The problem with having three readings in church is that two of them usually get neglected. You can always stay for Bible Study on Sunday! We usually pick up at least one of them in its larger context. But not everyone does that. The Old Testament Reading usually supports the Gospel reading, but that support is often not exactly obvious or only a word or two. Like this week, how does Jonah support the Gospel? The implied answer is in the preaching. Jonah proclaimed to Nineveh, “You guys are toast.” And they surprisingly repented to Jonah chagrin. Jesus starts his ministry with “The time is fulfilled…repent and believe the gospel.” But the real problem to me of three readings is the “hard reading.” Like this week’s Epistle reading (1 Corinthians 7: 2-35) where Paul says, “It’s time to forget you have a wife.” Nobody wants to preach on that. The only thing further down the list would be “wives obey your husbands” or last week’s “do not be deceived” passage calling out the sins of the age.
But there it is in Holy Scripture. And as much as I complain about the lectionary makers leaving out the good parts, they are not completely spineless. You are the watchman and Israel preacher. If you don’t tell them, their sin is upon you. So, what they heck does Paul mean by, “let those who have wives live as though they had none?”
First, he absolutely doesn’t mean this is a free pass for a Vegas weekend. Nor is it an invite to an open marriage, a polycule or any such nonsense as our age would throw out. Second, recognize that large sections of Paul’s letters are responses to questions or problems brought up to him by the various congregations. In this case the context of our epistle reading is the larger idea of marriage. Paul pronounces some basic principles for marriage earlier in the chapter. And one of the things that every reader of scripture has to realize eventually is that the Apostle Paul in manners pertaining to marriage and sex is the progressive. What he proclaims is how to live in actual freedom, compared to our popular culture’s disdain for Paul. For example, “likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (1 Cor 7:4).” Try telling that to any Roman paterfamilias. Paul’s advice boils down to “you are one flesh, act like it.” And it is in the submission of the self to that truth – the one flesh union – that you find your freedom. Freedom is always found in some form of submission.
But how do we find that freedom? Because it certainly doesn’t always feel free. It is in recognizing the parallel truth that we are first slaves to Christ. We submit to Christ. We have a ton of vocations: Husband/wife, father/mother, child, brother/sister, employee, citizen, elder, office holder. And they all overlap. And there are not enough hours in the day to fulfill the claims of everything. And that causes anxiety. “The married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wide, and his interests are divided. (1 Cor 7:33-34).” Paul almost always makes the parallel female point as he does here. The freedom comes from this: “the present form of this world is passing away.” When the anxieties of the age stack up, take a breath and realize that they are all temporal. They are all passing away. The only person who we are eternally bound to is Christ. Serve Him.
And what is the way that Christ wishes to deal with us? It is not by the law that causes all of our anxiety, because we can never keep it. Christ wishes to deal with us by his grace. “Believe the gospel.” And in that grace, “all things work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28).” We are given the freedom in the gospel to live for Christ. And when living for Christ it is amazing how many other vocational decisions become easy. When we live in the light of eternity, our temporal struggles become “light passing things.” Because brothers, “the appointed time has grown short.” And it is always comparatively short to eternity. Be free from anxieties, do what is necessary by the light of the Lord, and he will prosper your steps.