President Barak Obama got into trouble a couple of years ago for something he said in a campaign speech. Obama was visiting Roanoke Virginia during the long 2012 campaign season and he was speaking off the cuff about how community and government support is important to the success of businesses. Speaking off the cuff, here’s what he said:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
Almost immediately, of course, Obama’s words were ripped out of their context and used as a weapon against him. Almost immediately his political opponents accused him discounting the hard work of business owners and entrepreneurs in building their businesses, by saying “You didn’t build that.” And almost overnight his words became what’s today called an internet meme. People took Obama’s words and applied them to all kinds of different situations – playing with his words and making fun of the whole idea.
To the Wright brothers – you didn’t build that plane.
To a child playing with wooden blocks – you didn’t build that tower.
To Thomas Edison with his invention – you didn’t build that light bulb.
Of course Obama tried to set the record straight – he tried to correct the mistaken impressions of what he said. He tried to put the gene back in the bottle, as you might say – but, as is so often the case in the dirty and hard fought arena of politics, in situations like this it’s almost impossible to set the record straight.
What’s interesting for us is what this whole little tempest in a teapot reveals about American culture. It reminds us that there is a pretty strong vein of American culture that focuses on self-reliance, that values the entrepreneurial spirit, and that emphasizes the pioneering personality. This little political tempest reminds us that rugged individualism remains at the heart of American mythology and identity. And of course any politician who makes the mistake of calling that mythology into question will very quickly pay a heavy price.
Of course, north of the border we pride ourselves on our enlightened understanding – we pride ourselves on recognizing that in health care and in businesses and in education and in so much more we depends on others, including different levels of government. Sure, we recognize something of the importance of self-reliance and entrepreneurship – it’s just that we love to make comparisons and to point out that we aren’t, well, you know – we aren’t like those Americans. We tend to be quite self-assured when we compare ourselves to our southern neighbours, even if we ‘re often working only with caricatures of who those southern neighbours actually are.
Perhaps this all strikes you as an odd beginning this morning, but it’s at this point that we want to connect with our passage for today. We are continuing to explore First Corinthians and today we are still in the first chapter of that letter, in which Paul brings us face to face with the human tendency toward boasting. We might say that if there is a tendency toward boasting in American culture, it’s probably a boasting in individual achievement and self-reliance. And if there is a tendency toward boasting in Canadian culture, it’s probably a boasting is in our enlightened communitarianism – and, rather oddly, perhaps – in our simply not being Americans.
Paul comes at the question of boasting – whether cultural boasting or personal boasting – in this way. He writes:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one may boast in the presence of God.
So that no one may boast in the presence of God.
It’s powerful sentiment Paul expresses – a provocative statement he offers. It is a profoundly counter-cultural conclusion Paul reaches, no matter what our culture.
“So that no one may boast in the presence of God.”
In this section of his letter, Paul is actually preoccupied with the different kinds of boasting he sees in the church and culture around him. It will come as no surprise that he focuses on Greek culture and on Jewish culture, since these are the two dominants cultures in terms of the identity and history of the earliest church. The city of Corinth is profoundly shaped by Greek culture, and of course the gospel Paul brings is a gospel deeply rooted in his own Jewish culture and religion.
In responding to the Greek identity of Corinth, Paul reminds his readers that this cultural tradition has always placed a real emphasis on wisdom. In the most general terms Greek culture has fostered a broad tradition of philosophy and intellectual study – it has placed great emphasis on the human capacity to understand the world and to understand deeper realities that lie beneath the surface of the world. Of course the Greek tradition Paul refers to is the tradition that produced Socrates and Plato and Aristotle – and which produced many philosophers before and after them.
And in his letter Paul suggests that if there is a boasting particular to Greek culture, then it is almost certainly a boasting in the capacities of the human mind – a boasting in the human ability to study and to decipher and to explain and to reason about life and the world. Of course this form of boasting has to some extent traced its way through history to our own culture – this preoccupation expresses itself today in a preoccupation with rationality and the capacities of the human mind.
Alongside the Greek focus on wisdom, Paul also takes up what he calls the Jewish interest in signs. He says: “Greeks desire wisdom, and Jews demand signs.” If the Greek tradition is focused on wisdom and intellect and reason – the Jewish tradition, he says, is preoccupied with its religious heritage, with the signs of God’s action and presence in the world – with signs that display God’s glory – with signs that display God’s power – with signs that display God’s grace to his people.
If there is a boasting associated with this tradition, broadly conceived, it is a boasting in the human ability to interpret the signs of God – the human ability to know which worldly happenings counts as a sign of God’s goodness and glory, and which signs don’t.
Beyond the boasting of Greek culture and the boasting of Jewish culture, Paul is also concerned about the boasting going on in the Corinthian church itself. First among their boasts is their sense of themselves as a deeply spiritual people – they speak in spiritual languages and are convinced that they live on an elevated spiritual plain, above the fray of bodily life. As we saw last week, they also boast in their leaders – so much so that they become divided on account of their allegiances.
Here, perhaps, we can draw together some of the streams of thought we’ve been working with this morning.
In reply to Greek boasting in wisdom and intelligence and reason;
in reply to Jewish boasting in their knowledge of the signs of God’s;
in reply to Corinthian boasting about their elevated spirituality;
in reply to our boasting about our self-reliance and our accomplishments;
in reply to our boasting about our superior culture and country,
In reply to all of that, Paul insists: “God choose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one may boast in the presence of God.”
With these words Paul echoes words from the Greek language version of Hannah’s song, found in 1 Samuel 2:10: She sings:
Do not let the wise man boast in his understanding. And do not let the powerful man boast in his power. And do not let the wealthy man boast in his wealth. But the let the one who boasts boast in this, to understand and know the Lord and to do justice and righteousness in the midst of the earth.
Before we bring this discussion around to Jesus and the cross – which is of course Paul’s preoccupation – we go back for a moment to our brief look at Tidzalerana club in Malawi. Although this isn’t the direct point Paul is making, we can nevertheless say that Paul’s message reminds us that goodness and truth and beauty are, in general, often found where we would least expect.
God chose the what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are.
In Malawi, even as they take important steps toward full rights for the disabled, there is still continuing stigma around disability – the disabled are still marginalized. Here in Canada we may have a head start on such questions, but we also have financial resources that absolutely dwarf those of Malawi, so there is little reason for us to boast. In fact, as we all know well, in wider community life and in our private lives we continue to hold those with various disabilities at a distance – very often we find it too much, we find it too hard to welcome and be with those who face mental health challenges or various other forms of disability.
And in this context the words of Paul become a challenge – his words become a reminder that truth and beauty and goodness – the love of God – comes to us very often from those people and in those contexts we may least expect. Not only is disability not inability. But the presence of disability is no measure of the possibility for love and wisdom and strength. In fact, those who perceive themselves as able and intelligent and strong invariably have a great deal to learn from from those who live with some form of disability – whether patience or courage or tenderness or forgiveness or imagination. We have much to learn from each other.
Paul of course, brings the conversation around to the cross. He writes these words:
Since the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, and Canadians expected a solid social program, and Americans depend on themselves – but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles – foolishness to Canadians and Americans alike.
We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles.
Does this mean wisdom and reason are utterly displaced. No.
Does this mean we can never know where God is at work in the world? No.
Does it mean social programs are irrelevant. No.
Does it mean human self-reliance has no place. No.
It means that if we want to know God – and if we want to rediscover a relationship with God – and if we want to discover a truly human life – and if we want to know the deep peace and wisdom of God – then we must look to the cross.
If we want to know God, or live in the truly human way, we must look to a first century Jewish man – we must look to the first century torture machine on which he is dying.
Before the cross all boasting is silenced – we have nothing to say.
Before the cross all our interpretive abilities fail us – this is a sign no one expecdts.
Before the cross all of our resourcefulness is nothing – God simply gives.
Before the cross all of our reasoning collapses – this is God with us, for us.
Faith means a relinquishing of all our boasting, and all our attempts to achieve or understand or save ourselves.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
It’s foolishness to our culture.
God is with us in through a dead man on a rough cross.
God redeems us in this crucified Jesus.
God destroys our pretense and arrogance and sinfulness only by dying for us.
God sets the stage for our renewal only by walking through the valley of the shadow of death with us.
Foolishness; foolishness; foolishness. There’s no other word for it. Foolishness.