St. Paul tries everything in Second Corinthians
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul had to rebuke them sharply for factionalism in their reception of the Gospel, for indulging their own appetites in preference to reverence for the Body of Christ, and for refusing to correct serious sinners in their midst. In the second letter to the same community, he tries nearly everything he can think of to induce them to make further spiritual progress. Once again, in fact, he has postponed visiting them in person, in the hope that he will not have to exercise a harsh judgment when he comes.
One of the oddest—and perhaps most human—features of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s alternation of praise and blame, commending them for the progress they have made, while warning them that they are still falling short of the demands of the Gospel. Paul employs one rhetorical technique after another to prompt change. But interspersed with these various commendations, accusations and exhortations, Paul also teaches a great lesson about the Christian life.
Tactics of Persuasion
Let’s take the tactics first:
In Chapter 1, Paul explains that he has postponed visiting them so it will not have to be a painful visit (one of rebuke and correction). Instead, he prefers to write to them, and in Chapter 2 his first injunction is that they forgive those whom they have punished in response to his earlier instructions. He explains why:
For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him…. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive…for your sake in the presence of Christ, to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us. [2:6-11]
Then in chapter 3 Paul begins to challenge them through a kind of flattery which also carries a certain sting. He says that those who preach the Gospel of Christ do not need to commend themselves as false preachers do, “for you yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (3:1-3).
A very rich teaching about the Christian life follows in the next chapters, to which I will return in my next subsection. But for the moment Paul is content to commend the community’s repentance:
I rejoice, not because you were grieved [by Paul’s previous letter], but because you were grieved into repenting, for you felt a godly grief…[which]…produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret…. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! [7:9-11]
Later, in chapters 8 and 9, Paul changes his approach to make a lengthy appeal for his readers’ generosity in a collection to be taken up for the needy of other churches (Catholic communities). I always smile as I read this section because it so obviously designed rhetorically—without any falsehood whatsoever—to shame them into being generous. Since I am constrained by my own calling to raise funds frequently for what I believe to be the good of the Church, perhaps I should not call attention to what some might denigrate as tricks of the trade. But those who need a lesson in prompting a materially generous holiness will find it in this appeal by St. Paul!
So we have moved from commendation to exhortation. But next Paul turns the tables and addresses the ways in which the Catholic community at Corinth still falls short. In chapters 10 and 11, he renews one of the themes of his first letter: The factionalism of the Corinthians, with various preachers and their followers competing to be recognized as in possession of the greatest authority and grace. But Paul insists “it is not the man who commends himself that is accepted, but the man whom the Lord commends” (10:18).
Thus begins the very famous passage in which St. Paul asks them to bear with his “foolishness” as he insists on his apostolic authority, his power, his commitment, his achievements, and his suffering for Christ. He clearly feels compelled to write in this way so as to demonstrate to his readers that he can put forth this sort of claim far more than any who lead the various Corinthian factions. The reason he speaks so foolishly (as he states) is that he has bent over backwards to avoid placing any financial burden upon them precisely so that they would not be tempted to follow false teachers:
And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. [11:12-15]
Paul then continues his “foolishness”, boasting of his sufferings and even of his visions and revelations (chapter 12). But he brings this section to a masterful close by pointing out that he is really very weak, that he begged Christ to remove a “thorn in my flesh”, but that Christ said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). Therefore, Paul is content with weakness, “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10). Thus he concludes:
I have been a fool! You forced me to it…. For I am not at all inferior to these superlative apostles, even though I am nothing…. Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. For I fear that perhaps I may come and find you not what I wish…; that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder…and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned before and have not repented of the impurity, immorality, and licentiousness which they have practiced. [cf. 12:11-21 entire]
On the Christian life: In earthen vessels
I mentioned that this alternating praise and blame of the Corinthians pivots around an important teaching of St. Paul on the nature of the Christian life. In chapters 3 through 7, Paul explains the liberating power of Christ, in whom the veil of Moses has been removed so that we might see and be made worthy to receive the glory of God. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (3:18).
So now the gospel is veiled only to those who are perishing, who have been blinded by “the god of this world” (4:3-5). Clearly, this teaching has a strong connection with his rebuke of the Corinthians and their factional attraction to puffed up preachers who lead them astray: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (4:5). But the central teaching is even more universal, applying to all of us. It is this: “[W]e have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7). Thus:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. [4:7-11]
In this light, it is easy to see why St. Paul abhors the factionalism stirred up by false apostles in Corinth, or by followers who claim more for their leaders than their leaders would wish. In chapter 5, Paul develops this theme, explaining that while we are in the body we are not exalted but long to be at home with Christ:
Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked…. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil according to what he has done in the body. [5:1-10]
Finally, Paul connects this to his rebukes, explaining that he writes in this way so the Corinthians “will be able to answer those who pride themselves on a man’s position and not on his heart” (5:12). He concludes:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh…. [I]f any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. [5:16-21]
The main spiritual point of the letter, which transcends Paul’s consideration of the particular faults of the Corinthians, is made right at the end of this central Christian teaching. It applies equally to every reader today: “Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return—I speak as to children—widen your hearts also” (6:11-13).
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