Do you not know that in a race all the runners run,
but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
This seems to mean that only one person gets to Heaven, or maybe one person in a generation, or maybe one person every four years. Sounds really discouraging and scary.
St. John Chrysostom said other people can win also…
“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?” Now this he saith, not as though here also one only out of many would be saved; far from it; but to set forth the exceeding diligence which it is our duty to use. For as there, though many descend into the course not many are crowned, but this befalls one only… but unless we have so run as unto the end to show ourselves unblameable, and to come near the prize, it will profit us nothing."
DILEMMA ONE: As much as I love and admire this Godly, brilliant Saint, I do disagree. First he contradicts himself by saying others can win and then says that the prize (Heaven) “befalls only one”. Then he says that if you “come near the prize” you can win – losers can win! St Paul would not have made the analogy in the first place and would not have specifically said “only one gets the prize” if he did not mean exactly that.
I can think of two explanations around this dilemma…
First, St Paul was referring to the “prize” as going directly to Heaven at death and then St. John explains that the other “losers” must stop in Purgatory first before Heaven. This seems clumsy and not in keeping with the passage because I feel sure the apostles and martyrs did not go to Purgatory.
Second, takes a little explanation. Biblical races are run in “heats”. There were many preliminary races, heats, to whittle the field down to the final race. We can win a heat (but not win the final race) and still win the prize. What are the heats? One heat is family and relatives, another is co-workers, another is friends, another is neighbors, another is a Church group and so forth, so we have a lot of chances to win heats and the prize.
DILEMMA TWO: Regardless of the above we are undoubtedly in a competition with fellow believers. It is a competitive race with one winner and lots of losers. We are racing against each other! Leave the others in the dust! Kinda an unfamiliar concept, aren’t we supposed to be humble and let the other person go first?