In brief reflections on the Sunday readings like the ones that appear regularly in this column, it is difficult to give attention to the second reading. The New Testament Epistles form their own continuous cycle separate from the cycle on which we read the Gospels. Unlike each Sunday’s first reading, which comes from the Old Testament and is tied thematically to the Gospel, the second reading only relates coincidentally to the other readings. When there is limited time to preach or space to write, it is easy to neglect the letters of Paul and the other early disciples that we hear every Sunday.
All this I do for the sake of the Gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. (1 Cor 9:23)
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Jb 7:1-7, Ps 147, 1 Cor 9:16-23, Mk 1:29-39
Is the Gospel something that I choose to share with others?
How might I pray about my specific calling for the year ahead?
Who or what “calls” me to live out my vocation?
This Sunday, however, Paul’s words take precedence, because he takes a moment to reflect on the nature of his own calling. “If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me” (1 Cor 9:16). He adds a rhetorical emphasis to this thought, “Woe to me if I do not preach it!” Paul might begin to reflect here on the nature of his own call to serve God’s purpose, but it is a theme that he has been encouraging the Christian community at Corinth to reflect on for several chapters of this letter already. “Consider,” says Paul, “your own calling, brothers and sisters” (1 Cor 1:26). In this Sunday’s reading, Paul uses the tone of “obligation” to describe his calling to live the Gospel with his entire life.
Paul’s word choice when he speaks of his obligation is quite distinct. He uses the Greek word ananke, a term usually used for a burden. In fact, the Greek of 1 Cor 9:16 literally states, “a burden lies upon me/a pressure crowds around me.” Paul is under the obligation of a divine weight, a situation that has positive and negative connotations. Serving God in the manner of a steward of a benevolent king would be a path to honor and reward. Nevertheless, a life of such service also opens one to situations of calamity and distress, and it is with this nuance that Paul uses the word ananke elsewhere in his letters (e.g. 2 Cor 12:10). Paul willingly takes on the “burden” of preaching the Gospel, and with it the unavoidable burdens of hardship and persecution. “I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:23).
We can see how Jesus himself understands his own calling from the Father.
Here the insights from Pauline scholar Gordon Fee are helpful. In his 1987 commentary on the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Fee gives context to Paul’s sense of obligation. The obligation of which Paul speaks is not some kind of inner compulsion and fulfillment. Although Paul had been a driven and fearsome prosecutor in his past life, Fee sees a different motivation at work as Paul ages. Paul is looking ahead to the moment of divine judgment, when he must account for his time in God’s service. Paul treated his life of preaching the Gospel, with all the joys and sorrows it brings, more as a destiny than as a choice. It was what God had created him to do, and even the burdens and hardships brought grace with them.
This reflection into one’s calling and willingness to live under some divine design requires prudence and constant prayer. There are moments in life where we can begin to sound like Job from today’s first reading, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?” (Jb 7:1). Especially if, in the weight of one’s hardship, it is impossible to conceive of the ways God’s hand might serve some purpose. If this is the case, then, like Job, one may say, “My eye will not see happiness again” (Jb 7:1). Still, grace may be present in hidden ways and not always apparent until the story is over.
To end on a hopeful note, we can see how Jesus himself understands his own calling from the Father. The entire Gospel scene for this Sunday speaks of exorcizing demons and healing diseases in a similar manner. Our passage ends with a helpful image for this reflection. Jesus rises early in the morning to be alone in prayer. When told, “Everyone is looking for you,” Jesus responds, “Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come” (Mk 1:37-38). Jesus must go about for the sake of the Gospel as Paul must preach what has been entrusted to him. Both are servants of God’s mission who have given their entire lives over to the service of the Gospel.