Though I am free and belong to no man, I make 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 (though I myself am not 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 (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9.19-23.
Jesus had said “whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matthew 20.27) and had modelled servitude by washing his disciples feet — “I have given you an example” (John 13.5-15). Now Paul, in deliberate imitation of Christ (1 Corinthians 11.1), has enslaved himself to all (the literal translation of the words in the first line of today’s passage) so as to win even more people for Christ than he would otherwise be able to do.
This self-imposed slavery involves “becoming like” the people he is seeking to win insofar as that was possible within “the law of Christ”. When he was with the Jews, Paul would engage in Jewish ceremonial practices and observe the injunctions imposed by the Torah and the scribal interpretation of it. But when he was with gentiles he would throw all his Jewishness aside and eat and drink whatever they were eating and drinking whether it was “kosher” or not. There is, however, a third group that he becomes like in order to win them, and it is this group that interests me most. It is “the weak”.
“The weak” is a term Paul uses for those who are weak in conscience (1 Corinthians 8.7, 10) … people who are hung up about things that a “strong” Christian knows are perfectly alright before God. In the case of the Christians in Corinth, for example, there were those who thought that meat that had been sacrificed to idols and then put on sale in the meat market was polluted in some way and that eating it was therefore wrong (1 Corinthians 8.7) whereas a “strong” Christian knew that that was nonsense (1 Corinthians 8.4-6). And Paul is adamant that part of his slavery to all so as to win more means becoming like the weak when he is with the weak. That challenges me. For how many times have I hindered the gospel by asserting my “strength” and freedom in the face of others’ “weakness”? Remaining stiffly upright, for example, as I parade into the chancel behind the choir on a Sunday morning … even though everyone else is bowing respectfully to the altar!
This whole passage raises big questions for me. Not only my attitude to “the weak” but my unwillingness to move out of my comfort zone and to be even remotely like the people in the world around me whom I so much want to bring to Christ. Eugene Peterson’s marvellous paraphrase of today’s passage makes the challenge clear:
“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, non-religious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized — whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ — but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (The Message).
Lord Jesus, you stooped to conquer. Help me to do the same. Amen.