rabbi is quoted as saying to another, as they are walking along a road and see a woman ahead of them, 'Hurry up and get in front of Gehenna', meaning that they should get ahead of the woman so that, no longer able to see her, they would be beyond falling into infernal sin.  

Whichever way we translate, Paul has a strong sense of the power of our sexual needs and drives and correspondingly of the difficulty of self-control — in the case of women, interestingly, as well as in that of his fellow males. Thus, far from being hostile to marriage and negative about sexual activity, as is sometimes said, Paul might with more justice be regarded as a champion of good sex in marriage. 

Of course the personalist ideal of marriage familiar to us in the post-Christian West did not exist in his day. No doubt he took 'arranged marriages' for granted. Mutual respect within marriage as Paul conceives it, on the other hand, is radically different from marriages in which wives are regarded as inferior beings, little more than slaves. Perhaps the most challenging thing is Paul's assumption that marriage is the antidote to otherwise insatiable lust. Even though we inhabit a culture in which pornography spreads almost everywhere — indeed perhaps because we do — doesn't Paul's assumption seem shockingly raw and crude, much too 'carnal'? 

Is Paul speaking to a very specific situation that has little to do with us? Does the picture of marriage that Paul evokes belong irretrievably to the past, or are his assumptions about our savagely irrepressible sexuality, as well as about gender equality in marriage, a call to self-examination and judgment, in regard to the ideals as well as the realities with which we are familiar? What does it mean to mourn and rejoice — as though not doing so? Buying and selling as though not doing so? 

People go on doing all these things, Paul takes that for granted, he does not prohibit them. The 'as though' places all these activities in a context which relativises them, so to speak. These activities can never be ultimate. Everything that Paul's new Christians do, in the intimacy of sexual life, in sorrow and in joy, even when shopping: all these things, while they may look much the same as ever, are actually radically different since they are done now by people who have been 'sanctified in Christ Jesus' (1 Cor 1: 2). 

Of course Paul is addressing people with ideals and temptations that may not quite be ours — but there again, as one reflects on all this, isn't Paul challenging us who count ourselves Christian to see everything — grief and joy, commerce and the market, and above all marriage and sexuality — in the light of what ultimately matters?   

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