Building on his thinking concerning the equality of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, and ostensibly male and female, and seeking to create a unity and outwardly focused spirit of service amongst the members of the church body, Paul continues, writing “So now there are many members, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor in turn can the head say to the foot, ‘I do not need you.’” (1 Corinthians 12:20-21) Why would a body desire to cripple itself by demeaning some functions while elevating others? There is a trace of a sense that what may have been going on here is that the body of Corinthian believers were actually attempting to coerce those who did not exercise the type of spiritual gifts that were deemed to be more honorable (both inside and outside of the church) to leave the association.
If this is the case, Paul certainly could not abide this. He continues: “On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our un-presentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this” (12:22-24a). Though one may have read these words many times before, once the honor and shame culture is squarely in view, and once one sees how that culture has been carried into the church in a way that is clearly not appropriate, it is no longer possible to read these words about “weaker,” “honor,” and “dignity” in the same way. At the same time, Paul qualifies his usage by using phrases such as “seem to be” when referencing those that are thought of as being weaker, along with “we consider” when speaking of those thought of as “less honorable.” Surely this is meant to be provocative.
With what comes next Paul picks up on a prominent feature of the Jesus tradition, together with its teaching about the kingdom of the Creator God and the enactment of that teaching through its meal practice, which is that of the first becoming last and the last becoming first. Unity and equality with no divisions leaps directly to the fore when he writes “Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members have mutual concern for one another” (12:24b-25). There is an example-of-Jesus-based last as first and first as last construct there, and mutual concern is a key.
With an active ethic of the preferring of the other regardless of status, Jews and Greek are to have mutual concern for each other. For Jews, this is revolutionary. Slaves and free are to have mutual concern for each other---also revolutionary. Men and women, by extension, are to have mutual concern for each other---part and parcel of turning the world upside down. This mutual concern must move beyond sentiment, resulting in actions that demonstrate that mutual concern, with mutual concern over-riding societal constructs that would normally function to limit and govern such actions. It is in that same frame of thought that one is then able to go on to read “If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored,” with this honor assigned through the court of public opinion, “all rejoice with it” (12:26).