Brothers and sisters: our time is growing short. Those who have wives should live as though they had none, and those who mourn should live as though they had nothing to mourn for; those who are enjoying life should live as though there were nothing to laugh about; those whose life is buying things should live as though they had nothing of their own; and those who have to deal with the world should not become engrossed in it. I say this because the world as we know it is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
If we just found out that we were going to die in the next few weeks or months, how would our life be affected? It’s fair to say that the way we would think and behave would alter dramatically.
The people St Paul wrote in Corinth, from which our Second Reading (above) is taken, believed that the end of their lives and of the world itself was imminent. Consequently, this affected how they lived and we need to be aware of this if we are to understand St Paul’s teaching.
He was addressing people in Corinth where he spent two years (50-52AD) preaching the Gospel and founding the Christian Church there. Later, when he had moved on to Ephesus in southern Turkey (54-57AD), he learned of rivalries and scandals that had broken out among the Corinthians. The leaders of the Church in Corinth submitted a number of questions to him about the problems they were experiencing and, in reply, Paul sent them two Letters – known as First and Second Corinthians.
Starting last Sunday and for another four Sundays after today, our Second Reading is from Paul’s First Letter. Today’s extract follows on from his answers on marriage and the single state. Contrary to popular perception, Paul acknowledged that marriage is good and that married people should love each other in the fullest possible way. However, he said that for his own part he would remain single.
In today’s Reading Paul answers specific questions about what is called ‘spiritual marriage’ i.e. marriages in which the partners commit themselves to a celibate way of life. He had been asked what he thought of this practice – was it necessary? – and in our Reading today his reply is given in the context of his belief that the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world was imminent. He assumed that the people he was writing to shared his view that their present lives were not going to last for too long. So how they live, he says, they must be determined by the expectation of the Lord’s coming.
One Biblical commentator summarises Paul’s advice thus: “Paul is not recommending that husbands should cease to love their wives, nor that they should put on a hypocritical show of sorrow or rejoicing, nor that they stop all commercial activity. His concern is to prepare them for the day when all these will change. He is asking for an attitude of detachment from the dear, familiar things which tend to absorb humanity. It is foolish to give too much importance to the impermanent.” (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, 1 Corinthians, p 73)
So how might we apply Paul’s advice to ourselves? Does his it have any practical relevance to our lives today? How might we respond to his ‘Our time is growing short’? Three things strike me:
- As Paul speaks of the need for detachment, we might ask how detached am I from all that I own? Albert Schweitzer once remarked: “If you own something and cannot give it away, you don’t own it – it owns you”. Am I an owner or a slave to what I own? Am I possessed by what I possess? Am I overly dependent on certain things or elements in my life? If so, what can I do now to let them go and be free? And if I find it hard to let go, do I accept that all that I have is a gift and, as best I can, that I must use it for the good of others as much as for myself?
- It is said that “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” Perhaps those plans I have for the future may never come to pass? How better would my life be if I started doing today what I have been putting off to tomorrow? Could I start living today as if tomorrow is my last?
- And when I die, will my loved ones and family know what my final wishes are? As a priest I’ve often had to help families who did not know if their loved one wanted to be buried or cremated; what kind of funeral they wanted; what hymns or Readings they liked etc. At what is already a very difficult time, families can even come to blows trying to settle these issues. Sometimes, they also have to deal with the nightmare of the deceased not having made a Will. So if you’ve not done so already, why not write out a few instructions for those who will have to arrange your funeral? Death (your own or someone else’s) is an unpleasant thing to have to think about but it will save a lot of trouble and heartache for the people left behind if you let them know what you want.
Holy Name, Jesmond
24 January 2021