Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 7, 2021
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 Commentary
It’s perhaps somewhat ironic that in Epiphany’s season that focuses on light, the RCL appoints epistolary lessons whose mysteries leave at least some of its readers in the dark. It doesn’t help that the RCL often drops its proclaimers into the middle of chapters that discuss of complex issues.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is no exception. It, in fact, doesn’t just drop its readers into the middle of what translators have deemed a chapter. 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 also drops us right into the middle of what translators render as a paragraph.
The puzzling nature of this placement offers perhaps three paths for people to proclaim it. One involves catching up hearers on the argument into whose middle the RCL drops us and then moving into the appointed lesson. In that case proclaimers might want to deal extensively with verses 1-18, as well as the appointed verses.
A second path might involve seeking a unifying theme for the entire appointed Lesson. Graydon F. Snyder’s treatment of it suggests focusing on and exploring how Paul’s economic and cultural independence frees him to be all things to people of all cultures.
However, 1 Corinthians 9’s proclaimers might choose a third route that focuses on an idea that’s largely encapsulated in one part of the appointed Lesson. Of course, even the theme and that lesson have a theological and literary context that needs to be at least briefly named and described. But the Spirit may use focusing on one main textual point to allow a fairly full exploration of that idea.
That approach might follow the path laid out by Paul’s, “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (19). Of course, its proclaimers want to make a couple of things clear. Paul considers himself, first all of all, a slave of no one but the Lord. He begins his letter to Philippi’s Christians by referring to himself as a “servant” of Christ. That word, however, can just as easily be translated as “slave.” Paul takes his orders not from any or all people, but from the living God in Jesus Christ.
What’s more, when Paul speaks of himself as others’ “slave,” he doesn’t mean that he’s somehow beholden to them in any sort of economic way. He, in fact, stresses his financial independence throughout 1 Corinthians 9. So when he refers to himself as a “slave,” it’s as though the apostle is saying he subjugates his own interests and control over his life to the peoples and cultures of those with whom he shares the gospel.
As Snyder notes, Paul feels free to preach the gospel because he doesn’t feel responsible to any particular group. What’s more, he recognizes that no culture or ethnic group can claim ultimate authority. So the apostle can, in one sense, be “all things to all people.”
Yet before 1 Corinthians 9’s proclaimers dig too far into it, they should explore with hearers the word we translate as “win.” In the Greek it’s kerdeo. It’s the kind of language that, when applied to the Christian faith, as my colleague Stan Mast notes, makes some people nervous. It may, after all, smack of superiority or subjugation.
Scholars tell us, however, that kerdeo has two slightly different shades of meaning. One is to “win over,” to convince someone of the rightness of one’s perspective. But the other meaning may speak more directly to this Sunday’s Lesson. It’s the idea of “gaining by investment.”
So when Paul speaks of “winning” Jews, slaves, Gentiles and the “weak,” he may be saying something like he’s culturally flexibly pouring himself into and investing in them. He’s doing that in order to convince them to follow him out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light that is God’s kingdom.
The first group of people in which the Jewish apostle invests himself is, not surprisingly, “the Jews” (20). “I became,” he says there, “like a Jew to win the Jews.” Of course, Paul, in a real sense, didn’t have to “become” like a Jew. He was what Snyder calls “a blue-blooded Jew.”
Paul believed that by perfectly obeying the law, Christ had eliminated the need to obey at least some of Torah. Yet when the apostle speaks of becoming like a Jew, he seems to suggest that he’s willing to observe elements of that law in order to win people over to their Messiah. While Christ had granted him much freedom in regards to faithfully responding to God’s grace, Paul often spoke in synagogues. Acts 21 also reports that he publicly underwent Jewish rites of purification.
When the apostle, secondly, speaks of becoming like those “under the law” (20b), he seems to be identifying with slaves. In fact, apparently many of Jesus’ earliest followers were slaves (or at least near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder). While Paul’s failure to argue for the abolition of slavery troubles at least some modern Christians, he identifies with slaves. He, after all, calls himself “a slave to everyone,” including a slave to Christ.
The people who don’t have the law (21) in whom the apostle says he, thirdly, invests seem to be the Gentiles. Paul didn’t just freely associate with them. He also didn’t expect them to conform either to Torah observance or change their customs to show him hospitality. The apostle sometimes acted like a Gentile in order to persuade them of the value of a faithful relationship with God in Jesus Christ. He used his Christian freedom to act like and, thus, identify with Jesus’ earliest Gentile followers.
Finally, “the weak” (22) whose weakness Paul shares echoes 1 Corinthians 8’s discussion of those who are weak in their faith. These seem to be Christians whose faith is battered by certain behaviors of their fellow Christians. By echoing chapter 8’s talk about avoiding being a stumbling block to the weak, Paul seems to suggest that he’s willing to carefully limit his own Christian freedom in order to protect the faith of those whom the exercise of that freedom might deeply harm.
Yet I’d suggest that Paul’s “slavery” required a kind of cultural and religious literacy that at least some of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers may not fully share. In order to faithfully be all things for all people, we need a strong sense of what others are like, including what interests, motivates and haunts them. 1 Corinthians 9’s proclaimers also invite our hearers to more fully enter into the lives of others, especially those from whom they differ.
This is, however, frankly, a radically counter-cultural idea. Perhaps especially North Americans live in thickly walled “siloes” that largely isolate us from people who are different from us. It’s not just that we tend to live near and work with people to whom we’re socio-economically similar. It’s also that many of us don’t have many relationships with people who don’t share things like our political views. It’s hard for American Republicans and Democrats, for example, to be all things to people on the other side of the “aisle” when we can hardly even talk to, much listen to each other.
This morning’s Epistolary Lesson invites us to invest ourselves in the lives of people with whom we disagree so that they may see in us the Way, the Truth and the Life. 1 Corinthians 9 invites us to shed the contempt we naturally feel for those who aren’t like us in order to dress ourselves in understanding of and empathy for them. Perhaps, then, it invites its proclaimers to read, for example, both The Christian Century and Christianity Today. It summons us to familiarize ourselves with the perspectives of both Fox News and CNN.
Yet we don’t do so for the reasons we sometimes offer for such “spying.” Gospel proclaimers don’t become culturally literate in order to learn how to bash those with whom we disagree, point to the multitude of the errors of their ways or further bolster the rightness of our cause. We learn others’ perspectives, especially on the things that divide us from them, so that we can better understand people whose perspectives those outlets shape. We do so in order that we can, for Jesus’ sake, be all things to all people for the sake of their eternal well-being.
In his wonderful book, Loving Your Enemies, Arthur Brooks helps identify what I’ve come to believe is one of at least the United States’ biggest problems. It isn’t, he says, that Americans are so politically deeply divided. It’s that we feel contempt for those on the other side of political issues.
His concluding chapter makes some suggestions for subverting our culture of contempt. One includes being far more selective in our choice and use of social media. “Obliterate your siloes by listening, reading and watching media on the ‘other side,’ he writes. “Get rid of your curated social media feeds. Unfollow public figures who foment contempt, even if you agree with them.”
After all, who knows? We might even find that we love if not like those “others” with whom we disagree but will, by God’s grace amazing grace, share space in the New Creation.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!