The second reading at Mass this weekend, from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, contains a very odd verse. Paul wrote, “Let those having wives act as not having them.”
Um, wait a minute. What does that mean? We all know when a married man starts acting as if he does not have a wife, he is well on his way to not having a wife. And in the process, the divorce lawyers will suck him dry of every last nickel he owns—and rightfully so.
Many studies have shown that married men live longer and healthier lives than bachelors. This is because unmarried men are more likely to spend their time hanging out with other unmarried men, drinking and carousing, eating poorly, getting into barroom brawls, and crashing their cars into telephone poles at 3 a.m.
Also, unmarried men, without that feminine influence around the house, often get into the habit of wearing the same socks and underwear for four or five days in a row. Just the smell alone can take years off a guy’s life.
So, why did St. Paul tell married men that they should act as if they were unmarried? Did Paul want fellas to go out carousing until 3 a.m. and wear the same socks five days in a row? (Although I don’t think socks were all that popular in first century Palestine. Socks with sandals didn’t become popular until German tourists started visiting the U.S.)
I looked up this verse in three different Bible commentaries, and each one completely glossed over this specific statement. The focus instead was on the other things Paul said about married life throughout chapter 7.
If I had to guess (which, apparently, I have to), I’d say the last line of this week’s reading is key. Paul said, “For this world in its present form is passing away.”
During his ministry, Paul repeatedly emphasized the fact that in the Christian understanding of reality, our life on earth is fleeting. Believers should be, as the old expression goes, “in this world, but not of this world,” because our existence here on earth is transitory. We are only renters not owners. Our true home is in Heaven with the Lord for all eternity.
All the wonderful things we experience in life, including the joys of marriage, are gifts from God. But they all are mere glimpses of the joys we will embrace in Heaven. As Paul explained earlier in this epistle, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has prepared for those who love him.” In other words, Heaven is going to be so wonderfully amazing, it’s going to blow our socks off. (Well, at least for those of us who lived in a time and place where socks were popular.)
A good word to describe Paul’s attitude about our world is detachment. We are called to be detached from the things of this earthly, natural life. Now, of course, this world is important. We also are called to be good stewards of the earth and to help as many people as we can who lack material necessities.
However, we cannot be so obsessed about the things of this world, that it takes away our focus on the world to come, the world of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom.
So, I think Paul was simply encouraging us never to lose sight of the ultimate prize: eternal life in Heaven. I’m fairly confident Paul was not suggesting that married men should ignore their wives, act as if they were bachelors, and go out carousing all night. Paul just doesn’t strike me as a carousing kind of guy.
But to be honest, if Paul had asked me to edit his epistle before mailing it to the folks at Corinth, I would’ve deleted that part about men acting as if they were not married. You know how guys are. If it takes a week for us to remember to change our socks, then there’s a really good chance we’re going to misunderstand Paul’s message.