Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- In our reading from St Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:16-19.22-23) we are entering a very different world from our own. We think of boasting as rather crude and silly, inappropriate and even laughable. Yet to the ancients, boasting was an acceptable and even required way of behaviour for the gentleman; a world in which ‘blowing one’s own trumpet’ was perfectly understandable and accepted. When Pliny wrote asking his Emperor Trajan to allow him to set up a collection of imperial statues honouring the emperor and his predecessors, he did so on the understanding that this would honour both them and himself, indeed, that people would see on what good terms he stood with his emperor and that both Pliny and his Lord would gain honour and status by this action. This was an ‘honour society’, one in which the elite continually bolstered their power and social standing by their gifts to the public by building civic amenities such as baths, temples and theatres and giving food doles to the city and to their personal dependent clients. In return the recipients continued that time-honoured relationship whereby the elite were honoured by votes in elections for public office and recognised as ‘lovers of their city’ – the ultimate acclaim – and given ‘eternal life’ in the endless statues and inscriptions lauding their actions. When therefore Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth he explained his tireless devotion to the risen Lord Jesus in language they could all understand, and which impressed by its appeal to hundreds of years of practice. Normally the super-patron would have been the emperor. Here, for Paul, it was Christ who commanded his absolute devotion and obedience. It was quite simply taken for granted. Paul expresses his total commitment to God in time honoured language of great imaginative appeal.
What made the difference for Paul and for his Christian converts however was their belief in the resurrection of the dead, of the promise of eternal life in Christ, ‘sons of God, and heirs’. This was what made the immense difference between pagans, those with no hope of eternal life, and believers; and it would have been a great attraction to converts. When the Book of Job, (7:1-4.6-7) was written there was no such belief, even for devout Jews. This life was seen to be all that there was and death, was the end. After that one ‘lived-on’ if at all through ones sons. Imagine then the power and terror of this story, in which God and the devil have a contest in which Job is deprived suddenly not simply of his earthly material wealth, but of his sons and daughters. Suddenly, instantly, he is reduced to the status of the most abject of slaves, without posterity, without meaning, without hope. It is an exploration of the absolute fragility of the human condition and of trust in God. Job, like the majority of Romans, believed that death was the end for us all. All one could do was recognise and accept the immense and overwhelming power of God, but in no way could one truly relate to him. Christianity’s proud boast lay precisely in its promise of a unique relationship with the divine, one in which God the Son gives himself entirely to his creation.
Our Gospel (Mark 1 :29-39) demonstrates that this belief in the power of Christ, the ultimate patron, was no mere intellectual and effete programme that the favoured few such as the Stoics might have had, but was to be demonstrated and given to all. We witness the real material impact of the Kingdom come among us in the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry. First, it begins with his action to save his new family by his healing of Simon Peter’s mother in law, and it then spreads to the many sick of Capernaum his base, and then stretches out throughout the towns of Galilee, until finally his ministry will encompass all Palestine and the Transjordan. It is not just that Mark and his fellow writers have a passion for geography, it is what this continual movement and journeying symbolise: God’s outreach with its promise of eternal life to each and every one who accepts his help and patronage and recognises the supreme power of the giver of all good things, life in this world and life in companionship with the divine now and in eternity. Small wonder then that Paul was happy to be known as a boaster. We, like him, have every reason to be so.