It is commonly assumed that first century religious thinkers such as St Paul believed in two Ages: the current Age which is rife with good, bad and ugly, and the Age-To-Come where everything is practically perfect in every way. In between the two comes the arrival of the Messiah who heralds in the latter Age, the first set to pass away.
The problem for Paul with the coming of Jesus as Messiah is that he is forced to acknowledge, not only a delayed start to the new age, but also a messy transition period where one Age shifts to another. This is what we call the now and not yet of the divine kingdom which is within and around, but will also not fully activate until Jesus returns in glory at some future point.
For the New Testament writers, this “future point” was felt to be imminent. This is perhaps why there is so much about keeping the faith, perseverance, and calming fears about believers dying before the Age-To-Come breaks through. The early Christians really believed Jesus was set to return any moment and make everything right.
Such an expectation brings us to 1 Corinthians 7.29-31 in which the Corinthian believers are compelled to radically rethink attitudes and action in light of the passing away of the current Age:
“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”
Coming in the middle of a chapter devoted to Corinthian concerns over sex, marriage and celibacy, in which Paul skates around from one possible solution to another, this passage might seem like a disclaimer: Don’t pull me down into all of this! There are bigger things going on here! And the appeal is to prepare oneself for the shifting of the Ages.
The extreme reversals in Paul’s appeal remind me of Matthew 5/Luke 6 where mourners will laugh and the hungry will be filled. And in, “let even those who have wives be as though they have had none” (7.29), there is also something of hyperbolic language used by Jesus when he says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).
The message is clear: the incoming Kingdom (which is here, but also coming soon) brings necessary change in action and attitude. The first coming of Jesus turned everything upside down; now get ready for his quick return. I get that the hyperbolic language is possibly intended to be understood in a general way rather than picking out particular issues. But nonetheless, the point of the argument is the need to radically change because “the present form of this world is passing away” (7.31).
What happens to the content of urgent appeals such as 1 Cor. 7.29-31 when the urgency has gone?
Today, people do not really subscribe to a Two Age system like that of the New Testament writers, but even if we do, the Age-To-Come is a very long time in coming. Two thousand-or-so years and counting. There seems little impetus for such radical change and absolute reversal of attitudes and actions in the absence of urgency.
This is not to dismiss the need for reflection and personal examination in the light of Christ’s coming. We are involved in an continual process of change; and I think our experiences both bad and good can shape us more than we realise towards the Kingdom life (if we are open to that change). However, if a call to even more radical change – which involves putting life-partners to one side, swallowing down mourning, and so on – is based upon the belief that time is short, I am not convinced it is very helpful when it seems clear that time is not particularly short at all.
Further, in a time of actual struggle such as everyone has experienced this past year, it feels somewhat offensive to read in the Bible that one’s Covid-related mourning should be “as though they were not mourning” and that one’s precious moments of rejoicing during another lockdown should be stolen away and treated “as though they were not rejoicing”.
Indeed, to read this Corinthians passage leads me to question the wisdom of Paul’s words which are, he admits, his opinion rather than a command of the Lord (7.25). For instance, if we are married or in long-term relationships, would refraining from “being anxious about the affairs of the world… to please [husband/wife/etc]” really bring about “unhindered devotion to the Lord” (7.32-35)? Or, instead, might committed union between individuals somehow reflect the real nature of God-with-us through the struggles of life? Especially just now when we really need to enact the divine nature of love, patience and compassion.
The kind of teaching in the Corinthians passage – at this point in time – feels irresponsible. Surely now – stuck as we are in the midst of real trials which range from the medical to mental health to economic to educational – is a time for teaching that mourning those we have lost is both important and healthy, not something to be pushed down due to a perceived more important cause; that finding moments of joy and laughter is absolutely necessary in times of stress; and that companionship is of vital importance as a reflection of the ways in which God is with us.
So, I simply do not know what to do with this Corinthians passage apart from challenge it and perhaps use it as inspiration to connect more deeply with those people around me and, by doing so, connect more closely with the Lord.