1 Corinthians 1:20-31
In the next section (1:20-25), Paul goes on to ask about those whom the world values for their knowledge and their cleverness with words. “Where is the one who is wise? The scribe? The debater of this age?” They haven’t come any closer to understanding the mysteries of the world through their intelligence! In God’s estimation, the wisdom of the world is foolish, because the wisdom of the world failed to bring people closer to knowing God. And since people got no closer to knowing God through the world’s wisdom, God decided to use the inherently foolish Christian proclamation to bring about salvation. Paul explains that we foolishly proclaim Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” We might ask, what exactly is foolish about the Christian proclamation of Christ crucified? Keep in mind that since Christ was the manifestation of God’s presence on earth, the proclamation of Christ crucified is actually the proclamation that God has been crucified. For Jews and Gentiles (meaning everyone, since everyone in the first-century world was either a Jew or a Gentile), this is a fundamentally absurd assertion. How on earth could God be crucified? Paul answers this quandary later in the letter, but for now it is important to realize that Paul’s fundamental assumption is that God has changed the very nature of the world through the Cross of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Paul insists that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Why on earth would God do this? After reminding the Corinthians that very few of them were wise by their own human standards, he notes that God chose what is weak in the world in order to shame those who are strong. God’s goal is not simply to cause embarrassment for the “strong”; rather, Paul suggests that God has shamed the strong in order to put everyone on an equal playing field. God does not want anyone to have cause for boasting, and so God chose what was foolish and weak in this world in order to make sure that those who are “strong” in this world realize that their strength is nothing compared with the power of God. Since God is the source of everyone’s life in Christ, the only way a person can legitimately boast is by boasting in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
“The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.”
“Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” — C.S. Lewis
Throughout Paul’s letters, he is very careful to warn against boasting. Boasting, in Paul’s view, is a fundamentally idolatrous activity; those who boast put themselves in God’s place and fail to acknowledge that they are dependent on God for their life and salvation. C.S. Lewis also observes the destructiveness of boasting and its parent, Pride. I think that most of us can theoretically agree with Paul and C.S. Lewis that boasting is problematic and that being prideful is a self-destructive enterprise. And yet, Pride is rampant in our culture today. We live in a society that is obsessed with credentials. This is most obvious in the world of academia, where people are not qualified to teach unless they have an alphabet soup of degrees after their name. Our preoccupation with credentials, however, appears elsewhere. Over the past several decades, an anti-intellectual movement has gained prominence in this country, one that insists that anyone who has been educated at a college or university is not qualified to speak on behalf of the “common people.” In this case, one is given “credentials” precisely because one does not have credentials. We are even credential-obsessed within the Christian community: the leaders of the Church are “the Reverend, the Very Reverend, the Right Reverend, the Most Reverend,” and the list goes on. We cannot get around the fact that credentials matter to us as human beings.
In some ways, this is unavoidable. If we are to have an ordered society, we need to have some form of leadership organization. Yet we also must remember that our life does not depend on our worldly acheivements, but rather on God’s work salvation in Jesus Christ. God used the Cross, an instrument of shameful death, to bring about our redemption through Jesus Christ. By using what is weak and shameful and foolish in this world, God put each of us on the same level. None of us is more worthy of God’s love and favor than anyone else, no matter how many degrees we have, or how plain-spoken we are, or how “Reverend” the Church imagines us to be. Through the foolishness of the Cross, we are not dependent on our own efforts, but rather on God’s redemptive action. Our credentials, our worldly accomplishments are not reason to boast or be prideful, because they are nothing in comparison to the fact that we have received our very existence, our very life from God.