Brothers and sisters, you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do 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? 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 will not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does He not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on 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.
Saint Paul talks here about why he refuses to use money from the churches for his own ongoing support, even though he is well entitled to us it. The apostles were supported by the churches as they traveled around on their apostolic journeys - much as traveling philosophers and teachers were paid for their teaching. Yet Paul did not make use of this right, but rather worked at a secular trade (tent-making) in order to support himself, only very rarely accepting financial help from his churches. He did this in order to disarm potential criticism from his many adversaries that he was not a real apostle, but was only pretending to such authority for the sake of money.
Paul begins to build his case by establishing his right to be supported financially. He asks a series of rhetorical questions, so that they may see how obvious and apparent is his right in this matter. Is he not free and able to receive payment for his work? Is he not an apostle like the Twelve, like them having seen the Lord, and possessing full apostolic authority? Of course he is. In fact, are not the Corinthians themselves his work in the Lord? His opponents may question his apostolic authority, but the Corinthians themselves can vouch for him because, as his own converts, their very existence as Christians is the proof and seal of his apostleship, certifying its genuineness. Should anyone want to investigate Paul for his sincerity, this is his defense - that though he has a true right to be supported, he does not make us of it.
He continues to build the case for his support at some length, his own natural fervency and sensitivity in this matter carrying him along, and provoking another series of indignant rhetorical questions. Does he not have the right to eat and drink? Or is he to be deprived of these very basics? Does he not have a right to be accompanied in his apostolic travels by a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles are? Not only are they supported, but their spouses are supported too. (Some have suggested that the women referred to were not spouses, but mere traveling companions and helpers. However, this seems unlikely because Cephas (Saint Peter) was married to someone (see Mark 1:30) and was not at liberty to travel with another woman).
Paul continues to build his case, citing not only universal church precedent, but also the common practice of people in the world. Do soldiers serve and provide their own food and pay their own expenses? As well as being paid, soldiers are fed too. Who ever plants a vineyard and refrains from using its fruit? Or who shepherds a flock and refrains from using the milk from the flock? In the world, everyone eats the fruit of their labors.
And this is not just the world's way, it is God's way as well. The Law also says the same thing. In Deuteronomy 25:4, it is written not to muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. Oxen were harnessed to a heavy piece of wood called a threshing sledge, which they dragged over the picked grain. This action would thresh the grain, dislodging the wheat from the chaff so that the two could be separated and the wheat saved. During this work, the ox was not to be muzzled, but allowed to bend down as often as it wanted and eat the grain it was threshing.
Paul points out that God's care in giving this law was not just about oxen. Rather, God was speaking entirely because of us - giving us a paradigm for all our behavior. We are not to be compassionate only to oxen (as if we could muzzle and abuse other animals, or human beings), but to take care to provide for all in need. That is, the plowman and all workers should plow in hope of partaking of the crops. The apostles work hard in sowing spiritual things - the divine teaching of Christ and His saving Gospel. They too are entitled to their proper reward - if not spiritual and eternal things, then at the very least fleshly and material things, such as perishable money. Other apostles are acknowledged as being entitled to such support - how much more is Paul, who founded the community in Corinth.
This reflection is based on the book by Father Lawrence Farley, "First and Second Corinthians, Straight from the Heart."