One of my favorite cartoonists is Gary Larson.
He is the creator of The Far Side cartoons.
On of my favorite cartoons of his is one of a man talking to his dog, Ginger.
The man says:
“Stay out of the garbage Ginger! I am not going to tell you again!”
What the dog hears:
Blah…blah…blah, Ginger. Blah…blah…blah.
That’s what it’s like to talk to someone who does not understand you.
Maybe they speak a different language.
Maybe they live in a different culture.
Maybe they have different life experiences.
If you have ever been in a place where you can’t speak the language and are unfamiliar with the customs and etiquette, you know what I’m talking about.
When I preached in Mexico, South Sudan, Borneo and Vietnam, I needed a translator.
Without a translator, I am like the Far Side Cartoon.
Blah blah blah … Jesus … blah blah blah.
But it’s not just the language barrier.
It’s the culture barrier.
I have to take out all illustrations about Pittsburgh Penguin hockey.
And it’s not just between nationalities and languages.
It can happen in your living room.
It’s like talking to my kids when they were teenagers.
It was like they were speaking in tongues!
They thought the same thing about me!
It’s easy to just throw up our hands and say, “To heck with it!”
“To heck with you!”
Which kinds of sounds like, “You are not worth the effort!”
I mean it’s hard trying to communicate with to someone when they don’t understand you, and you don’t understand them, right?
Believe it or not, this is the problem in Corinth Paul is talking about in today’s text.
1 Corinthians 9: 16-23
16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Paul is saying that if you want someone to listen to you, you need understand their culture, their language and their belief systems.
Otherwise, they will not listen to you.
Paul tells us to respect and tolerate cultural and language differences in the context of talking to people about Jesus.
The first step is to understand the culture you are speaking to.
Then tell them how Jesus fits into their culture.
Be all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel.
What does that mean, be all things to all people?
Do we change Jesus so that people will accept him?
Make Jesus like them.
And that is not what Paul is saying here.
He is not saying put the culture into Jesus.
Paul is saying that we need to put Jesus into the culture.
That is what Paul did in Athens.
He noticed that the Greeks had what they called an unknown god that was sort of an acknowledgment that there were deities they did not know.
Paul told them they were right.
There was a God unknown to them.
The one true God revealed in Jesus Christ.
That made sense to them.
Some came to believe and worship.
Here is s historical example of someone who followed Paul’s recommendation.
He was a Jesuit Priest who went to China in 1582.
He spent his first few years learning the Chinese language and culture.
He learned to fit in.
He was criticized by many for “going native” because he lived as the Chinese lived, not like his Portuguese countrymen.
But in fact, Ricci became an extraordinary missionary because he could speak about Jesus in a way the Chinese could understand.
He put Jesus into a Chinese context.
This is what Paul is saying.
Jesus is the same for all people and for all cultures and for all time.
And he meets them right where he finds them.
In their own particular culture.
In their own particular language.
Just as they are.
We need to do the same.
Why should someone listen to us if we are not willing to respect them just as they are?
That’s what Jesus did and continues to do.
If we impose a Jesus of our own language and context onto people who don’t understand our culture, they won’t listen to us.
We become Ginger’s owner.
Blah blah blah … Jesus.
It would look like what was described in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, The Poisonwood Bible.
Nathan Price is a Baptist missionary who has taken his family to the Congo in 1959.
His goal is to overturn the ancient cultural traditions of the Congo and replace them with his Americanized Gospel.
His shows his lack of understanding of Africa immediately when he tries to grow a garden of vegetables from seeds he brought from Georgia.
The plants are wildly inappropriate to the environment.
The plants become unrecognizable, almost grotesque, useless, and unable to bear fruit.
The people laugh at him.
Their response is, “Why should we listen to this guy?”
Nor does Nathan listen to the Chief.
He takes no time trying to understand the structure of the community.
And then he wonders why no one comes to “church”.
Why should they?
It made no sense to them.
So, if we want people to listen to us, we need to learn about them first.
We need to do our homework.
This is all like a team preparing for a football game.
The team spends hours watching game films.
They want to know what the other team is going to do, so they can be ready.
It’s like what I did when I prepared for a trial.
I spent hours trying to understand every argument that my opponent might make so I could respond to it.
Want to tell someone about Jesus?
Learn about them.
Listen to them.
Think like they do.
Talk like they do.
Go where they are.
It won’t always work.
But as Paul says, when we become like our audience, we save some.
I think what Paul says has a universal application.
I mean if Jesus used it and Paul used it, shouldn’t we?
Here is what I mean.
Many years ago, I got some training in mediation and conflict resolution.
One of the things I learned was this:
We should never tell someone they are wrong until we can describe to them what they believe to their satisfaction.
That is kind of what Paul is saying.
This little nugget of wisdom is the key to conflict resolution and effective communication.
And it usually works.
This is what it looks like.
I make one of the parties to the conflict describe to the other what the conflict was about and what was needed from the other to resolve it.
I make the other person listen, without responding, until the speaker is done.
Then, before any response, I tell the listener to tell the speaker what the speaker had just said, starting out with the phrase:
“This is what you believe, why you think you are right and what do you want from me.”
I then ask the speaker if the listener got it right.
Usually, it’s pretty close.
Sometimes because the listener did not listen, but more often because the speaker did not speak in a way the listener could understand.
So, we work on the message until there is agreement on what the speaker said.
Then the roles are reversed.
It takes time.
It is hard.
Often it is really uncomfortable.
But when they each hear the other repeat accurately what was said, even though they still disagree, it is kind of profound.
It is often a “WOW!” moment.
Because they listened to each other.
We like it when people listen to us.
We like it when people hear us.
When people try to understand us.
When people try to speak our language.
When people show respect for us.
That is the beginning of effective communication.
This is what Paul is saying.
Before we can communicate what we believe to someone, and convince them that what we believe might be a better way, we need to step into their shoes and see the world from their perspective.
Walk a mile in their shoes before you tell them there is a better way to walk.
That is what Jesus did.
Jesus spoke in parables.
Illustrations of the Kingdom people could understand.
You want to talk to farmers?
You better use illustrations to them that they get.
If you want to preach Jesus to Martians, you better live on Mars for a while!
Paul goes so far as to say, you need to become a Martian.
To the Jews, think like a Jew.
To the Gentiles, think like a Gentile.
Today it might look like this.
Want to talk about pop culture, think like the pop culture.
To a teenager, think like a teenager.
To someone of a different race, think like that different race.
To someone of a different political party, think like that political party.
To someone who does not want to wear a mask, think like someone who does not want to wear a mask.
To do this you need to listen to them first.
What doesn’t work is to say, “I just don’t understand …” and walk away.
That accomplishes nothing.
It is destructive of community.
And something that really doesn’t work is demonization.
Back in the early days of Saturday Night Live, there was a weekly parody of the 60 Minutes segment called “Point/Counterpoint”.
It was a debate of sorts between columnists form the right and left.
On the SNL version, it was Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin.
Curtin would go first.
Then Akroid would start off his response with, “Jane, you are an ignoramous!”
Only that is not quite what he said.
But it was actually a bit more offensive than that.
It was funny, but it was so true.
When we use personal attacks, we are speaking without understanding.
“You are an animal.”
“You are a racist.”
“You are a sheep.”
“You are an enemy.”
These are not loving words.
These are not words of understanding.
They lead to anger and conflict and tribalism.
It is better to learn about them, what they believe and why.
And we all need to do that, too.
It’s time consuming.
But once done, then the real work can start.
It might not lead to agreement, but it could lead to community well-being.
This I believe is living the Jesus way.
It’s what God did in Jesus.
God came to us and lived with us.
To walk in our shoes.
Maybe to try and understand us.
Understand how hard our lives were.
Find out what we needed.
And then gave it to us.
A way of life that requires us to love each other enough to learn about each other and live with each other, even in polarized times.
So, if we want to live the Jesus way, we need to do the same thing.
Be all things to all people.
That is how we love in polarized times.
That is the Jesus way.