“Although I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win over as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19). With this passage we encounter, not the philosophical understanding of freedom, that is, a freedom from restraint of any kind, but the more profound and, yes, paradoxical, theological understanding of freedom. He is talking about the freedom that comes with the decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ. Let’s explore this.
We, more often than not, think of freedom in the former sense, that is, freedom from any kind of restraints, physical, social, or legal. To be free is one of the most primal drives of the human being. It is a fact that we most commonly think of freedom in political, social, or economic terms. Yet, history is full of stories of oppression and the need to be free. The struggle for freedom can be seen throughout history, from the Exodus story of the Jews, to the present, in every corner of the world. History is also replete with crimes against humanity, like all forms of oppression, genocide, slavery, and unjust wars. And, in every case, those who did those things felt themselves “free” to do so because they had the political, economic, or military might to do so. In other words, humanity has abused the divine gift of freedom more often than it has used it in its proper sense.
But Paul is talking about a deeper, more humanly defining kind of freedom in this passage. He is talking about the very image of God that each one of us were made in. This is where we encounter the paradox of our divinely created humanity. We have been made perfectly free. We are free to choose between right and wrong and we will always be so. We are free to choose aright, that is, we are free to choose what is good over that which is evil. And when we are living in Christ, we will have the strength to carry out those choices for the good, and to remain virtuous, good, and noble every day, in countless large and small choices. The problem, as we know only too well, is that we use our freedom to choose wrongly all too often, and out of our freedom, we bring about sorrow, suffering, injustice, and death. Yes. WE do this. All of us are guilty of misusing this divine gift, in small things and in great, whether we know it, or acknowledge it, or not.
Paul, though, is an example of one who is truly free, because he is free in Christ. Because of his love for, and commitment to Jesus Christ, he is able to say “no” to his human passions, to his false “needs,” to his own selfishness, for the sake of others, in the name of Jesus, the Christ. He expresses here his own joy in having learned this great wisdom about his freedom. He has chosen to give his all, to be for all, in order to help to bring “as many as possible” to Christ. He does so, not just with his words, but with every element of his life. He has chosen to live as Jesus lived. He has freely chosen to be a man for others, not to gain praise for himself, but to humbly serve others, and to show them the joy and the goodness that comes from being truly free in Christ Jesus. He is calling the Corinthians to this freedom with these words, but not frivolously, he has his deeds to back up his words too. This is the freedom that we, as Christians, are called to live, openly, selflessly, and joyfully. We are called to be, like Paul, people for others, in the name of Jesus Christ. We are freest, then, when we choose to give aid and comfort to those who suffer the dreads of poverty, or isolation, or abandonment, or helplessness, out of our love for, and our commitment to, Jesus.
Lord, You have made us free in your divine image. Help us to recognize that we are freest when we submit to your divine will of love. Give us the wisdom to clearly discern what is good, and what is evil and the courage to more and more often choose aright. Help us understand the beautiful paradox of the divine freedom you made us in, that it is in Christ-like selflessness and service that we are most free. This is the freedom from sin and death that Jesus won for us on the cross, forever. Thanks be to God! In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen!
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