1 Corinthians 9:16-23
16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
What I Am Learning:
Paul sounds like quite a boaster! I mean if he had to really hold himself back from boasting he would be like a person singing, “O Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble.”
We have a tendency to interpret Paul this way, and his manner of writing contributes to this. But if reading the Gospels is cross-cultural work, then reading Paul is cross-cultural work too.
Generally Greeks and Jews did not think well of boasting. But nevertheless it happened. It was all the better to have someone else boast for you. For instance, if you were a wealthy patron and you have a ram to a poor person so they could strengthen their flock, that poor person would publically honor you when you or your agents walked in public. They did your boasting so you didn’t have to.
All of this was a part of the ranking of status that occupied a lot of energy in first century Palestine and beyond. This status system was so pervasive, that when Paul went around starting churches it was natural for people to feel that they were leaving the status system of Caesar and entering into the status system of Christ. In their imagination it was all too easy to think that Paul would then have higher status than them, as he was an Apostle of Jesus.
But Jesus did not want to replace one status system for another. He did not want to recreate a system in which some few are honored and most are derided. He did not want to create a new competitive system to replace the old one. Jesus wanted to lead people into God’s reign of mutuality. He still does.
But when people have been raised a certain way, it is hard for them to let the old system go. So Paul has to make this explicit.
His reward for preaching the gospel, he said in verse 18, is not that he had higher status than others, but that he did not have to claim higher status. He was tired of status games and competition to be the ideal human. Indeed, domination/submission systems wear us out.
Paul wanted out of the game!
But he knew all too well that the transition from a culture of domination/submission is a very hard one.
He did not see himself as some kind of pyramid scheme salesperson, looking to move every higher in the organization on the shoulders of those below. All he wanted was to share in the blessings of the gospel.
The gospel is good news in part because it is good news for all, not just for some, or the right, or the smart or the good looking, or the young or the techies, or the hipsters or the whatever.
The gospel is a great equalizer – it calls us from trying to be God or to be worms to stand on the earth with one another.
By the definitions of his day, Paul was a fool. Who would give up their status to be human with others when we all know that nobody else will join?
I think there are many people tired of competition and status games, ready to share in the blessings of God’s way of mutuality, together.