1 Corinthians 9:16-23
“You can’t please everyone.” “You can’t make everyone happy.” “You can’t do everything.” “Know your limits.” “Don’t try to do it all.” “You can’t be all things to all people.” Have you heard these words? Said them? Felt them? I know I have. I’ve been having a busy semester this Spring, and my mother frequently says something like this to me. And I’ve certainly doled out these words more than once. “You can’t make everyone happy.” Being a people-pleaser can be exhausting. Now, I’m not saying we can’t try to be kind and loving - I think we absolutely should do that! But trying to make everyone happy all the time usually leads us to exhaustion, which is bad enough, but it also means we end up compromising ourselves, our values, our integrity, because we’re working so hard to make sure everyone else is happy with us, that everyone likes us. There are limits to what we can do, right? We can’t be all things to all people.
And yet, what springs to mind is a scene from one of the best movies I’ve seen, a movie that’s on many people’s lists of best movies: the 1993 film Schindler’s List, the Steven Spielberg film about a man named Oskar Schindler, who worked to rescue Jews from being sent to concentration camps during the Holocaust by employing over a thousand workers in his factory. His motives begin with profit for himself, but eventually his mission becomes one of compassion and urgency. In the end, in one of the most moving scenes from the film, Schindler expresses his deep despair that he could have done more but did not. He says:
“I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just... I could have got more.” Stern, the man to whom he’s speaking, replies: “Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.” But Schindler goes on: “If I'd made more money... I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I'd just...I didn't do enough! This car. [He] would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!”
There’s a tension that Schindler’s dilemma exposes. Was he solely responsible for every life saved or lost in his sphere of influence? That’s a lot of weight to put on one person. He did so much! But could he have done more? Should he have? What kind of expectations are reasonable for him to place on himself? Must we try to be all things to all people, as much as it is in our power? And if we’re thinking about how hard we’re working to make sure others know of God’s love and grace, if we do less than we could, if we are not all things to all people, are we at fault?
That’s a question that our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems to answer, and in Paul’s usual definitive way, he seems to have a clear and bold answer for us. “An obligation is laid on me,” Paul says, “and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! . . . I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.” Paul’s words come in a chapter when Paul is trying to show the Corinthians who he is as an apostle of Christ. When I read Paul’s words, I am struck by two feelings. First, I’m filled with a deep level of exhaustion. Trying to be all things to all people sounds like an impossible task with ridiculously unreasonable expectations. Have you ever tried to be all things to all people? How did it work out? How long could you sustain it? It comes with a cost, trying to be all things, and I think in the long run, we cannot sustain it. No matter what we try to do, it seems it is never enough, and that we always carry the burden of knowing that we should be doing more. This burden is a tremendous weight to bear, a sometimes immobilizing weight. We could be giving more. We could be feeding more people. We could be volunteering more, serving more. We could be, we could be… We know we should be doing more that we aren’t doing, and so we do nothing at all.
Was Paul actually doing everything he said he was? Was he all things to all people? I think we need a bit more context to his words. See, there is a bit of tension in the New Testament between Paul and the other apostles, Peter and James and the rest of the twelve who were Jesus’ first followers. And the tension comes from a couple of sources. First, Paul never met Jesus in person. Yes, he had a powerful encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus where he heard Jesus’s voice and turned from persecuting Jesus-followers to inspiring others to become Jesus-followers. But he did not follow Jesus during his earthly life for years like the other disciples. And at first, that’s a source of tension. Does Paul have equal claim to leadership and authority with the twelve? Should he? Does it matter? So Paul is out to prove himself, a bit. Earlier in the chapter, he compares himself not so subtly with other disciples, noting that he does not take advantage of all the privileges that some of the other apostles do. Paul wants to be in it for serving Jesus, and he wants his purpose and integrity to be above question.
The other source of tension is that while some of the other apostles wanted to focus on sharing the gospel of Jesus with other Jewish people - after all, Jesus was Jewish, and the twelve were Jewish, and Jesus himself mostly taught and worked and healed among Jewish communities - Paul wants to share the gospel with Gentiles, who might be eager to hear about Jesus and God’s grace even though they have no intentions of converting to Judaism. So, in his words to the Corinthians - a community of Gentile Christians - Paul is trying to tell them that his only interest is in sharing the gospel, and he’ll share it with anyone and everyone. He’s ready to be in community with anyone so he can share the good news.
That brings me to my second feeling I’m struck with when I first read this text. Being all things to all people? I am not sure being all things to all people is really desirable even if we could somehow pull it off. My first read of this passage makes Paul seem like a chameleon, generously described, and manipulative and inauthentic, if I’m going with my gut. Do I want to be in relationship with someone who is going to pretend to be more like me in order to have an “in” with me? I don’t think I really want someone in my life who is going to pretend that they think like I do, so that they can better persuade me to whatever end they have in mind. “To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law … so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law … so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.” Do we want to hear good news from someone who is just pretending to share an identity with us?
Fortunately, I’ve had some help in thinking beyond my gut reactions to Paul’s words. This week at one of Drew’s weekly chapel services, professor of Christian history and Methodist Studies at Drew Rev. Dr. Kevin Newburg preached on this text from 1 Corinthians, and I found his sermon both challenging and inspiring. He summed up both Paul’s message and his own approach to pastoring as “Love people and preach the gospel.” I like his way of interpreting Paul’s words. What if, instead of Paul trying to deceive people into believing he’s just like they are in order to convince them to follow Jesus, Paul is trying to tell us that he’s committed to building relationships with anyone and everyone so that they can all share in Christ? What if we think about Paul as modeling for us that we can be in deep, authentic, meaningful relationship with all kinds of people.
When we think over our lives, we might find that we spend a lot of time with people who are just like us. Sure, they might have different hobbies, or like a different sports team than we do. But we tent to spend most of our time with people who are in the same economic class as we are, who have the same amounts of education as we do, who are in the same racial or ethnic group as we are, who share our religious identity already. Studies even show that our social media pages tend to reflect our own perspectives back at us. We develop cultivated facebook feeds, for example, where we see people supporting the political candidates as we do, and holding the same point of view on social issues.
Paul is committed to something different. When I hear Paul saying that he’s become all things to all people, I’d like to think that he means that he is always crossing boundaries and spending his time not with people just like him, who think like him, and worship like him, and act like him, but with all kinds of people, building relationships that are built on his openness to the other. It is hard work. It is indeed costly for Paul, the amount of work he puts into fulfilling his commission, his calling, his commitment to the good news of Jesus. But I don’t think he means it to be the recipe for exhaustion that it seems at first glance.
Instead, I think about it like this: When we are our whole selves, and we allow others to be their whole selves, I think the gospel can flourish so much more easily. Because we believe, I hope, that the gospel, the love and grace and forgiveness and reconciliation that we’ve experienced in Christ - that’s news that is so good that it is for all people, in all places. Paul’s vision of God’s work in the world is expansive, and inclusive, and I hope ours is too.
All things to all people? I’m not sure we’re up to that task. But I believe we serve a God who is all things for all people. And we’re called to be messengers of that most excellent news, crossing boundaries, building relationships, and loving people, all people, in the name of Christ whom we serve. Amen.