I Corinthians 8:1-13: Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. ————————————————————————————————————————————– For the four Sundays after Epiphany this year, our New Testament reading comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. With a segment from Chapter 6 two weeks ago, Chapter 7 last week, Chapter 8 today and Chapter 9 next week; we are lead into a place of doing a “mini Bible study” on this Epistle.
Key to interpreting Scripture is to understand context. First, we recognize that Paul, following the appearance of Jesus to him, went on several missionary journeys, including one to the city of Corinth. After nearly two months of teaching Christianity, a religion the Corinthians had no previous knowledge of, Paul left. It should come as no surprise then that the people of Corinth failed to grasp the totality of Christianity and had sent urgent messages to Paul, complaining about how things were going. While promising a return visit, Paul provided answers to their questions and criticisms in this the first of two letters he would write to Corinth. (Note some scholars believe there may be more than two letters represented here and there may be pieces missing.)
Paul has several things to address with the Corinthians, including divisions in the church, sexual immorality, lawsuits among believers, glorifying God in the body, marriage, food offered to idols, the rights of Apostles, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, love, orderly worship and resurrection.
Before talking about the four passages we read over four Sundays, some general comments. Corinthian society would reflect the world view of the time. People would have their own gods, made out of metal, stone and wood. The moral values of these communities would most likely be far from what Paul would want to see and very much different than our world today. Anyone who has done even brief study of ancient Greek and Roman societies will have knowledge of the things that might be happening.
It also should in no way surprise us that the Corinthians were taking what they liked of Paul’s teachings and ignoring that which didn’t fit into their understandings or their preferences. A two month crash course was always going to fail to make devout converts of a society that was vastly different than the Christian ideal.
We also should consider the need to compare this letter to other Epistles of Paul, other writers, the Gospels and in fact the Old Testament. It is easy to pick verses of Scripture that suit our immediate needs and not worry about the context, just as it is easy to omit use of those words that don’t seem to edify in the way we might like them to. We must also remember that these are Paul’s words, and they are very human and very fallible. Paul was in no means right about everything. In fact, I might suggest we consider the idea that, while the Holy Spirit was the impetus for the compilation of Scripture, it seems likely, maybe even probable, that the same Spirit has allowed the human to come through to make us think, make us compare, make us ask questions as to how this fits into faith.
Some comments about each of the four snippets from 1 Corinthians. What we read from chapter six and chapter seven, is really two sides of the same coin. Paul talks about the need to turn away from sexual immorality and then about marriage. However the two passages give far from the comprehensive view of the two chapters. While Paul is critical of sexual sin, he is less than complimentary about marriage, even suggesting that it might be best if everyone was celibate as he was. That was based on his understanding that Jesus would return in Paul’s lifetime and therefore being married would simply interfere with drawing close to the Lord. We clearly know that Paul was wrong about the time of Jesus’ return, and must point to this if we are to make sense of his comments on sexuality and marriage.
Today’s bit from chapter 8, talks about eating food sacrificed to idols. Not exactly the most prominent conversation in our world today. In Paul’s day, new believers might have their faith shattered by being made to eat food sacrificed to pagan idols, while seasoned believers would realize that pagan gods were not real and therefore all food was allowed. Paul wants to be clear that we need be sensitive to the needs of the newcomers and the learners. Perhaps there is a corollary today? Is some of our food sacrificed to the idol of greed? We make cheap food full of chemicals and ingredients that have much taste but little nutritional value. All this is to increase profit. Interestingly, when we are asked to provide food for those in need, do we tend to choose the cheaper, less nutrient filled, unlikely to promote good health foods to give to food banks because they are convenient and/or less costly? When we take it from a context we can’t understand to one that we can, perhaps we can grasp the meaning.
Next week we talk about the rights and obligations of apostles. While Paul is clear that he is called to preach the clear Gospel of Christ; he also suggests that as an apostle he has the right to ask for support from the Corinthians to allow him to devote the needed time to this ministry.
There are many other things in this letter, such as spiritual gifts and an interesting understanding of how the Corinthians had turned church into a multi class event, with the richest enjoying a luxurious meal while the poor got the scraps outside the wall. There is much to think about in the context of the time frame, the culture of the community and the mission of Paul. Just as there is the same context, culture and mission in today’s world.
God does not, in my belief, give us the option to take the easy way out, to pull together pieces of Scripture that support our preformed understandings, but rather calls us to the difficult task of taking everything in balance and spending quality time examining the Word for ourselves and with others in community.
-The Reverend Canon Keith Nethery