“The Social Currency of Meals”
Let’s begin by reviewing what we just heard in I Corinthians, Chapter Eight. The issue: food offered to idols. The question is whether people can eat this food or not. We have heard the expression “You are what you eat.” The question is will eating “unclean” food, food offered to idols, make you unclean? We can assume that part of the congregation in Corinth has a Jewish background. So maybe they are asking if they could eat food that is not kosher. As Jews they could not eat such food. The Gentiles who were also members of the congregation could eat whatever they wanted. The question is not theoretical. The congregation is wrestling with a cultural divide. In this chapter, Paul tries to give arguments for both sides.”Let’s begin by reviewing what we just heard in I Corinthians, Chapter Eight. The issue: food offered to idols. The question is whether people can eat this food or not. We have heard the expression “You are what you eat.” The question is will eating “unclean” food, food offered to idols, make you unclean? We can assume that part of the congregation in Corinth has a Jewish background. So maybe they are asking if they could eat food that is not kosher. As Jews they could not eat such food. The Gentiles who were also members of the congregation could eat whatever they wanted. The question is not theoretical. The congregation is wrestling with a cultural divide. In this chapter, Paul tries to give arguments for both sides.
Let’s look first at the argument for allowing people to eat food offered to idols. Paul says that there is only one God, and this one God created everything. There are no idols. They stand for something that does not really exist. What’s really important is our relationship with God. Whether we do or do not eat this food does not change our relationship with God. Jesus says in Matthew 15:10-20 that is not what goes into our mouth that makes us unclean, but rather what comes out of our mouth that makes us unclean and defiles us. It’s what is in our heart and what that really matters. Paul says if you do or do not eat you gain or lose nothing. Eugene Peterson adds a little twist to the story in his translation, The Message. He says that the food is free. It’s left over that was not used in the offering. It’s there for the taking. Enjoy it.
What’s the argument for not eating this food? Paul says that there are people in the congregation who are weak in conscience. They will be tempted by the actions of the strong, therefore, out of consideration for the weaker members, the strong should not eat food sacrificed to idols. Paul says, “Don’t let your liberty become a stumbling block to the weak.” It is not wrong to eat this food. There is no rule against it. But because you might offend someone in the congregation, don’t do it. In the very last verse Paul takes his own advice and says, “Because I might offend someone, “I will never eat meat again.”
If we flip over to Chapter 10:26-28, Paul is again talking about food offered to idols. He says that if someone invites you to dinner and you go to their house and they offer you meat without saying anything about it, you can eat it. But, if the host tells you the meat has been offered as a sacrifice do not eat it. The key verse is 31-2. He says, “whatever you do, give glory to God. Try to give no offense to anyone, Jew, or Greek, or the church, try to please everyone.” Sounds like a policy of appeasement. That doesn’t really offer much guidance, but if we listen carefully, he is wrestling with a really difficult situation. The church today is divided not over food, but over many other issues that perplex us.
There is a story in the 10th chapter of Acts that I think parallels this story sheds more light on it. In this story, the apostle Peter is visiting some friends in the city of Joppa and after lunch he goes up onto the roof of the house to meditate and pray, and in the warmth of the afternoon sun, with a full tummy, he falls asleep. While he is sleeping, he has a dream. In this dream he sees a sheet coming down from heaven and it is filled with all kinds of animals. A voice commands him to get up and eat. He refuses and says that he has never eaten anything unclean. The sheet and the animals go away, only to come again two more times. Finally Peter gets the message and he says, “Who am I to call anything that God has made unclean.” And then he leaves Joppa and goes to the home of Cornelius, an officer in the Roman army. Peter says to Cornelius that he knows now that God has no favorites.
The ethic in the book of Acts and in Paul’s first letter Corinthians is God has no favorites. What matters to Paul and to Peter is the well-being of the community. One of Paul’s favorite words to describe the church is “a new creation.” God’s great redo. Let’s call it God’s rehumanizing project. Is Christianity possible in a world of winners and losers, in a world where might makes right, in this imaginary world of good versus evil, is Christianity possible? Pull insists that it is.
We need a holistic view of the world. That’s what I hear Paul saying. The truth about life is that we are all interrelated and interdependent. This is what is really real. The Hebrew God of the prophets and the God of Jesus and the God of Paul is a God whose fundamental character is empathy. So let’s think about what are the signs of empathy? Good listening, emotional intelligence, being able to care deeply about others, practicing care for others. Empathy is an active verb that calls for building relationships, being socially connected. Seeing ourselves first and foremost as being members of the human community.
It is interesting that in our culture justice is about having the right rules and enforcing them in an impartial way. Lady justice is blindfolded. But in the Bible, justice is about caring for others and giving others respect. I think Paul is not asking us to ignore our differences. He is not saying put all our differences aside and suddenly come to an agreement. But Paul is saying that if we want to find a way forward, we have to speak and act mindful of the well-being of others. This gospel is foolishness to the wise and weakness to the strong. But Paul answers in Chapter 13 or this Letter to the Corinthians, without love, life is nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and if I have faith as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Therefore, “make love your aim.”