A reflection on the Sunday Readings for January 22, 2023 — the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
As the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs dawns upon us this weekend, we are blessed to witness some genuinely epic rivalries between some of the nation’s great cities– the in-your-face East Coast hostility of New York and Philadelphia, the vast historical and cultural divide between Dallas and San Francisco, the hard-scrabble rust belt battle pitting Buffalo against Cincinnati, and…Kansas City and Jacksonville. Even if you’re not a fan of the NFL or of watching sports in general, most of us can appreciate the value of rivalry and competition in society. Whether it’s a contest between high school bands in neighboring small towns or a professional sports matchup between large cities on opposite ends of the continent, rivalries can rouse civic pride and spur a sense of oneness in a community.
These types of competitions, in my view at least, are a net positive and not at all contrary to St. Paul’s chastisement of the division present in the church of Corinth in today’s second reading. Competition is human, it is natural, and it is good. A problem arises, however, when we learn the wrong lessons from our love of competition. Athletic, cultural, and historical rivalries are valuable not because they celebrate division but because they encourage unity.
In the second reading today, Paul addresses a severe problem in the Corinthian church. It appears that the community has divided into factions: the followers of Cephas (Peter), who likely favored more close observance of Jewish ritual law; the followers of Apollos, who may have preferred a sophisticated and intellectually rigorous version of Christianity; the followers of Christ who perhaps claimed a purer vision of the faith independent of the rest of the Church; and the followers of Paul who likely rejected the alterations introduced by the other groups. Of particular interest here is the fact that Paul, in his humility and desire for unity, even criticizes the group which remains ideologically committed to his vision of the Church.
For Paul, these divisions are not only bad; they directly contradict the very essence of the Church of Christ. The Church is meant to be the Body of Christ, an organic unity that, while made of diverse parts, functions as one. To introduce division into the Body makes the analogy itself incomprehensible. Surely each of these factions within the Church is well-meaning and perhaps offers legitimate criticisms, but the damage they introduce by causing division overwhelmingly outweighs any positive contribution their corrections bring. It’s important to note that Paul is not opposed to the language of competition and struggle when describing the Christian life; he uses that type of analogy many times, including later in his first letter to Corinth. Still, it is always in the context of maintaining a life in Christ within oneself.
You don’t need me to inform you that the Church today, as in any age, has fallen into the very trap that Paul warns of in today’s letter. Factionalism seems to be a perennial temptation in the Body of Christ. There are those among us who criticize lax enforcement of the moral law, those who pine for what they view as a more eloquent presentation of the Gospel, those who claim a purity outside of the hierarchical structure of the Church, and those who resist any challenge to the status quo, etc. Any of these critiques may be valid, but the problem arises when we allow the vigor and enthusiasm of running the race of the Christian life to create rivalry and division within the Body itself. The challenges of holy living should inspire unity, not disunity. For millennia, the principle of that unity has been the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, who provides cohesion within the Body and unites many differing visions of the Church to preach one Gospel.
One of the most profound reflections on this reality comes from our last pope — Benedict XVI, before his pontificate — in the late Joseph Ratzinger’s The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood. Here Ratzinger, drawing from the theologian Karl Barth, describes the divided nature of humanity prior to the coming of Christ. In the Old Testament, we see fraternal rivalries galore — Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Before Christ, these rivalries always end with one party receiving salvation and the other rejection. A zero-sum game. However, with the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, this dynamic changes forever. God willingly takes on rejection for himself so that human rivalry and competition no longer result in salvation for the winner and rejection for the loser but in the salvation of both.
The parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the rivalry of two brothers results in both being received by their merciful father, is perhaps the clearest illustration of this new dynamic. The story of two sons feasting with their father in Luke’s Gospel, not the story of Cain and Abel, provides the model for the Church of Christ in our age.
So, if you’re so inclined, enjoy the epic football rivalries on display this weekend, but be sure to take from them the proper lesson. Our natural desire to compete, to run the race so as to win, should never introduce factions or division in the Church. The struggle to follow Christ daily is difficult enough without being pitted against one another. Allow the challenge to unite us as we live as the Body of Christ in the world.
Image: Paul and Barnabas at Lystra, by Jacob Pynas. Public domain (via the Met).
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Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.