2014 Lent 19


I Corinthians 8:1-13

As I’ve been slogging through St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this Lent, I’ve been trying to keep the idea in mind that Paul’s intent here is to combat division.  That’s what I’ve heard for years is the gist of this letter.  And it fits with the stuff we’ve already encountered regarding getting immorality out of the church.  It fits too with something I know is coming, around chapters 10 and 11, where the rich are excluding the poor in the congregation from communion.  A pox on social injustice!  But what about chapters 6-8?

For the past couple of chapters Paul has been discussing marriage and, by extension, family; now, in chapter 8, he moves on to discuss eating habits.  Both of these discussions are very personal in nature.  So, I’ve been asking myself, “Self, what’s all this got to do with division?”

Well, to answer briefly, I’m still not sure.  I’ll still be asking this question in the days ahead, in other words.  Maybe I’ll figure out a reasonable answer in the next few days; or maybe I won’t.  That’s part of what keeps me coming back to the New Testament, by the way: it poses many riddles to me, some of which I will never be able to answer, surely.  It’s challenging.  But, at the same time, it’s rewarding and it immensely shapes my view of the world.

Nevertheless, today I’ve found a foothold, a place to grab onto this particular riddle, rest for a bit, catch my breath, and think.  For today Paul actually uses the word liberty.  Do you see it?  Right there in the middle of verse 9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

The particular focus is on eating meat formerly used in sacrifice to idols, probably pagan, certainly not to the God of the Jews or to Christ.  Some of the Corinthian believers had no moral scruples about eating such meat, apparently, while others did.

For something similar in our modern-day, alcohol, cigarettes, and tattoos come to mind.  Some modern American Christians, especially of the fundamentalist stripe, have real problems with these things, in some cases even calling the use of them sins.  (“Jesus didn’t turn the water into wine as we know it,” I’ve heard a preacher say, “but grape juice.  That’s why it was called ‘the best wine’: the best wine wasn’t fermented!”)  But, on the other hand, many other Christians have no problem morally with having a beer, enjoying a glass of wine, sipping a whisky on the back porch at sunset, lighting up a stogie, or covering vast portions of the body with permanent art (or kitsch if you prefer).

Anyway, perhaps this eating of meat sacrificed to idols was causing something of a division in the Corinthian church, that “stumbling block” Paul mentions–just like alcohol, cigarettes, and tattoos cause division today.  (One wonders where trajectory will take us with the legalization of marijuana, yeah?)

But what if we look at the flip-side?  What if we look at it from the perspective of liberty?

Then maybe it’s the ones who have the problem who are being divisive.  Seriously, if someone I work with has a problem with the way I tie my shoe, is that my problem?  So this person confronts me: “Um, Tim, I notice you don’t make two loops before making your knot.  Instead, you do this weird thing to make your second loop–I can’t even explain.  It just bugs me!  So stop doing it that way.  Please.”  Really, should this become my problem?

So extend it to a beer.  If I happen to stop by Trader Joe’s on my way home from work and pick up a six-pack of oatmeal stout, then go home and enjoy a few with a fish-and-chips dinner, why is it suddenly my problem if a friend, a relative, or a parishioner doesn’t like it?


This is my foothold, by the way.  Paul is dealing with division in the Corinthian church, so I’ve heard.  Fine and well.  But he’s also dealing with liberty.  The Corinthians were free to marry or not to marry, as their consciences and circumstances allowed.  They were also free to eat meat grilled with pagan spices.  Just so, we are free to drink a beer brewed in a brewery owned by an atheist.  Why should these actions lead to division?

So I’ll have to think this through.  Maybe Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is more about liberty than division.  If so, those exercising liberty should use prudence, sure.  I’m not going to hang out with a recovering alcoholic at the local microbrewery.  But the flip-side is just as important: those who are wired in such a way that they look for division, or even cause division, should be slow to confront and quick to examine their own hearts–to look at the plank in their own eye, as Jesus put it, before pointing out the speck in someone else’s.

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