‘Listen to your body’, we are often told, whether that’s in relation to exercise, food, or self-care. But Paul tells us to listen to our bodies in a different way, taking from them a lesson: how to exist in a community that is simultaneously diverse and unified, all working to a common goal, which is ‘the common good’ (1 Corinthians 12:7).
The bodies and body parts represented in these three images exemplify different aspects of Paul’s message. The votive offerings are diverse, fragmented parts, eyes and ears, made as discrete objects rather than as part of a larger whole, in some sense figuring Paul’s image of the body in self-destructive competition. Louise Bourgeois’s double-handed arm is in contrast strangely melded, but also at odds with itself, rendered useless by its lack of diversity. Finally, there is the dignified body of the Christ Church scullion, whose loyal service of the college community confers on him a glowing air of sanctification, even as his forehead is furrowed and his hands careworn from his labour.
One of the key messages of this passage is the importance of diversity in a well-functioning whole. In the body as also in the Christian community difference is to be honoured and celebrated. Like the parts of the body, the gifts that can be bestowed on an individual are diverse, but all are vital to the functioning of the society they find themselves in. ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together’ (v.26).
Unity is vital, but true unity can come only through diversity: though the terracotta votive offerings are varied and fragmentary, all were offered in gratitude to the deity who was believed to have restored the corresponding, real body part to health. In contrast, Bourgeois’s arm, though appearing unified, seems to struggle in opposite directions, robbed of all its functions by a lack of diversity in its members.
Paul also uses the body metaphor to invert our expectations. In Corinth the ability to speak in tongues was valued above all other spiritual gifts, but Paul puts it last on his list: a reminder that gifts which offer the prospect of personal glory are not so exalted in God’s sight (vv.22–25).
Paul asks us to hope not for the most eye-catching gifts (‘Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?’; vv.29–30) but instead to attend to the lowly, the modest, the unpresentable, the easily-forgotten, and see how all may play a vital role in the community. In seventeenth-century Oxford, portraits were usually the preserve of the middle- and upper-classes, the served and not the server, yet, by depicting a scullion, John Riley dignified labour which was often hidden or forgotten, inverting our expectations just as Paul suggests God inverts the respectability of the body. This inversion is familiar from other aspects of Christian doctrine, recalling Matthew 23:12 ‘whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’. Riley’s unnamed sitter is the meek and loyal servant who will one day ‘inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5).
We have little choice in what we are good at: our abilities or gifts seem to come from elsewhere, bestowed, as Paul suggests ‘by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills’ (1 Corinthians 12:11)—that is, if we are lucky enough even to have the chance to discover our gifts. What we’re best at might not be what we would choose for ourselves, but by making good use of what we are given we can serve ‘the common good’ (v.7) and honour the giver. The tension between the self-seeking desire for a gift which personally exalts us, and a gift which allows us to serve others, is present in the straining muscles of Bourgeois’s contradictory arm, one hand open, the other closed, suggesting a choice: ‘Give or Take’. We may not be able to choose which gifts we are given, though we might pray for them, but we do have a choice in how we use them. Since Christ has ascended and is no longer incarnate on the earth, Paul transfers the responsibility to us: ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (v.27). We must be the agents of good in the world, and how we use our gifts is up to us.
Bray, Gerald Lewis. 1999. 1-2 Corinthians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, vol. 7 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic)
Wedderburn, A. J. M. 1971. ‘The Body of Christ and Related Concepts in 1 Corinthians’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 24.1: 74–96
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single organ, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, 25that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31But earnestly desire the higher gifts.