All Things to All People

Mr. Bryan Spoon, Seminarian

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

“I have made myself a slave to all.  I have become all thing to all people.”  If you or I introduced ourselves in conversation like this, people might think that we have a few screws loose.  But this is precisely how Saint Paul was being introduced to people that may have read this letter for the first time.  The idea of someone who has made them-self a slave to all, sounds a bit like a people pleaser.  What kind of person tries to become all things to all people??

I was reading an article recently in a psychology journal about people pleasers.  The premise of the article was that a people pleaser is someone that suffers from fear of rejection and a fear of failure.  The article listed five points that might define someone as a people pleaser.

1) Neglect of Self.  Someone who neglects them-self will put very little time in for their own health.  It can lead to illness, disease or even death.

2) Passive Aggressive or Resentful.  Those who consent to actions with an underlying feeling of resentment may feel silently angry.

3) Reduced Ability to Enjoy other People and Activities.  The main difficulty here is if actions are being done out of guilt rather than out of a sense of joy.

4) Stress / Depression.  One way to define stress is being too busy or having more to do than we are capable of.

5) Being Taken Advantage of.  If we stop paying attention to why we do things, our own health, and put aside our body telling us that it is stressed, we can have the propensity to be taken advantage of.

While I was in Guatemala there were many opportunities to offer assistance and ministry in the community.  Even before I left, I discovered that a good friend of mine had served in the same church that I was going to serve.  It was a wonderful blessing that helped San Marcos embrace me as a member of their community rather than an outsider.  With a strong embrace, there were also more offers to be involved.  The vast majority of the offers were a blessing.  I didn’t feel taken advantage of, I felt a sense of joy for being asked to minister with the congregation.  We did ministry in a women’s prison.  We helped build fuel efficient stoves for parishioners.  I had the opportunity to preach in Spanish.  We secured funding for an industrial sewing machine for a group of seamstresses.  But there was one example, though, where I did feel taken advantage of.  I’d like to tell you about it partly as a confession of my mistake of succumbing to the habits of the people pleaser, but also as a testimonial, because I believe ultimately God was with me and helped me out of the situation.  There was one project that I was asked to help with in a shop across town.  We ended up walking to the shop and talking with the owner.  I remember the owner literally looking me up and down, as if sizing me up, and then asking me to pay a price for services that was literally three times higher than what I would pay even in the United States.  Feeling taken advantage of, feeling a sense of guilt, I ended up agreeing to the project and to pay the price.  I was told to return in a week to pay and that the project would be finished.  As the time to return to the shop came near, I felt more and more uneasy about what I was involved in.  I prayed that God might help take me out of this situation in a way that was beneficial to all sides.  I had felt like I put myself into a bad situation on this one.  When I got back to the shop, to my utter delight, the shopkeeper told me sorry that the job wasn’t finished and that there simply wasn’t enough time.  I didn’t have to pay for the service and all ended well!  I felt truly graced.  I also felt like I was being offered a bit of a lesson to remember, to not offer myself in ways where I was being taken advantage of.

As individuals, we all experience many offers to help.  I’ve certainly been guilty of falling into the categories of a people pleaser from time to time.  Today’s scripture from 1 Corinthians 9 is one that I have wrestled with for years.  I have made myself a slave to all.  I have become all things to all people.   These admonitions are as difficult as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, were we are told to walk two miles if someone asks us to walk one mile, give our jackets as well as our cloaks, and to turn the other cheek.  But like this experience where God answered my prayer not to be taken advantage of, I don’t believe God wants us to be people pleasers.  This is where today’s scripture really helps bring the point home.

In Psalm 147 and Isaiah, it says that those who wait on The Lord are blessed.  Waiting involves hope.  The Hebrew words that are used in these passages involve waiting, but also patience.  We have to discern, to wait and to watch where our resources can be best used.

This is where Paul’s message is brilliant. The chapter before today’s reading, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul writes thatknowledge puffs up, but that love builds up.  The Greek word for “to build up” is οἰκοδομέω.  This word signifies building up God’s kingdom.  It comes from the same root as the word economy.  So from the start, Paul is reminding us to work in love so that we are building up God’s kingdom.  Paul isn’t telling us to be people pleasers.  Neither is Christ telling us to be people pleasers.  Is Christ saying, “Blessed are the people pleasers for they shall enable people to take advantage of them.”  No, Christ is not saying that.  That would be ridiculous.  What I think Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 9, is that to become all things to all people, is that he has learned to listen, Paul has learned to to appreciate the gifts of others, he approaches others with understanding, and with a sense of hope.  The words he uses in his interactions are to gain, to win, or to save.  These are words that have to do with investment.  As we have seen in 1 Corinthians 8, we are tasked to invest in God’s economy, in edifying the kingdom of God.  We are not tasked to please others, but to please God in our interactions with others.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul helps us make sense of this.  Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10 that we are not to be under the will of others.  Specifically, 1 Corinthians 10:29 states, “For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience?”  In all of his relationships, Paul is asking not what would be pleasing to others, but rather what would be pleasing to God.  We need to ask ourselves, where is there mutual respect, mutual joy, and mutual appreciation?  I had many wonderful opportunities to engage ministry of mutual love, respect and appreciation in Guatemala and El Salvador.  But honestly, with the shop keeper example I shared with us, I failed miserably with these questions.

Perhaps if I had remembered to reflect more on 1 Corinthians 9 before I arrived I would have done a better job.  Ultimately what I was left with in this situation was a good memory of a mistake that will help me in the future.  I imagine all of us have made the mistake of falling into some of the categories of a people pleaser from time to time.  We might have neglected ourself, maybe let ourselves feel silently angry, done something out of guilt rather than out of joy, got stressed out, and ultimately been taken advantage of.  In all of our relationships, Paul is asking not what would be pleasing to others, but rather what would be pleasing to God.  May our past mistakes be a reminder to ask ourselves, where is there mutual respect, mutual joy, and mutual appreciation in my relationships?  What can I learn and appreciate from someone different from me?  If we can ask these questions, and answer them honestly, I believe we can do as Paul does in this passage, we can share in the blessings of the gospel.