When I read the second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians I wondered, “What was Paul thinking?” He seems to have little regard for marriage, encouraging people not to marry so they will be free of anxieties. As I read some commentaries on this passage in Chapter 7 of 1
Corinthians I began to see it in a different light.
First Corinthians 7 opens with the line: “Now in regard to the matters about which you wrote…” The Corinthians apparently had a variety of questions they hoped Paul could address in a letter to them. Marriage and sexuality are the first issues that Paul formally addresses in his response to Corinthians’ questions. Paul offers advice to the married, the unmarried (read in today’s second reading), and the widowed.
In order to fully appreciate Paul’s ideas on sex and marriage, Richard B. Hays suggests that we keep the following in mind: (1) Paul was responding to an issue raised by the Corinthians; (2) The saying “It is well for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor. 7:2) comes not from Paul but from the Corinthians; (3) There is no trace in 1 Corinthians 7 of contempt for women or of the notion that sexual intercourse within marriage is sinful; (4) Paul demonstrates a remarkable vision of mutuality between woman and man in the marriage relationship.
It is also necessary to recall what Paul said earlier in his letter to the church in Corinth: “About remaining celibate, I have no directions from the Lord, but give my opinion as one who, by the Lord’s mercy, has stayed faithful” (1 Cor. 7:25). As Paul gives his opinion he is influenced by the mistaken notion that Jesus would return soon. Paul thought it would be wiser for people to get busy preparing for an eternal relationship with Christ and avoid any distractions.
Interestingly the passage that will come later in 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul gives his beautiful treatise on the excellence of the gift of love, is one that is often used at weddings. The Church’s understanding of marriage as a sacrament took centuries to develop. In time the Church came to see the commitment a couple makes in marriage and how they live that out in love is not a distraction from our relationship to God, but a means of showing to all of us that when we love in that way we are in a relationship with God.