What do you do when the Bible sounds nuts? Context, my child, look for the context.
Our liturgy prep groups was grappling with the readings for February 1, which include this section of Paul's letter to the Corinthians (
Brothers and sisters:
I should like you to be free of anxieties.
An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord,
how he may please the Lord.
But a married man is anxious about the things of the world,
how he may please his wife, and he is divided.
An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord,
so that she may be holy in both body and spirit.
A married woman, on the other hand,
is anxious about the things of the world,
how she may please her husband.
I am telling you this for your own benefit,
not to impose a restraint upon you,
but for the sake of propriety
and adherence to the Lord without distraction.
Sounds very nice, but then we started discussing it. What unmarried man or woman is
anxious about the things of the world? There might have been a time when a child or teenager could be oblivious to the world of work and politics. But don't the unmarried have worries of their own? Like, will they find a worthy spouse? Will they be loved? Will they have children? Will they see their grandchildren? Will they be able to support their family? Will wars, theft and oppression rob them of their livelihoods?
Seems like a shipload of worry to me.
And do the unmarried really spend all their time thinking about the Lord? Unless they grew up in a very devout family, or in a
conservative part of the country, it's a rare young person who spends much time thinking seriously about God and religion. Mostly, they seems to think about homework, girls (or boys), their place in the adolescent pecking order, their looks, cars, dates and the like.
So where might Paul be coming from? Is he
out of touch with the way human beings operate?
One possibility is that Paul,writing in the mid 50s, is speaking from the perspective of a small Christian apocalyptic community that was expecting Jesus to return at any moment. And with Jesus, a massive catastrophe that would shake the foundations of the world, when, as
said, "The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and splendid day of the Lord, and it shall be that everyone shall be saved who calls on the name of the Lord." If this is your mindset, you're likely to be extremely anxious about being ready for the Lord's return, and furthermore, to be among the saved. Presumably, you would pray a lot, watch your behavior constantly and maybe have huge anxieties about being worthy of Christ. Your emotional life would be consumed with worry about yourself and about others who were not of the faith. You would be obsessed with getting people to join your community -- the saving ark that would rise above the coming flood waters of catastrophe.
Naturally, marriage would divide that monomania. You would have to devote some of your energies toward your spouse and your household. You would have to attend to your relationship, your in-laws, your place in society, new expectations about dress, your children, providing for your family -- never mind the Lord! Your prayer life would suffer, your church relationships would have to be prioritized. You would probably suffer fear about whether you;d still be among the saved, and crushing guilt about your inability to be work to bring others aboard.
As bad as it is to be unmarried as the End Times approached, Paul is trying to be realistic in the context of an extremely unrealistic mindset. He gently warns his community not to deepen their anxieties with marriage. But he is no fool. He realizes that human beings, even in the face of disaster, fall in love and feel other obligations to marry. He does not make his recommendation into an obligation.
How far we are from the worries of the early Church! Today, it's hard to gin up true worry about Christ's return. No Christian I know has put off plans to build homes, get married, send kids to college or save for retirement because of their belief in the imminent return of Christ. On Sundays, for sure, we recite creeds that claim he will return to judge the living and the dead. But once out of the pews, our minds often snap back to the world of work, sports, kids and entertainment. I'm not complaining, frankly. To live in a state of constant terror is not my idea of a good time. And it is probably counterproductive, from a Christian perspective, to be in fright about the future when there is so much good that can be done in the present
Paul advised the Christians of his era to find ways to lessen their anxieties. Maybe 2000 years later, with the return of Christ a sure but uncertain event, might he not advise us to live holy, peaceful lives -- and leave the timing of the Parousia to the Almighty?