This Sunday’s second reading is drawn from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, a document filled with both uplifting teachings and advice which can be baffling to modern sensibilities. The passage we hear at mass might well fall into the latter category, since in it Paul urges his readers to think carefully as to whether they should imitate him and refrain from marrying.
Paul explains himself: “I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided” (1 Cor 7:32-34). He offers corresponding advice to Christian women who are not married, recommending that if they are able to remain independent, they should do so and not marry.
Given that Catholics were long associated with having large families and valuing the blessings of marriage it seems strange that a person no less than the Apostle Paul would counsel people not to marry. Paul’s reasoning, however, begins to make sense if we study the larger context from which today’s reading is taken.
Much of the seventh chapter of First Corinthians is occupied with matters of marriage and family life, areas where, to put it mildly, the Corinthians were struggling as they tried to reconcile their former ways of life with their new-found belief in Jesus. Paul’s over-arching point is that each believer should live the life the Lord has assigned to him or her. We should not compete with each other in the extremity of our self-denial, nor should we act haughtily because we are either married or unmarried, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or freeborn—all are equally precious in God’s eyes.
Going a step further and speaking practically, Paul found that his own celibate life made him more effective as a full-time missionary spreading the Christian Gospel across the breadth of the Roman Empire. At the same time, he realized that not everyone is called to that special vocation, and so most people will likely marry, as was the societal convention in his day. Provided that each believer was living the life to which the Lord called him or her, Paul was at peace.
Turning to the Gospel, we recall that Jesus himself lived a celibate life, one that enabled him to freely proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God and to give of himself entirely to each person who came to belief in him. While few may be called to that sort of life today, many folks from different walks of life recognize that Jesus’ detachment from any one particular person enabled him to welcome all people equally as sisters and brothers in the Lord.
Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian Christians took up subjects like celibacy which might strike modern readers, but which also cause us to reflect on how the Church in its earliest days wrestled with new questions and difficulties. Among these were the dual challenges of converting from former ways to Christian ways of living, and of placing all worldly concerns of social status, ethnic origins, wealth, and marriage in their proper place, subordinate to the believer’s faith in Christ and the bonds of mutual justice and charity which that faith requires.
May we honor Paul’s advice about being at peace with the life to which the Lord has called us, so that together with him we might serve as witnesses to Jesus who are united as sisters and brothers one and all in the living body of Christ.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.