Who doesn't love a good deal? But is anything of value truly free? The Apostle Paul reminds us of the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain." St. Paul continues to teach in the first letter to the Corinthians in the same way, "the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel." While the Lord provides the gospel free of charge, it comes with a charge. Roll up your sleeves, there's work to be done treading out the grain.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos: a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm joined again today by Father Marc Boulos, co-host of the Bible as Literature podcast on the Ephesus School Network. Thanks for being here. Father, Marc.
Fr. Marc Boulos 0:28
It's a pleasure to be here, always delighted.
Hollie Benton 0:31
So as we discussed last week, Father, I'd like to use this podcast as a way to provide a daily scriptural reading and reflection for those who have any kind of leadership responsibilities, whether they be clergy, corporate leaders, office managers, parish council members, school teachers, civic leaders, healthcare workers, even parents. All of us face some kind of leadership responsibilities, attending to people in our care and doing the work assigned to each of us. The Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative is committed to inspiring servant leadership, and Scripture is foundational for anyone who must serve in any capacity. Scripture is that manna from heaven that God provides. The daily bread that would sustain us in any leadership challenge we may be facing. So the challenge I've been thinking about recently, is what it means to work for a living, specifically earning a living through a ministry. And on the flip side, giving material support to those who minister, those who preach and attend to the work of the gospel. And I know that the Apostle Paul addresses this question in First Corinthians nine. He asks, "If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?"
Fr. Marc Boulos 1:44
It's an important question in here. When people talk about this passage, they normally do what we always do in this marketing culture, and break it down into a binary discussion of taste great or less filling, meaning "Should we pay someone? Should we not pay someone?" because that's how we think about everything. Because those who established this particular culture, created a two-party system. And so now everything is broken into a for and against debate. That's not what this is about. Because Paul is definitely in this reading, going to make them pay for his service in the Gospel. He's just not making them pay with currency. So there is a price that must be paid always. The Gospel as Father Paul says, And Father Aaron quoted it on his podcast recently this year, the gospel is free of charge with a charge. It's not free, nothing of value is free. It's just that Paul, like Jesus in the Gospel of Mark isn't interested in Caesars coin. But there is a cost. So definitely, definitely when the gospel is being preached, we need to think about the cost and the charge involved. nothing of value is free.
Hollie Benton 3:07
So let's attend to the reading in First Corinthians chapter nine so we can hear even the greater context of the Apostle Paul's question. So beginning with verse three: "This is my defense to those who would examine me, do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, 'you shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.' Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake because the plowmen should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim upon you do not we still more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings. In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any such provision, for I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach 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 preaching, I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right and the gospel. For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all that I might win the more." And later on in the chapter, he says, "I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings."
Fr. Marc Boulos 5:33
Before we go any further, Hollie, I think it's important for an American audience, especially in this current moment, when so many Christians have allowed Satan to enter into the language, into their language. And so many are talking about rights and loss of rights, which is totally alien to the words of God in Scripture. And you can see how that foreign language has entered into the translation of the text. Nowhere in the Greek does Paul talk about his rights. He refers to whether or not he has the authority to do something, because the question is, what authority he has with respect to the gospel of our Lord. It's not a question of rights, rights pertain to the individual. And Paul pertains to Christ Who is the head of the body politic. Once we start talking about rights, we start talking about individual, we start talking about ourselves, and we slip back into self referentiality. And then we're back on Facebook yelling at each other. That's not what this is. Paul's not defending his rights, quite the opposite. He's talking about the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Hollie Benton 6:56
So the apostle quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 "you shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain." And he quotes this passage, not only in this first letter to the Corinthians, but he also uses it in the first letter to Timothy. So it really does seem an important point for him. Here in Corinthians, he asks, after quoting Deuteronomy, "Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake?" So as I was preparing and studying this passage, I came across some commentary that suggests the primary issue is not the Lord's compassion and protection for the animals, but an element of human justice and protection, meaning that if an ox was borrowed or rented, the commandment works against the selfish motive for a man to take advantage of another man's property or his oxen. But I find this interpretation highly anthropocentric with man at the center of the universe, which we like to do when we talk about our rights. I see that Scripture is really working against man being the center of the universe, starting even in the beginning with Genesis where Adam is charged to take care of all of creation. And furthermore, I don't think this interpretation fits with Paul's teaching. In this letter to the Corinthians, what I'm hearing from the Apostle Paul is the emphasis on treading out of the grain with the hope of sharing in the crop, the emphasis seems to be on the work required and the hope of sharing in the crop. He says later that preaching the gospel is a necessity. He's entrusted with a commission, he says, "Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel." In this way, the emphasis is neither on the ox, nor on the owner of the ox. It's not on man or the integrity of man, but it's on the work that must be done, the duty, the responsibility, the treading of the grain. Unless the grain is ground, it can't be made into bread.
Fr. Marc Boulos 8:56
The premise of the instruction is the treading out of the grain, I think you're absolutely correct. And if one hears carefully, what Paul is saying, one way or another, there's a commission. And the work is going to be done, is being done. Paul isn't saying, "Let's do a deal. If you let the ox eat, then the ox will tread out the grain." And remember, Paul is presenting himself as the ox, who is already treading out the grain. Even now, as you hear the letter, he's doing the work. And the premise of the statement that he is pouring into your ear right now is that the work must be done one way or another. There's a price for the work. The price for the work is the duty that the one who receives the instruction owes to God. So whether you pay that duty in the way that you honor the one who's doing the work, or you pay that duty in some other way, you have to pay that duty. It's not free. The word "volunteer" cannot enter into our vocabulary if we're serious about the gospel in church life. Notice I didn't say if we're serious about church life. I said, if we're serious about the gospel in church life. We are not volunteers. We are according to Paul's application of Deuteronomy in his letter, if we're doing the work of the gospel, we are beasts of burden. We have work to do and the work is the premise and Paul is doing the work. Without any renumeration, at least not the kind of renumeration that we value.
Hollie Benton 10:50
The Apostle declares that the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. At the same time, the apostle Paul isn't attempting to cash in or secure his provision, you've talked about, there's a price, there's a price that must be paid. And it seems that the passage is really cutting both ways for those who preach the gospel, and even for those who received the benefit of hearing the gospel preached. On the one hand, for those who preach the gospel, it seems there's a call to emulate the Apostle Paul who preaches the gospel free of charge, and the gospel itself, as he preaches it is what the Apostle counts as his reward. On the other hand, for those who hear the gospel preached, there is a responsibility not to muzzle the ox, so to speak, and to provide materially for those who sow a spiritual seed.
Fr. Marc Boulos 11:45
The premise of what Paul is saying, in his application of Deuteronomy is that there is work that needs to be done. There is a commission. One way or another, Paul is going to do that work. And there is a cost for that work. The cost for that work is not the coin of the realm. It's not whatever Caesar has to offer. The premise of the commandment in Deuteronomy is the work that the ox is doing. And Paul here is the ox. He is the slave of Jesus Christ. He is doing the work that he was ordered to do by the Master, which is no credit to him. Remember the Gospel of Luke. He deserves no credit for doing what he was told to do. There was no positive reinforcement in the Roman Empire, there was just duty. That's number one. Number two, since Caesar is not his reference, but God the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ is the reference. Caesar's money means nothing to Paul, what matters as we read in Romans chapter 13, is love, the love of neighbor. That is the payment. So in this example, if you are not doing your duty towards the one who is doing their duty towards the Lord, and preaching the gospel as a beast of burden, then you are not paying the duty that you owe to God to bear the burden of your neighbor.
That is the charge that comes with the gospel that is free of charge in the Roman Empire. So open your wallet. Paul, on the other hand, is already doing the work. Now, he can't just do the work and then say, "Oh, well, you know, you don't have to pay me I'm doing this out of the goodness of my heart." If Paul were to say that if he were to speak that way, he would void the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Go back and rehear Galatians. He can't boast of anything but the cross. He can't boast of anything but the gospel. He can't boast about himself. That's what he's saying later in the passage here. So if you say, "Oh, look at me, I'm not taking a paycheck. I'm such a giving generous person." Well, then forget it, then the gospel isn't preached, you're preached. Look how humble you are. Look how giving you are. That's why even in the modern training that they give you now as a priest, they say always if someone comes to volunteer and not take a payment, you should be a little bit leery if someone is offering to do things for free. And I agree with those training classes, because nothing is free. So here even if the person Paul is addressing in the letter, the community rather, chooses not to obey and and unmuzzle the ox who's doing the work, Paul's going to make sure they pay the price that is owed, by not allowing them to glory in his flesh for their own benefit, thus avoiding the cross. He's not going to allow them to boast at his expense, and to use him to feel good about themselves, as people do at charity banquets, where they blow kisses to each other, and clap for each other, and compliment each other ad nauseum. Paul will not allow the church and Roman Corinth to say, "Paul is such a wonderful pastor. He's so kind and giving, he does all this work and never accepts payment." No, he's going to force them to say, Paul doesn't take a payment, but he's so rude and cocky about it. Where does this guy get off? He's rubbing it in our faces that we don't pay him? Yes, he is. Because he knows you're going to praise him for not taking a paycheck, and then get together and discuss how terrible it is that the guy that came after Paul wants to feed his children, which means that Paul's labor would have been in vain. Because whatever Paul did, you didn't get the message that your job is to bear one another's burdens and love your neighbor. I'll never forget, as a seminarian. I made the mistake of telling the priest at the parish where I volunteered, that he didn't have to worry about paying me a stipend. He said, "Are you kidding me? You take the stipend. And then when no one is looking, you can give it back to the church, you can burn it, you can do what you want."
But if you say please don't pay me, you're making yourself look good. And you're doing damage to the next person who comes along who might need the check. And you're doing a disservice to the community, because you're sending a message to them that it's okay to cheat the next guy. And Paul is letting no one off the hook. He's saying in no uncertain terms. "I Paul the slave am an ox, a beast of burden. I am here in your midst, preaching the words of the gospel, I am doing the work." We have to understand that when Paul talks about how he's mistreated in one Corinthians, he's not playing the victim. He's playing the Roman patrician. He's putting everyone to shame. Because if you were at a Roman gathering in the sympotein and the patrician, were speaking this way you would feel ashamed. He's shaming everyone present. Look at all of the things that are happening to me. It's not "Oh, poor Paul." It's "Shame on you." And that's how he's functioning here. He's shaming them. I'm doing all this work. And I have the authority to extract a price from you. And I'm not going to do it. But don't think that you shouldn't be paying me. And don't think that everything's fine. That's how this text functions, Hollie. And it's important that we understand it's not a question of what we think we should do. It's a question of what must be done. We jump to what we think we should do, because we Americans like to have a choice. We think we have rights. And we want to have discussions. And Paul himself, has no rights, has no choices and isn't discussing, not because he's a dictator. Because he's a slave. He's an ox, and he has work to do. He's under a deadline. He is racing, he is racing against his own death, to spread the gospel because he has a commission and he's going to answer for it. God forbid, the gospel is voided because Paul got a compliment, that he did all this work and the church in Roman Corinth didn't have to pay him.
So who cares about money? But you're kidding yourself. If you don't think that money is a serious matter. This is wisdom literature. This isn't about how to run a business. This is about how to be honest with yourself, and how to be correct in your dealings with others in the household of faith and outside the household of faith. And that definitely pertains to how you conduct yourself when you are thrust into a position of authority. Because Paul keeps saying here, it's not whether or not I have the authority. It's what my duty is and what my responsibility is with respect to the commandment. And the commandment here is to preach the gospel. So if I have the authority to do something, but it doesn't serve the commission, and boasting about the fact that he's quote working free of charge goes against the commission so he won't exercise that authority. That's how we have to think.
Hollie Benton 20:03
Preaching the gospel and responding to the gospel that is preached to you is a serious responsibility and a serious duty. Woe to me that I should not preach the gospel and woe to us if we don't respond to His teaching.
Fr. Marc Boulos 20:17
Lord, have mercy.
Hollie Benton 20:19
Thank you, Father for this.
Fr. Marc Boulos 20:21
It's good to see you, Hollie. Take care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai