The lectionary carves this piece off from a lengthy, complicated argument. To fully understand the issues, it’s necessary to go back as far as last week’s reading, in which Paul was advocating mutual forbearance in the case of whether Christians can legitimately eat food offered to idols. At the beginning of chapter 9, a new issue emerges: some antagonists have apparently been attacking Paul over the issue of his financial compensation. Again, Paul talks of rights: not the right to choose one’s diet, but the right to “food and drink” in general and the right “to be accompanied by a believing wife” (vv. 4-5). Paul argues that, just as shepherds are entitled to the milk their flock produces, so too, as apostle, he is entitled to some of the “milk” from his Corinthian flock (v. 7). Yet, just as he did in the case of food offered to idols, Paul forgoes his rights for the sake of the weak. Twice he declares (vv. 12b, 15) that he has not made use of this right. No, Paul has determined that the only way to advance the gospel is for him to preach without compensation. After demanding his paycheck in the earlier part of this chapter, here in the latter part he hands it back uncashed. Paul insists that he proclaims the gospel “free of charge” (v. 18). He has made himself “a slave to all, so that [he] might win more of them” (v. 19). Everywhere he goes, he adapts himself to local circumstances. He has become “all things to all people” (v. 22). (This phrase, which has made its way into popular jargon, usually has derogatory connotations; here, in the original context, Paul cites it as a point of pride.) This is a difficult passage on which to preach, for it requires extensive background information about the situation in Corinth. The most relevant point for contemporary congregations is that Paul always puts the needs of the gospel first. As in Jeremiah 20:9, Paul has a fire in his bones: “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (v. 16b).
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