Epiphany 5: 8 February 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
In this chapter Paul has been 'on the back foot'. It is not difficult to discern the issue. People have been questioning his authority and standing as an apostle. The issue becomes even more acute by the time he writes 2 Corinthians, especially 10-13. We see from Jesus' instructions to his envoys (this is the meaning of 'apostles') in Mark 6 and in Q (preserved in Matthew 10 and Luke 10), that the expectation was that they be fed and sheltered by those to whom they ministered. Without citing these particular passages, which he would not have known, Paul, nevertheless, alludes to Jesus' instructions (9:14) . It is likely that some people at Corinth knew that this was the established pattern. Possibly they had learned about it through Peter. They probably also saw it as a sign of faith and apostolic authority. When Paul worked on the side as a tent maker to raise funds for his mission it looked very much like either he did not have the faith that his needs would be met or he did not have the authority to claim support for himself - or both!
That is the context for the verses which we have in today's epistle reading. Without that context it sounds as if Paul is making some personal statements of a very general kind. He is not. He is defending himself. It belongs to Paul's style not to retreat into self justification, but to explain his actions in a way that shows careful thought and theological consistency. He begins by denying any rights to himself (and therefore also to others with whom he is being compared!). Instead he claims that preaching the gospel is laid on him as an obligation.
In such situations Paul makes full use of rhetoric. That includes exaggeration. It is not really as though he is preaching the gospel against his own will (9:17b); he obviously decides to do so! But he is not doing God a favour or doing others a favour in such a way that he would be putting others in his debt. He is not angling for a reward! This is easier said than done. How many people are in ministry because they seek a reward, even if it is the reward of being appreciated and valued. Dependencies easily emerge when ministry is our investment resulting from our neediness. Paul holds himself back from all such 'rights' and claims on others. His reward is the work itself - paradoxically, it is in preaching the gospel for no reward. It is really important to understand that love is a way of being which is its own reward. When loving or ministries of caring become self investment then something is askew. People often feel used and abused and often are.
Many at Corinth remained unhappy with Paul's explanations. They went on to argue that he was inconsistent, because he was apparently willing sometimes to receive aid - for instance, from Philippi. We see this behind 2 Corinthians. In our passage Paul broadens his defence into a statement of strategy. He argues for flexibility, perhaps already sensing that consistency would be an issue. In saying he is a Jew to Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles, he is doubtless also telling us that he would be observant with observant Jews but not so when with Gentiles. This is consistent with his advice to the Corinthians about food. They should adopt a strategy of being sensitive and not offending those who observe the Law about foods. That is his freedom. It would have infuriated those Christian Jews who saw Scripture as absolute and therefore its laws as immutable and infallible. The conflict in Antioch, recorded in Galatians 2:11-14, illustrates that even people like Peter would have been uncomfortable with Paul's strategy when it came to the crunch.
Paul is eager to point out that he does not mean anything goes. This had always been the accusation: if you drop some parts of the Law, don't you invite lawlessness!? Fundamentalists have the same fear today about dropping any part of the biblical law. For Paul, the law of Christ demands much more than the biblical law, but it is also able to relate to new situations more flexibly, because its starting point is not rules but a central principle and relationship. Paul is arguing for flexibility. Notice that the underlying motivation is love. Paul puts it in terms of preaching the gospel and gaining people. His evangelism is not a numbers game, but one of drawing people into a relationship with this God who loves, and produces in people the fruit of the Spirit, which is love.
With his back to the wall Paul often says powerful things. The conflict he faced is still around today and his way of responding to it is still a model to be considered. At a more basic level, it alerts us to a range of things which happen when people engage in ministry - only some of them are life giving; some of them are life-sapping and based in self-investment. Paul will have none of that.
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