The Hardest Saying in the Bible

(Homily for Second Sunday, B)

What is the hardest saying in the Bible? For some it is Jesus' words about eating his body and drinking his blood in order to have eternal life. People keep trying to "spiritualize" those words. (Have you noticed how everyone today wants to have a spirituality? I'll get back to that later.) Other folks have a hard time with his teaching about heaven and hell. The idea of a "point of no return" seems, well, too final.

Doctrines like the Eucharist and the Last Things pose great difficulties for many people. Still there is a saying which I believe is even harder for modern man. It is the one St. Paul gives today in the second reading: "You are not your own." (I Cor 6:19)

At first glance the sentence appears pretty obvious. It goes without saying that none of us made our own self. We just found ourselves in these bodies - these pulsing centers of energy and urges - from which at any moment we can be ejected against our will. For sure, I am trying to make the best of the body I have found myself in, but to claim ownership involves an element of absurdity. It would be comparable to saying that because I am currently using Windows 95 - and can sometimes get it to work right - that I own it and am free to give or sell the operating system to anyone I chose.

For sure there is a big difference between ones body and Windows 95. Not just the fact that the former always goes with me but that the consequences of misuse are so much greater. That is where the hard saying in today's Bible reading comes in, "you are not your own." Someone has the copyright to your body, your very being, in a more absolute way than Bill Gates owns Windows 95. St. Paul bases that ownership not just on creation but redemption, "for you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body."

I have noticed when I speak about this people tend to grimace. They do not want to hear that someone owns them, that they will be held accountable for how they use their body. Of course, we human beings always have striven for independence or self-assertion. The Bible says our first parents wanted to be "like the gods" (Gen 3:5) not in some noble way, but in a grasping, even crushing manner. Separation from God, fear of him, flight from him has become part of the human condition.

However, today that separation has been intensified by our consumer society. From a very early age we are taught to find fulfillment by possessing things. I have observed it in little children. They see a certain toy advertised - it is sold as not simply something nice to play with but as proof their parents value and love the child. As they get older the right brand of tennis shoe becomes essential to belonging. And when they marry, both must work because it costs so much to raise a child.

The problem here is not the desire to have things - after all, God's creation is good. But the created thing can become an end in itself, in other words, an idol. This perversion manifests itself in our use of the possessive pronoun. The child learns to say MY toy in a way he can hit the other child who touches it. These are MY tennis shoes - they give me status and importance. And what is most horrible, we can say MY child as if he were our greatest acquisition. The opening scene of the Simpsons where baby Maggie gets swept over the supermarket scanner is a fitting emblem for our times. It is cute to see her rung up at the cash register, but behind the joke is a terrible reality, that children have become one more commodity, albeit usually the most expensive one.

The final form of this alienation is when we say MY body, not in the sense of responsibility, but of ultimate ownership. The body is no longer ones self, but has been reduced to a possession, in this case my most valuable possession, my source of pleasure and pride. And when it no longer provides, I can dispose of it - myself - as I would an out of date computer. No more upgrades, time to just get rid of it. Cremation with the sprinkling of ashes becomes the most apt way to express this devaluing of the body. As someone told me, "I want my ashes sprinkled so I can give something back to the earth." A noble sentiment, perhaps, but does it not equate the body's final value with that of a few handfuls of low grade fertilizer?

Pope John Paul refers to this devaluation of the body as the New Manicheism. The old Manicheism considered the body evil and in despising it, would engage in immoral practices, including incest. The new Manicheism devalues the body by considering it only good for what pleasure and pride it can bring. The separation of body and self becomes complete when people acquire a "spirituality." They then feel superior to us folks stuck in "religion" with all our rituals, statues and outward signs. As they look down on those physical things (like baptism or communion) they will boast about how free they are in the use of the human body. Most of this turns out be bravado because the pleasure they experience constantly diminishes. Like the old Manicheans they wind up embracing some activity they would have formerly considered disgusting, precisely because it expresses that revulsion. This new Manicheism, as the pope points out, is not an isolated cult but a philosophy which pervades our culture.

St. Paul thus enunciates a hard saying, perhaps the most difficult one for us today. In taking a stand against the sexual immorality of Corinth, he states, "You are not your own...therefore glorify God in your body." What he says was counter cultural then and is radically counter cultural today. Fr. Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life, summed it up powerfully in his reflection on the two different uses of the phrase, "This is my body."

While praying at an abortion clinic, someone who walked by shouted, "This is my body!" She meant it not only in the sense of feeling free to choose with whom she engages in sexual relations, but in the imperial sense that she could decide the life or death of an embryo growing within her.

After the prayer service, Fr. Pavone celebrated Mass. It struck him that at the moment of Consecration he said, on behalf of Christ, those same words, "This is my body." But the words which followed made all the difference, "which will be given for you." Jesus, the one person who, in the true sense, could say "my body," recognized that even he was not his own. He belongs to the Father and his body has a transcendent meaning: Jesus crucified is now the one way to heal our self-alienation. The Baptizer summed it up in today's Gospel, "Behold the Lamb of God." He offers his body on the cross for our sins. In become the "price" by which we have been purchased, he teaches us the beauty of Paul's words, "You are not your own."


Olivia Garcia and the schizophrenia of our society.

"Spirituality Not Religion"

An application of this teaching to Homosexuality and other moral issues


From the Archives:

Second Sunday, Year B, 2009: Chosen with Care
2006: Your Body Does Not Belong to You
2003: Rabbi, Messiah, Cephas
2000: The Hardest Saying in the Bible

From Archives (Homilies on St. Peter and St. Paul):

Year of St. Paul
What Peter Meant to Paul
The Two Keys
Jesus Establishes a Sacred Order

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C