Not Wise, Not Strong, and of Little Importance
Homily for Saturday in the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time
At first glance, it seems that St. Paul is taking a rather negative tone as he speaks to the community of Corinth. They are not, he insists, wise, strong, or influential. He tells them that they were chosen by God because they were foolish, weak, and counted for nothing. Obviously, St. Paul had not been introduced to Dale Carnegie’s course on “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
St. Paul’s purpose in taking this rather negative approach, however, makes sense when we consider the situation in Corinth that occasioned this letter. As often happens in human situations, a great deal of dissension was present in Corinth, a situation that had been brought to Paul’s attention by Chloe and her family. They reported that various members of the community were displaying open factionalism, and were identifying themselves exclusively with individual Christian leaders and interpreting Christian teaching as a superior wisdom for the initiated few. It was exactly this kind of elitism that had given birth to the first recorded heresy in the Christian community; namely, Gnosticism.
The simplest way to explain this particular heresy is simply to say that the Gnostics thought of themselves as being superior to the common, ordinary Christian. They thought of themselves as better because they were wealthy, held the positions of importance within the community, and were better educated. This foolish way of thinking even led them to claim that they were better because they had been baptized by a more illustrious disciple of Jesus.
Consequently, as St. Paul opens his letter, he reminds them of their humble origins. He makes the argument that God chose them because of their weakness, because of their lack of strength, and because of their lack of influence. In this way, anything that they had accomplished would obviously have been provided by God rather than by them.
This kind of humility is absolutely essential for the Christian disciple. Jesus has modeled this kind of behavior for us by submitting himself to the “foolishness” of the cross of which we heard in yesterday’s passage from this letter. Once again, we are reminded that if we wish to be great, we must become the least.