Patting ourselves on the back?

At a certain time of year, teachers are inundated by requests for letters of recommendation. Students are applying for college, or graduate school, or scholarships. And while some letters are easy to write, others pose more of a challenge.

Years ago, a young man who was applying to medical school came to ask me for a letter of reference. All I knew of him was that he had nearly failed the one course he had taken from me. “You realize,” I said as evenly and carefully as possible, “that if I write a letter based on my experience of you, you’re very unlikely to be accepted.” He knew. And he still wanted the reference — because no one else would write him one, and without any references, his chance of admission was exactly…zero.

I wrote the letter.

When we need to make decisions about strangers, we still rely on others to vouch for them. It was no different in Paul’s day (and you couldn’t Google anyone, either). Paul himself wrote letters of introduction for his colleagues, just as he promised to send such a letter with the Corinthian delegation that would bring their donation to Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:3).

Then why the apparent difficulty with such letters early in 2 Corinthians? Paul writes:

Are we starting to commend ourselves again? We don’t need letters of introduction to you or from you like other people, do we? (2 Cor 3:1, CEB)

As we’ve seen in previous posts, some fresh challenges had arisen in Corinth, with newly arrived teachers exacerbating doubts about Paul’s authority and credibility as an apostle.  Presumably, they brought their own letters of introduction, and as Paul’s words above suggest, may have been seeking further letters from the Corinthians as well. (Who knows what they would have done with them — undermine Paul in other churches?) But Paul accuses them of peddling the gospel for personal gain, and by contrast, claims to preach the gospel with integrity (2 Cor 2:17).

Imagine this scenario with me. Some of the folks in your congregation have been openly critical of your pastor. In defense, your pastor pounds the pulpit and declares, “I don’t hustle God’s word like some others of you out there! I’m sincere! The words I speak, I speak in union with Christ and in the presence of God!”

How would you react?

Given the questions that have already been raised about Paul’s apostleship, it’s easy to imagine that the words with which he ended chapter 2 might have sounded a bit self-congratulatory to the Corinthians. Thus, he begins chapter 3 with what sounds like a bit of defensive sarcasm: Maybe you think I’m just patting myself on the back again? After all, I don’t have any letters of reference to brag about, nor am I requesting letters from you — as if I needed them.

He doesn’t say it, but the background irony is that letters of reference are for establishing trust between strangers. It’s as if Paul is saying, “What? After all this time, do you not know me?” But that too could sound like self-congratulation.

Paul thus takes a different tack. And given all the difficulties he’s had with the congregation, it’s a dicey one: I don’t need any letters, because you are my letter.

More on this next week.