Reflecting on I Corinthians for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on I Corinthians 3:16-23

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[C]oncluding that no one should boast about human beings (the different ministers), he suddenly adds his own theological insight: Everything belongs to you, he begins, applying this first to the ministers, Paul or Apollos or Cephas. The Apostle here reverses the logic of the Corinthians. They had said that they belong to one or the other minister, as if that gives them their identity, their importance. Not so, says Paul. The ministers belong to you—all of them. The ministers belong to the people, not the people to the ministers. The ministers are servants, not captains of competitive teams. And they are servants of everyone.

That is clear enough. But Paul had said everything, not everyone belongs to you. And now he goes on to list those things as the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you. What does he mean by this, and what does this have to do with the problem of rivalries? When one feels the need to boost one’s ego, one grasps at things that will give one the sense of importance, such as whose coattails do I claim to ride on?

But Paul senses that the grasping for identification with one leader over another is symptomatic of a much deeper human compulsion to possess, to pad one’s security with ownership of things, even of persons like Paul, Apollos, and Peter. Paul wants to convince his people that belonging to Christ has set them free from those compulsions if they will but claim that belonging. This is similar to Jesus’ teaching that those who seek first the kingdom of God will attain everything else besides (Matt 6:33).

© 2011 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on I Corinthians for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on I Corinthians 2:6-10

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Paul insists on the basic and incompatible difference of this wisdom from a wisdom of this age and that of the rulers of this age. In the light of verse 8, the rulers of this age are those who crucified Jesus, the leaders of both the Jews and the pagans, conceived here as instruments of Satan, the “prince of this world” (John 12:31 NIV). Worldly wisdom, in the light of what God has done, has proved itself bankrupt.

This explains the emphatic position of the word “God” in the next verse—God’s wisdom, not man’s, is what we speak. And God’s wisdom is now no longer to be read merely in the open book of creation; his mysterious wisdom has now become accessible. The word “mystery,” derived from a word meaning “to close,” particularly in the sense of closing the lips, means something secret, or as our text specifies, hidden. This wisdom, as Chrysostom observed, is called a mystery and hidden not because it is now secret but because it can be known only by the revelation God has made (Luke 8:10; Col 1:26–27), because it is attainable only through faith and is beyond all expectation (1 Cor 15:51).

Paul uses mysterion not in the Greek sense, in which the mystery is attainable only by the select few, but in the Jewish sense, in which the mystery is God’s plan for his people, his secret counsel, to which the prophets are given access and which they communicate to his people. In calling Christ the mystery, Paul gives the word a meaning far removed from Greek esoteric practice, for it is something to be shared with the entire world. Yet as Chrysostom likewise observed, “Though everywhere preached, it is still a mystery,” for it exceeds the dimensions of human thought.

Hence Paul will later describe the mystery in terms of richness and plenitude, as the source of endless growth in knowledge on the part of the believer (Eph 3:18–19; Col 1:26–27; 2:2–3). To speak this wisdom is to share a Spirit-inspired insight into the faith, something of which every faith-filled Christian should be capable.

© 2011 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on I Corinthians for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on I Corinthians 2:1-5

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The same divine paradox, shown in the content of the preaching (1:18–25) and in the social position of the hearers (1:26–31), applies equally well to the preacher from whom they first heard the good news. This good news did not demand but rather forbade pretentious speech and this-worldly wisdom, because the gospel has no need of it, any more than a golden statue would need to be decorated with crepe paper. As the mystery of God (2:1), it bears its own power.

In our language “mystery” often means something unsolved. In Paul’s day the Greek word was often used in referring to the “mystery religions,” which kept their rituals secret, and thus it bore the notion of secrecy. For Paul, the gospel is the secret of God’s heart, but it is a secret now revealed and proclaimed by the Apostle.

In saying I resolved, it appears that Paul made a conscious decision to avoid the “continuity” method of introducing the gospel and went unabashedly for “discontinuity”—an emphasis on how the cross is different from mere human expectations, reasoning, and posturing. Paul has called the cross a stumbling block, or scandal (1:23). That scandal was Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

While this repeats the content of the message already discussed above, the emphasis here is on Paul’s decision to know nothing else among them. The Corinthians did not need more rhetorical bells and whistles, and Paul would not entertain them with such. He will later speak about knowing the risen Christ (15:8) and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3:10). But the Risen One is also the Crucified One.

© 2011 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on I Corinthians for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on I Corinthians 1:10-13, 17

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This party spirit involves an absurdity, and Paul uses ironic rhetorical questions to expose it. Is Christ divided? Is Christ cut into pieces, so that each of the four persons would have a part? Or perhaps better, is Christ divided against himself?

Was Paul crucified for you? Here is one of the earliest written affirmations, though indirect, of the saving power of Christ’s death for those who accept it. In Rom 3:22–25, Paul will speak of the shedding of Christ’s blood as an atonement for sin, as Matthew will later report Jesus’ having said at the Last Supper: “This is [the cup of] my blood of the covenant, which will be on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). Paul had surely preached this to the Corinthians, but their championing of different leaders, including Paul, seems to make saviors of those who are only instruments of Christ.

Were you baptized in the name of Paul? further skewers the absurdity. Christians were not baptized in the name of the preacher or the baptizer. The Greek says literally baptized “unto the name.” Papyrus documents from this period use this expression to mark the transfer of purchased goods from one person to another. Ascribed to the new name, the goods become the property of the new owner. For Paul, that is what baptism does: it signifies that the person is now the property of Jesus Christ. In this case the transfer of ownership is a consecration. In the Old Testament, invoking the divine name on the people means that God has set them apart as his own, thus making them holy (Deut 28:9–10; Isa 63:19; Jer 7:10; 14:9). Thus baptism “into the name” of Jesus (also used in Acts 8:16; 19:5) is a consecration of the person to God in Jesus Christ.

© 2011 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on I Corinthians for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on I Corinthians 1:1-3:

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The addressee is not an individual but a community, the church of God… in Corinth. Though the letter was apparently delivered by Timothy (1 Cor 4:17), who probably read it to the community, offering his own comments to explain when necessary, the absence of a leader-addressee indicates that Paul still feels so close to the community he founded that he can address them directly, though we may assume there were local leaders (16:15–16; 1 Thess 5:12–13).He is himself the authority without equal but also one who has an unparalleled affection for his spiritual children (1 Cor 4:15).

By this time, if the number of converts has grown beyond the capacity of one house, which is likely, there would be more than one house church in Corinth (1:11), each no doubt having some kind of coordinator. Yet it is significant that he does not speak of churches in the plural but only of a singular church in Corinth—a precursor of dioceses with multiple parishes.

If “church” here refers to the sum of house churches, it is easy to see how it could be applied to the one Church universal, as it so clearly is in the letter to the Ephesians. Thus in the desert narrative of the Old Testament, the “assembly of the Lord” includes all the tribes gathered as one. There the Israelites were the people the Lord called out of Egypt to be his own. So God has called the Christians out of the world to a saving union with Christ (1 Cor 1:9). Calling the community the “church of God” links the Corinthian church with the Jewish Christian churches of God in Judea (1 Thess 2:14), as well as those of Galatia, Asia, and Macedonia. Already in this title “church,” Paul is inviting them to think beyond their personal interests.

© 2011 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on II Timothy for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First and Second Timothy, Titus by George T. Montague, commenting on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

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What exactly does Paul mean in saying I have kept the faith? The word “faith” (pistis) has so many different meanings in the Bible and even in Paul that it is not easy to decide which meaning is intended. The parallelism with the preceding two phrases and the overall tone of the Pastorals might suggest that he has kept the deposit of the faith and handed it on faithfully (2 Tim 2:2), hence “the faith” in its objective sense. This is what he has urged Timothy to do (1 Tim 6:20); thus Paul would again be pointing to his own example.

However, Timothy surely knows that. Hence it may be preferable to understand the phrase in the sense “I have kept my pledge to the end,” “I have been faithful to my baptismal commitment,” or some equivalent. This would correspond to the widespread use of pistis in the Hellenistic world for fidelity to an oath or for trustworthiness. Josephus uses the word for marital fidelity. It was also the supreme virtue of the soldier, bound by sacred oath (sacramentum) to the emperor. So highly was it held in esteem in Rome that a temple was erected to the goddess Faith (Pistis): Numa “was the first to build temples to Faith . . . and he taught the Romans their most solemn oath by Faith, which they still continue to use.”

Of the three marks of triumph, Paul puts fidelity as the climax. In the Greek there is a beautiful rhetorical flourish in the similar sounding verbs teteleka (“I have finished”) and tetereka (“I have kept”). As Jesus having “loved his own in the world . . . loved them to the end” (John 13:1), so Paul has been faithful to the end.

© 2008 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on II Timothy for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First and Second Timothy, Titus by George T. Montague, commenting on 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2

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Back to Timothy, continuing the exhortation of 3:10: he is not to be shaken by any novel teaching but to hold firm to the faith and teaching he once learned. The †aorist tense of the verbs learned and believed refers to a past moment rather than a progressive growth, hence, the moment of his public profession of faith.

Though Timothy’s faith, like that of every Christian, was a grace given by God, there were human instruments of the learning. Although Paul certainly formed Timothy more deeply in the faith, filling out his instruction (1 Thess 3:10), it was not from the apostle that he first learned the faith. Already from infancy he has known the sacred scriptures (literally “the holy letters”).

Instead of using the normal term graphē for the Scripture, Paul here uses grammata, meaning literally “letters of the alphabet.” Ceslas Spicq notes that this is a beautiful way of speaking of how a child learns to read—first learning the letters. Of course, by extension, the word means the sacred Scriptures (John 5:47). These were the Jewish Scriptures, which Timothy’s mother may have taught him before she became a Christian. These Scriptures become sources of saving wisdom when one accepts them as fulfilled in Christ Jesus.

© 2008 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on II Timothy for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First and Second Timothy, Titus by George T. Montague, commenting on 2 Timothy 2:8-13

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If for the Christian, dying with Christ is past (the baptismal understanding of this death is obvious from the past tense: “we have died”) and the resurrection is future, what is the present life? To persevere or “endure.” It is the characteristic of love to endure all things (1 Cor 13:7).

The virtue of endurance (hypomone) appears in the noun form fifteen times in the Pauline letters and here in the verb form. The Church soon found out that those who receive the word do not always persevere. A momentary spiritual thrill may quickly fade, like the seed that falls by the wayside or onto rocks or into weeds. Only the persevering bear fruit for eternal life (Luke 8:15). It is this virtue, born of supernatural hope (1 Thess 1:3), that enables Christians, like Paul, to bear contradictions, trials, and weaknesses (1 Cor 4:9–13; 2 Cor 6:4), because they do so in union with Christ (1:5; Col 1:24) and in the assurance of the divine promise: we shall . . .reign with him.

But Paul is aware that defection and desertion are possible: but if we deny him. In fact, he has experienced both recently, as the two letters to Timothy attest. He is not thinking in particular, however, of the judgment that may fall on his betrayers (2 Tim 4:14); rather he is thinking of the unspeakable disaster that would befall any disciple who would deny the Lord: he will deny us.

It is the same warning expressed in Matt 10:33: “Whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” Given the contrast here with perseverance, the meaning is probably not so much a malicious denial as a sin of cowardice, the kind of weakness Peter showed in denying his Lord. Though the early Church hesitated for some time about reconciling those who repented of their denial of Christ during persecution, at length she came to the conclusion that she could do no less than her Master had done for Peter: to forgive and reconcile. The denial by the Lord here, then, must fall only on those  persist in their obstinacy and never repent. It is a terrible thing to hear from the Lord, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matt 25:12).

© 2008 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on II Timothy for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First and Second Timothy, Titus by George T. Montague, commenting on 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14

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If there was any doubt about the meaning of “what has been entrusted to me” in 1:12, it is removed by this passage, which clearly speaks of Paul’s teaching as the trust, now confided to Timothy. Timothy must follow the norm (hypotypōsis) set by the teaching of Paul, his very words. The Greek word is sometimes used for the architect’s plan for a building, the pattern for a cloak, the outline of a speech, the first sketch of a painting.

On the one hand, Paul’s words set the direction for Timothy’s teachings, but, on the other, he is not expected simply to mouth the phrases of his mentor. He is to fill them out, using his judgment as to how these words apply to situations unforeseen by Paul. This is a magnificent image for a dynamic tradition.

The same dynamic is at work in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. Jesus did not tell his disciples to parrot his words without concern for changing circumstances. His disciples were to convey his message as a seed meant to grow and bear fruit in whatever soil it was planted (Mark 4:14–20), bringing greater understanding and development. As Vatican Council II put it, traditio proficit, crescit perceptio: “The tradition . . . develops. . . . There is a growth in the understanding” (Dei Verbum 8).

© 2008 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on I Timothy for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First and Second Timothy, Titus by George T. Montague, commenting on 1 Timothy 6:11-16

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In affirming that God alone has immortality Paul is not thinking of the angels here or the glorified body of Christians (1 Cor 15:53–54) but of the pretenses of emperors to what God alone possesses.

Despite their humanness, emperors like Tiberius and Caligula were held to be immortal. Already in the Old Testament, light is one of the things most associated with divinity. God creates light and in that light creates everything else (Gen 1:3). Light dwells with him (Dan 2:22). He robes himself with light (Ps 104:2). He is light (1 John 1:5) and the Father of lights (James 1:17). This light makes him unapproachable to the human eye, like a mountain that cannot be scaled: “no man sees me and still lives” (Exod 33:20); “none can see him, however wise their hearts” (Job 37:24); “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18).

The New Testament holds out the assurance that the faithful in the future life will enjoy the light of God (Rev 22:5) because they will see him face to face; but in this life even they see darkly and imperfectly (1 Cor 13:12). This is quite a contrast to the mortal emperors frequently shown with rays of light shining from their heads. The finale acclaims the one to whom all honor and eternal power belong.

© 2008 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.