What Is Your Greatest Prize?
Running a race is a perfect metaphor for Paul’s audience, the Corinthians. The Olympic games had been a part of the Greek culture for centuries by the time of this writing. The athletes of those games were held up as heroic models of Greek strength and prowess. In the ancient Greek version of the games, there was only one winner. There were no prizes given for second and third place, no silver or bronze medals. The laurel crown was worn by the victor alone. That was a mere earthly prize though. The laurel wreath would, in time, crumble to dust. The names of the victors might be remembered for a while, but would eventually be forgotten in the mist of time past.
In this passage, Paul is exhorting the Corinthians (and us) to turn away from earthly idols. One of the arguments he is using to persuade his audience is that of a foot race, like those run by their great Greek Olympian champions. He wants us to reflect on the fact that those runners had to sacrifice much of worldly pleasures, and to practice great self-discipline, in order to achieve the heights of success. Paul challenges us to see that we, too, are in a race, but the prize we seek is far greater than a fragile laurel wreath. The prize we seek is that of eternal life in the presence of our loving God. This race that we are in requires even greater self-sacrifice and self-discipline than that of the Olympian runner.
As Christians, we are being challenged here to see the importance of learning and practicing the habits of self-sacrifice and spiritual self-discipline in order to win the only prize worth running for, our heavenly home. The practices of self-sacrifice and self-discipline, in the truth of Jesus Christ, are what set us free from the world’s many distractions. Self-sacrifice and self-discipline are the skills that make us spiritual champions for God. This is what God wants us to be.
What does Paul mean by self-sacrifice and self-discipline? We Christians today are being challenged, as the Corinthians were then, to look at our own lives, to become aware of the things that may have become “idols” in our own lives. Someone once said that you can tell what someone’s religion is by watching what they spend most of their money on, or what they give the most time to in their lives. This is, of course, a matter for prayerful self-reflection for all of us. What things in my life have taken on the qualities of “idol worship?” What things in my life seem to draw the most of my attention, or that I give most of my energies to? Might these be some of the things I need to sacrifice in order to be able to spend more time reflecting on the things of God, the challenges of Jesus Christ. The world today lures us into being spectators and consumers. It pretends to offer us “freedom,” but we are actually, more often than not, slaves to these things. The world needs us to be spiritual champions today. It needs to see spiritual champions doing God’s will in real time. It is in this that we will bring others to Jesus Christ. In order to win the prize, then, we must sacrifice much and discipline ourselves to remain focused on the things that have real meaning, purpose, and eternal promise in this life.
Lord, help us to prayerfully reflect on our own lives. Give us the strength to sacrifice and to turn away from those things that prevent us from running the good race toward you. Support us in our efforts to develop the prayerful and spiritual self-disciplines necessary to keep our eyes on your heavenly prize. Give us the graces we need to become your spiritual champions, loving you with our whole being and loving our neighbors as ourselves. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen!
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