Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
I Corinthians 10:23-33
The Believer’s Freedom
23 “Everything is permissible,” – but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. 24 Nobody should seek their own good, but the good of others.
25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
27 If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the conscience’s sake – 29 the other person’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – 33 even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
In the past, when we’ve had a series of Reflections based on parables of Jesus, we’ve occasionally thought about the nature of parables as teaching tools. And one of the things we’ve said about these parables is that they sometimes present us with ideas and challenges that are aren’t really ‘black-and-white.’ Some of them seem intended to inspire some serious thinking to wrap your head around. And we’ve said it even seems that some parables seem intended to mean different things to different people at different stages of their walk of faith.
This passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians seems to fall into that category. It raises a set of questions that could mean different things to different people. And it needs some serious thinking from all of us.
It probably helps to start by remembering the background of First Corinthians. Like most of the congregations that Paul founded, the Corinthian church was a mixture of people who had been raised as Jews and others who had been raised worshiping and sacrificing at the temples of the Greek gods.
In those pagan temples, it was standard practice for animals to be offered as sacrifices to the Greek gods. But they usually weren’t burned away to ash – they were basically just cooked on the altars of those temples. And after the sacrifices, the meat would be sold to the public. The historians say some temples actually had tables and benches, so they functioned as ‘restaurants’ where you could buy the meat and eat it.
It seems from Paul’s letters that some of the followers of Jesus in those Greek cities saw no reason to refrain from eating that meat from sacrificed animals. As far as those believers were concerned, it didn’t really matter that the meat had been cooked in front of a statue of some imaginary Greek god. These Christians understood that the pagan gods didn’t even exist, so there was no reason to avoid eating perfectly good meat.
But other followers of Jesus had a big problem with eating this meat from animals sacrificed at the pagan temples. Some of them were Jews who still observed the laws of Moses. So to them, eating meat sacrificed to idols was a violation of God’s commandments. Other followers of Jesus had a problem with eating that meat because they were former pagans, and they had once worshipped and sacrificed at those pagan temples. So for them, eating that meat felt like sliding back into a false religion they had left behind.
In our passage for today, Paul tells his readers that those who see no problem with eating this meat have the freedom to do so. But he also cautions them that in exercising that freedom, they should be sensitive to how their actions might affect other believers. They should keep in mind that eating this meat in the presence of some of their fellow Christians could cause awkwardness. And those who ate the meat sacrificed to idols should never try get others to go against their conscience and eat it if they had a problem with the practice. No one should compromise their Christian conscience for the sake of a piece of meat.
Paul also raises a situation that would have been a live issue for followers of Jesus trying to share their faith in a Greek world. They might be invited into the homes of gentile friends and neighbors – a great opportunity to develop relationships that could lead to chances to share the good news about Jesus. And in the homes of gentiles, Paul says, they should feel free to eat what is set before them without interrogating the host about where it came from. On the other hand, if the host serves the food in a way that suggests that eating it represents honoring a pagan God, Paul says the believer should refrain.
It seems to me that Paul makes two points in this passage that are still important considerations for followers of Jesus in our time.
The first is that we have the freedom to consume and enjoy any food and drink – and for that matter, blessings of any kind – that we can reasonably regard as gifts from God and give thanks for.
The second point is that in living out our discipleship, including in what we eat and drink, we should be mindful of the effects of our actions on others, and especially on our brothers and sisters in Jesus. If other believers have a problem with certain food and drink, we should respect their understanding of the demands of the faith, and not flaunt our freedom or try to talk them out of their beliefs.
Under some circumstances, believers with the most restrictive practices try to persuade others – sometimes practically bully others – into doing things their way. But it doesn’t seem to me that’s what Paul has in mind here. (For one thing, he refers to those restrictive believers as the ones who are “weaker.”) His point, rather, is that we should show some respect and consideration for those who believe differently than we do.
Lots of Christians no doubt find it hard to swallow the idea that some practices might be sins for some people but not others. The common Christian view is that something is either good for everyone or bad for everyone. But Paul seems to make the case that different disciples can be called to different ways of living out their faith. For instance, if a person regards consuming alcohol as a sin, then for them it is a sin. If a person feels no call to refrain from responsible consumption of alcohol, then for them it’s not.
Our basic human instinct is to try to get others to live by the same standards we feel called to live by. But in this passage, Paul offers the thought that we should give each other the room to live according to the standards God has called each of us to. In all things, of course, our ultimate calling is to honor God and to live in imitation of Jesus and in obedience to his teachings. That calling, and not someone else’s idea of “religious behavior,” is meant to be the standard we live by.
Let’s pray. Lord, help us to listen carefully to the standards of Christian life you call us to, and strengthen us to live up to those standards. But help us to extend to others the grace that allows them to live out the callings they have received from you, recognizing that it was for our freedom that Jesus set us free. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 5 and 29; II Kings 21:1-18; and Matthew 8:28-34.)