Feb. 8, 2009
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany (B)
1 Corinthians 9:16-23

You’re in a conference in a big meeting room in a fancy hotel. You get to the meeting early. Over to the side of the room is a very elegant looking purse. You pick up the purse and look inside to see if you can see any identification. Everything is intact. Before you get to the wallet, which is made of the finest, softest leather you’ve ever seen, you notice that the owner has only the finest grade of cosmetics in her purse. You see several other signs of affluence-a Mont Blanc pen, designer sunglasses and a cocktail napkin from the country club. You notice the car keys-a Lexus and a BMW.
You also notice several $100 bills in the wallet. You don’t take the time to count. Fortunately, there is a driver’s license, so identifying the owner is not a problem. Her phone number is unlisted, however; and for some strange reason, the only address that is given is a P.O. Box in a distant state. You make numerous attempts to get a phone number so you can call this lady and tell her you’ve found her purse, but they all turn up nothing. Finally, with no other recourse, you pack up the purse, leaving all of its contents intact and mail it, first class and insured and with a return receipt to the P.O. Box. You put your return address on the package and enclose a note with your phone number in case she has any questions or in case she wants to call and say, “Thank you,” or … maybe do something else.
You get the receipt back in the mail with just the simple word “Thanks” scribbled across the bottom; but after two weeks, you still haven’t heard anything from the woman whose purse you returned.
Should you expect a reward for doing the right thing?
I struggle a little bit with the logic that Paul uses here. He says, “Woe is me if I don’t preach the gospel” (NKJV). I can’t boast about discharging the trust that I have been given. It’s like the parable Jesus told about the servant and the master. The servant shouldn’t expect the master to make a fuss over him because he’s done his job. Instead, Jesus says, “When you have done everything you were told to do, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” One of the hard facts of life is that we can say, “I sweated nails for that company and gave them the best years of my life, and no one ever even said, ‘Thank you.’” You were only doing your job. What did you expect? Your boss said, “Thank you” every pay day when he gave you a check.
I can’t boast about preaching the gospel. I don’t have a choice. I have a charge laid on me. Paul says, “If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward” (NKJV). Now wait a minute! Hasn’t he just said, “I don’t have a choice. Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel”? Where does this “voluntarily” come in? I think he’s talking about pay. If the church were paying Paul, his reward would be in his paycheck.
What’s the application of that then? Does it mean that, “If that preacher wanted a reward, he’d refuse a salary and we could put that money in the building fund?” I don’t think so. Paul has just said that we have a right to earn a salary, but that gives me a little bit of pause. I don’t have any right to complain about my workload or the hours I may sometimes have to work. There’s nothing heroic about getting up in the middle of the night to be with a family in crisis.
Is your reward simply the privilege of knowing you have been used of God to make a difference in someone else’s life? It seems to me there’s a lot more fulfillment and satisfaction when you understand that you were made to serve God-your earthly reward is to be able to look at lives that have been changed through your involvement, and your eternal reward is when you’re able to hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Having gotten his perspective right on that vital issue, Paul then demonstrates the way that he has appropriated that truth into his life. That is, he makes no big deal about clinging to his rights so he can preach the gospel. Knowing that his ultimate reward comes from God, Paul is able to forsake his rights entirely and to focus on doing whatever it takes to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But, what good are rights if they don’t result in being able to say that serving God is its own reward? Paul essentially says, “I have freedoms in Christ but I am willing to limit those freedoms if it will further the cause of Christ.”
Jesus paid the ultimate cost for us. He became weak: “But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). What more reward do you need?

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