One of the major topics of discussion in government these days is the federal budget deficit. The federal government spends much more money than it makes in revenue; as a result, the federal budget is perpetually out of balance.
The current discussions about balancing the federal budget conveniently disregard one crucial fact: the programs and initiatives that Congress wants not to pay for are programs and initiatives Congress agreed to pay for when they approved the current budget.
The time to talk about decreasing the budget deficit is when the budget is being formulated rather than after the budget has been approved. Congress is reluctant to address the budget deficit at the appropriate time, however, because of the cardinal rule for all elected officials: never do anything that might put at risk one’s chances of being reelected. As it’s not politically expedient to cut spending during the budgeting process, Congress will only discuss cutting expenditures after a budget has been approved.
The absurdity of this sort of duplicity is perfectly acceptable to those who embrace it because it allows them to be irresponsible while giving the appearance of responsible behavior. In today’s second reading, St. Paul scolds some members of the church congregation at Corinth for embracing a similarly absurd duplicity.
When Paul wrote, “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing” (1 Cor 1:28), he wasn’t inventing slurs about the Corinthian Christians. Rather, Paul was quoting what the wider, non-believing, society said about all Christians.
Christianity was considered to be a ridiculous religion by Greek culture. Christianity preached a Savior who died a criminal’s death. Pagan culture in the ancient world idolized heroes and conquerors; the lowly and powerless were not considered worthy of trust. The common judgment made about Jesus was that, as he was unable to save himself from a shameful death, he was incapable of saving anyone else. Consequently, both Christians and their Savior were treated as objects of ridicule. Christians were derided, despised, and valued as worthless by wider society.
Some of the members of the church community at Corinth, however, considered themselves to be paragons of wisdom. The congratulated themselves for demonstrating incredible brilliance by receiving baptism and they ridiculed the members of the community who didn’t share their sense of self-importance.
Paul reminded these self-proclaimed geniuses that their boasting was pointless and laughable. Their elitist behavior, and over-inflated opinions of themselves, made a mockery of the Christian Faith. They thought of themselves as wise, superior members of a religion that preached a humble, forgiving, and self-sacrificing Savior. Their behavior made both themselves and the Faith look foolish.
Paul’s solution to the foolishness of the Corinthians was to call them back to the foolishness of the Cross (1 Cor 1:23). The apparent foolishness of the Cross is God’s wisdom: something far superior to human wisdom. In God’s wisdom, forgiveness is strength, humility is honor, and death brings new life. These are the beliefs that the Corinthians espoused but failed to practice.
We, too, live in a culture that despises and derides humility and mercy. There remains the temptation to participate in the cultural values that lead to a duplicitous life. Humility is no more prized in our culture than in pagan culture during Paul’s lifetime. Humility, sacrifice, even trustworthiness, are often considered signs of weakness today. To many people, it seems foolish to live in such a way.
Paul had a clearer perspective on the nature of foolishness and the nature of wisdom. Paul’s perspective came from his own experience of finding forgiveness in the death of the Savior. He experienced the “righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30) made possible through the death of Jesus, and he preached this Gospel message.
Much like the federal government, some of the Christians at Corinth created severe deficits for themselves, not fiscal but spiritual. They used the Christian Faith as a way to create the appearance of virtue without having to grow into virtue by following the teachings of Jesus. Paul mocked the Corinthians, not to insult them, but to call them back to faithful lives.
There always remains the temptation to give the appearance of virtue without the reality of virtue. We can avoid that sort of absurd duplicity by taking ourselves less seriously than we take the Gospel message, namely, that it is due to Jesus alone that we have “righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.” (1 Cor 1:30)