I remember in college watching the Christian cliques eating together at secluded tables, seemingly afraid of their non-Christian, or at least non-overtly Christian, classmates, and whatever worldliness might rub off from them. Of course they would smile and welcome any passer-by, but they only roomed with each other, ate with each other, dated each other, and studied with each other. What sticks out in my memory are those times in the dining hall when six or eight of these students would gather at a table and begin their meal with a very obvious prayer. But the prayer itself, in such marked contrast to what was happening around them, further set them apart from their peers. It was a way of saying, "We're in, you're out. You can come in if you want, but we're not going to go looking for you. And by the way, we're relatively sure you're going to hell. Have a nice day."
To this day, I feel uncomfortable praying before meals in a restaurant. Not because I feel embarrassed, but because I worry that I am sending a message that I am part of an exclusive club.
Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Well, I think we can all understand his point, but I also think Saint Paul might have argued with him on it a bit. But then again Paul was speaking from a spiritual, and not a political, point of view.
Have you ever thought before of all the different people -- types of people -- that Paul must have encountered during his journeys? All across the Roman Empire, he came into very personal contact with every conceivable type of person, ranging from illiterate to learned, devout Jew to pagan, poverty-stricken to dazzlingly wealthy. In all cases, Paul had one goal: to convince each of these people of the truth of Christ. To do this, we are told here, he tried his best to be with them; not necessarily to be like them, but to be present, as we might say today, for those he was hoping to reach.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law ... so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law ... so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. (1 Cor. 9: 19-22a)As I imagine Paul's demeanor to these diverse people, I picture him as never arrogant, never condescending, never self-righteous. Yet at the same time he never gave in. Even when conversing with a king, Paul spoke with respect yet with confidence: "Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?' Paul replied, 'Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.'" (Acts 26:28-29) Note that Paul's goal is to make Agrippa what Paul himself is -- a follower of Christ. Indeed, in becoming all things to all people, Paul wants them to become like him, and to him, in Christ, he was everything he needed to be.
Paul's approach was not a new one, but was simply a mirror of the more perfect approach taken by Jesus. Think about it, Christ becomes all things to all men in the incarnation. In fact Christ is taking the approach to its extreme, by coming from glory to share in each of our lives as a brother, in a way Paul never could have done, but could only emulate.
Our lesson from this is to accept Paul's challenge to act as Christ acted in knowing and understanding and caring for all people where they are at in life, even as we hope to bring them to where we are. When I think back to the secluded Christians huddled together at lunch, I wonder if they were, sadly, more afraid of what their worldly peers could do to them than they were confident of how they could transform those same people through Jesus. Prudence is one thing; timidity is another. In Christ, Paul could relate to anyone. Surely we are called -- and empowered -- to do the same.