The Social Upheaval of the Kingdom

Recently, I started rereading Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. It’s been a long time since I have read Paul, and the last time I really read him, I spiritualized him. By that, I mean that I made Paul’s words the words of an Anglo-Saxon Puritan. Coming from a Protestant (Reformed) background, it is really easy to see Paul’s talk of election in the meaning Calvinists give to it, and it is easy to see Paul as some modern German theologian in the tradition of Martin Luther. I was easily able to look at the material, political, and societal implications of Jesus’ teachings, but Paul was harder for me, due to that connection with Reformed Protestantism.

Going into First Corinthians anew, I learned that Paul’s epistle was written to a very special community of believers. Corinth was a deeply Roman and deeply cosmopolitan city. It was really the entire Greco-Roman world present in one place. This means that the Corinthian church was diverse, and part of that diversity involved Paul having converted both rich and poor, elite and common. The division of rich and poor in the Corinthian church was one of the reasons Paul wrote the letter. For example, in 11:17-34 we see Paul rebuking those were were treating the poor unfairly in communion. A passage that is particularly important in discussion these class relationships is 1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5:

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. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

From this passage, we learn a lot about Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church and the class tensions within it. We learn that Paul mostly baptized the common people, and the wealthy and formally educated were a minority (“not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth”). We also learn that God chose the unwise, uneducated, the poor, and the despised. In Paul’s discussion with the Christian community in Corinth, there is a radical social upheaval.

Paul’s reversal of traditional class roles reminds me of other places in the New Testament as well. Consider the traditional “blessings and woes” in Luke’s Gospel:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:20-26, compare Matthew 5:3-12)

In this sermon, Jesus shows the Kingdom to be in contrast to how things are traditionally done in the world. Where the rich, joyful, and prosperous are praised now, in the Kingdom things are different–the poor, hungry, and sorrowful inherit eternal life. The Kingdom twists things around so that God is on the side of the underdog.

What is also interesting is Paul’s discussion about the foolishness and wisdom of the Gospel, which is similarly reversed. Paul states, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” and “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom.” Part of the elite who Paul dealt with in the Corinthian church were scribes and philosophers. They were the members of the church who had prestigious educations. Paul specifically mentions them earlier in the chapter:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:20)

According to Paul, their educations lose their power in the Spirit, which has chosen the despised rather than the admired, and this is part of a larger tradition that emerges from Jesus himself.

In the Gospel of Matthew, there are a couple instances of Jesus’ identification with the common people rather than the academics. In Matthew 11:25, Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Similarly, in Matthew 13:54-58, Jesus is preaching in the synagogue of his hometown, and the people are amazed because he is the carpenter’s son. Really, the constant struggle between Jesus and his band of hooligans and the Pharisees and Sadducees shows this. Jesus and his followers are shown as being in theological and social struggle with the established clerics of the day.

Part of that struggle continued after Christ’s death, with Peter and John before the council (Acts 4). Peter and John stand before the local religious authorities proclaiming their faith, and one of the comments the author includes is very interesting. According to the author of Acts, the religious leaders think to themselves, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Here, a similar contrast is made between the common men who were identified with Christ and the elite.

I think this New Testament theme means a lot to how we practice Christianity. Rather than some form of charity where the privileged give scraps to the disadvantaged, we see a type of model of solidarity and equality, especially in Paul’s discussion about communion. In regards to Christian education and ministry, we find an approach that takes into account the “uneducated and ordinary” people. Illiterate fishermen like Peter were given special leadership roles in the church, as were scholarly clerics like Paul (which is partly why I think seminaries need to be detached from the traditional academic system). There is a case to be made for an equality in the church’s voice, where both the poor and the rich, the educated and uneducated, stand as brothers and sisters.

In the Kingdom, the rich are brought down, and the poor are raised up. The academicians are made foolish and the foolish are made wise. This reversal of worldly roles is something that is intimately part of Jesus and Paul’s preaching, and it should be part of the counter-cultural example of the church. I am reminded of how Francis of Assisi and Peter Waldo, both wealthy businessman, gave up that wealth to live in solidarity with the poor. That is what the Kingdom looks like. In a similar fashion, great religious scholars like Paul became fools for Christ. This is what happens when we encounter the Kingdom, and the way we practice as the church should reflect this.

Cross-posted from Koinoinia Revolution.