These words are a great challenge to us in our times. Our culture seems to have placed a high value on material gain.
ʺIf we have sown spiritual seed for you, is it a great thing that we reap a material harvest from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more?
Yet we have not used this right. On the contrary, we endure everything so as not to place an obstacle to the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who perform the temple services eat [what] belongs to the temple, and those who minister at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord ordered that those who preach the gospel should live by the gospel.ʺ (1Cor. 9: 11-14)
These words are a great challenge to us in our times. Our culture seems to have placed a high value on material gain. Indeed, it is thought by many in the culture that material gain is a ʺright.ʺ Many ʺbelieveʺ that material prosperity is the highest value, that when one has achieved it one can say that one has ʺmade it,ʺ and become a ʺtrue successʺ in life. Indeed there are those, even in the Church, who use the gospel to argue that case. They will use the passage from Matthew 6, ʺBut seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (material things) will be given to you as well.ʺ (Mt. 6: 33) Many of those who preach this, and many of those who hear it, focus on the latter half of the verse, rather than the first. They ʺseek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,ʺ as if it is some kind of talisman that will make them rich in the here and now. But the truth is that those who truly seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness first, will not have time to worry about material gain. In reality, they will forget about keeping up with the latest fashions, or desiring greater material wealth. For God, and living in his righteousness, will occupy all of their time and attention. And because of this, they will suddenly become aware of the fact that they have become rich in the things that really matter: hospitality, mercy, compassion, love, forgiveness, and finally, happiness. If material well being comes to one, because one has sought first God’s righteousness, one will accept it humbly and will then will use it willingly, and happily, for the good of others, not just for one’s own comforts.
Have you noticed, too, how much attention is given to the thoughts and words of the rich and famous in our culture, whether they be business moguls, sports stars, or Hollywood elites? These are called upon often to expound on matters of political, and moral import, as if they were experts, simply because they are rich and famous. They mouth some cliche and their acolytes ooh and aah at their ʺwisdoms,ʺ posting them to Facebook, as if they were oracles from on high. It seems as if everything in our culture is judged through the shallow and ephemeral lens of fame and material prosperity.
Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, who were as taken by the desires for material wealth as we are, challenges us with an entirely new ethic. He is challenging them, and us, to see that material ʺthingsʺ are nothing in comparison to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is challenging them by way of a comparison here. The argument is familiar even today. Yes, those who serve as ministers of the Lord work hard. They work unstintingly on behalf of the people. That is what they have been called by God to do. They have answered that call to preach the gospel. And, ʺthe Lord ordered that those who preach the gospel should live by the gospel.ʺ Here is where the argument begins to hit close to home. Paul has ʺsown the seed of faithʺ among them through hard labors and even some bitter trials, and it is bearing fruit. And he says to them, essentially, ʺOught we not be able to reap a material harvest from you for all the good that I we have brought to you? If others, who have done less for you, have a rightful material claim on you, do we not deserve even more? Is that not the way the economy works?ʺ
Then he turns the argument on its back. ʺYet we have not used this right. On the contrary, we endure everything so as not to place an obstacle to the gospel of Christ.ʺ He is saying that, though we have the ʺrightʺ to receive material remuneration for our labors among the believers, we do not do so, because it can be an obstacle to their acceptance of the good news we preach. For example, it may be an obstacle to those who are poor, if we take their little bit from them by cajoling them with syrupy words, or worse, if we demand remuneration from them threatening them with fire and brimstone. It can be an obstacle for the rich, because they may come to think that, because they have given so generously of their material wealth, they ought to be relieved from having to observe some of the more ʺtroubling detailsʺ of the gospel. No. We do not do what we do for material gain. We do what we do for God, for the One who is the only source of our real and true ʺwealth.ʺ Unlike those ʺwho perform the temple services, [who] eat [what] belongs to the temple,ʺ we do not serve the people of God to become rich ourselves. We serve the people of God to make them richer than they could ever dream, in the things that truly matter.
In the early Church, this message struck home. As we see in the Acts of the Apostles, ʺThe community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.ʺ (Acts 4: 32-35) They were living the gospel, not just preaching it. In the similar account in Acts 2: 42-47, the passage ends saying this, ʺAnd every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.ʺ (Acts 2:47)
In living the very gospel that they were preaching they gained the attention of those around them, including the 2nd century historian, Aristides, who observed their behavior and wrote this: ʺThey walk in all humility and kindness…and love one another.ʺ These are the ʺrewardsʺ that come unsought by those who live according to the gospel they preach. Humility, kindness, and love. These are the riches we gain when we live the gospel we preach. To live according to the gospel we preach is to give without expecting anything in return. To love fully is to empty yourself, like Christ, so that He can fill you up to overflowing with his love and mercy. That is a gain far greater than gold. Amen.SKM: below-content placeholder