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God’s Word for You

1 Corinthians 9:7-9a Do not muzzle the ox

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, February 27, 2023

7 Who ever serves as a soldier and buys his own provisions? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? 8 I am not saying these things only from a human point of view. Does not the law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.”

Paul’s three illustrations show that it is natural for someone to be paid for their work, and whenever the work he does produces a commodity, it is natural and fully expected that he will be paid at least in part from the work he does. So a soldier does not pay his own way to fight or make his own provisions. The only exception to this is when a war is going very badly and he must beg someone at home to send food, or he must find other, horrific means to survive—American soldiers fighting on both sides saw some of this during the Civil War.

Returning to Paul’s examples, someone who plants a vineyard doesn’t just get some of the product, he owns it all! He benefits from the grapes, the wine, the vinegar, and the profit from it all. The same is true of any variations on this—those who plant fig trees (Deuteronomy 20:6; Proverbs 27:18), apple trees (Song of Solomon 2:3), olives trees (Jeremiah 11:16)—but Paul contents himself with one illustration here.

Finally, the shepherd or goatherd should always be given or offered some share of the milk and cheese that is produced besides the pay he receives. If not, he will covet what is there, and then he will find that his employer has led him unnecessarily into the temptations of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, and this should be avoided. Our Lord taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13; Luke 22:40) and a business owner is not exempt from the spiritual needs of his employees where temptations are concerned.

Of course, it is also true that comparisons are not proofs. Therefore Paul turns to the Law of Moses for proof directly from Scripture: “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). The law that Paul appeals to is from a part of Deuteronomy with a string of commands. It happens to fall between a rule about flogging (Deuteronomy 25:1-3) and the rules about Levirate or brother-in-law situations like the one in Ruth 4:5-8. But is the Deuteronomy passage teaching only about animals (treat them humanely?), or about both humans and animals alike (with Paul showing that treating people well is the more important application), or only about human beings (with figurative language for slaves or workers as “oxen”)? The second option is certainly the best. This command was about both animals (covered more thoroughly in Deuteronomy 22) and people (also covered thoroughly in Deuteronomy 23-24), with a special emphasis on people who work for others. For if treating our animals well was the only point, then the example of Balaam’s senseless cruelty (Numbers 22:29) and the moral encouragement of Proverbs 12:10 would be enough: “A righteous man sees to the needs of his animal.”

But let’s use Paul’s examples to remember why we should treat our workers, including our called workers, well. The soldier who is not provided for or who is not paid, will not be able to focus on his task at hand, because his own survival will always be in question. Why should he put his life on the line in the afternoon if he has had nothing to eat for days before and has no shelter from the cold and rain that night? Or take the owner of the vineyard. If somehow he can expect nothing from the vines he tends, why should he do his best? Why should he put up with bad weather, not enough sleep, hard conditions, and the frustration of the animals that maraud his little crop, “the little foxes that ruin the vineyards”? (Song of Solomon 2:15). This is a human argument, but the sinful nature is always with us, and the question stands. Or take the one tending the flock. If he is not even offered some of the milk and cheese, or some of the meat for a stew every now and then, or even some of the wool for a warmer coat, he will only covet those things. Standing as he does, staring at what he cannot have, he will find a desire that naturally sprouts in his mind and in his heart. The owner of the flock will have failed him, leading him into temptation and inviting him to sin.

Our heavenly Father is not the one who does this, for God surely tempts no one” (James 1:13). But temptations come from, as Luther and the Lutheran Confessions always say, “the flesh, the world, and the devil.” How is the called servant of the congregation supposed to console and guide his flock when they come to him with complaints about their lives of affluence and wealth when they force him by virtue of his call (which forbids him from seeking any other work to support his family) in a life of poverty? Certainly he will grow spiritually as he tries to keep his family alive in such conditions, but won’t he begin to covet their choices? Does the compensation (pay) we give him enable him to rejoice as he serves us and to be free from excessive burdens? Or does it bind him with burdens that are difficult to bear? A simple test of this that takes into account your local area’s financial resources might be this: Your pastor probably has, at the very least, a Master’s degree. He may have a Doctorate. Is he compensated by you in the same way as other professionals with the same degree of education (a school principal or administrator, a lawyer, a professor, and so on)?

When we neglect our duty to others we become robbers, employers who refuse to pay their employees. In the same way, we must take care that we do not pay our workers with useless currency, like heaping them up with coupons that they have no use for, or lavishing gift cards for coffee to a man who drinks no coffee.

Our ministers serve us with the means of grace, the gospel in word and sacrament. They guide us in our repentance and publicly proclaim the forgiveness of sins. They open the word of God to us and explain it, apply it, and teach it so that we will remember it. Pray for their labor and their health, including their spiritual health, just as they pray for you and yours. Pray that he will keep his head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of his ministry (2 Timothy 4:5), and as for you yourself: Don’t be slow to set an example by doing what it good (Titus 2:6). You are blessed because you fear and love the Lord (Psalm 128:4).

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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