Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
-from 1 Corinthians 8
In the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul gives a lyrical ode to love that we often read at weddings. Love is patient, love is kind. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, but before he can get to extolling the beauties of love, Paul has to speak a bit more practically about love to the church at Corinth.
The particulars of the situation that Paul addresses here are a bit hard to get your head around, when you’re not from 1st century Corinth. Here’s the gist of it: Corinth was a bustling metropolitan city with all sorts of different pagan temples. At these temples, just like at the temple of Israel’s God in Jerusalem, animals were ritually slaughtered and burnt on altars as various types of sacrifices.
For our purposes this morning, the only relevant feature of this practice is that it was, essentially, a whole lot of public barbecuing.
So, let’s say it’s Thanksgiving morning in Corinth. You head to the store (or out to your barn) and grab a turkey. Future dinner in hand, you go down to the temple of Athena, have some prayers and rituals, hand your turkey over to the priest, and leave with a cooked turkey. It sits proudly on your dining room table, that afternoon, a physical (and tasty!) reminder of the blessings of the goddess.
Every single festival went like that. Sometimes people took their meat home. Sometimes it was given away to the poor, an act which would increase the social status of the giver. Sometimes it was sold cheaply in the market. Sacrificing meat to various pagan deities and then eating it for lunch was a regular part of life.
What do you do, then, when you find a ubiquitous practice morally unacceptable?
That was the question faced by some in the church at Corinth, who would not allow themselves to eat the meat that had been sacrificed. Paul doesn’t give us their reasons. Maybe they were Jewish Christians who continued to follow the dietary laws of the Torah. Maybe they were former idol worshipers who couldn’t separate their memories of time spent in pagan temples from the taste of the meat. Maybe they were following the example of Daniel and his friends, who retained their religious identity in the court of Nebuchadnezzar by refusing to eat meat from the temple.
It doesn’t really matter why they wouldn’t eat the meat. Paul has two things to say. The first is really simple: they’re wrong. It would be convenient, I suppose, if we could achieve moral purity by just avoiding the cheap barbeque, but that’s not how the world works. Eating hot dogs or kale or shrimp or whatever doesn’t affect your relationship with the God who created food and you in the first place.
So sure, somebody said some prayer to Athena over your turkey, but that doesn’t change anything about your dinner, because Athena isn’t real. Prayers to a god who doesn’t exist can’t make meat impure because gods that don’t exist can’t possibly have any power. Case closed.
Having said that, though, Paul has some more things to say to the folks who were smart enough to know better all along.
Specifically, Paul does not affirm that Corinthian Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols without fear and then start passing along his own favorite recipes. He doesn’t continue to commend the meat-eaters for knowing how to enjoy the world. He doesn’t say that they were right on the ethical question, and should therefore start living it up.
Rather, Paul redirects them back to the most important ethical question that Christians can ask: how do I best love my neighbor?
Paul recognizes, I think, that the meat-objectors have heard his argument before. We come across this argument in a book of the Bible, as part of our Scriptures, as something we think we have to take seriously. For the meat-objectors of Corinth, though, this is just a letter. It’s from someone they respect, sure; but if Paul made this argument in person and they weren’t persuaded, then why would they be persuaded when the same argument comes by post?
So, having given the meat-eaters the pleasure of being deemed correct in their reasoning by the Apostle himself, Paul changes the focus of the conversation. The sin, see, isn’t in whether you eat the meat or don’t eat the meat. The sin, as it always is, is in failing to love God and love your neighbor.
The meat-objectors are convinced that eating meat sacrificed to idols constitutes a failure to love God. If they eat the meat anyhow, then they’re saying that loving God is less important than a plate of barbeque- and that is, in fact, idolatry.
It’s idolatry even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with the meat, because the wrong is in the heart.
Likewise, the meat-eaters can eat as much meat that has been sacrificed to idols as they want. They know it’s not wrong. But– they’re in community with people who do think it’s wrong, and those other people are more important than the freedom to scarf a plate of barbeque. The sin isn’t in eating the meat; it’s in tempting your friend to sin.
If a plate of barbeque is more important to you than your neighbor’s clean conscience, then eating that sacrificed meat is idolatrous for reasons that have nothing to do with some stone beast and everything to do with your own heart.
Later, rhapsodizing about love, Paul will remind us that if we have the gift of prophecy, if we can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge but do not have love, we are nothing. This serves as an illustration of that point. If you can spit out a precise and logical definition of idolatry, but you care more about that definition than you do about the person on the bench next to you, then it’s not worth anything.
While the particular conflict in this passage over meat sacrificed to animals is arcane, the priorities that Paul emphasizes here are central to Christian ethics. Paul doesn’t tell the meat-eaters to argue with the meat-objectors until they understand. He tells them to respect their stories for what they are, and treat them with love.
In other words: within the community of Christ-followers, you do not have opponents in an argument. You have friends who disagree. Find a way to treat them kindly. Don’t ask them to violate their consciences.
The life of the community matters far more than any one thing about which you might be right. That doesn’t mean that you change your mind- but it does mean that you make people more important than theology. That kind of love is at the core of a Christian ethic.
So. Last week, I talked about finding the courage to tell our faith stories. Our practice of silent worship – sitting together with hearts open and mouths closed – can mold us into powerfully good listeners… but silence is made to be broken by sound. People need to hear your stories.
This week, my theme is the flipside: how compassionately can we listen, when tasked with hearing the story of one with whom we disagree? Can we let other Friends tell us their stories?
One of the most difficult things you can do, Friends, is sit tight and quiet and let someone tell you a wrongheaded story. (I mean ‘wrongheaded’ from your perspective, of course- you don’t have any other perspective to work with.) It’s hard just to sit and let someone tell you all about their wrong opinions and their wrong theories and their wrong attitudes and their wrong theologies.
We can say with Saint Paul that love is not easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs, but it’s one thing to say it, and it’s quite another to not be easily angered when someone else is just so obviously wrongity wrong wrong. It is quite another thing to sit there as the obvious retorts rise in your mind, to sit with this very, very wrong person and simply listen for how they can best be loved.
(If you’re like me, the obvious retorts actually rise about two hours after the conversation in question, but forget that for now.)
Deeply disagreeing with someone can be a very visceral experience. Our faces flush. Our heart rates quicken. Our nervous system, which can’t tell the difference between a physical attack and a verbal disagreement, goes into red alert.
In the middle of all that, Paul asks us to remember that the person with whom we are disagreeing – this wrongity wrong wrong person – is first and foremost a brother or a sister. If you ask them to do that which they think is wrong, you sin against them… and you sin against the Christ who loves them.
Dan Kasztelan shared a quote with me once, and I loved it and wrote it down and promptly lost it. If you’ve seen my office, you won’t be surprised by that. So, I’m sorry that I can’t quote it properly with a source, but the gist was this: the burden of translation is borne by the listener.
That is: when you’re listening to someone with whom you have significant differences, it’s your job to listen through the filter of love. It’s your job, not to change the other person, but to believe that this person bears the image of God and to watch for the light that they have to share.
That’s a hard rule, if you take it as a rule. I suggest, instead, that you take it as a gift.
The good rational folks in the church at Corinth, the ones I’d like to identify with, the one who had no problem with eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols because they knew it was just charred and delicious protein… by relativising their particular views, Paul gives them the gift of being in community with their disagreeing Friends.
He tells them that they’re right, which I suppose is what they thought they wanted, then tells them something less affirming but ultimately sweeter: the brothers and sisters with whom you are disagreeing are also people for whom Christ died.
So, for those of you who like three points in a sermon, here are three things to do when faced with someone of different opinions:
- Remember that this person bears the image of God.
- Respect where they’re coming from.
- Listen for the Light in what they’re saying, no matter how foreign it seems.
Does that sound daunting? We are people of the resurrection, are we not? And so, if Christ has died for those with whom we disagree, then Christ has also risen- and the world has been reformed, and a host of previously unimaginable new possibilities are open to us.
As people of the resurrection, we can believe that the Kingdom of God will someday be fully present on this earth. We can believe that we will see that coming in the flesh, whether that means that it comes in our own lifetimes or that we will ourselves be resurrected to join in the party.
And, most pertinently: we can believe and live as though this kingdom will include that pesky child of God with whom we disagree.