The Readings for Monday in the 30th week of Ordinary Time (B2)
Fornicatio autem, et omnis immunditia, aut avaritia, nec nominetur in vobis, sicut decet sanctos : aut turpitudo, aut stultiloquium, aut scurrilitas, quae ad rem non pertinet : sed magis gratiarum actio.
But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints: Or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility, which is to no purpose; but rather giving of thanks.
The NABRE takes a dodge here… it says “Immorality or any impurity or greed” which is not what the Latin says, nor is it what the Greek says. The Latin refers to “Fornicatio autem, et omnis immunditia, aut avaritia”. That first word is fornication. We’re not talking about “immorality” in general but about sexual sins. The Greek is even more direct. The word used there is πορνεία porneia. It is the origin for our word “pornography” but its meaning is derived from the verb “to sell off”. We trade off our sexual morals for other things – money, yes, but also acceptance, entertainment, self-gratification. This is made even more clear by the words selected in the next verse (which are not so obscured by the NABRE) obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility make it all very clear, and also eliminate about 80% of the internet and 95% of comedic content since WW2.
Why is St Paul so opposed to us having fun?
Matushka Frederica Matthews has this great line in one of her books, I honestly forget which one, discussing our cultural abuse of irony and making everything funny, she says, “Can we stop smiling now? My face hurts.” As a culture we make a joke of literally everything. This has gotten worse in successive generations – what was once sacred is now ribald humor. And as this area gets burned over, we move on to the next one… we can now joke about literally anything religious, because no one cares about it – and those who do don’t deserve our sensitivity. Only in jest can we talk about such things.
Paul is warning us against doing that to one of the most sacred acts God has given for humans to do – to participate in God’s creative generation of space and time by bringing a new human soul, enfleshed, into the world. Making jokes about this cheapen it.
But there is a second reason as well. We are spiritual athletes. We are in training. There is a time and place for everything. Yet there is never a place for baseness, or scurrility. We have no reason to “keep in practice” for the things we used to do.
A friend of mine called me out for using as a self description a word which has become synonymous with a sexual subculture. I hadn’t realized how important that word had become to me. I may not use “gay” to describe myself, but I have a “totem animal” anyway, right? Why? Do I need that? Do I still need that word to be part of me? Do I still need to get all those in jokes? Those brain cells might better be left from something else, I think.
Chrysostom reads both of these meanings…
Have no witticisms, no obscenities, either in word or in deed, and thou wilt quench the flame—“let them not even be named,” saith he, “among you,” that is, let them not anywhere even make their appearance. This he says also in writing to the Corinthians. “It is actually reported that there is fornication among you” (1 Cor. v. 1.); as much as to say, Be ye all pure. For words are the way to acts. Then, that he may not appear a forbidding kind of person and austere, and a destroyer of playfulness, he goes on to add the reason, by saying, “which are not befitting,” which have nothing to do with us—“but rather giving of thanks.” What good is there in uttering a witticism? thou only raisest a laugh. Tell me, will the shoemaker ever busy himself about anything which does not belong to or befit his trade? or will he purchase any tool of that kind? No, never. Because the things we do not need, are nothing to us.
Moral. Let there not be one idle word; for from idle words we fall also into foul words. The present is no season of loose merriment, but of mourning, of tribulation, and lamentation: and dost thou play the jester? What wrestler on entering the ring neglects the struggle with his adversary, and utters witticisms? The devil stands hard at hand, “he is going about roaring” (1 Pet. v. 8.) to catch thee, he is moving everything, and turning everything against thy life, and is scheming to force thee from thy retreat, he is grinding his teeth and bellowing, he is breathing fire against thy salvation; and dost thou sit uttering witticisms, and “talking folly,” and uttering things “which are not befitting.” Full nobly then wilt thou be able to overcome him! We are in sport, beloved.
There is a counter point, I think. One that is important for us in this age – that was not so important for Paul. While everything is funny – because it’s meaningless – everything is also taken far too seriously. CS Lewis and others have noted this tendency in our media, to stir up excitement for things that happen hundred and thousands of miles away while ignoring the things right out side. We get anxious over meaningless things about which we can do nothing, and then make light of things that are actually important.
So what would life look like if we took everything only as serious as it warranted, and yet took everything exactly as serious as is needed? What would life look like if one lived as if one’s salvation in Christ was the most important thing? Mindful that St Paul says that salvation entails a lot of things: obedience, humility, civic responsibility, passivity before abuse, charity, etc. What would life be like to live in that way?