The Ancient city of Corinth was destroyed by the Roman military in 146 B.C.E, leaving it a relatively insignificant, small community. That is until Julius Caesar rebuilt it and established it as a Roman colony in 44 B.C.E. Roman Corinth had roughly 80 thousand people with another 20 thousand in neighboring areas. It was a large ancient city. Because of its location on a well traveled isthmus it quickly regained the prominence it had as a Greek city-state. In Paul’s day it was probably the wealthiest city in Greece and a major cultural and urban center.
The Isthmian games were held in Corinth every two years—second only to the Olympics in their importance. Because of this Corinth boasted an 18,000 seat theatre, a 3,000 seat concert hall, and temples to various deities—most notably the temple to Aphrodite which housed the famous temple prostitutes. The Corinthians had elevated in importance the latest Greek ideals—individualism, freedom, distrust of authority. In many respects Corinth was not unlike American urban centers today. Corinth was fun, Corinth was exciting, Corinth had energy.
Freedmen who were overpopulating Rome relocated to Corinth after it was rebuilt. Freedmen were slaves who had earned or been given their freedom. The freedmen’s children, and their children’s children in Paul’s day were freeborn. This class of freeborn people saw great opportunity in this young exciting city with no embedded aristocracy. Corinth was the most upwardly mobile community the ancient world ever produced.
Through commercial ventures in Corinth freeborn ancients could become powerful. But in those days mercantile affairs were not as free market as our times. They were instead a matter of buying friendships, and showing loyalty to powerful patrons who could set you on the right course. Life was a complex weave of mixed motive, and loaded intentions. Everything you did–the honor you showed, the invitations you accepted, the political parties you backed, the temples you frequented—were all calculated moves to put you ahead. This was called ‘wisdom‘–the ability to make the right moves, with the right people, in order to live a good life and rise from ashes of your slave ancestry. Corinthian wisdom was highly competitive, patronizing, argumentative, sharp elbowed, and me first.
Paul started a church in Corinth. He stayed there for 18 months on his second missionary journey. When Paul left Corinthian ‘wisdom’ invaded the church. Wisdom told the church in Corinth to pick and choose and decide. Some said “I belong to Paul,” others said “I belong to Apollos,” others said “I belong to Cephas.” The burning theological question of the day was who to pledge loyalty to. Who has the most upside? At the end of the day who will be the biggest winner? Paul was furious. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he rhetorically asked, “I was sent to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ would not be robbed of its power.”
Wisdom was no friend of God in Corinth. Philosophers and scholars alike, the wise, had said that the Christians were fools. Jesus had proclaimed that anyone who called a brother or sister a fool would be liable to the fires of hell. But what did they care about Jesus? He was a criminal, an insurrectionist enemy of the state. And he was dead, executed alongside two thieves on a cross. It was all part of the foolishness.
We forget that there was a time when people regularly died on crosses, and that it was in no way an honorable death. The most famous victim of crucifixion was of course Jesus of Nazareth, but there were others, many, many others. As a form of capital punishment used in the Roman Empire it was as impressive a form of intimidation as it was a barbaric means of torture. Dead bodies nailed to trees have a way of sobering people up, and letting them know who’s in charge. So countless people were crucified by the Romans for just these purposes. The Romans didn’t invent crucifixion (we think the Persians did), but they no doubt perfected it. It was a common way to die if you were a rebellious foreigner, a military enemy, a violent criminal, a robber, or a slave (slaves were so often put to death for subordination by crucifixion that it became known as the “slave punishment”).
A few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, during the Jewish rebellion of 70 C.E., Josephus tells us that when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem the Roman general Titus crucified five hundred or more Jews a day. The crucified bodies became so plentiful that outside the walls of the city “there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies” (Wars of the Jews 5:11.1).
Not only was it popular, but it was also dishonorable. Of all the ways to die, crucifixion was the most disgraceful and obscene. The Jews linked it with harsh language from the book of Deuteronomy, and declared that anyone killed on a cross was cursed by God. The gentiles also held it in contempt. The Roman jurist Julius Paulus listed crucifixion as the worst of all capital punishments, listing it ahead of death by burning, death by beheading, or death by the wild beasts (apparently there was an order to these kind of things).
When you consider all of this it makes you marvel at the way we talk about crucifixion today. Today we honor it. It is tame to us. We talk about it openly. We put crosses on felt boards for our children. We reference the death of Jesus at our meal time prayers. We wear necklaces and bracelets with the means of torture and execution firmly affixed. We get them in gold and silver, so they shine. Can you imagine being so cavalier about matters of lethal injection, or electrocution, or firing squads, or gassing? We are so comfortable with how Jesus died.
If only we could go back to a time when none of this had any wisdom at all, when all of it was foolish. Of course It still doesn’t have wisdom, not Corinthian wisdom, it’s still foolish, but we’re familiar with the foolishness, so we give it a pass. Not only do we give it a pass, but when we gather together we praise it. “Right oh!” we say. “That’s the way it is, or should be.”
When Paul writes to the Corinthians he says that the foolish cross is the heart of the Christian faith. Everything else we learn about Jesus is likewise cruciform (i.e. cross shaped). It’s all so foolish, not a bit of Corinthian wisdom in any of it: blessed are the meek; do not be angry at your brothers and sisters; love your enemies; do not store up treasures on earth; if your eye causes you to sin pluck it out; do not worry about your life; do not judge; enter through the narrow gate; go, sell all you have and give to the poor. You have to be kidding right?
Every one of those commands come to us in the shape of the cross. They are all cursed, dishonorable, disgraceful, obscene, and contemptible. People who follow they get impaled on poles and stuck in the ground for intimidation purposes. They are all foolish. Crazy. Unwise. Do you know what happened to the meek in Corinth? They got their own bottoms handed to them, that’s what. When it came time for promotions, and for partnerships, and for under the counter handshakes, they get looked over. When there was only so much to have they got little. When they were surrounded by self interested people they got used. Being meek in upwardly mobile Corinth was excruciating!
How foolish was Paul?! He brought the words of self-sacrifice, and interdependence, and reconciliation to a metropolitan, industrious, upwardly mobile people. No wonder those who responded to him were not “wise by human standards, or powerful, or of noble birth” (vs. 26). No, those who responded to Paul’s foolishness were the rejects of Corinth. They were the ones whose business ventures had failed. They were the ones no good at kissing up to the wealthy patrons. They were the ones who lacked the natural skills to make it in Corinth’s competitive climate. They were the ones that heard the foolish message of the crucified messiah and did not take offense, but instead said—I know what that’s like, that’s me–the cursed, dishonorable, disgraceful, obscene, contemptible, and unwise. I can identify with that. I see in that foolish cross the good news I’ve been waiting for all my life. They were the ones who eagerly signed up, and met in little house churches, who by the light of an oil lamp heard the scriptures proclaimed, and who ate the body and blood of Jesus behind closed doors in the communion meal. They believed the foolishness—and because of that, as Paul says in verse 27, they became the foolish.
But now the church in Corinth was divided.
This happens to churches. Nobody wants to play the fool, not forever. We all want respect. So we start following this leader or that leader. Things impress us that Christ could care less about. Things are overlooked by us that Christ gave his life for. This is what happens when you forget how cursed was the person who hung on a tree, or how dishonorable, disgraceful, obscene, and contemptible. This is what happens, says Paul, if you start looking for wisdom, if you start becoming impressed with the rhetoric and the kingdoms of this world. You will work your way away. The cross will elude you. The cross isn’t wise, it’s foolish. And here’s the reason: the world in its wisdom rejected God, so God saw fit to redeem the world with foolishness. Irony is the engine of history.
Maybe the great 20th century theologian Soren Kierkegaard said it best, “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd…remove from Christianity its ability to shock…and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny, superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds or healing them.”
Can it still shock us–like it did Corinth–can it be abhorrent once again? There isn’t a single thought of Christ that isn’t as foolish as the cross. If only we don’t lose sight of just how foolish that cross is. As soon as we become the wise, everything changes. As soon as we ‘make it’ we’ve lost it. It’s what happened to Corinth. When they became wise they separated out when it came time for communion—with the honored guests receiving the favored seats in the triclinium. They sued one another because they could no longer get along. They overlooked poor conduct in some, perhaps because it was the advantageous thing to do. They fought about where to eat, and what they could eat. They bickered over who had the most impressive spiritual gifts. Have you ever been in one of those wise churches? It doesn’t take much, just a desire to gain a little respect and stop playing the fool.
You might as well know that faith is for the foolish. Paul says it in this way, “For the message about the cross is foolishness.” Are you comfortable being a fool? Probably not. Who is? We could gain Corinth you and I. Look at our talents. All we need to do is cozy up to the right people, pledge loyalty to the right leader, find a wealthy patron! Maybe you say that gaining Corinth isn’t so bad. I wouldn’t blame you, it’s the wise thing to do. It’s your choice: the wisdom of humans or the foolishness of God. Most of the time, when facing a big decision, people encourage others to choose wisely. But perhaps it’s more appropriate this time around to encourage you to choose foolishly. For you can gain Corinth, and in so doing lose your greatest patron of all.