The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B.
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.I Corinthians 9:16-23
A few years ago, there was a challenge to summarize your country’s history in the fewest words possible. While there were too many clever ones to recount here, some of the standouts were: “Italy: we used to rule the western world, now we make shoes”, “Russia: …and then it got worse”, “UK: conquered the world in search of better tasting food”. For the United States, the summary simply read: “Freedom* *terms and conditions apply”.
There are few things that we value more as Americans than our freedoms. Our civil liberties, opportunities for economic advancement, and our democratic institutions are a beacon to the whole world, even in the most trying times. As the summary of our history implies, we have proclaimed a gospel of freedom to the whole world, even though we have certainly struggled to implement it. In these past days we have been forced to question the very nature of freedom. For something seemingly so innate, so essential to human flourishing, freedom is perplexing. For so long we have thought of freedom simply as an end; a goal and a standard to strive for as individuals and as a society. We have tirelessly worked toward giving people more freedom. The more the better right? It’s like more air, more money, more opportunity! How could you ever possibly have too much freedom? Especially in light of how inequitably freedom has been shared, we certainly need more freedom, to suggest anything less would be tyranny, if not outright blasphemy…right?
As anyone who has struggled to make an order at a fast-food restaurant can tell you, having too much freedom can be anxiety-inducing, and limiting in its own ways. Have you noticed how much choice there is at a fast-food restaurant? It’s astonishing! Looking upon the menu there can be over thirty entrees, twelve sides, and depending on the restaurant, over seventy different drink options! So we stand there, trapped by choice, enslaved by anxiety, irritating the employees and other customers, and what do we do? Order the usual. Most likely a combination meal designed to have higher profit margins at the expense of actual nutrition and value. Yet it wasn’t even a real choice to begin with, for the 100 or so items that appear on the menu, they are all made out of different combinations of the same ten or so ingredients. That “freedom” of choice that was so graciously bestowed upon us by corporations and marketing teams proves to be no choice at all.
Lately as a society we have been realizing how complex freedom is. What may be giving freedom to one is imposing tyranny on another. If we do really value freedom as highly as we proclaim, and earnestly desire for all people to be free, which despite wailing and gnashing of teeth about our present divisiveness I do believe we all still desire, we must have a better understanding of what freedom is and what it is not.
It is this difficult question that Paul seeks to answer to help heal the increasingly factional and fragile Corinthian church community. At face value, the Corinthians merely want him to arbitrate on a few issues driving wedges in their community. But Paul gives them much more than they asked for, and rather than taking a particular side or handing down new stone tablets of rules, Paul flips their very concept of freedom on its head. While still addressing the particular questions they ask him about factionalism, sexual morality, eating meat that had been previously offered to idols, how to behave in church, and the centrality of the Resurrection, Paul challenges us to look at all of life’s difficult questions through the lens of the Gospel. Though the lens of the Gospel, we see that freedom is not the end which we strive for, but rather a tool, a means to our real goal, which is justice, righteousness, peace, freedom from death and sin, love of God and love of neighbor. In other words: life in Christ.
Our passage from Corinthians comes at the end of Paul’s advice concerning eating meat previously offered to idols. Though the catalyst for the controversy was the meat itself, the underlying issue was how new Christians understood their newfound freedom in Christ’s resurrection while discerning how they should participate in “normal” society. Religious festivals were more than a simple BBQ, they were considered a civic duty and refusing to participate based on new religious principles was considered scandalous. What’s more, being a community and family-oriented society, unlike our modern individualistic society, your decision to participate or refuse impacted your family’s social status as well, whether or not they were Christians. There was much more at risk simply than a meal.
In response to this issue there were two schools of thought, the first was that no Christian should participate in the religious festivals and eat the meat offered to idols. To participate and eat the meat was to submit to a sinful society, and to dishonor God by symbolically acknowledging idols. The very risky and profound statement of refusing to participate was a powerful tool in showcasing the Gospel, and just how seriously you took your faith. Their opponents reasoned that it was permissible to eat the meat, and by extension participate in some aspects of normal civic life. The reasoning was that Christ redeemed them and set them free from such small earthly concerns. Since they did not believe the idols were real, then the meat was nothing more than meat. To not eat the meat was to suggest that the idols did have at least some power, if only symbolic, thereby to not eat the meat was to deny oneself the freedom from sin so hard-won by Christ.
Rather than making a sweeping declaration or taking a particular side, Paul challenges the Corinthians to make their decisions not based on their own sense of freedom, but how their actions will affect their friends, family, neighbors, and fellow Christians. In this Paul uses himself as an example, stating how he became a Jew to the Jews, a gentile to the gentiles, and in a turn that was offensive then as it is today, a slave to all. In the Roman Empire, in most people’s minds there were only two classes of people, the slaves and the free. The slaves were meant to be subservient and free the free from menial tasks for the pursuit of higher goals. The free were meant to be patrons, using wealth and status to support growth in culture, trade, and war. For Paul, a free Roman citizen, an Apostle, and a teacher, it was offensive on multiple levels for him to claim to be a slave to all.
Paul had offended the Corinthians in this way before. According to Acts 18 which recounts his 1½ year stay in Corinth and the rest of I Corinthians, Paul had refused to participate in the patronage system as other Apostles that had come through had. Paul financially supported himself during his mission in Corinth by his tentmaking trade rather than accept the generosity of wealthy Christians. This is why he refers to giving up his rights as an apostle so that he might proclaim the gospel “free of charge”. Paul challenges society itself by refusing to participate in the patronage system, and by implication, the slave/freeman distinction, replacing any earthly patron with Jesus as his one true patron.
Setting himself outside the usual roles of society and claiming to find freedom by being a “slave to all”, Paul proves that the Corinthians in their various debates only grasp some of the Gospel message. They understand their freedom, but do not understand how to properly use it. Paul uses the language of the Incarnation, becoming a Jew, becoming a gentile, becoming weak to illustrate his point that true freedom is found in imitating Christ, who though also free, chose to serve all humanity. Suddenly the question is no longer, “am I free to eat meat once offered to idols?” but “how will eating this meat and participating in this pagan religious festival affect my neighbor?”. It is living out the Gospel of love by considering all things through the lens of loving God and loving neighbor.
Freedom is not an end unto itself but a means to an end. It is a powerful tool that can build a more just and righteous society. Just like any tool that is sufficiently powerful, it can be used to destroy just as easily as it can be used to build. It is a hammer that can build prosperity and stamp out tyranny, or if misunderstood and mishandled, crush us beneath its weight. Of course we must strive for all people to be free, as Christians an obligation has been laid upon us to give everyone the tools they need to build a more just and righteous world. The question is not simply, “how can we get more freedom?” but what we are using that freedom to build toward. Simply having more and more choices is merely gluttony, relinquishing common good for the sake of “freedom” is cowardly irresponsibility, upholding freedom as the end and only goal is simply idolatry; all of these things of course being no freedom at all but rather the tyranny of Sin.
Being all things to all people is not a shrewd marketing strategy or a relinquishing of personal integrity, it is an embodiment of the Gospel. It is living out the Incarnation by taking on the burdens, worries, and needs of the people we are called to serve. It is relinquishing false notions of personal freedom and self-interest out of love for God and our common humanity, realizing that true freedom lies in service to all. It is following Christ, who for our sake took up our burdens. And though He is the King of kings and Lord of lords, He chose to be a servant; becoming all things to all people, in order to save us all. Amen.