It is hard to imagine a human being who does not want to be happy, free and fulfilled. It is a paradox of human existence, however, that genuine happiness, freedom and fulfillment seem to come mostly to those in the service of a noble cause or project. Caught up in his own losses and sufferings, the not-very-patient Job offers an analysis of the human condition that is dismal and hopeless. For him (and for many people today) life is all drudgery and slavery, lived out in the conviction “I shall not see happiness again.” By contrast, this Sunday’s selections from the New Testament present Jesus as totally in the service of the kingdom of God and Paul as totally dedicated to the service of the Gospel. And both appear remarkably happy, free and fulfilled.
The reading from Mark’s Gospel is part of a larger unit (1:21-45) that presents various incidents in the framework of a typical day in Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee. In today’s excerpt Jesus heals the sick, prays and proclaims God’s kingdom. He heals Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever, and then works a general healing of the sick and those possessed by demons. Early the next morning Jesus goes off to pray and so renews his relationship of intimacy with the one whom he calls “Father.” Finally, when told by his disciples that “everyone is looking for you,” he resumes his activity of proclaiming God’s kingdom in word and deed on the grounds that “for this purpose I have come.”
Jesus’ response contains a clue to understanding what Jesus was about. All his teachings and healings were in the service of the noblest cause of all, the kingdom of God. Jesus did not come to be simply a teacher or healer, however noble those professions are. Rather, he came to teach about and embody God’s reign. In word and deed Jesus reminds us that all human fame, wealth and power are insignificant in comparison with the fame, wealth and power found in God’s kingdom. He places before all who will listen the hope for a new and better future, one that is mainly God’s doing, one that surpasses and overcomes the sufferings and trials of the present. He alerts us to the signs of God’s reign in the present and challenges us to live as people who already have one foot inside God’s kingdom.
The noble cause that Paul served was the Gospel, that is, the good news that Jesus’ death and resurrection have freed us from the power of sin and death, and made possible right relationship with God and one another (justification). Paul’s cause is the other side of Jesus’ cause, and in the end the same cause. Whereas Jesus teaches us to look forward to the fullness of God’s kingdom and be attentive to its present manifestations, Paul celebrates the paschal mystery (Jesus’ life, death and resurrection) as the great turning point in salvation history and the basis of hope for the fullness of God’s kingdom.
In the midst of his pastoral advice on eating meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8–10, Paul pauses to reflect on his own mission as an apostle. His mission was to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its saving significance. Paul’s own encounter with the risen Jesus transformed Paul from a persecutor of the Gospel into its most zealous promoter. The Gospel became the center of his life.
Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 9 gives three insights into the difference that the Gospel made in Paul’s life. First, Paul felt obligated, under a kind of divine compulsion, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He wanted to share his experience with as many people as possible. He perceived that he had been given a vocation that he could not ignore. As Paul says, “Woe to me if I do not preach it!”
Second, Paul was not concerned with his own comfort and security. To make this clear, Paul refused on principle what was customary in the early church, that an apostle was to be supported by the local Christian community. Paul insisted on supporting himself as a leather-worker or tent-maker. No one could charge that Paul was in it for the money. The only recompense that Paul wanted was the privilege of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Third, Paul met people on their own grounds. His ideal was to become a slave or servant to all persons, whether they were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free persons, men or women, for the sake of the Gospel. His goal as an apostle was that everyone might have the opportunity to understand and embrace the Gospel. As Paul says, “I have become all things to all.” Jesus and Paul found happiness, freedom and fulfillment in the service of the noblest cause of all: God’s kingdom and the good news about it.