Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

Preach, or be damned – what would you choose?

February 8, 2009

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Preach, or be damned – what would you choose?

Given that you are logged onto a preaching website, I imagine the answer is obvious. In the interest of your continued good will (and reading), I won’t ask you to consider how those who listen to your preaching might answer.

So, why the question? This dialectic – preach or be damned – arises from Paul’s self-reflection on his role as apostle. Paul is presenting his self-understanding, describing the manner in which he presents himself, and the ultimate motivation which drives him. Preach, or be damned.

To be fair Paul doesn’t actually say “damned.” Rather, he says “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). As with the Old Testament “woes” that one reads in numerous prophetic oracles (cf. Isaiah 45:9; Hosea 7:13; see also Matthew 23:13-36), this is serious business. This is not the “whoa” of amazement or surprise, but the “woe” of suffering and punishment. In effect, Paul is calling trouble down upon himself should he fail to preach the gospel. “Woe to me if I fail to proclaim the gospel! I must preach or be damned!” With this attitude, Paul sets the stage for a striking reflection on his own calling as apostle, and provides a refreshing resource for our reflection on what it means to be called, commissioned to serve God and our neighbor, and proclaim the gospel.

There is much in this passage that may be familiar, primarily Paul’s summary of the nature of his apostleship. One of Paul’s most oft-quoted phrases is found here, that he will be “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Among the Jews, Paul is a committed and observant Jew, as he proudly declares elsewhere (Philippians 3:4-6). To those under the law, Paul will conduct himself as one also under the law, even though he is not subject to that law (1 Corinthians 9:20). To those outside the law, he will appear and present himself as one also outside of the law, even though, in a potentially confusing turn-around, he is “not free from God’s law” (verse 21). To the weak, Paul will give himself as one who is weak, though he has reason to boast (verse 22).

This fourfold summary of “all things” is at heart a repetition of two things in an A-A-B-B pattern. The Jews and those under the law are best read as one and the same. Likewise, those outside the law, the Gentiles, are also the “weak.” Think of this as a Pauline version of “There are two kinds of people.” “And,” Paul says, “I am whatever they need me to be, a little A-ish or a little B-ish.” Though free in Christ Jesus, Paul submits himself, to the point of being a slave, to his neighbors, willing to be “all things to all people.”

As with most familiar things, one must be careful not to read “all things to all people” as though Paul is saying that “everything goes.” As noted above, Paul is talking less about “all things” than articulating a basic two-part distinction: those under the law, and those outside the law, which covers everyone. What Paul is driving at is not some pluralist vision of all things being equal. He is driven by the need to deliver the gospel to all people, not just the chosen people or the insiders. Outside of this text, Paul explicitly says that theological relativity and idolatry are not a part of the gospel (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). In other words, Paul is stressing that he has given up all claims to his own particularity; but not the particularity of the gospel; in order to “win more,” and “save some.” The question is, why?

Why is Paul willing to do this? Why be all things to all people? Why risk appearing a chameleon of compromise? Why give up freedom for servitude? Why? Preach or be damned. For Paul this is not a question, or a matter of choice. It is a matter of necessity, of compulsion, of apostolic imperative. It is the gospel that is for all people, the gospel that drives him to reach out both to Jew and to Gentile, to the one struggling under the burden of the law and the one blissfully ignorant of its demands. For Paul the gospel is needed by both kinds of people, it is the one thing that is for all people. This is why he does what he does.

And this brings us again to the remarkable way in which Paul describes the apostolic imperative which drives him, and what it means for us. At the beginning of this little passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul holds in tension a set of contradictory terms: boasting and obligation, reward and commission. The calling, the obligation to proclaim the gospel is not a cause for boasting or arrogance; neither is it a means to an end or a reward. For Paul the gospel, as a blessing to be shared (1 Corinthians 9:23; 10:17; 11:23-26), is both obligation and reward, commission and compensation. Paul does not talk here of his calling or his “Christian life” as something motivated by heavenly reward, or something in which to take pride. Paul, who is accustomed to the occasional pride filled boast, takes a different tack here. He is motivated by the joy from servitude to Christ, the reward of a slavish devotion to all his neighbors, both those under God’s law and those unaware of it.

So too it ought to be for us who share this blessing. 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 presents a model image of discipleship for preachers and for lay leaders, and indeed for all people. What is begged of us is, perhaps, not to answer the question “Preach or be damned?” Rather, we are asked what motivates us for the work that we share as co-workers with Paul in the proclamation of the gospel. Let it be the joy that is Paul’s, for the sake of the gospel, so that we may share all its blessings with all people.