St. Paul is writing a letter to the Christians at Corinth because he is very familiar with that congregation. After all, he founded the church in that city. But since he left to proclaim the gospel elsewhere, he has heard that all was not well back at his community. There were rumors of jealousies and struggles between various people in the church over who should be in charge and whose teachings should be considered true. Then Paul receives a letter from the church asking him to provide his own position on issues that concerned them—“practical” questions like whether the meat from pagan sacrifices can be consumed by Christians and deeper questions about sexual behavior. What the Corinthians seemingly do not ask Paul deals with matters of the passion and death of Jesus. Crucifixion as an issue must not have been a burning concern, or perhaps those folks didn’t see any connection between Jesus’ death on a cross and their churchly concerns. In his reply, though, Paul does not open his letter with specific responses to the questions he had received. He begins by proclaiming Christ crucified.
Interesting, though, that Paul does not need to bring the Corinthians information about crucifixion, about a cross. He doesn’t provide them with a link to the Wikipedia article on Crucifixion. His former congregation knows all about this practice of public torture, frequently used for slaves and anyone regarded as a threat to the Roman Empire. It was a public spectacle, designed to bring shame to its victims by its degrading them and removing from them any chance of avoiding its outcome. The act of crucifixion extended the shame of the crucified—leading up to, on the cross, and then even after death.” The torture and the shame were all “excruciating”! The lower class members of the congregation there in Corinth would have feared it while the few church members of higher social status might have regarded themselves as immune to this death sentence or even held attitudes about those who “deserved it.” Everyone, though, knew full-well what this horrible thing was about.
Like lots of other things, though, the fear of the cross was the driving force that turned it into public entertainment. There are all sorts of Greek and Roman comedies that have crucifixion as their humorous subject…and most of those who are the butts of these on-stage farces were buffoons, morons, just plain fools. They got themselves into trouble and it became funny how such “gallows-birds” faced their crosses. In one comedy, which might have played in Corinth, a slave who was facing his execution asks the audience, “Anybody here want to make easy money? Anybody ready to be crucified in my place today?...I’m offering a talent to anyone prepared to jump on a cross…after that he can come and claim the money, cash on the nail.” A fool, yes, but a comic one in those days, along with the self-deluded, the crooked, the fakes. All gallows-birds. All of them fools. Of course, one of the ironic facts in our 21st century culture is that the secular image of the cross is everywhere--decorating so much jewelry and appearing in so many tattoos. But there in Corinth, the cross was a steady source of humor in the amphitheater. Those who got themselves crucified deserved it because they were fools and morons.
Now if the Corinthians knew who the fools were and how they acted, they were also quite aware of who the wise were and what kind of wisdom they offered. In fact, while those who wrote St. Paul about their church problems apparently didn’t bring up the cross, they did express lots of concern about who had wisdom and what kind,…all leading to some serious splitting of the community. And here in this “Who is really wise?” issue, our churches often share the woes of the people of God in Corinth. Clearly, their concern and Paul’s response regarding the church divisions had lots to do with spiritual and even social elitism. The congregation had become stratified with certain people clearly among the “top tier” and others likewise regarded as “lower down.” And, of course, this kind of problem has no age limit on it whatsoever. It continues to permeate church and society, dividing people and setting them against one another. The symbols of this chasm are everywhere today. Do you drive a pickup truck or a Prius? Do you fly coach or have a private jet? Do you look for clothes at Walmart or go online to shop for “hundreds of elevated brands”? Of course, in the Corinthian church, there were various factions vying for top place, claiming to be the most valued elite. But there were, and are, other strategies for achieving such elevated places.
In Corinth, one of the problems was that certain folks in the church were seekers after a Divine kind of wisdom that would elevate them above the others. They certainly did not go to the Cross for that kind of wisdom. Instead, they sought a “God-Within whose wisdom would raise them above common life and common people. In our day, we hide such spiritual elitism under the category of “Self-Help.” One version claims that although God is everywhere, the most real place of divinity resides in your very heart and soul. Leaving the concerns of the outside world to, well, outsiders, your true self is discovered to be an internal place of joy and bliss. One God-Within author put it this way about your inner quest: “When you return there, you will experience yourself as one with God.” Some of the Corinthians would have loved that! Adding to this toxic mix of elitism was also a stratified community based on popularity. Leaders in the church sought out more followers for their version of God than any other competitors had. Once more, we are in the same boat as those Corinthians, but on a much more massive scale. One version afflicting us is the toxic brew related to being an “influencer” in our culture. You may not be too familiar with the term unless you hear on the news that an influencer had died or was caught in some morally messy situation. But just so you know, you have to have at least five thousand followers on social media even to be a “Micro-Influencer.” To be a real celebrity, a Mega-Influencer, you will have over five million followers! To be honest about it, we have those poor Corinthian Christians beat like mad. They had rivalries as to who in the church was the most prominent “influencer.” We now set the bar a lot higher. Millions of followers are needed to become a true celebrity. Who are our wise? Follow the numbers, we answer.
In the face of all of this, the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We proclaim Christ crucified. In Jesus Christ, God has undercut humanity’s ways of deciding how to get power and prestige, how to dominate others, and even how to find God. The one way nobody but a fool would choose was the way the Son of God overturned the wisdom of this world. “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” states the Creed. Here is the foolishness of God on full display—and we display this foolishness in every Catholic Church in the world. But here, Saint Paul gives witness to the reason we are gathered here, that we gaze upon the crucifix, that we hear the words “Take this, all of you…,” and we see the elevated Host: we are graced to be among those who are called. We have not been invited because of our own strength or achievements or wisdom. We have been called to be among God’s faithful people, welcomed by the embrace of Christ whose arms enfold the world in love. We are called, as the Apostle encourages us, to be fools of Christ. But to be such a fool means that we set aside getting ahead of our sisters and brothers in Christ. Our life is with all of those who are members of the one Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
Pope Francis recently spoke of this Epistle of Saint Paul and proclaimed “I ask you to do everything possible to avoid destroying the Church with division, whether it be ideological, or out of greed, ambition and jealousy.” Francis then provided the foundation for our abiding among the called: “the root of unity is in the Eucharistic celebration.” And because we grow in unity, and not like the foolish Corinthians growing in division, we are also called to embrace the world as Christ has done on the cross. Our ministries to the hungry and the poor, our proclamation of the saving wisdom of Jesus Christ, and our witness in the world to the way that leads to life, all of these are given birth at our baptism. We are called to be among the faithful who are the fools for Christ.
So here we are, not in some Greek or Roman amphitheater, but among the assembly gathered in the Season of Lent. We hear the Apostle Paul proclaim Christ crucified. We are called, away from jealousies and divisions, and called to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. And just as we find ourselves embraced by the Crucified Lord, we are then called to embrace the world with his compassion and with his truth. Then we will be wise and empowered with the love of God,
Plautus’ Comedies, cited in L. L. Welborn, Paul, the Fool of Christ, 101.  Deepak Chopra, The Ultimate Happiness Prescription: 7 Keys to Joy and Enlightenment (New York: Harmony Books, 2009), 119.  Pope Francis, “We Are All Corinthians,” Homily at Mass at the Chapel of Santa Marta, September 12, 2016, https://insidethevatican.com/popeswords/morningmass/we-are-all-the-corinthians-2/.