In this morning’s NT reading from the Daily Office (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), Paul makes a rather bold statement: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” But in my favorite version of the bible (ESV), it’s printed like this: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.” The New Living Translation makes that point even clearer: “You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is good for you.” But other translations (like the KJV) print it as if Paul were saying the whole thing. So whose saying what?
Greek manuscripts generally don’t include punctuation. The reader is supposed to figure out where sentences end and what’s set off by quotation marks simply by looking at context. Because of that, we don’t know who said what. Was Paul quoting someone—his audience in Corinth that was getting into trouble by over-interpreting some of Paul’s famous no-law gospel? Were the Corinthians using Paul’s words against him?—“I thought you said, ‘All things are lawful for me.’” Or maybe, as I like to read it, Paul was dealing with the hair-splitting nature of the gospel.
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. I don’t think Paul is suggesting that we are permitted to murder, but I do think he’s suggesting that whether committing murder or eating pork our status with God doesn’t depend on our transgressions. What is the law? It’s that which defines relationship. But what relationship is it defining? In much of the Old Testament, the Law (capital “L”) serves to define two relationships—that between Israel and God and that between human and human. That’s why we read both, “You shall make no graven images” and “If you accidentally kill your neighbor’s cow, you must replace it.” But the gospel sets us free—NOT from the law but from needing the law to define our relationship with God.
Paul knew that the real radicalism of Jesus was that his death and resurrection were what delineated the relationship between God and humanity. Nothing could be more immediate than God sending his Son to die for us and rise again. The Law—the pedagogue—was an intermediary definition of relationship—one given in response to humanity’s sinfulness (need for boundaries).
We still need the law. We need it to know how to live with ourselves and with each other. But our relationship with God doesn’t depend on it. God loves us the same whether we’re sitting in church or hacking our neighbor to bits. Pop Quiz: One of those things is helpful; one of them is not. Can you tell which is which?