|SUNDAY HOMILIES FOR YEAR B|
|By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp|
|Homily for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time- on the Epistle|
Paul's Teaching on Celibacy
|Deuteronomy 18:15-20||1 Corinthians 7:32-35||Mark 1:21-28|
Today’s 2nd reading is part of Paul’s teaching on celibacy. Celibacy has always been an important subject of discussion among Christians in the entire history of Christianity. In our own time, especially in the wake of recent scandals among celibates in the church, it has become even more important for us to have a better understanding of celibacy. We cannot improve the practice of celibacy in the church unless we improve our understanding of it.
Paul’s teaching on celibacy, which he fully presents in 1 Corinthians 7, can be summarised in one phrase: celibacy is the better way to serve the Lord, but not the only way. This is a continuation of Christ’s own teaching on celibacy.
The first thing that Jesus teaches on celibacy is that it is not a lifestyle that people normally choose but a gift that God gives to some individuals. Jesus had just finished teaching the people about how marriage between man and woman should not be dissolved under any circumstance. His full-time companions, the Twelve disciples, remark that if that is the case, then it is not advisable to marry. Jesus answers, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.” (Matthew 19:11). He then goes on to recommend celibacy, encouraging his disciples to consider it as a way of life. “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Matthew 19:12).
It is important to note that there is only one justifiable reason for adopting celibacy. It is not to avoid the problems of marriage or the challenges of dealing with the opposite sex or the hassles of rasing kids. Christian celibacy is for one and one reason only, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Paul would later throw more light on what this means.
Even though Jesus recommended celibacy only to his full-time followers, the disciples, Paul would recommend it to all believers. Following the example of Jesus, who was celibate, Paul himself lived a life of celibacy. Yet he recognised that celibacy is a gift not given to all. “I wish everyone could get along without marrying, just as I do. But we are not all the same. God gives some the gift of marriage, and to others he gives the gift of singleness. 8 Now I say to those who aren't married and to widows-- it's better to stay unmarried, just as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:7-8 NLT).
Paul obviously sees celibacy as the “better” way to serve God. He explains: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).
Paul does not promote celibacy for its own sake. Stoic philosophers exalted the virtue of self-control and shunned marriage because they saw it as a sign of failure to control one’s passions. For them any celibacy was better than any marriage. Paul does not share this view. For Paul the only celibate life that is worth living is one that frees the person to give “unhindered devotion to the Lord” (verse 35). It releases one from the business of raising a family so that one can devote oneself wholeheartedly to the business of pleasing and serving God. If celibacy should become a burden rather than a liberation for God’s service, then it should be reconsidered. “But if they can't control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It's better to marry than to burn with lust” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
In the current debate on celibacy in the church, there are two extremes to avoid. One is that the discipline of priestly celibacy is an outdated relic from medieval times that should now be discarded. This is wrong because celibacy is a gift from God to certain individual for the good of building up God’s kingdom on earth. The other is that celibacy, even when it is clearly not working, is always better than marriage. This may be Stoic thinking but not the Christian message. Let us today thank God for the gift of celibacy in the church. And let us pray for a better understanding and practice of celibacy in the church not as a constraint but as a way to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord among the people of God.
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