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Message Supplement for Sunday 2 February 2020: “Wise Guy Paul”

Today we consider Paul’s contrasting view of wisdom (worldly versus heavenly), from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

Paul suggests that his readers should feel good about their humble life situation. “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 inferior social status and perhaps even the naiveté of his audience. The upside is that Paul is making readers feel good about their disadvantaged state. He gives hope to readers who don’t have much power or privilege. Giving such encouragement to the downtrodden is part of what God’s children can accomplish in this inequitable and unjust world.

Paul rightly challenges the tendency to assume that society’s upper echelon is forever privileged. Paul’s point is that social elites do not necessarily possess more wisdom or superior spirituality. Sadly, some of the wisest and most educated persons don’t seem to accept basic spiritual truths. Such folks can be too proud to grasp the beautiful simplicity of Christianity’s gospel message. Paul’s terse wording suggests that there aren’t many intellectuals who make it to the kingdom of heaven. He argues that those from whom we least expect brilliance may be the very ones who gain heavenly blessings. For Paul, the light that shines comes not from brain-power but from spirit-power.

Does Paul patronize his audience base, pitting them against society’s elites? He seems to be going in this direction as he quotes other scripture: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Corinthians 1:19). Ironically, Paul was a product of some of the finest academy training in his day. His brilliant use of language reveals that he was a sophisticated writer, a member of a similar category of elite’s he’s often found criticizing.

Does Paul go too far in denouncing people who gain wisdom through educational achievement, reasoning, and logic? Paul shares wonderful insights and yet even this saintly author doesn’t have the final say. Whether ancient or modern, people of faith like you and me are responsible to hold any and all opinions accountable, testing even biblical writers’ views against facts and experiences; no one is beyond accountability or even correction. While Paul’s words have a certain grassroots appeal, be careful to not feed resentment against those who appear to have more blessings than you.

God is the Lord of wisdom, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with strengthening your brain any more than there’s an issue with hardening your physical muscles. As even the culture wars in modern America attest, it’s best to avoid an “us against them” mentality which further divides people to the point of undermining a nation’s cultural fabric. Paul’s use of inflammatory language and hyperbole (intentional exaggeration) is designed to grab readers’ attention. He therefore pumps-up his rhetoric to deliver a reassuring message of God reaching simple minds rather than the elites who often achieve and flaunt their superiority.

The human brain is one of God’s preeminent achievements, an awesome tool which when used to enhance life through scientific and technological achievements can save lives and free people from a life of archaic drudgery. You may sympathize with Paul’s desire to comfort the dispossessed, but all of us can be cautious such that we don’t end up praising sloppy thinking and mental laziness. Being poor or rich isn’t the problem as much as is self-conceit and selfishness (something that plagues rich and poor alike).

There are brilliant people who’ve received advanced degrees and are published authors and celebrated thinkers. Some of these folks are likely as spiritual as you or me, perhaps more so, which is why we shouldn’t hurl insults at them or suspect that they are enemies because of their higher social or financial status. Also, ignorance and rank stupidity don’t earn a person a ticket to heaven any quicker than having a doctorate degree. Jesus reminds all of us that everyone must persist on the path of love and truth while pursuing the kingdom of heaven.

My prayer is that we won’t down-play the God-given power of human intellect. Superb reasoning, academic brilliance, and educational accomplishments are gifts that enhance humanity. The problem is when people try to substitute worldly achievements for spiritual health and vitality. All truth is God’s truth, and there’s no justification to boast about ignorance any more than you should rely upon how rich and educated you are. God’s love, mercy and grace are keys to redemption, which is a key goal for spiritual health and vitality.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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