Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Community

1 Corinthians 9:1-14

Having alluded to his liberty with a hypothetical example in the previous passage, Paul now proceeds to illustrate his willingness to give up his freedom for the sake of the gospel with a concrete example.  He begins by asking rhetorical questions about his identity: “Am I not free?  Am I not an apostle?  Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?  Are you not my work in the Lord?”  The way that the questions are framed Greek indicates that he expects the answer to be “Yes, of course” to each of the questions.  Assuming that all of these markers of Paul’s identity are true, he proceeds to explain that as a free apostle who has seen the Lord and has been charged proclaiming the gospel to the Corinthians, he has the “right” to be paid for his labors.  Apparently, there were members of the community who challenged this assumption.  After noting that other apostles had been paid, Paul offers three rhetorical examples to demonstrate the ludicrousness of an apostle working without pay.  A mercenary does not cover his own expenses, but is paid by the army who hires him.  A vintner does not plant a vineyard without expecting to reap some profit from the grapes, and a shepherd does not tend a flock of sheep or goats without some expectation of drinking the milk that those animals produce.  To underline his point, Paul quotes a passage from Scripture.  Deuteronomy 25:4 commands that one should not muzzle an ox while it is plowing a field.  Paul argues that this passage cannot simply refer to oxen, but must also apply to human beings in their various occupations.  He goes on to suggest that the one who plows should plow in hope and the one who reaps should reap in hope to share in the produce of the crop.  Here Paul is explaining the concept of “first fruits.”  The Law dictated that one had to make an offering the very beginning of the harvest, even before one knew how large that harvest would be.  It was an act of faith, and Paul is suggesting that as an apostle, he was entitled to a material share of the spiritual harvest among the Corinthians (the theme of first fruits will be recapitulated later in the letter).  Paul uses all of these examples to make the point that as an apostle he is legitimately entitled to be compensated.  He summarizes this point in 9:14, when he says, “The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”  Paul, however, has refused to make use of this “right.”  In spite of the fact that he is entitled to payment as an apostle, he has not accepted any compensation.  Paul does not just pay lip service to the notion of giving up one’s rights for the sake of the gospel; Paul’s ministry exemplifies this willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests in order to build up the community.

“Free will is not the liberty to do whatever one likes, but the power of doing whatever one sees ought to be done, even in the very face of otherwise overwhelming impulse.  There lies freedom, indeed.” — George MacDonald

One of my favorite movies in high school was Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, the story of a legendary Scottish warrior named William Wallace who sought to free Scotland from the tyrannical rule of the English king, Edward Longshanks.  It is one of those movies that is incredibly exciting to an adolescent boy: there are dramatic battle scenes, lots of swordplay, and a healthy dose of off-color humor.  In one of the pivotal scenes of this three-hour long saga, William Wallace is being tortured by his English captors.  At one point during this experience, he struggles to say something.  Thinking that Wallace is going to beg for mercy, the jailer pauses.  Rather than asking that he be spared, however, Wallace shouts the word “FREEDOM!” as loudly as he can, his voice echoing throughout the castle.  The music swells, and though the jailer continues to torture him, we get the sense that Wallace was finally experiencing freedom for himself and his countrymen.

Now, I don’t mean imply that there is a direct relationship between Saint Paul and Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace.  Nevertheless, Wallace’s proclamation of his freedom as he forfeited his life is consistent with Paul’s understanding of liberty in the Christian community.  Paul spent most of this passage articulating the source of his apostolic rights (explaining where his liberty comes from), only to argue that he refuses to make use of those rights for the sake of the gospel.  For Paul, true freedom involves sacrifice; true freedom is a willingness to give up one’s freedom for a cause greater than oneself.  In Paul’s estimation, this cause is the Church, the Christian community.

George MacDonald agrees with Paul about the exercise of one’s freedom.  As he argues in our quotation for the day, freedom is not about doing whatever I please, it is about ordering my will to do what should be done.  This is, admittedly, somewhat paradoxical.  True freedom is not the ability to control one’s destiny or the “liberty” to do whatever one pleases; true freedom involves limiting one’s options, so to speak, so that one might do the rightthing.  This is a difficult thing for us to hear, especially in a country where “liberty” is generally equated with “the pursuit of happiness.”  There is nothing wrong with pursuing happiness per se, but if our sisters and brothers are injured by our pursuit, then we have not truly exercised our Christian freedom.  As Christians, we are called to pursue that which builds up the Christian community, offering our gifts and our selves for the sake of the Church.  It is only by giving of ourselves, sacrificing our time, our talent, and our treasure, that we can truly understand what freedom is.

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