Boy, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me what we should do about food sacrificed to idols. I’d probably have…a dime, maybe, depending on how much change was already in my pocket.
Of course, although that’s the issue that the Corinthian church has probably written to Paul and asked about, there’s a more serious matter underlying it. That matter, which Paul wants to address, does have something to do with us and can teach us something very important about living life among Christians with whom we from time to time disagree.
First, the surface issue. Corinth was a busy city with people from all over the Roman Empire, and the kind of religious mix you’d expect a city like that to have. It was probably one of the first places where a Christian church had to deal with people from so many religious backgrounds.
Some of those converts had practiced religions that used animal sacrifice. There were probably many different varieties of sacrificial rites, but some followed the pattern of burning up or devoting a part of a meat animal and then using the rest somehow. The ancient Israelites often followed this pattern. Some of what a person brought to the Temple was burned up on an altar and devoted to God. The rest might be used for a feast to celebrate God’s work, held at the Temple with God as a ceremonial guest. Or it might be prepared and given to the poor, or used by the Temple priests, who had no lands, crops or animals of their own.
In the same way, some of Corinth’s religious folks had meat left over after the proper sacrifice was made. Depending on the religion, the meat might be sold to a butcher shop to be sold to people, or it might be used as a part of a meal. For many Christians, such use was a non-issue. The idols weren’t real, the gods they represented weren’t real, so please pass the salt and I’ll have another slice, thank you.
But other Christians, who might have converted from following the very idol that the meat had been sacrificed to, did have problems with eating it. They had spent many years believing that the idol was a real god, and to them anything that went back to the old ways carried a spiritual taint.
This being a church, naturally the two sides fought about it, and when they couldn’t come to an agreement – by which I mean neither side could win the argument or run off their opponents – they wrote a letter to Paul. Judging by the number of things Paul talks about in the two letters we have of those he wrote back, they must have done this a lot. I bet Paul even had a special Corinthian headache whenever he saw a letter from them.
Paul doesn’t really pick sides, because both of them have a point and he can see either way being right. Yes, he says, the idols are meaningless, so who cares who the cook prayed to when he fixed the meal? You should care more about who you pray to before you eat it. But on the other hand, some people’s experiences give them a different view of the spiritual reality involved, so they see such meat as tainted by the idolatrous ceremonies in which it’s been a part.
He also doesn’t pick sides because he knows that wherever this thing started, what it’s turned into is a fight about who’s a better Christian, which is a fight with no winners, either inside our outside the faith. The people who don’t eat their meat (and who therefore can’t have any pudding, if you recall your “Another Brick in the Wall”) feel they’re better because they don’t eat spiritually tainted meat. The people who eat the meat basically look at the others and say, “Sissies! If you didn’t have your weak little girly-man spaghetti-arm faith, you could eat the meat anytime you wanted to.”
But Paul says both groups need to understand that the only truly Christian way to deal with each other is out of love. He himself, he says, knows idols are just wood or stone or metal. But he’d give up meat altogether if it would keep others from stumbling in their faith.
What each side “knows” about eating meat sacrifice to idols – that it’s completely harmless according to one group and it’s spiritually perilous according to the other – has brought them to puff themselves up over their fellow believers. Instead they should, through their love of each other, be seeking ways to build each other up.
The group that knows the meat is just meat should maybe be figuring out how they can live their lives so that their brothers and sisters aren’t made uncomfortable by that understanding. The group that knows the meat is spiritually impure or unclean should try to conduct themselves so their brothers and sisters don’t feel like they’re being accused of a crime when they sit down to the table.
Whatever they decide, they need to do it with one rule at the front – what they do needs to not get in the way of the work of the gospel in someone’s life. It needs to be a way to help them grow in their faith, not be puffed up by supposed knowledge or put down for lack of it.
Because although I’m no absolute authority, I’m pretty sure that being called “unclean!” or being told I’m a spiritual sissy isn’t part of the good news.