What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
It is easy to misunderstand some passages from Saint Paul’s letters. This difficulty is not a new one (see 2 Peter 3:16). The First Letter to the Corinthians is in large part Paul’s reaction to misunderstandings. There are many of them: misunderstanding the freedom of a Christian, misunderstanding marriage and celibacy, misunderstanding the resurrection, and so on. The Corinthians had basically reduced Paul’s teaching to a series of slogans. In the letter he writes to them, Paul wants to clarify things as best he can. Clarifying for him does not mean imposing new and stricter rules or limiting people’s freedom because it was misused in the past. It means above all helping the Christians of Corinth to understand the world and their life with “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). A comprehension of nuances and taking seriously the situation of each person in order to discern correctly follows from this.
When Paul states, “the world in its present form is passing away,” he does not intend to disqualify what is human, as if he were saying, “No aspect of your life as human beings has true value. Only what is invisible matters.” We cannot understand Paul’s originality if we read him in that way. Paul is not encouraging us to abandon the earth and human responsibilities. He does not speak like a world-weary philosopher, full of contempt for the world. We should note that the verb is in the present tense: “…is passing away”. Paul does not write that “the world in its present form will pass away.” Already today, in the reality that is ours, a new life is breaking in, a new creation. Our mentalities, our choices, our concerns, our behavior are invited to correspond to this. We have to become part of this new world! It is as if Paul were saying to us, “The forms that help you make sense of the world are no longer valid, not because the world no longer has any value, but because it has received additional value in the Risen Christ.” That is Paul’s message. Whoever lives with this hope will see their worries and cares change. Their attention and their energies will be motivated by what does not disappear. It is significant that, when it quotes Saint Paul about the world in its present form passing away, the Second Vatican Council recalls, in the same paragraph, “love and its works will remain” (Gaudium et Spes 39,1).
What are our criteria to determine our priorities and to discern what passes away and what remains?
In the light of this reflection, how do we understand the text of Romans 12:2? What transformations might Saint Paul be inviting us to undertake?