I once read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World by a man named Edward P. Jones. It’s the gripping tale of a black slave owner in a rural county in Virginia. While the story and the characters are fictitious, the premise of the narrative is based in the historical reality that there were black slave owners in the pre-Civil War South. The story weaves and twists through the lives of a number of characters, but the action begins with the death of Henry Townsend, the 31-year-old black owner of 33 slaves and 50 acres. Henry’s ownership of human beings stands in contrast to the beliefs and feelings of his parents, Augustus and Mildred, who had worked long and hard to buy the freedom of the family when Henry was a young boy, and those of Henry’s free-born Philadelphia wife Caldonia. In addition to being a gripping tale, the story raised up for me the ambiguous tension between slavery and freedom.
Reading this novel has made the typical Paul-speak of the passage we hear this morning all the more intriguing to me. My guess is that while some of us in this room may have to deal with the racism and prejudices of other kinds still at work in our culture, few, if any, of us have ever known true servitude. And none of us have ever been the victim of institutional slavery. We don’t even know what it’s like to live in a culture where slavery exists and is condoned.
Paul makes this statement to the Christians in Corinth: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all.” To understand what he’s getting at, we need to understand that a large part of the First Letter to the Corinthians is devoted to chastising them about their behavior and attitudes that have been reported to him, and instructing them about how to be more faithful in living out the gospel he first preached to them. Just last week we heard about the controversy over whether it was okay to eat meat offered to idols. The remains of sacrificial animals offered to idols in the pagan temples of the city were routinely taken to the butcher shops were they were sold for meat to the populace in Corinth. Paul cautioned that while Christians who were firm in their faith could eat such meat without damage to their souls, others who were less certain might be endangered by the practice. He exhorted the Corinthian Christians to abstain from eating meat if that’s what it took to safeguard their weaker brothers and sisters in the faith. It’s a principle we can all understand. There are many things that each of can do, but may choose not to do because we don’t want to tempt someone else to behavior that may be harmful to them.
Today’s passage follows in much the same tone. Paul says he is a man under obligation, but it is an obligation he freely embraces. And his reward in taking on this obligation is that he may freely give to others what he has so freely received himself…the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. Again, this is a principle we can all understand whether we practice it all the time or not: We are meant to share unselfishly with others the good that we have received ourselves.
It’s the next part of the passage that can be harder to understand and embrace. Paul, the consummate Jew who early on persecuted the followers of Jesus, says, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews (and) to those under the law I became as one under the law so that I might win those under the law.” Well versed in the law and the prophets as he was, this was probably not much of a stretch for Paul. But then he goes on to say, “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law so that I might win those outside the law.” In other words, he learned to see and understand things from a gentile perspective and, he adds, from the perspective of the weak as well. Paul then says, “I have become all things to all people.”
How many times have you and I been warned that the one thing we can never hope to do is be all things to all people? And yet here is Paul, the ultimate evangelist, telling us that this is the way he operates, and implying we should do the same. I’m thinking that most of the time when I’ve been warned that I cannot be all things to all people, the advice has been right on, and I’m thinking the same is probably true for the rest of you. And the reason this advice has been so sound is that you and I usually try to “be all things to all people” by trying to keep everyone happy. Yet again, this is a principle we can all understand. As the old saying goes: You can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But keeping everyone happy and pleased is not what Paul’s talking about.
Paul was able to be all things to all people because he was so committed to sharing the Gospel that he was willing to meet them where they were. This doesn’t mean that he joined them where they were if it was contrary to the Gospel. It simply means that he made every effort to understand them, to learn about what they had been taught, what they valued, what they believed. And then he tried to find the points of connection between their perspectives and those of the Gospel as a place to begin his proclamation. I have to imagine that was sometimes very hard work for Paul…just as it is for us. That’s why this seeking-to-understand-deeply is so lacking in the world. We just don’t want to “slave” that hard to understand others.
Paul was able to be all things to all people because he was so clear about who he was and what he believed. He was not a relativist who said whatever works for someone is fine. At the core of his being was the knowledge that he was loved by God, that he was called by Christ, that he was empowered by the Spirit. He was able to declare himself a slave to all precisely because he was absolutely free in Christ Jesus. These are the same certitudes that are available to you and me as followers of Jesus. We are all loved and called and empowered.
The paradox of the gospel is that “slavery” for the sake of Christ is the freest existence available to you and me. And that freedom is meant to make us open to others. The irony of the times we live in is that this very gospel of openness is often condemned as selling out to the world. By God’s grace may you and I experience in our own lives the breadth and inclusivity of divine love so that we may share it fearlessly with the world around us.