A matter of intimacy – Wednesday, 23rd Week in ordinary time – 1Corinthians 7:25-31

A matter of intimacy – Wednesday, 23rd Week in ordinary time – 1Corinthians 7:25-31

Clearly, there were ‘concerns’ (7:1,8:1,12:1 and 16:1) that the Corinthians had and Paul is responding to these concerns raised by Stephanas and his companions (16:17). Verses 1-40 of chapter seven deals broadly with matters relating to marriage and celibacy but in particular to marital obligations (1-7) the unmarried and widows (8-9) separation and divorce (10-16) and maintaining status quo within one’s state of life in the context of the Lord’s second coming (17-35).

In order to get to the text of today we need to cover some ground on the matters taken up by Paul in verse 1-24. Paul in chapter 5:9-10 had expressed his stern judgement on sexual immorality. Perhaps this along with the Gnostic thinking that prevailed at that time, led some to believe that avoidance of all sexual relations is the best way to prevent any form of sin. For Paul, celibacy is not a ‘spiritual ace’ that one can throw and win the game; it is a special gift of God that only some receive.

Paul clearly admits that he is the recipient of this gift. Reading this statement on Paul’s gift of celibacy, one should not assume that Paul was a bachelor. He could have been a widower considering that Acts 26:10 tells us that he was once a member of the 40 strong Sanhedrin and that only married men were eligible to be members of the Sanhedrin. For Paul, this gift of celibacy is an exception and not a rule and since it is an exception it cannot become the general principle for Christians. In that sense it should not be looked as at a prize to be won or a merit to be earned.

Paul clearly rejects the view that sexual relations within a marriage should be denied by any partner in that marriage, rather married couples should have the right to conjugal intimacy. This right is not merely for the asking of the husband but interesting also the asking of the wife; this at a time when the rights of women were practically non-existent and considering Paul’s other statements. Yet Paul permits the practice of continence or self -restraint (as some couples do in Lent) for spiritual reason. Yet, Paul is quick to state that this cannot be for prolonged periods as it brings temptation and may be dangerous to the spiritual life of the partners who may then be led into sexual immorality. Yet continence is not demanded from a couple but like celibacy, it is a gift.

Paul also has a word for the ‘unmarried’ (verse 8-9). The word unmarried is not be understood exclusively as spinsters but also to those once married and now separated from a spouse. To them too Paul holds the same principle as married couples in continence; it is better to marry than to burn with passion! Yet ironically, if you study Paul’s teaching, he is not recommending the opening up a chain of marriage bureaus nor is he waving a flag for marriage. Paul’s thinking goes something like this; Ideally it would be good to have the gift of celibacy and or live a life of continence and self-restrain. However, it is clear that all do not have that gift and in that case, it is better that one should be married than burn with passion and live a life of sexual immorality. We might look at it with humour but for Paul, marriage is an antidote to sexual immorality.

Also in this passage, Saint Paul has asserts that in a particular set of circumstances, a ratum et consummatum, (where a marriage has taken place and has been consummated) marriage can still be dissolved. He acknowledges right up front (“I say, not the Lord”) that this isn’t coming from God rather, it’s coming from Paul himself. According to Paul, the overall indissolubility of marriage has a loophole: if two unbaptized people are married, and one of them is subsequently baptized, the marriage can be ended if the other spouse both (a) remains unbaptized (note that Paul describes him/her as “unbelieving’) and (b) “desires to separate” from his/her spouse. This is called the ‘Pauline privilege.’But by and large Paul encourages that one partner’s life and Christian witness can bring about a transformation in the faith of the unbaptized partner drawing him or her to change.

Finally, we must remember that when Paul was writing to the Corinthians and he was convinced that the form of this world was passing away (verse 31) and that ‘the time has gown very short’ (7:29) before the second coming of the Lord. Paul was convinced that the end of the world was immanent and the Lord would come back soon to judge the living and the dead. Keeping this in mind we must read the text of today in which he urges his unmarried and married readers to be single minded, concentrating their interest on the affairs of the Lord, on which their lasting well-being depends rather than on relations which are short lived and fraught with tribulation.

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