When you go to the grocery store, are you allowed to eat one of the grapes to see how sweet it is before you buy it? Or is that stealing? I think I know what the answer is supposed to be—stealing. To be honest, I don’t really care enough about the sweetness of my grapes to eat an unwashed piece of fruit in the grocery store. But would anyone say that it was my right to sample the produce?
Paul makes an interesting argument in today’s NT reading (1 Corinthians 9:1-15). He’s angry that people are whining about how he makes his money. Apparently, the Corinthians are objecting to his other occupation—tent-making (whatever that is)—that he used to support himself and his ministry. So Paul writes,
Do we not have the right to our food and drink?...Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk? Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned?
It’s the bit about muzzling an ox that caught my eye this morning. Apparently, you’re supposed to let your ox graze a little while he’s working. Seems nice enough. But Paul is right—that’s not really for the oxen. It’s because God wants us to care about those who work. Workers should be paid. Workers should be honored. There should be a general culture of appreciation for service in the kingdom of God.
When I was growing up, one of our ministers drove a Mercedes Benz. It wasn’t all that fancy—probably a 10-year-old mid-class sedan—but it was enough to get him in trouble. I remember my father making a passing comment that some people in the church objected to their minister driving a Mercedes, and I found that a little confusing. Now, as a minister, it makes perfect sense. Am I working for the gospel or working for myself? People want (even expect) me to rub elbows with parishioners in places like the Country Club or a fancy benefit gala, but they expect me to drive there in a Camry rather than a Lexus.
Trust me—I love my Camry and have no intention of upgrading. But I think it’s worth asking—why are we uncomfortable with certain people doing well financially? It’s not just ministers. I’m guessing the same is true for schoolteachers. Wealth seems to be a big deal in politics. Why are we uncomfortable with it?
I think we assume that serving God means being poor. And that means that, without even realizing it, we believe that having money is an ungodly thing. Maybe we should start with a proper theology of wealth. Is it ok to be wealthy? Sure. Godly people are both poor and rich. Perhaps one of the reasons there are still poor people in the world is that rich people aren’t comfortable theologically with their wealth. If they were, maybe there could be an honest exchange about how resources are supposed to be divided. In other words, all the “haves” of the world shouldn’t feel guilty about what they have—but they shouldn’t be threatened by the “have-nots” who are in need. How might we instead embrace a theology of resources that accurately embraces the gospel message?