In the “Physical Education” episode of Community, the gang—with the best of intentions—misguidedly attempts to get Abed to tweak his personality in order to set him up with a girl they believe has a crush on him. When their plans fail, they all feel bad and tell Abed they just wanted him to be happy. But Abed explains that he actually doesn’t have a problem with either meeting girls or with feeling good about who he is, but he went along with their plans because it was important to him that they feel like they were helping him and he wanted them to feel good:
Abed: That’s why I was willing to change for you guys—because when you really know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people isn’t such a big deal.
NBC’s Community isn’t for everyone—its humor definitely pushes the limits of some folks’ taste—but in its off-beat way, it gets at the heart of some important aspects of what it means to be a part of a community. And I think this episode—particularly Abed’s willingness to go along with his friends’ plans—gets at the attitude or mind-set underlying Paul’s advice to a community of believers in Corinthians 8.
Apparently, there was an argument among folks about whether they should attend meals where meat that had been sacrificed to idols in the pagan temples was being served. This was a sticky issue in their day, as left over meat sacrificed in pagan temples was regularly served at temple feasts as well as sold in the marketplace, and some believers felt it was wrong to eat that kind of meat. Paul starts out by reminding them how there is only one God and so meat sacrificed to “so-called-gods” is “just like any other meat.” But the issue is not so clear cut—“knowing isn’t everything,” he says. If you think it is, you’ll end up like “know-it-alls who treat others as know-nothings.” So, says Paul, “We need to be sensitive to the fact that we’re not all at the same level of understanding in this”—and it takes time for folks to change. So, even if you know nothing’s wrong with the meat, don’t push another person to accept or do something they feel is wrong—and don’t do it yourself if it’s going to offend them: “A free meal here and there isn’t worth the cost.” Later in the letter, Paul cautions against “thoughtlessly stepping on the toes of those who aren’t as free as you are” and encourages them to be “considerate of everyone’s feelings.”
Essentially, Paul is telling them to temper their knowledge and freedom with love—and intellectually, I already got this; but it was the above scene in Community that gave me a good picture of what that might look like.
Not unlike the early church, Abed and his friends are working out what it means to be a family-like group. While they aren’t trying to figure out what that means in the context of Jesus and his teachings, they are (for the most part) well-intentioned and care about and want to help Abed. They want to make Abed's life better. But their concept of Abed is flawed—in fact, in many ways, Abed is more grounded, freer and more secure than most of them. But from his own personal experience of people trying to help him in the past, Abed knows that his friends’ concept of him isn't going to change by any argument or insistence on his part. So, out of consideration—or, perhaps we should say “love”—for his friends, Abed goes along with their well intentioned plans to “help” him.
What struck me about Abed’s choices is that he makes them without resentment, arrogance or a sense that he is condescending to them—and that helps me get at something important in Paul’s teaching. If we are secure enough in Jesus—if we really believe his who he says and that we are who he says when we choose to trust him—then when we encounter folks who haven’t yet experienced the breadth and depth of the freedom we have in him, we will find it is “not such a big deal” to adapt our own behavior. And—this is crucial—we won’t do that out of arrogance or pity for “know-nothings” but out of real and humble concern, care, and consideration for them because we’re trying to do what’s best for them. And that is a huge part of love, this acting in the best interest of another.
The more I contemplated Abed’s choices, the more I realized that the attitude with which we approach these kinds of situations reveals where our focus is: on ourselves or others. It didn’t hurt Abed’s feelings or his pride to go along with his friends’ plans to help him because he was secure enough in his own identity and liked himself just fine; his concern was for his friends and their group/community. I must admit, I am not as much like Abed as I’d like to be. In fact, most of my struggle with Paul’s teaching comes precisely because of my pride and insecurities; even if I am fortunate enough to count myself among those who “know” the freedom related to certain issues we debate today, I all too often experience an emotional how-dare-you-tell-me-differently response. Frankly, that kind of response reveals that my focus is on me instead of others as well as a lack of understanding of who God is and an insecurity of who—and whose—I am. And when that is the case, I need to rethink my thinking.
Bottom line, Abed helps me get at the core of Paul’s instruction: love. It is out of genuine affection, concern for the best interest of another and consideration that we are to approach each other. And the more we spend time getting to know and live out of the love, interest and affection God has for us, the more sense it makes to approach others likewise—and the more natural it becomes. For if we know who we are—and whose we are—then in situations like the ones Paul’s getting at, adapting in the best interest of others isn’t such a big deal.
Now, just don’t ask me how the rest of the episode fits into all this. I won’t touch that one with a 1o foot pole—or pool cue.
(Image: NBC via Hulu)