Paul on Paul – 31st January 2021

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B
1 Corinthians 7:32-35

I would like to see you free from all worry. An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord’s affairs, all he need worry about is pleasing the Lord; but a married man has to bother about the world’s affairs and devote himself to pleasing his wife: he is torn two ways.
In the same way an unmarried woman, like a young girl, can devote herself to the Lord’s affairs; all she need worry about is being holy in body and spirit. The married woman, on the other hand, has to worry about the world’s affairs and devote herself to pleasing her husband.
I say this only to help you, not to put a halter round your necks, but simply to make sure that everything is as it should be, and that you give your undivided attention to the Lord.

This Sunday’s 2nd readings picks up where last week’s left off, literally the next verse. It carries on that idea that we should not become to worried in the world’s affairs at the expense of our focus on the Lord’s Will.

But St. Paul build on this and, like the reading last week, if we aren’t careful, we might easily come away with the wrong idea. The idea of the married person (note how both husband and wife are expected to please their spouse) being “torn two ways” may remind us of Jesus’s warning in Matthew’s Gospel (6:24) that man “cannot be servant to two masters”, suggesting that the only Holy way of life is the unmarried one.

The strict application for this is obviously not the intention. Marriage is a Sacrament – a visible sign of God’s invisible grace and presence. One of the purposes of Christian marriage is to beget children, and all life is a gift of God. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t some wisdom in what is written here. The tradition in Western Christianity of the unmarried priesthood (which is a rule of the Church as opposed to a ‘Rule of God’) is that an unmarried priest can devote himself to his flock; but a married priest must divide himself between flock and family – he is torn two ways.

No – what St. Paul is sharing with is us not a discouragement of marriage. It is not a warning that married people are “torn two ways”, but a reminder to us to make sure we are. In the contest of the time Paul is writing, becoming married and becoming an adult were more-or-less the same – in the 21st century we may need to recontextualise this to understand it’s full meaning. It is a reminder that, while we are living our lived, pleasing our spouse and doing whatever else we must do – caring for children, working, participating in society – we must remember to at times stop and “…give [our] undivided attention to the Lord”.

It is easy to get swept up in our own lives, to become to become too “Engrossed” in the world, as was mentioned in last week’s reading. But Paul reminds us that prayer shouldn’t be a “halter round our necks” – but something we look forward too, like sitting down to talk with a friend, or Our Father.

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