Saturday, January 12, 2008

II Corinthians 10

II Corinthians 10:1-17: With 10:1 the reader encounters such an abrupt change of both subject and mood that it is difficult to understand chapters 10-13 as originally part of the same letter as chapters 1-9. (Peoples New Testament Commentary) The tone changes so abruptly here that it is difficult to imagine that the same letter goes on. After priming his audience to be financially generous in the previous two chapters, Paul now assumes a truculent and defensive stance. Many commentators think that these four chapters contain the difficult, or painful, letter to which Paul alludes earlier, written after the painful confrontation had occurred. That makes the best sense out of these chapters. Here Paul’s back is against the wall, and he is fighting for his credibility and honor. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

The subject is the legitimacy of Paul’s apostleship, which is rejected by traveling missionaries who have come to Corinth claiming that they are the authentic apostles who the church should heed. Paul’s response is bitter and sarcastic. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Paul’s integrity, credibility and ministry have come into question. We can only surmise what some of the issues are through hearing Paul’s response to them. If Paul is fighting for his credibility and integrity, does his tone suggest that we, too, should or could be sarcastic and bitter if we are in similar situations? I don’t think that would be the lesson to draw, here. What we may be able to learn is something of the nature of ministry and leadership in the church. Even good leadership can be opposed, and spiritual leaders should be prepared for this. Edwin Friedman, a rabbi who wrote insightfully about leadership, used to say “No good deed goes unpunished.” Anytime change occurs, it will have its difficult side, and some will be opposed.

Paul may have been accused of being two different people, one more gentle and humble in person, but capable of writing strong letters when away. Paul claims that he tries to model his life on the meekness and gentleness of Christ, but that will not stop him from using some very strong language in the upcoming verses. He appeals to a common standard for the mutual interaction between he and the Corinthians, the meekness and gentleness of Christ.

Paul was also being accused of not being “spiritual enough,” of acting according to human standards. The Message makes the accusation one of being “an unprincipled opportunist.” The Corinthian Christians were enthralled by spectacular spiritual gifts, and thought Paul too mild, too ordinary, too unspectacular. He never accepted money for his teaching, but did ask them to give generously for an offering to be taken elsewhere. Paul responds that all need to live in the world. His notion of Christian spirituality apparently is that it needs to be lived out in the daily realities of life, by showing love in community, and not simply by the display of extraordinary spiritual gifts. Nevertheless, to try and live in such a way is to battle against spiritual forces, to fight against a “massively corrupt culture” (The Message). When we think about the kinds of things that get in the way of living the Christian life in our day and time, we can think of “spiritual” principles and ideas that seem to get in the way – the idea that the purpose of life is to look out for number one, the idea that the one who dies with the most toys wins, the principle that life is to be measured by dollars and possessions, our obsession with sports metaphors as a way to understand all of life. In his time, Paul was willing to stand against spiritualities that did not foster love in community. He sought to fit “every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ” (The Message).

Verse 6 is a challenging one, with its language of punishment – what does Paul mean? Paul may be saying that when the Corinthian community finally comes around, he will be ready to work with them to exclude those who continue to oppose the direction of his ministry. The Cotton Patch Version says, “We stand ready to give disobedience a fit.” Perhaps Paul is simply trying to say that when things are set right, those who want to remain focused on spectacular spiritual gifts, even when they tear apart the community, will find themselves excluded by their own actions and behaviors. The Message renders verse 6: “Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.” Maybe that’s Paul’s focus, building maturity. This does raise the issue of the limits of tolerance in the Christian community. Our goal should always be inclusivity, compassion, warm acceptance, gentle embrace, but sometimes the church needs to set limits and boundaries. When a congregation has addressed an issue thoughtfully and fully, how much space do we give to those who continue to use the issues to raise a fuss? For instance, a church might decide to change their worship schedule, and one person constantly raises the issue in every forum and in very negative ways. Should the church put some limits on that person? If a person consistently takes advantage of the good nature and generosity of church members, should limits be placed on that persons interaction within the congregation? For the common good, limits and boundaries are sometimes needed, though great care needs to be taken whenever such limits are set.

Some challenged Paul’s very relationship to Christ, but he will not take a back seat to anyone on this count. “I am quite sure of my standing with Christ” (The Message). Some thought Paul appealed too much to his authority as an apostle to this congregation. Paul reminds them that his work has been the work of building them up and not tearing them down – he appeals for them to look once again at his work among them. Some pointed to the language of Paul’s letters and said that he was just trying to frighten the church, and they noted a contrast between his strong letters and his weaknesses in speech and presence. Apparently Paul was not a physically commanding person, nor, perhaps, was he a dynamic speaker. Nevertheless, Paul will be as strong as he needs to be in person in order to deal with the difficult issues at hand. He argues for his consistency and integrity.

In verse 12, there may be a note of sarcasm when Paul says he does not “dare” to compare himself to some of these troublemaking teachers. Their own comparisons between themselves do not really fit with Paul’s understanding of good sense and good ministry. Paul won’t play that game, but there is an underlying sense that if he did, he just might win.

Paul is willing to discuss his work, and believes he has followed his calling appropriately. He was the first one to reach out to the Corinthians with the Christian message of faith, with the good news of Christ. He has continued to work with this group of people, unlike some of his critics who are willing to move into territory where Paul has already done the work of establishing a Christian community. Paul says that he will not meddle in other Christian communities, and is disappointed that some have come along and messed with this community in Corinth. Paul’s hope is that things in Corinth will settle down enough (that their faith will be strong enough) so that he can, with their blessing and encouragement move on into other uncharted territories.

Paul’s final appeal in this chapter is to God. It is not simply what persons say about themselves that matters, but how consistently they live within God’s purposes for their lives.

II Corinthians 11:1-15: Paul’s tone again becomes somewhat sarcastic and caustic. Some have accused him of foolishness, of not being spiritually sophisticated enough, so he takes that pose and offers a “fool’s speech” about his work. The hidden message is that the kind of comparison he feels he needs to do here is the real foolishness, brought on by troublemaking spiritual teachers who have come along and created problems within the Corinthian community.

Paul says that he has promised this Christian community to Christ, like a bride for a husband. He is like a father “giving away” his daughter in marriage. So Paul feels a deep concern for them – “the passion of God burning inside me” (The Message). He is concerned that another suitor will come along and deceive the church, and he compares this to the role of the serpent in the Genesis story who leads Eve and Adam astray. He is concerned about people coming and proclaiming “another Jesus, a different spirit, a different gospel.” While there is a theological disagreement here that goes beyond what Paul considers acceptable, I am inclined to think that this is much more than theological. Paul himself uses a variety of images in trying to understand how God acted in Jesus as the Christ. The New Testament offers a variety of images for how God acted and acts in Jesus as the Christ. We will have theological differences in the church and need to be careful that we don’t quickly label those who differ from us as proclaiming “another Jesus.” I am inclined to think that proclaiming another Jesus is not just having a different theology, but having the kind of different theology that leads to a very different understanding of the meaning of living the Christian life. Knowing what we know about the Corinthians, perhaps the kind of teaching Paul is concerned about is a theology that leads to an elitist, spiritual Christianity, one where a few dominate by their spiritual superiority, evidenced by spectacular spiritual gifts. The Christian faith is not infinitely elastic. Not everything done in the name of Christ is as legitimately Christian as everything else. The Christianity of the Ku Klux Klan is not Christianity.

Some people apparently have come with a “different Jesus” and a “different gospel,” and the Corinthians have bought into it. But Paul asserts that he is not inferior to these new teachers, these “super-apostles.” While they may be more eloquent than Paul, he argues that they are no more wise. They apparently charged for their spiritual wisdom. Was Paul any less wise because he shared without price? Paul was being supported by other churches so that he could do his work in Corinth. That he did not receive financial support directly from the Corinthians was not in keeping with the social customs of the day, but Paul felt he needed to take that risk and make his own way financially. He seems deeply frustrated that they would hold this against him. Yet, he proclaims his on-going love for them, though some have accused him of being unloving.

Paul pulls no punches in the following verses, declaring the “super apostles” who have opposed him to be false, and deceitful. It is likely that these other teachers charged Paul with the same thing. He compares their deception with the ability of Satan (the personification of all that goes against God and God’s purposes) to appear as “an angel of light.” This is not the kind of language we would want to appeal to today, or at least only in the most unusual circumstances. “The language is severe. Later Christians should be extremely hesitant to imitate it.” (People’s New Testament Commentary). At the same time, the principle is valid, evil often masquerades as good. Adolf Hitler claimed to bring strength and pride back to the German people. Jim Jones claimed to establish a non-racial Christian utopia in South America. Joseph Stalin claimed to be following the equalitarian teachings of Karl Marx in leading the Soviet Union.

II Corinthians 11:16-33: Paul continues his strategy of offering the boast of fools, and makes some very sarcastic remarks about the Corinthians ability to take in “fools.” They are so wise as to follow spiritual teachers who make them slaves, who prey upon them, who slap them in the face. Paul has been too foolish and weak for this!

So Paul’s foolish boastful speech continues, and in it we find out a few things about Paul. In finding out about Paul, we seem to find out about the claims of some of his opponents. He is a Hebrew, and Israelite, a descendant of Abraham. He is a minister of Christ, and a better one (speaking as a fool he can say this!). But what does Paul bring for evidence that he is a better minister of Christ? He offers a list of difficulties and sufferings. For Paul, his suffering for his ministry is like the suffering of Christ himself. He is not above such earthy realities, perhaps unlike the super apostles who perhaps pointed out this resume of Paul’s as something that made his suspect. Paul’s response is to say, “If suffering makes me suspect, remember that Jesus suffered.” Suffering by itself should not be seen as a validation of ministry. Sometimes people bring some suffering on themselves by their obnoxiousness or by their unwillingness to improve performance in ministry. But when one has given one’s best in ministry for Christ, one may still experience hardship. Paul takes the hardship and anxiety of the churches into his own life.

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