All Things to All People
Do you talk to different people about the same thing in different ways? I do. To a colleague who has asked my opinion on something, I might say, “The resources and potential of both budget and audience mean that your programmatic idea is probably untenable.” To a child who is trying to wrap a present with a too-small piece of paper (this is a true example from the recent holidays), I might say the exact same thing, although in different words: “I don’t think that’s going to work.” I don’t believe that I am being inauthentic by using different words with different people. I—we—want our words to be heard and truly understood by whomever is our audience. We change our vocabulary, dialect, even language to translate the content of what we are saying into the very language, themes or metaphors that we know our audience will understand. If we want to be helpful, we do this. The Apostle Paul did this.
Much of his first letter to the dear believers in Corinth concerns the delicate practice of translation: how to interpret the old understanding of, say, eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols into a setting where ancient laws were no longer binding, and where new members entered the community with no history—and no interest—in someone else’s former legalism. How to communicate to a religiously and ethnically and economically diverse new community why it was necessary for an evangelist truly to be conversant with each of their cultural languages and so many more, so that the gospel might be shared most liberally? It might seem obvious that a very diverse community would understand the need for cultural and religious polyglots, but that wasn’t the case then, and may not be so now. Paul was writing in self-explanation, and maybe self-defense, to people who apparently challenged what they saw as his chameleon practices.
Paul clearly had a gift that many of us would give our eyeteeth for: he could talk to anybody. From our passage, we learn that he was intentional about that: he took a God-given gift and he worked it. He took the human connection with Jews that he had as one born Jewish and made it the avenue for powerful dialogue and advocacy for the gospel of Christ. He took his new affinity for and identity with those not “within the law”—those not bound by the Torah or the Covenant with Abraham—and spoke to them as a sincere brother. He spoke to the weak—those new to faith in God and also Christ who were working to shed the mores of their previous pagan lives—and he translated the gospel message into words that they could hear and understand. We, too, want to make the important things that we say accessible to all people. We, too, simply want to meet people where they are.
The subject of Paul’s translations is, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My own examples have been about present-wrapping and office projects. Paul begins our text for today with the important point that proclaiming the gospel is never grounds for boasting. How about that—whatever we turn our polyglot skills towards, it should never be seen by us as grounds for self-congratulation. To any Christian, proclaiming the gospel is not a laudable extracurricular but a daily obligation. It is not something you should be touted for, but something that is expected of you. It is an obligation fulfilled. We should not praise parents for the extraordinary work of loving their children; we should expect it of them and help them to do it. Just so, Paul is not to be praised for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ; he believes in Christ and so he is obligated to live out of that. Proclaiming the gospel isn’t about standing in a pulpit, as I am, but about living its mandates, inhabiting its ethics. Proclaiming the gospel with our lives isn’t grounds for boasting; it’s an obligation fulfilled.
And so we live out the gospel; we do so amongst the many kinds of people who are in our lives. Some people want to experience from us a full-throttle, hands-waving, tongue-proclaiming testimony to the resurrecting love of God and Christ. Others in our orbit would run from such a display, and yet, may be starving to experience Christ’s love through us, their friend or colleague. We translate our message to them through words and actions that they can understand and access. We become all things to all people—not because we water down or relativize our message, but because in sharing it truthfully we listen to people and learn how they communicate. We pay true attention to people. We learn about what matters most to them, how they speak about what matters to them, and how they translate what matters to them when they are speaking to us. We can share our message with them because we dare also to hear theirs to us.
Paul says that he is free with respect to all yet has made himself a slave to all. How, we might wonder, do we become slaves in our attempt to share the gospel in as many languages as possible? Who, again would opt to do that? I think that Paul is testing our sensibilities about what comprises true freedom and true slavery. They are the two sides of the same coin. We can see our deep relationality with others as a kind of slavery, because we have temporarily sublimated our own selves in order to speak their language. Or, we can see ourselves as having a radical freedom to meet others where they are. This is not self-denial but self-expansion. We are freed not from what we cherish about our heritage and ourselves, but freed from being limited only to that self-expression. We are freed to learn more about ourselves and express more corners of ourselves. We are freed to be bigger selves when we permit ourselves to be stretched in the direction of friends and neighbors whose histories and discourse are different from ours. We do not become them; we simply let them teach us how to be larger human beings. We do not appropriate anything of who they are, we only let them teach us new ways to express what we already know. We are grateful slaves, in this sense, while we are also free, free, free: free to grow and learn, to explore, to expand.
Paul’s words for us today are part of a larger text that asks us, through a variety of examples, always to identify with the other. He is writing to a faith community that is threatening to fall apart. His well-known “wedding verses” - “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do have no love” - weren’t meant for newlyweds, they were meant for a community on the brink of divorce. Paul’s thinking about the other end of the relationship! He is saying, “identify with the other, speak in words they can understand, and always practice the greatest attribute of all, which is love.” Paul compels us to think about who is the “other” in our lives—not necessarily an adversary but someone with whom we are in community yet whose experiences and (perhaps assigned) role are different from ours. There are many people in our society with whom we may not naturally identify. They may be the poor, or the wealthy, the incarcerated, those of different gender identities, races and ethnicities. I might challenge myself to identify with young black men, the killings of whom are finally receiving some public attention. What would it mean for me to focus my actions and imagination on understanding their reality as fully as possible; what change would come to my own values if I did so. How would I spend my time and what would my advocacy look like?
In the end, freedom to Paul isn’t the right to get what we want; it’s the right to subordinate all that we want for ourselves so that we may enable others. Freedom equals solidarity in practice, not in affection, but in action. We identify with others, we are in solidarity with them, and therefore we are all things to all people: to the weak, to the strong, to the Jew, to the Greek, of Paul’s day. In our own, how many glorious human beings are before us amongst whom we are free to inhabit the Gospel, and to be in radical solidarity: all things to all people!
D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) pp. 326-331.