Power, Authority, and Honor Are Not Always What We Might Expect
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 11:1–32
Key Idea: This lesson invites us to consider Paul’s understanding of apostolic power, authority, and honor, and helps us to redefine our own understanding.
Throughout history and across cultures, the fool or jester has served an important function in society. The fool’s role, if you will, is to be almost like the rest of us, but not quite. Like a mirror in a carnival funhouse, the fool’s dress is a bit skewed, her manner a bit over-the-top, her own view of the world expressed in song or biting commentary often counter to or sharply different from the norm. This ability to “stand outside” the norm and in such an over-the-top (usually humorous) way allows the jester safe access to the elite and powerful and the comfortably situated. In our modern world, comedians and comediennes serve in this role, speaking to issues that break our hearts and rule our days—even taboo topics—in a disarming, powerful, and persuasive way.
Fools are not at all foolish. Even though they may not lead powerful militaries, enjoy deep pockets or the best of anything worldly, they are the wisest among us, seeing the world as it truly is, lifting up what really matters, bravely challenging the status quo, the comfortable, and the shiny promises of the deceptive and shrewd. That is why Paul, standing before his beloved Corinthians, cast himself in this role. In this guise, he could persuade a community willingly led astray (or perhaps, unknowingly led astray) by the empty theology of the so-called super-apostles. “I repeat, let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little.” (2 Corinthians 11:16) N.T. Wright writes, “And Paul has decided that he’s going to play the fool himself. They have forced him into it. He’s going to come and join the party; but there’s a glint in his eye which says they’re going to get more than they have bargained for. He knows who the ringleaders are, what they’ve been up to, and how, if their type of Christianity were to catch on, the gospel wouldn’t be doing its proper work in Corinth . . . or anywhere else. They have been bossing people around, and the people have put up with it. Very well, let them now put up with him playing the fool for a few moments. They have been boasting of all kinds of things; all right, he’s going to boast, too, and we’ll see who wins the game.” (N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2004, page 123).
I picture the super-apostles as wearing brightly colored capes (like most superheroes don in comic books) with the sinister countenance of unscrupulous tricksters (I will allow you to think on what that mentally conjures for you). But the truth is undoubtedly different as the deceitful among us wouldn’t be so easily identifiable, perhaps even unto ourselves. That being said, Paul minces no words as he calls them out: “For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness.” (2 Cor. 11:13-15) Allow me to lift up a couple of verses from The Message (very colorful!): “With Christ as my witness, it’s a point of honor with me, and I’m not going to keep quiet just to protect you from what the neighbors will think. It’s not that I don’t love you; God knows I do. I’m just trying to keep things open and honest with us. And I’m not changing my position on this. I’d die before taking your money. I’m giving nobody grounds for lumping me in with those money-grubbing ‘preachers,’ vaunting themselves as something special. They’re a sorry bunch—pseudo-apostles, lying preachers, crooked workers—posing as Christ’s agents but sham to the core!” (2 Cor. 11:11-15, as found in The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene H. Peterson, NavPress Publishing Group: Colorado Springs, 2003)
During college (and a year or two after), I worked at an amazing independent bookstore. I spent my (mostly) evenings and weekends in the children’s section, shelving books, advising parents and young readers. During the years I served there, I remember only one patron who described her child as an average reader! Of course, above-average readers visit libraries and bookstores. But as I think anew of Paul and his declaration that he “too may boast a little,” who among us hasn’t boasted at some point in our lives, even with a kind and honest heart? Our children are super-achievers, our grandmother’s pierogis the most delightful ever (I admit this one as my boast!), our crossword puzzling the most skilled, and during the dreaded search committee interview, who hasn’t been tempted to stretch her list achievements just a bit?
But what if, like Paul, our boasts were, well, subversive? What if we proclaimed our weaknesses to be our strengths, proudly heralding them in such a way to almost be comic? That’s how Paul has chosen to contrast his authority and unwavering focus on Christ with the super-apostles and others with a more worldly understanding of power and authority. The following from N.T. Wright will bring a smile: “Paul is at last writing his only ‘letter of recommendation,’ but he’s like someone applying for a job by listing all the things that would normally disqualify him straight away. Prison, beatings, official floggings, stoning, shipwrecks: . . ..The dangers he faced and the hardships he endured were not the sort of thing that cultured and educated people, the great and the good, would put up with; . . ..” (Wright, page 128) Can you imagine taking this stance at a job interview? “Why, no, I do not like to work with numbers!” declares the applicant for the banking position! But truly, if Paul hadn’t played the fool, and instead played it straight with these so-called super-apostles, would his message been as impactful?
Power and Authority
Elizabeth writes in the study, “For Paul, apostolic authority, honor, and power is of God and not judged by human standards or shaped by social attitudes or human institutions. The true apostle looks beyond his or her own interests and embodies a reality that transcends self-interest and culturally bound assumptions. We revisit here a theme that emerged earlier in Lesson Four—power is known in weakness; the weak are made strong and the strong weak.” (page 72)
I’m glad for this experience with 2 Corinthians because I’ve been thinking anew on the truly subversive nature of the Christian story. Would our faith be as deep and true, and our hopes as confident and assured, if our relationship with the divine was based solely on our worldly understanding of “might makes right” or our human tendency to define and label and manage the divine? Would we be willing to continue to walk in the faith if only the powerful or the “in crowd” were worthy? The lesson of the fool suggests that the wise understand the true nature of the gospel. I revisit Lesson Two, where Elizabeth writes, “Paul’s principal message to the Corinthians focuses on Jesus as the crucified Christ. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and in him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) (page 24).
I write my blogs over several days, and as I typed the above words, we received an email from Comfort Naseem, chairman of the Handicap and Orphan Children’s Charity Society (HOCCS), in Lahore, Pakistan. In the email, Mr. Naseem informed us that “suicide bombers attacked two Christian churches here during Sunday services, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens in the latest attack on religious minorities in the country. . . . The terrorists appeared to have timed the attacks to cause maximum devastation, as the two churches were packed with Christians attending Sunday services when the bombs went off. “And sadly, “Christians have been under violent attack for years in Pakistan. At least 85 people were killed in an Attack on All Saints Church in Peshawar in September 2013. There have also been sporadic attacks on Christians in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, often prompted by accusations of blasphemy. But Pakistan has been particularly on edge in recent months since a Taliban assault on a Peshawar school that killed at least 150 people, most of them children.” And yes, there is more, “The Christians in Pakistan were already suffering harsh Persecution and Discrimination and the Lahore Churches Bombing Attacks makes the situation very critical for the Christians in Pakistan. Please remember your Christian Brothers and Sisters in Christ in your prayers.” But our shared hope in Christ is lifted up in Mr. Naseem’s final sentences, “We also pray that God would continue to abundantly bless and prosper Presbyterian Women, its team, members and partners. We are truly united together in Christ.”
Today I pray that I will be brave enough to be a fool for Christ. That I will boast of what I know: Jesus Christ, and in him crucified, and that I will stand with my sisters and brothers in Pakistan and around the world.