Can I eat food offered to idols? Friday, 23rd week in ordinary time – 1 Corinthians 9:16-19
Even though our text at the Eucharist of today covers a couple of verses in chapter nine, I recommend you read chapters 8 and 9 several times and then approach today’s teaching or else you might catch the proverbial bull by its tail. The teachings in this text are relevant and important for us in India,
Chapters 7 to chapters 16 is really a question-and-answer session. There are questions to certain doubts streaming in from Corinth and Paul has decided to answer them. The questions range from celibacy and marriage to separation and divorce, from food offered to idols to conduct at congregational meetings. Before I tackle the text of today let us also look at chapter 8 which has an issue that may not directly have consequences on Western Christianity but certainly have an impact on us in the East and in particular India; namely the question of food offered to idols.
In Corinth, as in other cities of Paul’s day, the public and private worship of the many deities of the Greco-Roman world included animal sacrifices. Slaughterhouses were often located next to temples. Parts of these slain animals would be consumed by the altar fire but the leftovers might either be given to priests or other worshipers or be sold in the market places. Some persons used portions of this consecrated food to give banquets at home or in the temples in honour of a god, and persons were invited to the feast or to eat in communion with the deity.
The question that arose among the Corinthian Christians was, as a believer in Christ, living in Corinth could one buy and eat this meat?
Corinth was known in the first century as the quintessential pagan town, and it would have been difficult for believers in Christ to live in Corinth in a manner completely separate from the world around them. Some Christians at Corinth had a simple solution. They held that the whole range of questions relating to should we eat such meat or not was of no consequence. If one ate or did not eat it he was none the better or the worse (vs. 8). Keep in mind that when Paul deals with the community, he always tries to establish a behaviour that takes into account both, the fact that the believers in Christ live inside the world, but are also clearly separate from it.
In principle, Paul seems to be voicing his basic agreement with the premises of some of the Corinthians that what you eat, even if it is offered to idols is of no consequence because we do not recognise the existence of idols; “no idol in the world really exists, there is no God but one.” (See verse 4). The Corinthian Christians may have reasoned like this: if idols are really nothing, then it means nothing to eat meat sacrificed to ‘nothing idols’, and it must mean nothing to eat in the buildings used to worship these nothing idols. Paul himself says, “Food will not bring us closer to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do eat.
However (and this is an important ‘however’) this ‘knowledge’ or this ability to understand, is not understood by all and those who understand this may flaunt it in the face of those who are scandalised by It and become a stumbling block to those Christians who are weak in the faith. (verse9) .
It is clear, that the weak man to whom Paul refers to is the Christian with an uneasy conscience about anything associated with idol worship. To the man of knowledge and understanding, this ‘weak brother or sister’ may appear to be over-scrupulous. The knowledgeable brother may argue that adequate knowledge should dispel once and for all absurd fears. But Paul knows that there were several new converts from paganism to Christianity who could be scandalised by the behaviour of some and misunderstand their act of eating such meat as an act of sacrilege and apostasy.
In principle, Paul says it is not evil for anyone to purchase this idol meat and eat it in one’s home or another’s, but in practice some persons by doing so will be led to relapse into paganism or confusion of the faith. So, Paul makes the principle clearer. Our actions can never be based only on what we know to be right for ourselves. We also need to consider what is right towards our brothers and sisters in Jesus. It is easy for a Christian to say, “I answer to God and God alone” and to ignore his brother or sister. It is true we will answer to God and God alone, but we will answer to God for how we have treated our brother or sister. So, if our actions are going to cause scandal to our brothers and sisters we should not eat meat offered to idols.
Paul then takes on a new concern in chapter nine in which our text is to be found. Remember the context; Paul addresses the Corinthian Christians about their “right” based on “knowledge” to eat meat sacrificed to idols in a ‘temple restaurant’. Paul asked them to let go of their “right” to eat meat sacrificed to idols, even as he has let go his own rights as an apostle. But Paul will also use the occasion to defend his apostolic position before the doubting Corinthian Christians.
The proof is in the pudding; the work of God among the Corinthian Christians was evidence enough of Paul’s apostolic credentials. In fact, they were the seal of [Paul’s] apostleship in the Lord. The Corinthian Christians had more reason than most to know that Paul was a genuine apostle, because they had seen his work up close. Yet there were those who doubted him and questioned his right to food and drink and to have a wife ( who would then have to be supported by the Corinthian Christians along with her ministering husband)
Most of the other apostles (including Peter) received support from the churches they ministered to. Paul and Barnabas were unique in this regard, choosing to work and support themselves, so no one could accuse them of preaching for a money motive. Yet, even though they declined to be supported financially they were reviled by some. Even though Paul himself declines financial aid, he makes a strong case for any minister to be supported. He says, “ If we have sown spiritual good among you is it too much if we reap your material benefits?”
It wasn’t that the Corinthian Christians refused to support anyone in ministry. The problem with that some among the Corinthian Christians refused to support Paul, and then ironically thought less of him because he did not receive it. Just as strongly as Paul affirms his right to be supported by the people he ministers to, he will also affirm his right to not use that right especially if using it might hinder the Gospel of Christ. But Paul does not deny a minister the right to receive a living on the contrary he says that it is the command from the Lord himself.
Remember that Paul had the right to be supported, but he did not use that right. He shows them the value, and the reasons, for giving up one’s own rights. He preached the Gospel, a command that was laid on his shoulders and was able to do that without asking his hearers for support because Paul’s ministry was not just a matter of choice or personal ambition; it was something he was called to, something he had to do. He did not just have “preacher’s itch.” He was called to preach and felt compelled to fulfil that call.
In Paul’s day, there were a lot of religious entrepreneurs, who were out to preach any message to get money. Paul was happy to distance himself from these by never taking an offering so no one would think he might abuse [his] authority in the gospel. This was Paul’s reward. We may not ever be faced with the same decision Paul faced; to accept or deny support for the good of the Gospel. But we each have a critical question to answer: what rights are you willing to sacrifice for the cause of Jesus?