Gospel message delivered from different perspectives to reach all

Published: February 4, 2006

By Dr. Linda Webster

St. Paul would make an excellent instructor of public speaking in any of our contemporary universities. In the reading from 1 Corinthians, which we’ll hear this week, St. Paul explains how he analyzes his audiences in order to share the Gospel most effectively. (9, 19-22) He was under no impression that those “under the law” would hear the Gospel the same way than would those who were “outside of the law.” Just as we excuse our children from Mass during the homily so they can hear the Word of God explained in a more accessible way, Paul understood that the message had to meet the needs of the audience in order to strike a chord. In no way was Paul saying that he was lying to his audience or pretending to be someone else. Instead, he understood that the listener must see themselves in the speaker; that the listener must identify with the speaker or the message would make no sense. And, that the message needed to be adapted to that particular group of people. Notice that Paul does not claim to be a member of these various communities but only to be “like” one of them. He is doing the work of the Lord in a variety of guises so that the audience members can see how the Gospel applies to them: Same Gospel message, different approach. We see this in the four Gospels, themselves. Matthew writes for the Hebrew audience and makes the links between the prophesies in the Old Testament through genealogies and difficulties with Temple authorities. Without that clear link between the Scriptures, a Hebrew audience would have a difficult time believing the message and trusting the speaker. Mark can bypass all of that detail because he writes for a Gentile audience that would be unfamiliar with Temple politics and the Hebrew testament. Mark is believable in a different way — as a bearer of a Gentile message. Both accounts are scriptural; each account is different based on what the audience needed to know. What Paul and Mark and Matthew provide for their readers is a way to enter into Scripture. When inviting someone to listen to an unfamiliar voice with an unfamiliar message, something has to attract the audience. A message about living one’s life above the law is not going to be attractive to those living “under” the law or “outside” the law unless there is a good reason to assume that the speaker (or writer) understands how far apart those lives may be. The children’s books written by the late Stanley “Tookie” Williams are a case in point. Writing about the evils of gang membership and violence has much more credibility coming from a notorious gang leader than from someone who doesn’t appear to understand the desperate allure of gang membership. If the audience cannot see themselves in the speaker (or writer), then they have a more difficult time engaging in the message. The more closely the speaker resembles the audience, the more likely that the message will fall on fertile ground. As Catholics, we have a wealth of gifted speakers and writers who beckon us deeper into the faith. We have saints and clerics and scholars who speak to us from bookshelves across the millennia. Take St. Paul’s words as a challenge — look for those most “like” you in faith who can guide you closer to Christ. Dr. Linda Webster, a member of St. Mark Church in Monticello, has a bachelor’s degree in theology from St. Gregory University in Shawnee, Okla.