Language can certainly be a strange phenomenon sometimes. In 2014 Paul’s unforgettable phrase “the weakness of God” is the title of a recent book of post-orthodox philosophical theology, and its companion phrase “the foolishness of God” is as likely to make people think of another recent book, not nearly as smart a book, but a best-seller nonetheless, as it is likely to bring to mind Paul’s signature theological move. When I preach 1 Corinthians this coming Sunday, I’m not going to concern myself with either book much, if at all, largely because there’s not going to be much sermon-time left for that if I actually deal with even some of the results of Paul’s own theological move. To posit that God’s strength happens in a moment of weakness and that the cosmic divine wisdom of YHWH gets shaken up in a moment of prophetic revelation is nothing short of revolutionary, for our moment as well as for those first-century Corinthians, and the wisdom-destroying power of that same moment is worth some investigation in terms of Paul’s argument.
I don’t remember, as a young Christian, whether I ever spent any time thinking about what “the wisdom of the world” means, but as I’ve spent years–almost two decades now–teaching the text of the Bible, the conversations I have with people after Sunday school classes and Wednesday night Bible studies, not to mention college classes where the text of the Bible is on the syllabus, have convinced me that “the wisdom of the world” did not go away after Paul wrote this letter to those Corinthians; it simply re-calibrated itself so that certain New Testament passages, taken out of context, become the new vocabulary of “the wisdom of the world.” Behold Philippians 4:13 plastered on T-shirts for various sporting clubs, whose events celebrate not the humbling of self but the defeat of opponents. Behold the opening of the Sermon on the Mount turned into fried self-help nuggets in the form of the “be-happy attitudes.” Behold the apocalyptic Rider on the White Horse, Faithful and True, of Revelation turned into a justification of Generation-X macho culture. And those are just the most obvious ones. The ideology of self-aggrandizement and of regarding the neighbor as rival rather than fellow-worshiper does not go away, so neither does the need for the gospel of Jesus Christ, that story whose force jolts those claimed by the world’s wisdom.
Thus the lovely ambiguous genitive (that’s a noun case, for those who have not learned any languages with noun cases) “the folly of what we preach.” On one hand, the very act of preaching is a bit foolish, both in the Roman Empire, where rhetoric has fallen on dark days and the old Athenian ekklesia is merely a story that imperial civil servants read about; and in our own, where a cacophony of ideological voices and images render “rhetoric” a mild cuss word, something that one politician might use as an accusation against another: “She doesn’t really have any concern for that. It’s all rhetoric.” The spoken word itself has the character of magic, something that shouldn’t do any work, when we examine it from afar, yet has a history of making things happen, if we’re honest about our own experience. But more is at stake in that construction: not only the act of preaching but also the content of the proclamation is folly in a world seeking signs and wisdom. If God becomes weak, that has profound philosophical implications, a contradictory fallout that simply cannot leave “the wisdom of the world” standing. And if God becomes foolish, not merely promising justice to the victims of power but becoming God’s self a victim of power, then those who want signs of divine power, lightning bolts and parted seas and such, cannot help but to begin looking for different teachers who offer a different vision of God.
And that’s precisely the point: the strong and the wise, in the order of our world, too often forget that God has always been in the weakness-and-folly business, forging a people not from the mighty Egyptians but from their ‘abiru slaves, sending one slow in tongue to be the voice of God, chastising the same people for even desiring to have a military king as did the other nations. Jesus is a new moment in that story, to be sure, but one who brings to fullness what YHWH had been doing for generations, namely shaming the ruthless Assyrians, bringing the great learning of the Babylonians to folly, and remaining resilient even in the face of the invincible Roman military-intellectual complex. And if the Christians in Corinth need one more reminder, Paul offers that, not by quoting from the Sermon on the Mount but from the prophets: if anyone would boast, let that person boast in the LORD. The same God who speaks bold words into a world that will not hear calls a people who do not have the means or even the will to transform the world, nonetheless, to be the proclaimers of a new world coming. Thus is the foolishness of God, and if Scripture prove true, that folly has the weak strength to overcome precisely the world that beats it down.
May our lives and our speech have the paradoxical savor of the crucified Christ whom we follow.