The Feast of St. Aidan, celebrated Sunday September 10, 2017, includes 1 Corinthians 9: 16-23 because Aidan exemplifies the virtues that the passage describes. However the style of Paul’s argument requires close reading to realize the connection.
The opening verses of Sunday’s passage from 1 Corinthians read more like an inner dialogue than a letter. Paul seems to be debating within himself how and why he preaches the gospel. Read the following as though he is arguing different sides of the debate.
For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward;
if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.
In the first sentence he seems to be asking himself if he is compelled to preach, but then in the next line he asks if he preaches voluntarily. He appears to conclude by saying that if he preaches out of compulsion then he is simply discharging the trust: a phrase that suggests dutiful compliance rather than wholehearted embrace of the task. The conditional word if obscures which side he ends on.
(There is more to this inner reflection and we will return to it later.)
The word reward and the next verses provide some insight into this inner dialogue. It seems that some Corinthians thought that Paul was preaching for personal gain. Earlier in this letter Paul had written about not being paid for his missionary work. He supported himself (as a tent maker) so he didn’t have to rely on the Corinthians’ funding.
Paul addresses this situation.
What then is my reward?
Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.
The question what then is my reward is rhetorical. Paul does not receive pay for his preaching.
Instead his reward is in offering the gospel free of charge.
The real answer to his inner debate is that he is both obliged to preach and he does it freely. It is not a matter of either-or. Love compels him. The apparent paradox is resolved by love.
In God’s economy, spreading the gospel free of charge is both meritorious and rewarding.
At this point in the letter Paul pivots from the inner dialogue to one in which he takes up the argument of independence. The essence of this argument is that, by not being beholden to any one for support he feels free to relate to any who show and openness to the gospel.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul says that his freedom comes from being aligned with everyone and no one: slaves, Jews and weak. He is all things to all people: the universal person. Paul enjoys using apparent contradictions. They grab attention. Though I am free … I have made myself a slave. Being a slave was to be without freedom. Yet he claims to identify with slaves and to be free.
So, why do we read this epistle on the feast of St. Aidan?
Like Paul, Aidan felt indebted to no one. When given a gift of a horse by King Oswald, who wanted Aidan to have rapid transport for his mission work, Aidan gave it away to a peasant farmer. The king was initially upset with Aidan. Aidan’s re-gifting of the horse did not seem to reflect appropriate gratitude. Aidan’s point was that his reward was in preaching the gospel for its own sake.
Aidan exemplifies another parallel to Paul and his relationship with the Corinthians. Aidan was all things to all people. He related to his brother-monks, to the king and to the peasants without fear or favour. In all that he did he was humble. His manner of living opened the door for him to preach the gospel to people whom another monk had judged to be too rough and crude to hear the gospel.
Oriana Fallaci, a journalist who elicited revealing and memorable comments from many famous, infamous and humble people, described her interviewing technique in a style that Paul and Aidan would understand when she said: I interview kings, presidents and prelates as though they were paupers: and paupers as though they were kings and leaders.
Now back to Paul’s inner dialogue.
We know from other passages that Paul wrestled with how to express the tensions of the Christian life. In addition to the passage in this morning’s first reading, Romans 7:14-20 is one of many other comments that deals with struggles.
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Paul may have written these verses in Romans 7 to reflect his personal struggles or he may have written them theatrically, that is, to identify personally with how he observes others struggle. As in 1 Corinthians, Paul may have used the first person pronoun, I, to identify with people and situations. Regardless of the motivation, the passage reveals the pain of struggle.
Behind the writing of the verse from 1 Corinthians in this morning’s epistle or in Romans 7 Paul reflected on the ways that the spirit moved in him as he faced the challenges from people who misinterpreted his motives or from his own human nature. The reflection process deserves note for at least three reasons. First, we all encounter situations in which we are torn by conflicting desires…saints as well as sinners. It is part of our human condition as well as Paul’s. Second, Paul’s decision to pause and consider how the Spirit was moving in him was appropriate when his motives were challenged or when he struggled with baser instincts, as well as when there was much to be thankful for. Third, God’s way of resolving the matter sometimes contradicts conventional human wisdom. The combination of these conditions invited Paul… and probably Aidan… to pause and ask what is it that God wants of me in this situation.
God used the challenges of both Paul’s and Aidan’s missionary life to engage them in a dialogue with the Spirit.
The gospel for the Feast of St. Aidan (Matthew 19:27-30) includes a phrase from Jesus, everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake…then he goes on to promise the reward. The phrase hides the difficulties associated with the decision to leave houses and family. Such a decision would require deep reflection and struggles about promises and responsibilities. It would take dialogue with the Spirit, not a frivolous choice.
- Do you ever debate the pros and cons of a situation with an inner dialogue? Is it a useful way to identify the issues and refine your personal response? Can you recognize that Paul may be doing that in this passage from 1 Corinthians?
- Does it sometimes seem to you that saints like Paul or Aidan went through life without the stress of trying to decide what to do because the light of God always made everything clear? Does the gospel seem to brush off the difficulty of deciding to leave home and family to follow Jesus? We misread 1 Corinthians, the gospel or the life of Aidan if we think these choices were easy. God invites us to deep dialogue with the Spirit in all the decisions of our lives.
- How is the Spirit inviting you to an inner dialogue? Is it through external forces that pressure you? Is it through inner struggles? Do you recognize these challenges as an invitation?