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Epiphany 5B 2nd Reading

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Jim Edlin

How good is the Good News? According to Paul, it is the very best, most amazing, spectacular, deep-fly-ball-over-the-fence-homerun kind of news ever. Nothing is any better. The Good News of Jesus Christ is so good, he said, that it is worth some inconvenience in this life. He was willing to set aside his rights, to adjust his lifestyle and even to suffer in order to see it advanced.

I wonder if the people sitting in our pews share the same sentiment as Paul. Is the Good News really that good to them? Is it truly the best news ever? Is it worth forgoing some rights and privileges in order to share it with others?

Most people feel they possess rights that others should respect. In the United States, people affirm the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For most of us this includes being given opportunity to gain an education and accumulate wealth through hard work. Of course, there is also our right to justice, to be treated fairly and presumed innocent until proven guilty. In addition, some authorities tell us we have a right to be our own person and hold our own values regardless of what others say. We can forge our own path and go counter to what tradition and nature tell us. We are free to be ourselves and no one can make us do otherwise. We have a right to our own opinions and to speak our minds.

Paul also had rights. As a Pharisee, he belonged to an elite group that held many economic and social advantages over most people. He could command a special seat of honor in the synagogue or at meals. His education under the famed teacher Gamaliel, along with his Roman citizenship, granted him additional rights in the eyes of both Jews and Romans.

Just prior to our focus passage, Paul had been discussing one of his rights as a Christian leader (1 Cor 9:1-15). As an apostle, he had the right to ask for support from local congregations. This discussion proceeded from the previous issue he addressed about whether a person should eat meat sacrificed to idols in chapter 8. There he came to the point of suggesting that Christians may want to set aside their right to hold their own opinion for the sake of “someone with a weak conscience” (1 Cor 8:9-13). This thought served as a spring board to talk about his rights as an apostle.

Paul could have demanded his rights. Yet he chose otherwise. In fact, he did not ask for support because he wanted people to know that the Good News came “free of charge” (v 18). These words suggest that Paul wanted to ensure people understood the Good News could not be purchased. “It is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). His “no charge” ministry illustrated the “no charge” gospel of Christ.

But there is something else behind these words. Within the ancient Greco-Roman world a system of patronage had become well established. Wealthy individuals might support a gifted orator, philosopher or teacher with the expectation of controlling their venues and even content at times. Paul sought to distance himself from such control in order to avoid misunderstanding about the goodness of the Good News. Paul suggested that he was like a steward who managed the affairs of a master’s household, “simply discharging the trust committed to” him (v 17). He had only one Master, Jesus. No other patron would direct his ministry.

Thus, Paul felt “compelled” (constrained, obligated) to share the Good News on behalf of his benefactor Jesus (v 16). Paul described it as if a load had been laid upon him as it would be on a work animal. He had no choice. His encounter with Jesus Christ so transformed his life that he felt obligated to carry that news to others.

The goodness of the Good News drove Paul even to slavery, a social ranking in Roman society that carried few rights. He maintained, “I make myself a slave to everyone” (v 19). By this he meant that he willingly submitted his preferences to those of others, including their misguided ideas and even repulsive lifestyles, in order that the Good News might be shared. He set aside his opinions, even his right to be right, so that people might hear the Good News. He accommodated to “those under the law” as well as those “not having the law,” though he did not agree with either (v 20). He would even identify with “the weak,” those who held religious scruples he did not necessarily hold, in order to win them. As he summed it up, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some” (v 22). Why? Because the Good News is just that good.

In the remaining verses of the chapter (vv 24-27), Paul continues to describe his commitment to the Good News of Jesus. He picks up on the image of the intense training an athlete might endure in preparation for the Isthmian games near Corinth, athletic contests second only to the Olympic games in Athens. He disciplined himself and made his body a slave “so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (v 27).

Clearly Paul had discovered just how good the Good News was. He knew about the ever-renewing strength God gives to the weary that the Old Testament prophet spoke about (Isa 40:21-31). He could testify with the psalmist of a God who “delights in those who fear him” (Ps 147:11). So, he understood why Jesus kept moving from village to village in Galilee preaching the Good News (Mk 1:38-39).

How good is the Good News? Is it worth setting aside some of my opinions, my comforts, my preferences, even my rights? According to Paul, the answer is a resounding yes. It is just that good.

Jim Edlin

Professor of Biblical Literature and Languages, MNU

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