Is It for Oxen that God is Concerned?

V. Rev. Fr. Nicholas Apostola
Pastor, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

Guest Blogger

This is the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, and the reading is taken from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 9:2-12. In this excerpt, St. Paul presents an argument to affirm the authenticity of his Apostolic authority, against some in the Corinthian community who appear to have challenged it.

From what we can understand of the arguments intended on undermining his authority, one point was that St. Paul’s did not exercise the normal prerogatives of an Apostle, such as being financially supported by the community. I say ‘from what we can understand’ because we have to infer the argument of those opposing St. Paul from how he has responded. We do not have other documents, such as the original letters coming from Corinth to St. Paul, to hear precisely what they were saying. Nevertheless, we can still glean a great deal from St. Paul’s writings.

Without inflating his Apostleship, he tells them simply, “If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” (v. 2) He doesn’t raise his other missionary work as proof; he tells them to look to themselves and their own community, at the work he has done there in Corinth. This is proof enough.

He then addresses the Apostolic prerogatives that he has not availed himself of. “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?” (v.4-6) He is telling them plainly that just because he had not wanted to burden the community with supporting him and Barnabas, does not mean that he had forfeited this right. The Church community has a duty to support those preaching and ministering to them.

We are reminded in these verses of some historical facts. All of the original twelve Apostles, except for John, were married. Paul chose to remain unmarried, perhaps because of the arduous nature of the missionary activity he was called to, or perhaps because he felt that the Lord’s coming would be very soon and the new age would then begin. Regardless, he claims his right to be married, without feeling the need to exercise it. (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:23ff)

Similarly, we know that St. Paul was a tent maker. This is how he supported himself when he would go to a new city to preach the Gospel. He and many others sacrificed a great deal in order to bring the Good News of salvation to people everywhere.

He then begins a very down to earth way of explaining why he has a right to expect to be compensated for his ministry among them. “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?” (v. 7) Each one of us feels that it is only fair that we receive adequate remuneration for our work. This is at the very heart of our life in common. This is the foundation of our economy. But, it is even more basic than that.

“Do I say this on human authority?” asks St. Paul. “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 plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop.” (v.8-10) One of the more amazing aspects of the Law is that even three thousand or more years ago fair payment for work rendered was considered central to being in a right relationship with God. Moses tells us that God is concerned with just treatment of laborers.

All that St. Paul has said up until now was meant to prepare us for his central point: “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.” (v.11-12)

Things are not so very different today as they were in first century Corinth. The question of clergy salaries remains lively. How much should the priest be compensated? Is he really worth it? At least in here in North America, this question still sparks a discussion.

There has rarely been a time more than our own when the “best and the brightest” were needed to devote themselves to the preaching of the Gospel. We live in an epoch of huge cultural shifts. People are searching for a way to understand the changes in society and find meaning — find God — in what they are experiencing. We need people who have more insight, more understanding, and more spiritual wisdom than the average person to help and minister to us. These persons need to be compensated at least as well as other professionals whom we regularly engage to assist us in our earthly existence. Very simply, if we ask people to help us spiritually, we need to support them and their families.

I believe that the single most important issue facing the Orthodox Church here is the adequate compensation of the clergy. If this issue is not addressed, the consequences will be dire. As St. Paul reminds us, “It is for oxen that God is concerned?” It is certainly both oxen and us.

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