Figuring It Out
1 Corinthians 7:32-40: (Here’s my best rendition of verse 36, based on Mounce’s Greek Interlinear)
“If someone owns up—(nomizō) to misbehavior— (aschēmoneō) with his virgin, if he’s gone “over the top”— (hyperakmos- lit. ‘above the acme’) and on account of this— (houtōs- ‘in this way’) he is obligated— (opheilō- owes, is indebted) to make it official— (ginomai) and makes good on his promise— (poieō) willingly— (thelō) then it’s absolutely not— (ou) a bad thing— (hamartanō- an error, wrongdoing) to get married— (gameō).”
Just to avoid any misconceptions, here is the NRSV translation: “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry.”
Here is my version again, without the Greek words interposed:
“36If someone owns up to misbehavior with his ‘virgin’, if he’s gone “over the top” and on account of this he is obligated to make it official and makes good on his promise willingly, then it’s absolutely not a bad thing to get married.”
This is another example of the kind of filters that translators unconsciously apply. It sure looks to me as if just about every single one of the traditional translations has come through a pretty powerful cultural filter regarding sexual morality. That’s the only thing that can explain the kind of alterations and omissions we see here. Please note, the meanings of “on account of;” “obligation;” “make official or proper;” and “make good on a promise willingly” are all just left out and replaced with the wimpy phrase “and so it has to be.” Then there are the words that just totally mean something different, like nomizō, which (according to Strong) means: “to own as settled and established; to deem,” but the conventional translation only says “thinks” or “believes.” I just don’t buy it. Then, there’s “marry as he wishes”? Really? The word thelō actually means “to exercise the will, properly by an unimpassioned operation; to be willing.” If we read it in the context of ancient Corinth (or at least as much as we know about that world) what we get is more like a picture of people trying to figure out how to change their ideas and attitudes so that they align better with the gospel.
This letter of Paul’s is not about sexual morality, it’s about figuring out how to apply values of accountability and self-regulation, and how to fit them into community life!
Paul describes a young man actually “owning up” to his behavior; who is trying to fit his values into a community context for the first time in his life. In that context, the boy sees that impulsive acts are not without consequences. Part of what he’s ‘owning up to’ is the understanding that actions include accountability…and not only that, that his actions in this case carry an implied promise. Sorry, but that is exactly what the Greek says. So, Paul is saying that it is absolutely not a bad thing to get married under those circumstances. He’s pointing out how responsibility and accountability work within the context of a community. He’s telling the Corinthians not to give the boy such a hard time for losing control of himself, but to give him some credit for the wholly new way the poor kid is learning to conduct himself; some acknowledgment of his willingness to be a responsible member of the community and stand by the community’s shared values. He’s saying, “Look, the kid owned up to what he did, acknowledged his obligations and willingly made good on his promise, so don’t keep on nagging him about it after he’s gotten married and made things as right as he could!”
And yes, I know, it leaves the poor “virgin” out of the reckoning altogether, but just remember— “Filters!” —The culture of the ancient Corinthian world simply did not have a concept of gender parity; it was the man who bore the brunt of responsibility, especially in the case of a woman with whom he had some sort of acknowledged relationship. The Greek says, “his virgin,” which may be as innocuous as “girlfriend,” or as official as “fiancée;” there’s no real way to tell.
Paul goes on to say that yes, they may be right that it’s better not to marry, and that someone who chooses to stay celibate does a good thing, but he draws the line at making the ones that do decide to get married into second class citizens. That is all that this is about— people making some kind of stuffy spiritual hierarchy based on their peculiar ideas about sexual morality! Paul unequivocally says, “No, don’t be doing that!” He also says, “Don’t make this about me!” He essentially tells them not to use him as the example. Idiomatically, what he says is, “I am saying this not to rope and hogtie you, (lit. throw a noose to seize you) but for the sake of decency and undistracted dedication to the Lord.”
To sum up, Paul is saying that, in spite of his opinions and ideas about it; in spite of the fact that he personally thinks that it’s better to be unmarried and live without the distraction of sex and the demands of a relationship; the community at Corinth is not to make a rule about it. He says that people who get married do well to get married, and whether he thinks that they would be better off if they didn’t is not pertinent. At the end of the letter Paul sort of sheepishly says, “But I think I too have the Spirit of God.” In other words, he’s not at all sure about recommending celibacy. He assumes— (dokeō, to think, imagine, suppose, presume) that it’s in line with God’s Spirit, but he’s not certain enough to recommend it across the board.
“8 He instructed them, “Take nothing for your trip except a walking stick — no bread, no pack, no money in your belt. 9 Wear shoes but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place;”
Here is an interesting thing— the gospel for today is one of the readings for the homily I am writing for my very first sermon, this coming July. I’m just going to post an excerpt from the draft.
“Now we come to the Gospel. To me, it’s all about trust and the lack of it. The story shows us, along with the disciples, exactly how to practice trust. First, it’s shocking to find out that Jesus is helpless against people’s lack of trust. The story says that he couldn’t do any wonderful things, because their skepticism got in the way. The people in his hometown thought they knew stuff! — stuff about Jesus; stuff about wisdom; stuff about families; stuff about who’s more important in the scheme of things. The things they thought they knew got in the way of the trust that they needed to have in order to do their part in making wonders happen. The text says that Jesus “was amazed at their lack of trust.”
But the really cool thing about this story is that it shows us how Jesus fixed the problem. He told his disciples exactly what to do to get trust to happen, and they did what he said. They went out to talk to people, and all they took was the clothes on their backs, the shoes on their feet, and a walking stick. Guess what? It worked!
Don’t think for a minute that this story is supposed to be taken literally. Think of the backpack, the extra clothes, and the wallet as representing things in our lives that we put between us and circumstances, to help us feel safe and in control. Those are the things that get in the way of trust. Jesus has it set up so if we follow his instructions, we’ll just have to figure things out as we go along. We’ll have to pay attention in the present moment. We’ll have to see and hear and smell what’s actually around us. When we travel (metaphorically) with nothing but a walking stick, the clothes on our back, and the shoes on our feet, then the people we meet will have to see us for who we really are, without any distractions, and we will have to see them in the same way. We simply won’t be able to afford to have assumptions and expectations; instead, we’ll have to step out into the freedom of trust. We’ll have to look for security in uncertainty; power in weakness; discernment in defenselessness. We’ll have to practice being trustworthy, as well as trusting, because it works both ways. Remember, Jesus needs to be able to trust us, as much as we need to be able to trust him. If not, nothing wonderful can happen.”
I’m not sure I can find a connection between the readings for today. The only thing I can come up with is that they show the difference between the certainty of utter trust in God, and the more tenuous guessing game of imagining, assuming, and presuming that we are acting in harmony with God’s Spirit.
It’s clear that Paul is not at all convinced, one way or the other, and this is made clear by how much time he spends giving either-or arguments to make sure that his readers know that he’s not speaking for God.
Maybe it is all about “just figuring it out as we go along.”