The Lectionary This Week (Part 2): On Members, Flesh, and Prostitutes

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 2, 17 January 2014 (Year B)

  • 1 Samuel 3:1-20
  • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
  • John 1:43-51

I want to deal with the selection from 1 Corinthians separately this week because I’m not sure how related it is to the Gospel reading, and because I have something else I want to do with it.

Paul is busy in this week’s reading telling the troubled church at Corinth how to behave. This week, it’s Paul busily telling the Corinthians to honor their bodies — for their bodies were baptized (my interpretation) and made part of the Body of Christ — and not dishonor that baptism with “sexual immorality” (τῇ πορνείᾳ).

12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (ESV)

Again, for Paul this isn’t so much a matter of “against the law” as “not being helpful or useful.” Paul is concerned that this community live out self-giving love in their midst, and treat each other with some dignity and respect (the you here is plural, so he is speaking to the assembled community at this church in Corinth). Using each other sexually, being used sexually, is not a way “of becoming one flesh” that honors God, or their call to become one flesh as the body of Christ. Because there are two different kinds of bodies here — the incarnate, corporeal, fleshly bodies that we join to each other in the intimacy and intensity that is sex, and the incarnate and corporeal body of Christ that is the church. And these different kinds of bodies, these different kinds of mystical joinings, must honor each other.

Now, this said, I must confess here that I have a problem with Paul and his letters. Or rather, I have a problem with how Paul is used. He becomes a law-giver, and what he writes becomes the basis not only for the good order of the church, but also the world. So a passage like this is no longer about living out the gracious love of God, but about personal piety and behavior. It’s no longer relational (and this is especially a problem when that you becomes singular, so that Paul is no longer speaking to the church collected but rather to individual human beings). And thus, my righteousness becomes solely a matter of obeying the rules.

I really cannot read this passage without hearing God’s command to Hosea. And to be honest, I suspect the smarter Corinthians couldn’t either, and Paul probably understood that as well when we wrote (or dictated) these words.

And what did God order Hosea to do?

2 When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” 3 So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

4 And the Lord said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5 And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.”

6 She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the Lord said to him, “Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. 7 But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.”

8 When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. 9 And the Lord said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.” (Hosea 1:2-9 ESV)

And later, in Chapter 3, Hosea writes:

1 And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” 2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. 3 And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” 4 For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. 5 Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days. (ESV)

This notion of infidelity, and “whoring,” is a metaphor that crops up again and again to describe Israel’s idolatry and unfaithfulness to God. In fact, it’s put to a rather horrific effect in Ezekiel 16 and 23. But there are several places in scripture where God describes God’s-self as the put upon and betrayed husband whose beautiful young wife (or wives, in Ezekiel 23) abandon the old husband for the arms of many young lovers (some with great big genitals, as in Ezekiel 23:20) again and again and again.

In fact, if this marriage between God and Israel is the example of monogamous marriage, it’s a lousy marriage. God is something of a creepy pederast (read Ezekiel 16 and tell me I’m wrong) and an abusive spouse (sending Assyrians and Babylonians plunder, murder and rape in response — the implication that this violence is the consequence of whoring around) and Israel, well, Israel simply cannot stay of whatever bed she comes across, no thrill too extreme and no lust too depraved.

It’s the kind of thing you’d be likely to see on the Maury Povitch Show.

And yet, in this really horrific and very unsettling metaphor, in these commands to Hosea to take a whore for a wife, father children with her (even as she is unfaithful — in chapter 1, her faithfulness is not a precondition for the marriage), there is something of the promise of God, and the faithfulness of God, to God’s people. This may not describe the ideal marriage (God has told me many things, but I’m not sure I could do what Hosea did if that command came), but it does describe the relationship God has with God’s people (creepiness included — deal with God sometime). And it also describes a fair number of human relationships, married and otherwise.

And this is how Paul is redeemed for me. Yes, he is telling the church at Corinth not just to behave, but he does what the entirety of the teaching does — this is what it means the God loves us, and that we are called to love God and love each other. This is what faithfulness means.

This is where Paul gets misused. We look at these commands and say, “This is what it means to be church. If you don’t follow Paul’s teachings, you aren’t church.” Being the people of God is not a matter of being called and gathered by God, but of following the rules. And if we don’t follow the rules, we aren’t God’s people.

That’s not how it works. God would rather God’s people be as faithful to God as God is to the people (nowhere in all the graphic weirdness of Ezekiel 16 and 23 does God contemplate taking another wife in place of the beloved who has absconded to the beds of others, nor does God tell Hosea to leave his unfaithful wife for another), but the whole point of these passages is to show that God is faithful even as God’s people are not. We are still church even if we cannot follow the rules, cannot hold up our end of the covenant. We still belong to God even if we wander off. To satisfy our lusts and passions with others. There are consequences for unfaithfulness (and they are horrific in Ezekiel), as Paul I’m certain is trying to very gently suggest to the Corinthians when he tells them to flee sexual immorality.

But if Paul hears Hosea in his head as he writes this, or remembers Ezekiel, he knows that we’re still church, still the people God called to follow, even when we surrender to our basest longings, lusts and desires. This isn’t quite an ironic passage (and there are places where Paul is ironic), because he really wants the community at Corinth to behave itself. But this also isn’t personal piety, and isn’t about excluding people from the community either. Or punishing them when they misbehave.

It’s all about love. What it means to be loved by God, and to love each other as God loves us.

I’m not sure how I’d preach this. Unless I were at a congregation that knew me well, and understood who I was, I’d probably leave this alone, and focus on the gospel. But I’m really aching to preach this. Someday…