by Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
The apostle Paul is a master of the humble-brag. He seems to be constantly promoting himself while simultaneously insisting that he is doing nothing of the kind. He’s doing it here in the beginning of our passage from First Corinthians. He asserts that he is entitled to certain rights on account of being an apostle of Jesus Christ. Specifically he is entitled to get paid for his work. However, at the same time, he is very clear that he is not going to assert that right to get paid. He offers the gospel free of charge. And because he’s doing that, he is not some kind of common laborer. God will reward him for his selfless act of generosity. But, he is quick to remind his readers, he has no reason to brag.
It can seem awfully strange to us. After all, this is the apostle Paul we’re talking about. He has eleven books in the Bible. He’s one of the best known figures in the early church. Every theologian for the last 2000 years has been obliged to attend to his words. He is often crediting with inventing Christianity. What does he possibly have to prove to anyone? Why does he need to be puffing himself up while at the same time insisting that he is doing nothing of the kind? What is he acting so conceited?
That’s what it looks like with 2000 years of hindsight. But in Paul’s own time, his position was nowhere near as secure as imagine it to be. He was an outsider in the early Christian movement. He had never met Jesus in the flesh. He had no connection to the first apostles. And he was pretty radical in terms of the innovations that he was pushing. He was advocating for including Gentiles in the movement in a way that no one had ever considered before. And his only source of authority was is own report that he had received an ecstatic vision from Jesus who had called him to be an apostle. It was by no means clear that Paul’s way would be become the way.
And with the Corinthians, Paul is facing a particular crisis of authority. As with all of Paul’s letters, we are at a disadvantage because we only have one side of the conversation. But from what we can glean of the situation there are two factions within the church at Corinth, and Paul refers to these two factions as the weak and the strong. Paul presents himself as strong, but he usually sides with the weak.
Most or all of the people in the Corinthian church are Gentile converts, both the weak and the strong. By the strong, Paul seems to be referring to the more well-to-do members of the community. They were free citizens and many would have owned slaves. They were educated in Greek philosophy. They were used to being patrons of arts, learning, and civic events. They arrived early to the Lord’s Supper and shared a full meal with each other. They tended to believe that the traditional gods were just superstition, so it didn’t matter if they did things that might seem idolatrous, like eating meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god or participating in civic festivals that celebrated the gods. They claimed full freedom in Christ, so they didn’t really worry about trying to follow any moral or ethical codes.
The weak, on the other hand, tended to be of the lower classes: servants, slaves, and manual laborers. They were not educated, and they didn’t have control of the use of their own time. By the time they could make it to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the strong had already eaten everything, and they couldn’t afford to supply much for themselves. They believed wholeheartedly in God and Jesus, but they tended to think of the traditional gods as still having some power, perhaps as demons. So they didn’t want to do anything that might be considered idolatrous. That means that they were excluded from most civic and neighborhood activities. It probably also meant that they never ate meat because they couldn’t afford to buy it on their own and usually had only had meat when it was offered at pagan festivals. Unlike the strong, they took Christian moral codes very seriously.
The main point of First Corinthians seems to be to help this divided community establish some unity. These are two groups that share the same world but have very different identities and outlooks. They have very different ideas about who is entitled to have power and who is not. They have very different norms around what is expected of them. They have different ideas about which behaviors are sanctioned and which are not. And they also have serious power imbalances.
So how are they supposed to establish unity with one another? Should the weak just conform to the will of the strong? After all, that is what is expected of them in the world outside the church. And what about when the actions of the strong scandalize the weak? Is it simply a matter of personal freedom, everyone can do whatever they want, and everyone else can just deal with it? But what if only some people actually having the means and the power to exercise freedom? What happens if there are cultural differences? Should those with more cultural power set the terms for everyone else? If you’re not a part of the culturally powerful group, are you just expected to conform? And even if you try to conform, will you ever be accepted as part of that mainstream society? What does unity mean, and how is it to be achieved?
Unity is also at the top of the news in our country right now. This is in no small part because President Biden ran on a message of unity, a message of bringing people together, a message of being able to disagree without branding each other as enemies.
And unity is a particularly salient topic at the moment that we find ourselves in. As none of us can ever forget, we are in the midst of global health emergency, and emergency in which the United States has the worst record in the world. We are number one in cases per capital. We are number one in deaths. Over 460,000 Americans have already died, and at least 27 million have caught the disease. Our numbers are finally headed in the right direction, but we’re still at a level where more Americans die every day from COVID than died in the 9/11 attacks. Every day. At the same time, we are in a massive economic crisis. Those who are invested in the stock market are still pretty happy, as stock prices continue to rise. But those who are dependent on wages and salaries for their living and those who own small businesses are in much more precarious situations. Tacked on to that, we have a mental health crisis, as the isolation of COVID quarantine takes its toll. And we have an education crisis, as millions of students, teachers, and parents are struggling to make learning work in a very difficult environment. And of course, we are still reeling from a violent attack on our democracy, a terroristic attempt to invalidate a free and fair election and to assassinate leading government officials. We have a crisis of democracy, something most Americans never expected to see in our lifetime. Not in our country. Not in the nation that reintroduced representative government to the modern world. Not in the United States of America. United States.
So yes, unity is a pretty big issue for us, especially when we have little hope of successfully facing all of these challenges if we can’t find some unity. But how are we to find unity in perhaps the most politically polarized time since the Civil War. You know, I’ve been saying that since I started preaching—that we live in a time of increasing polarization—and it continues to be true. We never seem to make progress in the other direction. We continue to get more and more polarized.
Sociologists can actually tell us why. Our political parties have become part of our identity. They have become a team that we are loyal to more than an ideology to which we subscribe. When I watch the Blazers play, I don’t much care whether the ref is actually making the right call; I want the calls to go for my team. If someone so much as ruffles Damian Lillard’s jersey while he’s driving to the basket, I want a foul called. That’s also why I prefer to watch the game on the channel with the local announcers. I don’t want some national announcers trying to confuse matters by pretending like both teams our somehow morally equivalent. Let me watch the channel that knows that a Blazer win is always right and a Blazer loss is always wrong. That’s how we have come to understand our political identities. We are so invested in our team winning that we can’t be objective. We always seem to see the best of our side and the worst of the other side.
And for the actual politicians, it is almost never in their self-interest to try to come together in unity. It can be good for Presidents to try to achieve unity. If they can get everyone to agree on something, that makes them look better, which also means that they’ll do better in the next election. But why would the other party ever want to go along with that? Every time they work with the President, it makes the President look better, which means that the President’s party will do better in the next election. The smart political move is to always oppose everything the other side tries to do, because if they can’t get anything done, they look bad, and they’ll do worse in the next election.
In philosophy and game theory, there’s a thought experiment called the prisoner’s dilemma, developed by Merrill Flood, Melvin Dresher, and Albert Tucker. Here’s the scenario:
Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The possible outcomes are:
If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison
If A remains silent but B betrays A, A will serve three years in prison and B will be set free
If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison (on the lesser charge).
Looking at it from the outside, the best situation is for them to cooperate with each other, then they will both get a lighter sentence. But they don’t know what the other person will do. Looking at it from the individual perspective, it is always to the prisoner’s advantage to betray their friend, even though, if both prisoner’s follow that logic, they will both end up in a worse situation than if they had both cooperated and remained silent.
Working together, finding compromise, is always harder than working against the other team. Even when it’s true the working together will result in a better outcome for everyone than if both sides just work in their own interest. When I actually have to make the choice, on the ground, it’s better for me to betray. And if the other side offers a hand of cooperation and I slap it down, that’s the very best situation of all, for me, at least, and my personal self-interest. Then I make sure that the other team publicly loses. And because they have lost, I will look better.
Paul suggests something rather radical in today’s lesson. He says “Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, so that I might win more of them.” When I’m with Jews, I act like a Jew so that I can win Jews. When I’m with Gentiles, I act like a Gentile, so that I can win Gentiles. He’s talking about subverting his own identity so that he can make a connection with someone who is different from him. When someone invites me to the Starbucks downtown, I’ll have a triple Venti half sweet non-fat caramel macchiato at 135 degrees, and when I meet someone at the diner I have drip coffee, black. I have become all things to all people. To the degree that I can, I don’t want to let any of the cultural markers get in the way of making a connection with someone else. I’m willing to try to shed some of that sense of superiority, to come and meet someone else on their own terms. That’s what Paul seems to be saying.
Now, Paul has those two factions in Corinth, the weak and the strong. And he is struggling to establish his authority with the strong. That’s the reason he refuses to be paid. He doesn’t want them to think he’s their employee, that he is beholden to them. He has to keep puffing himself up because if he doesn’t the strong won’t take him seriously. But you know, he never says When I’m with the strong, I act like the strong so that I can win the strong. But he does say this: “To the weak I become weak so that I can win the weak.” Paul seems to suggest that the burden is on the strong, the burden is on the privileged to meet those without privilege on their own ground. The burden is on the powerful to change the systems that keep them in power.
If we want to achieve any kind of unity, we all have to make the harder choice to reach out to those we see as enemy. It doesn’t work if we don’t all take the risk. If one side reaches out and the other attacks, it doesn’t work. If both sides attack, it doesn’t work. But there is a greater burden on those who have more power and privilege. Because when we play prisoner’s dilemma in real life, the odds are rarely evenly stacked between the two parties.
In any case, I need to be able to look past my own self interest. I have to be willing to shed my team allegiances, if only for a moment. I have to be willing to make myself uncomfortable for the sake of making a connection with someone else, for the sake of building trust. It does very little good for me to yell at the other side, “You first!” If we want to build a better world together, we have to be willing to move past our immediate self-interest in order to create the opportunity for a future that is better for all.
Of course, Jesus himself had a very different solution to the prisoner’s dilemma. Remember, two members of a criminal gang, both facing charges, each with two choices. Stay silent, or point the finger at the other person. Jesus, when faced with the same situation, broke the rules entirely. In fact, he was not guilty at all. He had committed no crime. Still, when given the choice, stay silent or point the finger at the other person, he chose neither. Instead, he raised his own hand and said, “I did it. Let the others go. I will serve the sentence. I will pay the cost.” He subverted his own self-interest entirely, and not even with the hope of achieving some kind of compromise. He acted selflessly, not for his benefit, but for ours; for your benefit, and for mine, and even for those we call enemy. May God grant that we can be half as gracious as that, half as courageous as that, because if we were, it will surely change the world.