Jabbok Dawn

Tumbling in the Sand

The body is good, sarx, on the other hand …

Texts for Sunday, July 10, 2011:   Isaiah 55:10–13Psalm 65:1–13Romans 8:1–11; and Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. … If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” -Romans 8: 5 & 11

I don’t know why I’m doing this.  I’d much rather talk about dancing with the clapping trees in Isaiah, but find myself drawn to Paul’s words here in Romans.  Romans is so confusing when it comes to our bodies and how they matter to God because it seems like Paul doesn’t like the body at all—especially in this passage where he keeps talking about how the flesh is deadly but the Spirit is good and life …

When we read this passage, we tend to think that it means that we should deny our bodily needs and think that our body is bad.  Instead, we should really be worrying about our souls and if, well, we start to want to take care of our bodies, or feel desires for things (like our bodily needs like eating or healthy sexual desire or sleeping), we’re being bad somehow.  Instead, we good Christians are supposed to deny all of that in favor of, I don’t know, fasting, prayer, and abstinence or maybe even more extreme things like practices of corporal mortification to punish our bodies for doing things we don’t think they should … then again, I suppose we have other, more modern ways of “punishing” our bodies, believing them to be weak, treating them with disrespect.And here, it seems, we have someone who agrees with us—Paul says, after all, that the flesh is weak.

The thing is, the reason we read the passage this way is because we know about Descartes—and Paul has never heard of him before.  We’ve gotten this idea in our heads that we are somehow made of two parts: a body that is kind of like an envelope or a machine or something and an immaterial soul which is what actually makes us who we are.  The thing is, the Bible has no such understanding of what it means to be human:  the Bible’s formula for what a human is, at least in Genesis and the Psalms (which would have been what Paul read), is this:  dirt + God’s breath = soul/human/being.  So, we are, in fact, then the unique make up of dirt and breath (credit to Wendell Berry for articulating this) and we are not anything at all without both.

So, if Paul isn’t dissecting us into parts, a good soul and a bad body, what is going on here?  First of all, it’s probably important to notice that “Spirit” is always capitalized.  Paul is talking about God’s Spirit, not some spirit of our own, like a soul.  So, the thing that is good, that is alive, that gives life, is God.Secondly, on a close reading, you might notice that Paul uses two words that we think are basically the same: body (soma) and flesh (sarx).  BUT, Paul doesn’t use them the same way, he uses “the flesh” in a negative sense and the body is actually kind of important—what God actually saves (note the last verse there—our body is what gets life, gets resurrection). So, when Paul is talking about “the flesh” he’s not talking about “the body,” instead he’s talking about what is not of God.  Which would be things that weren’t of life, or love, or healing, or forgiveness, or freedom, things like death and destruction and hate and slavery—things that sin produce.

Painting by Joanne Beaule Ruggles

This means something kind of important:  our faith and our God isn’t something that is only interested in our slightly disconnected souls and what happens to them in eternity; instead, faith is about every aspect of our lives NOW and God is present making even our bedrooms, our bathrooms, and our other really messy places where our bodies hang out into holy places where the Spirit of God dwells in us making us alive.  Now, that’s a harder spirituality in some ways because that means that our everyday life matters to God, even the stuff we think shouldn’t.  At the same time, this is a way more awesome spirituality because that means that nothing is beyond God’s grace:  remember how this passage starts? “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death!”  Now that is good news!

3 comments on “The body is good, sarx, on the other hand …

  1. Tim Courtois
    March 16, 2014

    Hi! Stumbled upon this blog, and I have a question that I’d love to hear your thoughts on: You said that we read the passage the wrong way because we know about Descartes. If I’m not mistaken, doesn’t Plato also make a very similar distinction between the body/physical and spiritual? I feel like I’ve heard people argue that Paul is influenced by Platonic thought in many places. So, though Paul obviously didn’t know Descartes, he could have known (or been influenced by) Plato.

    As I’m reading 1 Corinthians 15, it seems like perhaps Paul isn’t condemning “soma” as a whole because there are multiple kinds of somas: There are natural “somas” (which are made of sarx) and there are spiritual “somas”. The spiritual ones are good, and the natural ones (sarx) are bad.

    To be clear: I’m not saying I’m sure of this; I’m thinking out loud, and I’d love to hear your response…


    • jabbokdawn
      December 3, 2014

      Tim, Hi!! I’ve been meaning to get back to you on this for awhile. Sorry for the long delay.

      It’s not uncommon to read Paul through the Platonic lens and I do think that Paul was probably influenced by Plato’s thought. But, not as influenced as we—or even Augustine—are. Paul is very Jewish in his approach to Greek philosophy.

      There is also an important distinction between Descartes and Plato (and here is where I reveal my primary concern—God’s love and redemption of the material): Plato still thought the soul was material. Just a really fine material—the body was a heavy, wet, messy material that weighed the soul down (and when you died, your soul could slough off the heavy material body and float up to the heavens to join all the other souls a.k.a. “celestial bodies” … stars). Descartes, in an effort to move the soul away from something that could fall into the realm of scientific inquiry, suggested an immaterial soul, which completely segregates the holy from the material world, which isn’t particularly Christian.

      It wouldn’t be unreasonable to read Paul the way that you are, but you’d need to know that both natural and spiritual “somas” are material. And then, the natural “soma” … the sarx … is the one that has been corrupted by sin and the spiritual “soma” is the one that has been freed from sin and death. And yet …

      Here’s something to think about: Christians buried their dead (following in the practices of Judaism to be sure). They took great respect for the bodies of the dead believing the material bodies of the dead to be what would be raised. The bodies of the dead were to be as respected as the living. This was new and different in a Greek and Roman society, where often bodies were left along the streets to rot and were not respected (because, well, their souls were gone and the bodies were useless shells). In fact, this care for the very sick and the dead attracted people to this new Christian movement … Anyway, this says something about the understanding of the importance of the human body to Christian theology and should probably influence how we read what Paul is saying, or at least how the people he was writing to would have read what he wrote.

      Hope these thoughts add some grist to your thought process. Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and adding to my thoughts too.


  2. Tim Courtois
    December 17, 2014

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. Those thoughts do indeed give some “grist”. They’re timely, too, as this topic has just come up again for me in the last few days. I just read this article by N.T. Wright: http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_SCP_MindSpiritSoulBody.htm

    It’s Christmas time, and I’m thinking about the Incarnation and how God reveals himself in and through the material world. Thanks for taking the time to engage and to help me purge my heart a little bit more of that nasty Cartesian dualism and rationalism. 🙂


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This entry was posted on July 8, 2011 by in Sparks from the Lectionary.

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