It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation,
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! –but the Elephant,
Is very like a wall!”
The Second. feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!–what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an elephant,
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!’
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like,
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree.”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant,
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun,
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail,
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan,
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion,
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
“Your _____ means nothing”
As a Christian and as a pastor, one of the most tragic things I see nearly every day is how people fundamentally misunderstand the concept of grace.
These are conversations that haunt me—that keep me up at night, after folks insist on their own self-made salvation.
“But I’m a good person.”
“But I’m active in the community.”
“But I give a lot of money to charity.”
It is hard to affirm the good work people do while simultaneously reminding them that their good work does not save them.
At the same time, it’s a hard thing to discern whether good works are the result of a Gospel-centered life, or whether good works are an attempt to circumvent the Gospel and save ourselves.
The apostle Paul is characteristically bold in attending to these challenges in today’s scripture reading.
Background & Text
The Corinthians live in a world where wisdom is prized and foolishness derided. And take care not to equate “education” with “wisdom” here—that’s not the picture Paul is trying to paint.
The Corinthians fall into that category of people who think they’re always right. Equally proud of their intelligence and ignorance, they are convinced that both make them better than others. Any question, or any problem, can be debated, discussed, and solved by human reason alone. There is nothing they cannot know.
But Paul is brutally explicit with them—all of their reason and knowing, their debates and politics, their intelligence and ignorance—all of it has failed to bring people into knowledge of and relationship with their God. They may know a lot or a little, they may have travelled far or not at all, they may be a Facebook debater par excellance, and yet none of that has translated into living and loving more like Jesus. It has only widened the gap between the gospel and those in need of Christ’s liberating love.
Moreover, there seems to be a class divide in the church at Corinth. Throughout most of the world (at that time) that had been kissed by Jesus’ love, converts to Christianity were more likely the misfits, outcasts, poor, and rogues of society. And in v.26, Paul indicates that the same is the case for the Church in Corinth:
“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1Corinthians 1:26 NIV11).
And yet—as Paul begins to reveal in today’s verses—the elite of society have an out-sized role in the conflicts of the church. Throughout the letter, Paul attends to how those with more (money/influence/power/etc.) are the ones creating divisions and distracting the community from its single-minded focus on Christ. Many of the issues that Paul addresses—such as the eating of meat in 1Cor 8—are simply not applicable to everyone else, as they simply don’t have the resources to participate—meat was too expensive.
But as is still the case today, those with more will often divide and distract those with less for their own selfish gain. Thus (as commentator Harold Mare indicates), Paul uses terms here (wise, influential, noble birth) that “[give] the sweep of all that [people] count socially, politically, and intellectually important” (W. Harold Mare, “1 Corinthians,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p.196). Right here, in the first chapter of this lengthy letter, Paul wants to make sure they understand that all of that means nothing—not in the terms of Christ’s kingdom.
One can hardly read these verses without thinking of Paul’s autobiographical confession in Philippians 3:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4–11 ESV)
In these verses, Paul compares his story to the things others take pride in:
You’re intelligent? I’m intelligent!
You have a proud family history? I have a proud family history!
You grew up on the right side of town? I grew up on the right side of town!
You went to the best schools? I went to the best schools!
You were commended for your service? I was commended for my service!
You sacrificed? I sacrificed!
You backed that political leader? I backed that political leader!
You go to church every week? I go to church every week!
You read the best newspapers and books? I read the best newspapers and books!
But in both Corinthians and Philippians, Paul is not just crooning “Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you,” engaging in an “Annie Get Your Gun”-type competition.
No, Paul’s point is that none of this matters where it really counts.
Your intelligence means nothing
Your wealth means nothing
Your political affiliation means nothing
Your education means nothing
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:7-8a).
Nothing that the world values can put us in better standing with God.
Nothing that we do can earn our salvation or help us “slide through heaven’s back gate,” as someone once suggested to me.
None of it is worth a pile of crap in comparison, which (by the way) is less vulgar than the language Paul actually uses in Philippians 3.
The reason for all this—of course—is grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 tell us “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV).
Or as Galatians 3:26-28 puts it:
It is your faith in the Anointed Jesus that makes all of you children of God because all of you (who have been initiated into the Anointed One through the ceremonial washing of baptism) have put Him on. It makes no difference whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a freeman, a man or a woman, because in Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, you are all one. (VOICE)
It’s simultaneously reassuring and off-putting, I find. In my selfishness, I want some eternal benefit for my Christian upbringing, for the time and financial commitments of my education, and for all those other things that I was erroneously taught would “put stars in my crown.”
God’s grace lifts us up so much higher than any of us could ever go on our own. In order to be made into “children of God,” even the saints among us must be raised and transformed by God’s loving grace a thousand times more than genetics or economics or education or training or self-discipline or genetics or chance or anything else could ever bring about.
So fill in the blank: Your BLANK means nothing. The things we prioritize and pride ourselves for are empty and void of eternal consequence.
By contrast, the things Christ asks of us appear foolish and insignificant in terms of the world.
This is one of those Sundays where I feel a little bit like Moses in Deuteronomy 30, the text we’ll be looking at in two weeks. There, in v.18, he says:
I gave you the choice today between life and death, between being blessed or being cursed. Choose life! (Deut 30:15-18 VOICE).
God, our scripture reading reminds us that you work through things that appear foolish, weak, lowly, and despised. The Gospel story itself is that of the underdog Jesus Christ–underestimated by the forces of evil from the moment of his humble birth to their supposed victory on the cross. But you, O God, have conquered even death itself, and our underdog Savior has come out on top again.
Help us to remember that our positions of power and prestige and wealth and dominance mean nothing—especially when we fail to attend to the people the world sees as foolish, weak, lowly, and despised.
Reconnect us with our faith history as recorded in the Bible, reminding us of the times
When we were foreigners in a foreign land as we walk with our Father Abraham and Mother Sarah;
When we were arrested and wrongly imprisoned alongside our brother Joseph son of Jacob;
When we were homeless and hungry as the Israelites in the wilderness;
When we, alongside the infant Jesus and his family, became aliens and refugees as we escaped persecution and fled to Egypt;
When we (through the Christian churches in Asia Minor) were persecuted by the dominant religion .
Remind us, O God, of our history. And impress upon us again the things you require of us:
to pursue justice,
to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with you, O God.
As these are the things that matter most to you, transform our sinful and broken hearts that they might be the most important things to us as well.
Change us we pray. Amen.