Readings are available here. I really only worked on the second reading, as you’ll see.
Another week, another set of really rich Scriptures for us to consider. But this time, though, rather than try to work all three together, I want to focus on just what Saint Paul has to say to the Corinthians today, because in these few verses, he gets at quite a lot. He deals with a question that we’ve all struggled with at some point, and he gets to another issue that might be even more important, but one that we probably rarely actively think about.
First, we need to contextualize a little bit. For the first bit of chapter 12 of this letter, Paul has been boasting. He’s boasting about the revelations that he’s received from God – consider, for example, his conversion experience on the road to Damascus – but also some of the experiences some of the other members of the Church, particularly in Macedonia, have had. And here’s the thing – he should be boastful. I know, we tend to think of that as a negative trait, but in this case, Paul’s boasting is actually him praising God for bestowing these gifts upon mankind. But because these are gifts from God, one needs to carefully pray about them, and discern how they are to be best used for the praise, honor, and glorification of God. And while that sounds nice in theory, it’s really hard in practice. There’s very much a tendency in our world to charge full speed ahead into things, and sometimes that’s not what we’re being called to. What belongs to God to do, and what belongs to us? That’s the question Paul is grappling with here, and that’s the question we don’t like to consider. He’ll come back to this, and so will we.
So to keep Paul in his lane, as it were, he writes,
A thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan…
That’s a problematic phrase. The Greek reads,
ἐδόθη μοι σκόλοψ τῇ σαρκί
There’s no preposition there, so a literal translation is, a thorn in flesh was given me. What does that mean? What is this thorn? And who gave it to him?
As for what the thorn actually is, Paul is being deliberately vague. There are 4 main theories that scholars kick around; the one that I like most and seems to have the most traction is the one proposed by Saint John Chrysostom: that the thorn are all the adversaries that Paul faced and the persecutions he endured. It’s not one big thing attacking Paul; it’s a combination of things. Sure, some are fairly big in their own right, but it’s not different than some of the stuff we face. A terrible manager or awful colleague at work. The loss of a loved one. A chronic or severe illness. Being bullied and excluded at school. Doubts and uncertainties over your future. These are thorns. ἐδόθη μοι σκόλοψ τῇ σαρκί. A thorn in flesh was given me. But not by God. Here’s some grammar: the verb there, ἐδόθη, is aorist passive. That usage makes it clear it was given by someone else. But God is permitting it. And that raises the question we’ve all asked: WHY is God allowing this to happen?
That’s certainly Paul’s question. Notice what his response was – not just that he turns to God in prayer, but how he turns to him in prayer. He begged the Lord to take this away from him. That’s a very good translation of the verb παρεκάλεσα. Paul is very active with this request; there’s no sense of resignation here. Notice, too, that he prays about this multiple times. He doesn’t just whine about it and give up; he keeps calling on the Lord. (Notice, too, that he prays three times about this – just like Christ prayed three times in the garden that this cup might pass him by. But not my will, but yours be done. God is not unaware of our suffering.) And to this bold, Christ-like, persistent prayer, Paul gets an answer.
The answer is no.
Instead, he is told,
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
καὶ εἴρηκέν μοι, Ἀρκεῖ σοι ἡ χάρις μου, ἡ γὰρ δύναμις ἐν ἀσθενείᾳ τελεῖται.
There’s a shift in the verbs there, from the perfect indicative to the present indicative. He said to me is in the perfect. Meaning that the action is not completed, but ongoing. He has been saying to Paul, is telling him now, and will continue to tell him that his grace is enough. And that verb is in the present, because his grace will always be enough. It is HIS grace that he gives Paul, and it is sufficient.
God is not going to take Paul’s suffering from him – at least not at this point – because he wants Paul to understand something. Paul’s life is very much changed by the presence of Christ. You suffer, but you are also protected. You live, if you will, in two environments: the environment of the Cross, but also the environment of the Resurrection. In your sufferings, in your weaknesses, you are united to Christ crucified, but in your strength, you are united to Christ raised from the dead. But the two cannot be separated. The Resurrection needs the Cross. Power is perfected in weakness.
Finally we get back to Paul and his boasting. He’s not going to boast about those gifts he has received any longer, but from now on he will boast about his weaknesses, because they represent an opportunity for God to act. They are a chance for God to fill him with grace. In fact, he says he will boast so that the power of Christ may dwell in him.
ἵνα ἐπισκηνώσῃ ἐπ’ ἐμὲ ἡ δύναμις τοῦ Χριστοῦ.
That’s the only time in the entire New Testament that verb (ἐπισκηνώσῃ) is used. The literal translation would be to put up a tent. That may seem like a strange image, but consider that in the Old Testament, the meeting tent was the place where the community encountered God. Without that tent, the community would fall apart. Paul’s not afraid of his weaknesses, because he wants to be reliant on Christ. He needs Christ to dwell in him. And he rejoices at the fact that Christ loves him enough to do just that.
A last point to consider. Paul concludes by saying he is content – he is happy – to deal with weaknesses, and then he lists 4, specifically. Insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints. The fact that they’re all in the plural means something. It’s a style trait that runs through Paul’s writings; he uses singulars when he talks about abstract concepts, but plurals when he refers to life lived. In other words, this is very real for Paul. He’s thinking of specific moments, places, and people that cause him to suffer and be weak. But he suffers those weaknesses for Christ (ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ) – that’s the key to this whole thing – and in his weakness, he is strong.
So we have to consider a few things today. How much of our lives are for Christ? Are we just for Him when we’re at Mass, or when we’re saying our prayers, or is everything we do – whether we’re at home, at school, at work, wherever – for Him? Do we boast about weaknesses, or only about our strengths? Are we able to acknowledge our weaknesses? Are we using the gifts God has given us to build up His kingdom here on earth? That’s what our task is, and we are not strong enough to do it on our own. As we receive the Eucharist today, let’s ask God to help us grow in humility so that we can admit our weaknesses…but also so He can strengthen us to do the work He has given us here on earth, and one day come to be happy with Him in the kingdom of heaven.