"Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that, ‘an idol has no real existence,' and that, ‘there is no God but one' . . . But some . . . eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do."
What is St. Paul going on about with all this talk of food and idols in his first letter to the Corinthians? It sounds like some sort of first century version of the South Beach diet. Is over-eating yet one more of the myriad issues that the Christian community in Corinth is dealing with? Maybe Paul is so confident in the imminent second coming of Christ, that he believes even eating is no longer necessary. Why is food such an important issue that Paul feels compelled to address it so emphatically? And why do the monotheistic Christians in Corinth, concern themselves over food being offered to pagan idols? What's going on in Corinth?
The essential question being put before Paul by the Church in Corinth is this: "Ought we to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols?" And for the Corinthians the answer to this question was as weighty as would be the answer to our inquiring about whether to eat meat from a source where mad cow disease, or Asian bird flu was a risk factor. We would be hesitant, if not downright fearful, to consume such food. The only difference being that for the Corinthians the concern was for their spiritual health, while our question would express concern over our physical well-being and mortality.
On the pagan altars in Corinth - and there were many of them - meat was sacrificed to pagan gods. After the religious ceremony that same meat was then offered for sale in the butcher shops of the city. So the lamb offered to Apollo in the morning, was the roast and chops offered for sale in the market that afternoon. As Christians shopped for dinner, the question soon arose, "Should we be eating this meat? We worship Jesus Christ. Should we be eating sanctified meat offered on the altar of some pagan god like Apollo?" A reasonable question.
Some in the community - those who were strong and had a better grasp of Christian theology - argued that since there is only one God and one Lord, Jesus Christ, that idols do not really exist. Thus the sacrifice of meat to them was an empty, meaningless act, ergo this meat may be safely eaten.
Others in the community - the weak and those who were less sure of their faith - believed that the idols were really gods, and they were troubled eating meat from such sacrifices.
Paul responds by saying, Of course you are free to eat food offered to idols, but because this is a big issue for some who may not be as mature in the faith as you, you should restrict your freedom and responsibility to their needs. "Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol's temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed. . . Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother's falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall."
It all boils down to is this, Paul says: our life in community is about love, not knowledge. And as Christians our concern is to be for the well-being of others, especially the weak. This goal always takes precedence over our own individual freedom and desires.How is this rule of love over knowledge applicable in our own life?
How about the consumption of alcohol? If we are in the company of someone for whom the use of alcohol is a problem, than do we really need to drink? Doesn't it show more strength on our part - those for whom moderate alcoholic consumption is not a threat - to forgo drinking in the presence of someone with an alcohol issue? Isn't that love that builds up?
Or how about in adult education or bible study? We come to these programs from diverse places. Some of us have studied scripture and theology at length. Some come for the first time. I always preface these courses with the statement that, " there is no foolish question except one, and that is the unasked question, because then you will never have an answer, and you will never grow." Isn't the love that builds up the one that allows for all questions to be fielded from all people - not just the knowledgeable - and to make room for the participation of all people, so that they can grow in their faith in Christ?
Or how about accessibility to our worship for the new-comer? There are those who criticize the announcements of page numbers during the liturgy. Those who believe it's a waste of paper and time to print a bulletin with the entire service and much of the music printed in it. But isn't it to build up in love to do this -to be inviting - so that we can graciously embrace the outsider into our liturgy, and making them feel comfortable, versus taking the attitude that everyone who needs to be Episcopalian already is, and if those who aren't don't know what we are doing, well to bad for them?
Or the new Medicare Prescription Drug program, whose bureaucratic rules and regulations are so complicated and difficult to comprehend, that since it went into effect on January 1st, tens of thousands of the elderly in our nation have been unable to receive necessary medications for their health and well-being. Wouldn't the love that builds up, be a program that was easily understood and accessible to the weakest and neediest among us?
What other ways are we stumbling blocks to the weak?
It comes down to a matter of values. Do we place our values in those things that exclusively feed our own desires -which ends up being idolatry. Or do we place our values in offering compassion and care for those among us who are weak, in need, and not as experienced - which is precisely what the Gospel calls us to do.
The great Italian actress Sophia Loren is reported to once have sobbed to Italian movie director Vittorio De Sica over the theft of some of her jewelry. De Sica lectured her: "Listen to me, Sophia. I am much older than you and if there is one great truth I have learned about life, it is this--never cry over anything that can't cry over you."
Are our values in things, or are they in something that can cry over us? Are they in lamb chops, beer, egos, bureaucracy, and impenetrable worship, or are they in people? Only one of those choices commends us to God. Which choice will we make?Back to the top