During the global pandemic of 2020 it was bin (wo)men, supermarket staff, public transport and delivery drivers who kept society clean, fed, and moving, often at great personal risk. The renewed attention and respect these roles subsequently received might seem in stark contrast to the abuse that many faced before and even during the pandemic: threatened, attacked, bearing the brunt of frustrations and prejudices. Alongside doctors and nurses, they were acknowledged as ‘key workers’.
Paul reminds us of the vital role played by everyone in the community, particularly those whose roles might not be recognised or respected: ‘The 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”’ (1 Corinthians 12:21).
In John Riley’s seventeenth-century portrait of a scullion, or college servant, at Christ Church College, Oxford, the viewer is asked to pay renewed attention to a person who might have been overlooked before. His dark clothing melds into the background, as it no doubt did with the shadowy corners of the halls and staircases where he served dons who were more usually the subject of the college’s portraits. But Riley illuminates his sitter’s careworn face with a radiant light. The portrait is sensitive, dignified, even sacred in its atmosphere, presenting the hard, manual labour of this man with leather protective gloves, who carries a heavy pewter dish, almost as a holy act.
It reminds us, as Paul does, that each person has different gifts, and a different role to play in society, and that each is valuable. Duties—like parts of the body—which might be considered ‘weaker’, ‘less honourable’, or ‘unpresentable’, are in fact ‘indispensable’, having ‘greater honour’ and ‘greater modesty’ (vv.22–23).
There is no doubt that a society’s enthusiasm for honouring these roles—whether through a weekly clap, or a sanctifying oil painting—can easily stray into the realm of lip-service, using superficial acknowledgment to avoid addressing deeper questions of ingrained economic and social inequality. Yet, as Paul suggests, no society—whether the microcosm of an Oxford College, or the macrocosm of a nation or Church—can function without the harmonious activity of all its members.
Thalmann, Jacqueline and Christopher Lloyd. 2008. 40 Years of Christ Church Picture Gallery: Still One of Oxford's Best Kept Secrets (Oxford: Christ Church Picture Gallery)
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.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.