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Commentary: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

The selection of 1 Cor 9:16-23 for the Epiphany season conditions how we read it. It was part of Paul's argument concerning the importance of the common good over individualistic freedoms, namely, the choice not to eat idol meat if it offends anyone in the church. But tailored for Epiphany time, it focuses on "the gospel" (vv. 16-18) and continues with Paul's gospel strategy (vv. 19-22), both of which parts are linked by the concluding mention of service of "the gospel" (v. 23). Thus the spread of the gospel is given thematic primacy both by the liturgical selection for Epiphany time and by the editing of the passage for lectionary use.
The first part (vv. 16-18) remarks on Paul's ministry of preaching. It concerns whether he is a free artisan or a slave agent. If free, he could boast in his work and take profit; he could act "individualistically" like certain "freedom folk" who boast of power to act as they wish. But Paul is a slave "under compulsion," in fact, under censure if he does not perform his preaching. Even as slave, he might act "willingly" or "unwillingly." If willingly, he still might have a reward; but he may have to act "unwillingly" because commissioned to do so.
The argument pertains to the social status of his audience, who are either free artisans and small merchants or slaves who labor at the command of a master. Paul's language is redolent of economic terms: "Pride" in a job, a slave's obligation, willing or unwilling service, reward, and working free of charge. Paul presents himself both as a free artisan, who enjoys a reward, and as a slave, who acts under compulsion and commission. He can, then, speak to both parts of his church and empathize with those who prize freedom and those who are constrained by necessity. He serves as a model for both in that he, an apostle commissioned to noble service, does not prize individualistic freedom to the neglect of others. He does not "stand on his rights" when service is to be rendered.
In the second part (vv. 19-23), Paul eloquently argues in favor of service of others over self-gratifying freedom. The topic statement (v. 19) contains the key issue: Although "free from all," Paul "makes himself a slave to all" so as to "gain many." The commercial language (i.e., "gain") is broad ened to focus on the social and ethnic groups in the Corinthian church, which are then listed. In four parallel phrases, Paul presents himself as one who lived by the customs of Judeans, "those under the law," "those not under the law," and "the weak," so as to "gain" them.
The rhetorical repetition of these phrases takes the hearer through Paul's apostolic history: As a Jew, he preached to Jews and lived according to their customs, and as apostle to the Gentiles, he lived according to their ways. Yet the list derives meaning from its context, for "Jews" and "those under the law" may be caricatured as "slaves" of their tradition, even "the weak," while "those not under the law" reflect the situation of pneumatics at Corinth who prized freedom above all else. The list, moreover, reflects the social composition of Paul's church. Hence, the climactic reference to Paul's identification with and service of "the weak" indicates his support for them at Corinth, either those of no social importance (1:26-29) or those of tender conscience (8:6). In the context of 1 Cor 8-10, we may safely identify "those not under the law" with those who eat idol meal and "the weak" with those who do not.
The rhetorical impact of Paul's argument lies in its inclusive emphasis on "all" at the beginning and end of the passage. Paul starts by stating that although "free from all," he has become a slave "to all." All ethnic groups are the object of his and God's concern; all social classes are in view, the "free" elite who eat meat and the "slavish" weak who cannot in conscience eat it. Paul claims that he does "all" for a non-selfish motive, for the sake of God's gospel. Thus all peoples receive Paul's attention in all their diverse customs; he acts always in God's service and for the benefit of others.
Paul's arguments here are situational specific as they exhort the "free" at Corinth not to act selfishly in defence of their freedom. Throughout, he presents himself as an example of a person who, although entitled to benefits and respect, does not insist on his rights (9:12, 15). Paul buttresses his argument with examples of soldiers and farmers who benefit from their labors; he supports it by citation of Moses' law concerning the ox treading the grain and by allusion to priests' sharing temple sacrifices. Beyond arguing that "we have not made use of any of our rights," Paul displays himself as God's slave and so as one who forgoes "freedom" so as to attend to the good of "all."
In this Paul articulates a general principle to guide the behavior of "strong" and "weak." Certain elites who are "in the know" tended to display their freedom from all authority. Paul labelled this an aberration by calling it being "puffed up" (8:1). He thus criticized people who acted haughtily (4:19) or who approved of flamboyant sexual misconduct (5:2) and scandalous public behavior (8:9-10). Alternately, he urged an attitude of concern for others and a praxis which "builds up" the church (8:1), which he labelled as "love." Behavior is good which builds up, not destroys members (8:10). Although some claim that "all things are lawful," Paul counters with "not all things build up" (10:23). In the comparison of the relative merits of two gifts, he praised prophecy because it is group-oriented and builds up the church, but censured tongues for being individualistic and building up only the speaker (14:3-4).
Paul thus balances competing values, freedom/self and service/others. He does not simply hold them in tension but praises service and support of the weak. Certain ideas about "freedom" which result in harm of others cannot be wholly right. Alternately, aspects of "slavery" which benefit others cannot be wrong. This exhortation supports two important aspects of church life. In the face of excessive individualism, Paul urges concern for the common good. His words bolster our contemporary attention to be an inclusive church which reaches out to "all," rich or poor, and strong or weak. Whatever promotes welcome has priority over whatever restricts membership.
Jerome Neyrey
University of Notre Dame
Editable Region.