Message for 29 January 2017–“Wise Guy Paul”

Paul chats with us through one of today’s lectionary readings, that of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. The focus is Paul’s view of wisdom, which reveals how our hallowed, cherished and elevated biblical author does not always have the final say. Here and elsewhere, Paul shares wonderful insights and yet even he is not beyond constructive criticism. We must always question other peoples’ perceptions and opinions, testing them against the facts and our own experiences. After all, God designed humans to grow stronger through struggling with challenges, ultimately overcoming anything that will stymie spiritual progress. God wants us to meet life head-on and grapple with tough issues so that through exertion and sweating we become stronger holistically, through every facet of our existence.
Paul is suggesting that we should feel good about our humble state. Okay, there’s no necessary problem here. “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” (1 Corinthians 1:26). Paul is citing the social insignificance and worldly ignorance of his audience. Whether he intended it or not, Paul is making people feel good in their disadvantaged state as he gives hope to those who may not possess power and privilege. So far so good. Keep going Paul! Giving hope to the downtrodden is part of what God’s children must accomplish in this violent and unjust world.
Paul rightly challenges our tendency to assume that society’s upper echelon is better in every way than the rest of us. Paul’s point is that the high and mighty do not always possess more wisdom or, more importantly, superior spirituality. Paul’s terse wording suggests that there aren’t many intellectuals who make it to the kingdom of heaven. Instead, he argues that those from whom we least expect brilliance may be the very ones who get the prize. For Paul, the light that shines doesn’t come from brain-power as much as from spirit-power. Excellent! We know that we must seek God through faith, and not primarily by some cold formula calculated by philosophers, theologians, and even politicians who constantly manipulate.
A less positive view of Paul arises when he is interpreted as patronizing the base majority in his audience. It’s not that making people feel good about themselves is bad, just that doing so at the expense of oversimplifying reality and demonizing other classes is not helpful. Such a negative approach heightens socio-economic warfare, a recurrent theme in American culture. It’s never helpful to praise bad living. It is like being placed in situation where we say about ourselves, “We’ve never felt so good about being deplorable because God loves us more than the elites.“ If Paul is interpreted as thinking this way then we have a big problem to correct. Paul was once part of the Jewish religious establishment. After he converted to Christianity, Paul became despised by his former colleagues and placed under suspicion by his new faith friends. Caught between such forces, Paul was in a deplorable situation against which he constantly struggled to define himself and others. Sometimes he was successful, other times not.
Like all of us, Paul must face his personal demons. Paul may have gone too far in denouncing people who gain wisdom through educational achievement, reasoning, and logic. After all, God is the God of wisdom, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with strengthening our brain any more than there’s an issue with hardening our physical muscles. Pushing Paul into class consciousness is risky business, and it encourages an “us against them” mentality further dividing an already weakened America. Yes, Paul’s use of hyperbole (intentional exaggeration) is designed to grab readers’ attention. He therefore pumps-up the volume to deliver a reassuring message of God reaching simple minds rather than those which are too sophisticated for their own good.
Alright, Paul, I hope you didn’t intend to diminish the power God created within us. The human brain is one of God’s preeminent achievements, an awesome tool which when used to enhance life gives us scientific and technological achievements that save lives and free us to contemplate spirituality. Paul, we sympathize with your desire to comfort the dispossessed, but we need to hold you and ourselves accountable such that we don’t end up praising sloppy thinking and mental laziness. Paul, we celebrate your insights as far as they can go. We understand that some of the wisest and most educated persons don’t apprehend or accept even basic spiritual truths. That is sad and inexcusable. Such folks can be too proud to grasp the beautiful simplicity of the gospel. Ironically, Paul was a product of some of the finest academy training in his day. His brilliant use of language reveals that he wasn’t an idiot. Paul’s sophisticated writing suggests that he’s a product of the very category of trained person he’s criticizing.
On the one hand, I have known brilliant people who’ve received advanced degrees and are published authors and celebrated critical thinkers. I also must admit that a good many of these folks are seemingly just as spiritual as I am, perhaps more so, which is why I don’t hurl insults at smart people or suspect that they are spiritually inferior simply because of their wealth and status. I don’t want to feel good at someone else’s expense. On the other hand, ignorance and rank stupidity don’t earn you a ticket to heaven any quicker than having a doctorate degree. Jesus reminds all of us that most people—elites and commoners—must work hard to keep our hearts and minds open, responsive and growing. Otherwise, people smart or foolish will suffer the same dark fate.
My prayer is that we won’t down-play the God-given power of our intellect but that we’d use all our brains more for comprehensive growth and goodness. Our incisive reasoning, academic brilliance, and educational accomplishments are blessings that can enhance humanity. The problem arises when we try to substitute any or all worldly achievements for spiritual enlightenment. We need God’s redemption despite how good we feel about our other strengths. All truth is God’s truth, and we shouldn’t boast about our ignorance any more than we should exalt how rich and educated we are or how much we sin. Let’s grow stronger together, unified by a cohesive vision of spiritual vitality.
–Reverend Larry Hoxey